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Fun in the Sun with the Eton Soulra Solar-Powered iPod Speaker System

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

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Eton Soulra

This past weekend we tackled a big job — priming and painting our outbuilding. Fortunately, I had the Etón Soulra along for the assist. It was sunny and clear all weekend, and it seemed like a perfect time to try out Eton's new solar-powered iPod® speaker system (it was).

Sounds good to me

When I'm outside, I need a system that can produce a big sound, and the Soulra delivers. Its stereo full-range speakers don't produce audiophile sound, but they do provide the punch necessary for an outside setting. The system sounds pretty good at low volume (helpful when I used it indoors), with a fair amount of musical detail. And as I increased the volume, I heard virtually no distortion — a real plus outside.

Sturdy, portable design

I liked the overall feel of the Soulra. It's a system designed for outdoor use, and just about every feature serves that function. The aluminum frame had a solid feel without adding a lot of weight. The stripped-down profile doesn't have any small protrusions that might get broken off — even the carrying handle is integrated into the case.

A rubberized coating makes the system splash-proof, so we could have used it poolside (and with 90 degree temps, I would have rather have been there then up on a ladder with a paintbrush). All of the control buttons are sealed, so there's no chance of dirt or moisture getting into the casing.

I was also impressed with the construction of the iPod dock. A small, spring-loaded support held my player at just the right distance, preventing it from stressing the dock connection. A clear plastic cover fit snugly over the docking well, letting me see my iPod's display, but keeping it safe from the elements. The Soulra's solar panel, when not in use, closes over the docking well, offering a further layer of protection.

Catching some rays so the music can play

But it was the performance of the solar panel that I really wanted to check out that sunny weekend. Eton has a lot of experience incorporating solar power into their emergency radios. The Soulra shares the same basic idea as their Solarlink radios — use solar energy to power a portable outdoor system. And while the Soulra lived up to expectations, it helps to keep those expectations realistic.

The solar panel is amazingly efficient, and works in both clear and cloudy conditions. But it doesn't power the system directly. Rather, it sends juice the built-in recharageable battery that provides system power. It takes about ten hours for the batteries to fully charge through the solar panel (under ideal conditions), and that was where I made my mistake.

don't let this happen to you!

I brought the Soulra outside, popped in my iPod, turned up the volume to just under max, and began painting (after taking the picture at right). After about 15 minutes, the sound stopped. It turned out to be the result of a number of problems. First, I had taken the system outside with the batteries at one-quarter charge. While the solar panel did it's job, there wasn't a lot of reserve power to work with.

And I blew through that reserve power pretty quickly. Not only did I have the speakers at almost full volume (louder volume = greater power draw), but I had left my iPod's display was set for "always on." Most portable powered speaker systems will charge a docked iPod when connected to AC power, but not do so when running on batteies. The Soulra actually charges the player at all times. So my screen display was drawing power not from the iPod's battery, but from the Soulra's.

More power was going out than coming in, and the batteries were soon drained. As an experiment, I let the system alone to see what would happen. When the batteries collected enough charge to power the system, it would cut back on, but only for a moment. Then the batteries would start charging again.

Using the Soulra the right way

Connected to AC power, the batteries recharge in about four hours. I took the system inside, plugged it up, and tried it again the following day. I set my iPod for only 15-second screen display (although I still cranked the volume). This time the system worked as it should. The panel extended the operation time of the batteries, and we had musical accompaniment to our painting efforts well into the late afternoon.

The Soulra was a great little no-frills system. I can see this as a great item to take along on vacation — especially to the beach, or out on the lake, by the pool, or other places where moisture might be an issue. (The only moisture we had to worry about  was sweat — did I mention it was 90 degrees?)

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