- Review Price: £100.50
We’re now well into the season when scores of Brits leave their homes behind for foreign shores, country camping sites or the Great British seaside. In my youth, this meant either doing without fripperies like music, everybody arguing over the Walkman (these were early days, so we only had one between the whole family) or lugging around a cheap boombox and a carrier bag full of tapes and batteries.
Now things are different. First the iPod meant you could take half of your record collection with you wherever you went, then mini speaker systems like the Gear4 Black Box Mini made it work as a mobile sound system. Now the K3000ST takes things one step further: there’s no need to pack batteries when you can get all the power you need from the sun!
Like the BlackBox mini the K3000ST is a micro speaker system, weighing in at a miniscule 355g and taking up less space in your backpack than a single can of beer. It’s not as attractive a unit and the only controls are an on-off slider switch and a pair of tiny volume buttons at the back, but you can easily use the controls on your iPod or alternative player to alter the volume and navigate between tracks. What’s more, it’s very solid, with the sturdy metallic back and front joined by a rubberised centre portion that should be able to take the odd knock.
A standard iPod dock sits in the middle at the top of the case while there’s a mini-jack input and the PSU socket at the back. Unlike some iPod docks no adaptors are provided to handle the different forms of iPod; you just sit your model on the dock and hope the little metal platform underneath supports it. It was an absolutely perfect match for my venerable second generation iPod Mini, but owners of other, larger iPods shouldn’t have any concerns.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Along with its AC power adaptor – which comes supplied with the most common worldwide power plugs – the K3000ST can also run off two AA batteries or the bundled solar charger, which appears to be a SolarMonkey without the additional iPod, phone and digital camera/PSP connectors. It’s rated at DC 5V,300mA and provides not just enough power to run the speaker, but enough to run the iPod too and even charge it when not in active use. In other words, the sun provides all the power you need to get your music fix, either publically or privately, no matter how long you are away.
Of course, this being Britain we can’t take sunshine for granted, but the K3000ST isn’t actually as fussy as you might expect about how much sunshine it needs to work. Annoyingly after a weekend of bright sunshine I had to test during a day with lots of cloud and intermittent showers, yet the K3000ST and my faithful iPod kept working outside in a wide range of brightness and shade conditions and even on the windowsill inside the house.
The sound breaks up if the solar charger is in too much shade or if the conditions grow really overcast, but you can make up for this by lowering the volume slightly or moving the whole thing to a sunnier spot. While I was concerned that the amount of sunlight would affect the volume and sound quality from minute to minute or even second to second, the K3000ST actually does a great job of keeping things smooth. Overall tone and volume levels were as consistent as any battery-powered speaker system I’ve come across.
The bad news is that the sound quality is average or even below, and that goes whether you’re listening on free solar energy or mains power. Nobody expects HiFi quality from a device this small, but you have to be careful what you listen to on the K3000ST. Give the dual 1.8W speakers too much to work with and the output is tinny and lacking in body and bite. The shimmering guitar and piano tones of ”Mirrorball” from Elbow’s ”The Seldom Seen Kid” lose their shimmer altogether, while the bassline disappears into a muddy mix. The raucous guitar tones of The Black Crowes’ ”Remedy” became boxy and lifeless, the classic rock-and-roll sound drained of energy. Like my old eighties boombox, any drums in the mix seem to dissolve bar the snare while instruments at the treble end are over-emphasised. I tried Bill Evans’ small group version of the Kind of Blue standout ”Blue in Green” and the piano lines – fluid and haunting on a decent speaker system – became a nasty sort of mush. Good luck hearing all the instrumental detail in Radiohead’s ”Nude”; the K3000ST all but buries it.
Give the K3000ST something less meaty, like Sandy Denny’s ”Who Knows Where the Time Goes” or Neil and Tim Finn’s ”Won’t Give In” and the sound fares better. Vocals are actually quite clear, while the instrumentation doesn’t get so muddled. It’s noticeable that the K3000ST has a real sweet spot. At lower volume levels the sound is at its worst, with clarity and body both short on supply. At the higher volume levels, meanwhile, distortion begins to creep in. The K3000ST actually goes much louder than you might expect from such a small box, but push it up there and the bass notes break up while snare drums and cymbals take on a nasty sibilance. In between the K3000ST sounds alright” better than your average clock radio or laptop speakers, but not what you hope for from a decent iPod speaker system.
Normally this would be the end of the matter and I’d be declaring the K3000ST unfit for purpose, but I have to say that – provided you can live with the mildly disappointing sound quality – there’s a lot to be said for the K3000ST in terms of convenience. I’ve had several people say ‘ugh’ about the sound, but then say how much they’d like one to take to the beach or out to the greenhouse or on their next camping trip. It seems that some people are prepared to put up with less-than-perfect playback if it means they can do without batteries or in-car chargers for their speakers or iPod, and the fact that it all works – and recharges – from one solar panel is a winner. And know what? I think they have a point. The price isn’t exactly bargain-tastic, and with the Black Box Mini available for less than half the price you really have to want the solar charging facilities to make the extra cost worthwhile. But if you want freedom from the bulk and batteries of more conventional mobile music systems, this isn’t a bad way to go.
Low marks for sound quality, high marks for concept and convenience. Provided you can put up with the less than impressive tone, the K3000ST is still a decent buy for travellers, festival goers and tourists.
Score in detail
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