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Shop Different: Accessorizing Your iPod ... for Cheap!

by Erica Sadun

Now that the holiday season is behind us, a lot of happy people have spanking new iPods. So recently I went shopping. My destination was the dollar store. I wanted to see how well and how cheaply I could outfit my new 5G video iPod.

Sure, I could have gone upscale. After all, iPod accessory sales have boomed. They're ubiquitous. Just look around the Macworld Expo show floor if you have any doubt. You can buy iPod-branded add-ons everywhere from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom to Target. iPod accessories include everything from FM transmitters and handmade couture-inspired cases to custom speaker systems and radio alarm-clock docks.

I set my sights lower. I wanted to see what was available at the bottom of the market where teens and housewives and retired grandparents could find some value for their buck. I decided to shop the dollar stores.

I wanted to see what cheap accessories were available and how well they worked. I wanted to know if they were suitable for my iPod, and if they could integrate properly with the equipment. Everything I bought would be tested with my iPod and evaluated for value.

Three local dollar stores. Twenty dollars burning in my pocket. Here's what I found.


figure 1
Figure 1. Dollar store headphones don't produce the best iPod listening experience, but they work.

Let me start with the most controversial of all my purchases: headphones. To most audiophiles, you might as well suggest that the world is flat or pi equals 3.0 before putting the notion on the table that dollar store headphones have a purpose in life.

The most an audiophile will say for dollar store headphones is that they are cheap and they produce a sound signal that you can detect with your ears.

Me? I think they're great for situations when you don't want to destroy your good headphones. Say, for example, when you're lending out your iPod to another person (particularly a kid) or when you're going into a situation where your iPod is safely tucked away but your earphones are exposed to hazards such as rain or snow. Semi-disposable headphones can save the day, or at least not ruin the day when they get destroyed.

Admittedly, I'm not crazy about listening to music with dollar store headphones but they do a job that sometimes needs to be done. Also, they don't produce the earbud signal boost that's such a danger to your hearing. (Be careful out there. Use your iPod wisely and save your ears!)

Bottom line: For a buck, they produce a good enough signal to listen to.

Holster Case

figure 2
Figure 2. My iPod holster works great and is made from [cough] "Leather Material."

Of all the dollar store items I picked up, my new iPod holster is my favorite by far. It fits my 5G iPod perfectly, and has a lovely, soft protective interior and an easy-to-use belt clip. For a buck, it's a beauty of a buy.

Although it doesn't include any cutouts for the screen or navigation wheel, I can easily navigate by clicking through the case. It's a lot easier than it sounds, although I do have to pop the iPod out to adjust the volume.

Until picking this up, I'd been using the default pleatherette sack that came with the iPod. This works far better. According to the packaging, it's made of a "Leather Material." I can only guess they have hunted down the wild Naugas and harvested their Naugahyde to assemble this fine dollar store item.

Another win for my iPod holster is that it doesn't look like an iPod holster. Its iPod camouflage may deter theft. It makes me feel a little more comfortable putting it down on a table and walking away for a moment or two.

Bottom line: I love it. Great buy for the buck.


figure 3
Figure 3. Cheap dollar store cables usually work just fine.

Dollar Stores are never going to be RadioShack. Selection comes, selection goes. You never know what you're going to discover next but you'll find lots of varied cables on their electronics aisle. They're not gold-tipped. They're not high-grade. They're cheap. And they work. My home is full of audio and video equipment hacked together with the wiring I've picked up at dollar stores.

For this low-end accessory expedition, I wanted to see which cables I could pick up to work with my iPod. In this case, I ended up settling on two: a signal splitter and an RCA adapter.

Signal Splitter

The signal splitter I bought is a basic Y-cable with one 1/8" male connected to two 1/8" female jacks. It allows me to connect two pairs of headphones to my single iPod.

What's great about this cable is that it lets both daughters listen to the iPod at the same time. This proves excellent while waiting at the doctor's office or driving in the car. We now use it all the time. A terrific cable: very handy and a child-management lifesaver.

RCA Adapter

The RCA adapter cable I bought also worked perfectly. Consisting of male-to-male 1/8th-inch plug to stereo RCA adapters, it serviceably connected my iPod to a pair of RCA-based speakers. The sound output was excellent, exactly what you'd expect from those speakers.

I also used this cable to connect my iPod to my TV for audio-only output. Again, it worked just fine. (Be aware that some TVs will not play through audio unless they detect a video signal as well.)

On Buying Cables

In my opinion, buying cheap cables has more to do with comfort levels than whether they'll work or not. They almost always work. And when they don't, you find that out very quickly and replace them.

Apple, of course, does not recommend you use any non-branded equipment with your iPod. Audiophiles can go on for hours about shielding and gauge and related topics.

If you're going to go for the cheap, you have to feel comfortable with their level of quality control and the sound they produce. Comfortingly, Googling for "cheap cables" horror stories produced very few relevant hits.

Bottom Line: I've found that dollar store cables are a great buy for the money.

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