Review: Soundfreaq Sound Platform 2 SFQ-06
It's too early to call the new Sound Platform 2 ($150) a game-changer -- a phrase we don't use often or lightly -- but it does have a major new Bluetooth wireless feature that could become even bigger over the next year or two. Building on the success of its original iPod/iPhone-docking speaker Sound Platform, developer Soundfreaq opted to leverage recent Bluetooth chip innovations as a workaround for still-limited supplies of Apple Lightning connectors, thereby moving its latest model further into the wireless camp. Unlike its Dock Connector-laden predecessor, Sound Platform 2 was designed primarily to be used as a standalone Bluetooth streaming speaker, and also boasts the ability to wirelessly pair with a second Sound Platform 2 for more dramatic simultaneous playback.
Soundfreaq has come a long way as a company since Sound Platform was released in 2010, and Sound Platform 2 reflects many of the changes it has made since then. While the original model looked like a boxy speaker atop a platform, this one mixes 2012’s Sound Kick and late 2011’s Sound Stack; it’s now a roughly 12.8” wide by 6.9” tall by 4.8” deep box that tapers only at its bottom, with a diagonal slice cut out at the top for controls. Alternating between matte plastic, glossy plastic, and fabric, Sound Platform 2 uses the glossy texture to draw your attention to three sets of three capacitive buttons, followed by a small black and white digital display, and a power button. Fabric then runs across the entire front of the system, including over a light white bar found immediately above a spring-loaded dock. A rear button lets you disable the light bar, but it’s useful to indicate the unit’s power status. A forthcoming battery pack will attach to Sound Platform 2’s bottom, matching the existing design and enabling the otherwise wall-tethered unit to be used anywhere for hours at a time.
As thematically constrained as Soundfreaq could have been given its focus on boxy shapes, Sound Platform 2 somehow manages to achieve an even more appealing aesthetic than its predecessors. Black or white versions each have a minimalist simplicity that will enable at least one of them to sit in pretty much any room without looking out of place, while the angularity, solid colors and texture shifts have multi-gender and -generational appeal. It’s a real accomplishment that Soundfreaq has achieved all of this sophistication—and Bluetooth wireless functionality—at a $150 asking price. Only the use of metal grilles or the inclusion of additional speaker drivers could have made Sound Platform 2 fancier or more substantial.
Most of Sound Platform 2’s functionality will be extremely familiar to prior Soundfreaq customers. Running from left to right, the top controls include three large circles for source selection, volume down, and volume up, smaller buttons for “tone” (EQ), “UQ3/DSS,” “pair,” track back, play/pause, and track forward, then the large power button. Source lets you toggle between Bluetooth, line-in, and FM radio modes, the latter with a respectably clear tuner that unfortunately moves in 0.1 rather than 0.2 increments, a small pain if you’re stepping through stations using the track buttons. A free and not particularly impressive “Soundfreaq App” lets you control the radio with swipes on a linear tuner if you need to do so; though optional, the app could really use a complete UI overhaul and additional functionality.
Sound Platform 2’s tone button shifts through three settings: neutral, warm, or bright—the first nicely balanced, the second with overly dominant bass, and the third with stronger but not overwhelming treble. UQ3 activates a spatialization feature that widens the sound field with some treble and mid-treble boosts that are frankly so welcome that Soundfreaq should keep them on all the time. Without UQ3, the “warm” tone setting is just too flat, and there really shouldn’t be a need to play with two separate EQ-related buttons to get the right sound.
The UQ3 button’s second function is the doozy. Pair your iOS device with a single Sound Platform 2, and you’ll find that it works exactly as expected to perform stereo audio—the Bluetooth pairing process is simple and reliable. Then, the UQ3/DSS button enables you to bring a second Sound Platform 2 unit into the mix. After holding UQ3 down briefly on each speaker, you’ll see “LR” icons flashing on their screens. A few seconds will pass, then the speaker you’ve currently paired with your iOS device will become the left speaker, and the second Sound Platform 2 will become the right speaker. To prevent you from blowing out your ears, Soundfreaq automatically lowers both units to an equivalent volume level 10 out of 30, and changes to one unit’s volume will be reflected instantly on the other.
This DSS feature isn’t exactly magic, but it feels pretty close. It’s an ear-opening experience to hear one wireless stereo speaker become monaural, then near-instantly shift the second half of a song to a second speaker that suddenly gives you a wide stereo field. Other companies have tried similar feats with mixed results, requiring complex and often unwieldy, asynchronous rebroadcasting solutions. Techies might note that chip maker CSR developed Bluetooth enabling technology for this feature more than a year ago, but most companies that hoped to include it in 2012 speakers couldn’t figure out how to make it work quite right. Soundfreaq took the time necessary to get the feature working well, and although it requires some modest audio quality compromises, those compromises are acceptable in a speaker at this price level and class. Most users will never notice them.
Left on its own, a single Sound Platform 2 can more than fill a small room with sound—reasonably well-balanced sound with enough bass and detail to sound significantly better than most $100 audio systems we’ve tested, particularly with UQ3 activated. But when two Sound Platform 2 units are paired, the audio impact is tremendous. At peak, they collectively put out enough sonic energy to fill a medium-sized room; at moderate levels, they place you dead center in the middle of what feels like a really good concert. Unlike dual AirPlay speakers, which would cost more but can be placed in two separate rooms, the Sound Platform 2 units can only be moved around a single room, but they’ll have a major impact in that room.
There’s only one hitch, which we discovered in the middle of our testing. If you use a single Sound Platform 2, or a twin Sound Platform 2 set exactly as described above, you shouldn’t expect to have any issues. However, if you pair your iOS device separately to two Sound Platform 2 units, and then activate DSS mode, a bug can cause noticeable audio distortion in both speakers—a problem Soundfreaq acknowledges and says can be fixed by de-pairing your iOS device from both units, then re-pairing with only one. Unless this bug is fixed in a subsequent firmware release, it effectively means that users can’t use twin Sound Platform 2 units separately in different rooms, then bring them together as needed, without a wireless reconnection hassle. This is a singular knock on an otherwise nicely implemented and novel wireless feature.
If there’s any other reason to criticize Sound Platform 2, the front device dock would be it. Compared with the rest of the unit, which looks spit shine-polished and complete, the pop-out dock opens to reveal… nothing. Rather than including a rubber pad or device connector, the shallow tray is empty but for a clip and an oddly deep hole that leads—should you follow it—all the way back to a flip-out compartment on the unit’s back. As a do-it-yourself alternative to supplying a Lightning connector, Soundfreaq provides two USB ports on the unit’s back, and lets you run any USB cable through the hole, nestle its connector in the clip, and use the cable with your device of choice. Does it look great? No. Work perfectly? Well, the ports are only 1-Amp, but otherwise fine. If you’re the sort of person who thinks a company should only include a feature if it’s ideally implemented, you won’t like the dock, and can just keep it hidden away. But if you just want a place to rest your iPhone or iPod for occasional charging, it’s not bad.
Apart from those issues, Sound Platform 2 is a great speaker. Judged only as a standalone $150 wireless unit, it’s an attractive industrial design with great sound for the price, solid Bluetooth wireless functionality, and reasonable if not ideal device charging options. As one half of a $250 dual-speaker system, it’s nearly flawless—no easy feat given the technical challenges of synchronized Bluetooth streaming—and only impacted in a specific usage scenario. Soundfreaq should address the dual-pairing bug we noted above so that two units can be used seamlessly in either one or two rooms, but that aside, Sound Platform 2 has taken a major step in the right direction for wireless speakers, and is worthy of our high recommendation.