Review: Soundfreaq Sound Rise SFQ-05 Wireless Speaker with Alarm Clock
As smartphones and tablets continue to increase in ubiquity, some people have started to question the future of standalone time pieces. At least one iLounge editor has opined that watches are becoming merely decorative for users who always carry iPhones, and developers are noting that alarm clocks are similarly becoming less mandatory as iPads take over their owners' nightstands. This isn't to say that watches or alarm clocks will completely go away any time soon -- they may well evolve into more useful forms -- but they're not as necessary as they once were. Thus, accessory developers are being challenged to create new options that accommodate their users' changing needs, no easy feat given that Apple's devices are themselves evolving quickly, and this year made a major transition to a new Lightning connector port, all but antiquating prior 30-Pin Dock Connector accessories.
Announced several months ago and arriving at our offices just ahead of the iPhone 5’s launch, Soundfreaq’s Sound Rise ($100) is at least a little late to the docking alarm clock party iHome started with the 2005 release of iH5. Conceptually, it’s a very similar product—a 30-Pin Dock Connector sits in the center near a bright clock with large numbers, dual speakers, and an FM radio inside—but, of course, everything has been rethought in Soundfreaq’s signature style. Here, three speakers hide inside a roughly 7.3” tall by 5.7” wide by 3.6” deep box atop a 5.6” deep platform, the latter with just enough space to accommodate an iPod, iPhone, or even iPad on its Dock Connector plug. Made primarily from a mix of matte and glossy plastics with matching fabric, Sound Rise is almost entirely jet black, and interrupted only by a collection of bright white lights: numbers on the elevated clock face, a single small letter to indicate the day of the week, alarm and input icons, and illuminated capacitive controls located off to the clock’s left and right sides. Anyone familiar with Soundfreaq’s past industrial designs will find Sound Rise to be an obvious extension of the family’s past form factors, but by alarm clock standards, it’s very handsome and has an impressively compact footprint.
While Sound Rise would be easy to write off as a legacy accessory due to its old Dock Connector plug, Soundfreaq has hedged against that issue in a few ways. First, Bluetooth wireless support is built in, working flawlessly with the iPhone 5 and earlier iOS devices to stream music. Second, there’s a USB port on the back that lets you charge (but not perform audio from) Lightning devices, so long as you provide the Lightning cable. And third, two rubber inserts are included for the dock: one allows the Dock Connector to accommodate even encased iPads, and the other is much thicker and larger, completely covering the plug and surrounding hard plastic surface. This creates a central place where other devices can rest in landscape mode while charging. Because of these tweaks, using Sound Rise as a charger for an iPhone 5 or other Lightning device is kludgy, but it does work.
The single biggest advantage Sound Rise has in a very crowded docking alarm clock marketplace is its overall value proposition. For only $100, it offers completely solid Bluetooth wireless audio streaming at a price point lower than any Bluetooth-enabled clock we’ve seen from iHome, as well as enough features to satisfy most users. Soundfreaq includes dual chiming alarms with individual day-of-week/weekend/weekday/every day repetition settings, as well as a sleep timer with 15 to 190-minute settings, a five-stage rear dimmer button, and other common alarm clock frills. To save costs, it leaves out a remote control, though you do get a wall power adapter and detachable FM radio antenna in the box.
The remote is not a huge omission, except for the fact that Sound Rise itself has very few buttons, and since they’re capacitive rather than tactile, you sometimes mightn’t be sure whether you’re properly pressing them. Add to that the fact that Soundfreaq sometimes de-illuminates the controls to reduce visual clutter, and you’ll find that there’s a modest learning curve to doing simple things such as setting and deactivating alarms, as well as changing audio inputs. Once you’ve set up your alarms and decided whether to pair or dock your device, using Sound Rise is pretty straightforward, but it could be a little easier to figure out. Simply getting to the FM radio—incidentally, a clear and powerful FM tuner—takes multiple presses of a musical note icon button when you’re in Bluetooth streaming mode. It’s worth mentioning that a new “Soundfreaq App” will supposedly make radio tuning, alarm setting, and audio EQ’ing easier, but in our testing, these features only worked with docked devices rather than over Bluetooth, a limitation that hopefully will be remedied in the near future.
Owing to Soundfreaq’s impressive speaker development background—and its continued focus on delivering excellent performance at budget price points—Sound Rise delivers atypical sonic power and quality for a $100 alarm clock radio. Built with a 2.1-channel speaker configuration, including a large dedicated bass driver and two full-range speakers that project largely from the unit’s sides, Sound Rise is actually able to perform music properly even with Apple’s tablet completely blocking the system’s face. Better yet, it delivers considerably richer, more balanced sound than clock radios we’ve tested in its price range, and performs well at relatively loud volumes without the sort of distortion we’re accustomed to hearing from small speakers. There’s actual bass here, and it’s not scratchy, comments we can’t often make about clock radios or $100 speakers in general. At its peak volume level of 30, Sound Rise produces enough clear sound to fill a small room and sound good, besides.
Rating Sound Rise is only challenging for a single reason: timing. Had this system arrived six months or a year ago, when Apple’s Lightning connectors weren’t yet showing up in new iPhones and iPods, it would have been both a strong and very different competitor to the numerous sub-$100 clock radios we’ve seen from iHome and others. While its capacitive interface isn’t perfect, it’s bold and attractively executed, and between the impressive sound quality, FM radio, and Bluetooth support, it has a ton to offer for the price. If you’re still using Dock Connector-based Apple devices, and don’t plan to upgrade in the near future, it may still be that compelling; moreover, if you’re willing to go through the trouble of supplying your own Lightning cable, using the rubber Dock Connector cover, and streaming all of your audio over Bluetooth, it will indeed work with the latest iPhone and iPods.
That said, there’s no getting around the fact that this system—and all of its rivals—would appeal a lot more to users of newer devices with an updated Lightning-compatible dock. To the extent Sound Rise falls short of greatness, it’s largely due to timing and issues beyond Soundfreaq’s control, but ones that will need to be addressed by Apple in the very near future. Ideally, Soundfreaq will use the time to even further refine this model’s user interface, which with small tweaks could be as impressive as the industrial design and sound quality it’s offering here.