Review: Bose SoundDock 10
We weren't expecting to write so much about Bose's new SoundDock 10 ($600), but this system has been somewhat of a curiosity since it was announced in mid-September: a monster-sized, monster-priced version of the company's year-old SoundDock Series II, aimed to compete with the big boys -- similarly oversized, attractively-designed $600 audio systems such as Bowers + Wilkins' Zeppelin and Focal JMlab's Focal XS. Could Bose, which essentially created the $300 iPod speaker market, effectively compete in the $600 space that's been dominated by others?
Though we have a lot more to say about this system, and the full answer is complex, the short version is a somewhat tepid “sure.” With SoundDock 10, Bose doesn’t offer a better $600 audio experience than either of its peer-priced rivals, and like earlier SoundDocks, the company has basically thumbed its nose at those who expect high design or special features for the prices the company charges. As we said in reviews of Zeppelin and Focal XS, both of those companies are charging premiums for striking designs; with SoundDock 10, you pay the same premium for a system that’s a little less impressive sonically and considerably more plain visually. If that sounds appealing to you—and some might say yes—the SoundDock 10 may make sense. In our view, however, this system falls on the fine edge of our general and limited recommendations, and falls on one side solely because the neutrality of its largely recycled design will appeal more strongly to some prospective buyers than its competitors’ more daring enclosures.
SoundDock 10: What’s Outside
Having both carried and unpacked the SoundDock 10’s box, it’s easy to say that the first thing that stands out about this system is its sheer size—it’s so large that it makes the $300 SoundDock Series II look and feel like a cheap toy. Though SoundDock 10 uses tapers and bulges rather than straight lines on all of its sides, the predominantly silver unit hits a maximum width of roughly 17 inches, depth of 9.6 inches, and height of 8.7 inches, dwarfing even the largest iPods and iPhones by creating an even bigger wall of metal mesh than before. Black plastic alternates from matte on the top and around the dock to a glossy strip behind the dock, under the silver mesh face, which has a tendency to give a little when the handle-less unit is grabbed and moved. Notably, the space consumed by SoundDock 10 is only part of the equation: at 18.5 pounds in weight, it’s also more than three times as heavy as the 4.56-pound Series II, and two pounds heavier than the Zeppelin. It’s clearly not meant to be carried around; it’s purchased, placed someplace, and basically left alone.
Perspectives on Bose’s latest design will vary from person to person, but it suffices to say that SoundDock 10 continues the company’s standard “iPod dock” look, and isn’t going to change any minds. It borrows most of its design cues from the SoundDock Portable, with similarly sectional side, front, and back plastic pieces that attach to a bulging speaker-holding chassis in the center, using those curves to mask the system’s actual required depth and footprint. In our experience over the years and with the SoundDock 10 in particular, we have yet to hear literally anyone praise the family’s designs as “beautiful” or “a work of art,” yet that doesn’t seem to be Bose’s interest; rather, it creates systems that are acceptably neutral, appealing as much or more to women as men. You can decide for yourself whether SoundDock 10 strikes you as unimaginative and boring or pleasantly easy to integrate into a room, but unlike its compact predecessors, its size makes more of a visual impact—pro or con—and reduces the number of places where it will fit.
Looking past the surface of the system, it’s apparent that Bose is also auditioning new technologies and concepts that are likely to wind up in future, less expensive generations of the SoundDock. Some of the concepts are minimalist: for instance, Bose has for the first time dropped button-based controls entirely from the SoundDock 10’s body. There are no volume buttons on the front dock, on the top, or on the sides; everything is handled with the included 10-button Infrared remote control, or by using the controls built into your iPod or iPhone. No frills are included in the box, either: there’s a single, device-agnostic Dock Adapter pre-installed in the dock, a power cable, and the remote. That’s it.
The remote is nearly the same one found in the Series II and Portable packages, with volume, play/pause, and track control buttons, plus playlist-skipping buttons, but still no iPod or iPhone menu navigation functionality. It now has a black rubber top surface that shows more dust than its gray and white predecessors, and is elongated just enough to accommodate two extra buttons: one with an iPod icon, the other with the letters AUX. These buttons correspond to two lights that shine through a stripe of black plastic on the front bottom left corner of the unit, indicating whether you’re listening to the docked iPod/iPhone or something connected through the unit’s rear auxiliary input port. SoundDock Series II and Portable had the same auxiliary input, but didn’t include buttons to let you swap between the sources. Like its predecessors, SoundDock 10 has you supply the audio cable yourself if you want to use the auxiliary port.
Several additions to SoundDock 10’s front and back are more noteworthy. For the first time, the front dock can be popped out with a small button on its inner edge, revealing a compartment for Bose’s SoundDock 10 Bluetooth dock—a ridiculously overpriced $150 insert that transforms the $600 system into a $750 wireless receiver for stereo Bluetooth from iPhone 3G/3GS and 2008-2009 iPod touch models. Though we were unwilling to shell out the cash to buy one of these units for comprehensive testing, we did test one with an iPhone 3GS at a Bose retail store and found the performance to be acceptable: pairing was simple, stereo separation was properly allocated to left and right channels, and wireless performance worked at a “same room” distance of 20 or so feet, most likely more. If the Bluetooth feature wasn’t so expensive, or better yet was integrated into the system, it would have been more impressive; Bose’s $150 price could buy an entire second speaker system from another company.
On the back of SoundDock 10 are a couple of things that aren’t normally found on Bose’s iPod and iPhone systems: extra ports. One is a miniature USB port marked “updates,” downloadable software updates that the company notes “may be available in the future,” presumably to fix compatibility problems that develop with future Apple hardware and software releases. The other is a yellow composite video output port capable of outputting video from current-model iPods and iPhones while playing audio through SoundDock 10’s speakers.
Unlike competitors, Bose has held off on adding video ports to its iPod audio systems in the past, which has limited the versatility of prior SoundDocks but also spared them the potential embarrassment of video interference that many similar products have suffered from. Apart from a black bar that appeared when changing videos and disappeared before a new video started to play, we saw no problems with the video output from SoundDock 10’s composite port, even when a phone call came through during video playback; that said, a system with a price tag like this could stand to use higher-resolution component or S-Video out instead. By comparison, the Zeppelin includes S-Video and composite ports, and its auxiliary audio port supports both analog and optical inputs, both steps up over Bose’s design.
SoundDock 10: What’s Inside + Sound Quality
An honest discussion of SoundDock 10’s internals should begin by mentioning that there’s a lot more guesswork involved in understanding Bose products than its competitors. Bose generally doesn’t talk much about the speakers it places inside of its iPod and iPhone audio systems, instead marketing its products as the results of some near-mystical combination of special engineering, patented technologies, and acoustic research rather than as a mix of parts. For this reason, we were surprised when the company actually divulged that there’s a 7” bass woofer inside the SoundDock 10, which we’re guessing was disclosed solely because it sounds very big by all-in-one iPod and iPhone dock standards. Bose has said virtually nothing about the speakers in the other SoundDocks, or their amplifiers, and it covers its parts with grilles that largely obscure what’s inside.
So we took some glimpses behind the various SoundDock grilles, and from what we could see without disassembling the SoundDock 10, the boxy shape of Bose’s woofer makes it less than comparable on numbers alone to the round 5” woofer in the Zeppelin or the round 5.25” subwoofer and passive radiator system of the $300 Altec Lansing iMT800. Similarly, we spotted twin 1.75” drivers hidden behind SoundDock 10’s metal grille, which apparently combine high- and mid-range speakers into units Bose now calls “Twiddlers;” these drivers are interestingly a little smaller than the roughly 2” speakers we spotted in the Series II and Portable. It goes without saying that speaker sizes alone don’t tell the whole or even a substantial story of how audio systems sound, but we include the details for those who might be interested.
How does SoundDock 10 sound? Though we’d sum up our impressions by saying that it falls into the “good, not great” category given its price, the specifics are more complex than that. When we test speakers at or above the $300 price point, we generally are looking for some “wow” characteristic, and at the $600 price point, there really needs to be something sonic or visual to grab our attention. SoundDock 10 isn’t that type of system. Put an iPod or iPhone into its dock, press play on a normal volume level, and the most notable differences you’ll hear relative to the less expensive SoundDock Series II are a decrease—yes, a decrease—in apparent bass, a small boost in treble, and a commensurately small increase in clarity. Fans of Bose’s signature “warm” sound will be particularly surprised if they compare Series II directly to 10 and note how the warmth has given way to a more clinical, treble-influenced performance, such that a test track like Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s collaborative cover of Valerie comes out of the Series II with enough low end to almost be felt rather than just heard, while on the SoundDock 10, the bass is less pronounced—almost restrained—in a way that doesn’t exactly inspire oohs or aahs. On the flip side, the SoundDock 10 adds both treble and clarity that the Series II was missing, making higher-pitched instruments sparkle a little and enabling an extra layer of detail to be heard in the background of songs; this would be more remarkable if the Series II hadn’t been deficient in both regards compared with peer-priced $300 systems.
That said, like any number of other high-end systems we’ve tested, SoundDock 10 is designed to outperform lower-priced competitors at high volumes, and succeeds at that task: at its peak volume level—dangerously, ear-splittingly loud by small room standards—SoundDock 10 is louder, considerably clearer and more full-bodied than the SoundDock Series II, making the smaller system sound weak and toy-like. It’s also a little louder than the Altec iMT800, which sells for the same $300 price as the Series II and offers considerably better sonic performance. Yet those who guessed that the SoundDock 10’s seven-inch woofer would translate into super-powered bass will be surprised to find that iMT800 holds its own in that category, with stronger low-end on its default setting, and even more pronounced power when you fiddle with its user-adjustable bass level. The iMT800 is anything but a neutral-looking sound system—we actively dislike its enclosure design—but at half the price of the SoundDock 10, it’s otherwise a far better value, and capable of being run off of batteries, besides.
What about peer-priced audio systems? At the $600 mark, the leading alternative choices are the aforementioned Bowers + Wilkins Zeppelin and the Focal XS, the latter of which is comparable in pricing, though not in design. As its name suggests, the elongated football-shaped Zeppelin is an all-in-one audio system that matches the SoundDock 10 in iPod- and iPhone-compatibility, It weighs 16.5 pounds—two less than the SoundDock 10—and is considerably more stylish while occupying less space in every dimension save width, where it stretches to a deliberately eye-catching 25 inches. SoundDock 10 only barely eclipses it in peak volume, with both systems capable of hurting your ears at top levels after only minutes of exposure, but we were somewhat surprised that Zeppelin’s 5” woofer delivered stronger, warmer bass than Bose’s 7” driver at every volume level we tested. Thanks to a Tone Control software feature, the Zeppelin could be slightly adjusted upwards and significantly adjusted downwards in the bass department to the user’s liking, a feature missing from the SoundDock 10 but extremely common in competing systems at this price level. We felt that Zeppelin’s added bass helped made songs sound more natural, while SoundDock 10 was again in the interesting position of sounding more clinical—something we generally don’t find ourselves hearing in Bose systems. Fans of bass and warmth will unquestionably be better served by the Zeppelin, but those looking for slightly crisper sound could consider the SoundDock 10.
They could also consider Focal XS, a French audio system that is pitched as a combination of a 2.1-channel computer speaker and an iPod dock, with two satellite speakers that sit off to the sides of a monitor or iMac, and a 6.5” woofer that has its own enclosure and rests on or near the floor. Focal XS’s woofer alone is almost as large as the entire SoundDock 10 chassis, and its satellites can be placed as close together or as wide apart as you prefer. These differences in physical characteristics alone explain why Focal XS offers wider stereo separation than SoundDock 10, sound from which generally appears to be coming from only an inch or two more than the left and right sides of its 17” frame, as well as Focal’s stronger, deeper bass, which has an entire box to resonate inside of. It’s to Bose’s credit that the all-in-one SoundDock 10 can come close to the sound of a multi-component system such as Focal XS, but for the same dollars, XS sounds better and is to our way of thinking a more versatile system. It’s easier to pair with a TV or a computer, as SoundDock’s large frame and limited stereo separation don’t lend themselves as easily to sitting alongside a screen. On the other hand, SoundDock is iPhone-certified, and Focal XS lacks the certification but works fine—nag screen aside—with iPhone 3G and 3GS models. You can decide for yourself which system, if any of these, fits your particular needs.
During a time when virtually every other company—even Apple—has focused squarely on delivering either more affordable products or ones with better value for the dollar than their predecessors, Bose has gone in a different direction: its SoundDock Series II and Portable models have remained all but completely unchanged in sonics from the original system released in late 2004, and Bose has done little more than offer more expensive updates with modest design tweaks. As we’ve said in the past, this has given competitors plenty of room to outperform Bose’s models at the same prices or roughly match them at lower prices, yet despite this, the company’s heavy marketing and neutral design sensibilities have helped it to outsell many of its rivals. For some, the Bose name alone is enough to justify any price point, and audio tests aren’t as important as the brand and simplicity.
SoundDock 10 doesn’t change this equation at all, and unlike the original SoundDock—a product that had the $300 iPod speaker market all to itself at a point in time when no one thought they’d ever spend that much money on a system with a dock—it enters the market with established competitors that have released legitimately sharp-looking and sonically more impressive speakers. Rather than trying to beat them in performance, Bose appears to be banking on a different psychology with SoundDock 10: it really struck us as a system for someone who has $600 set aside for an iPod or iPhone speaker, and a partner who had some adverse aesthetic reaction to the designs of competing products. Judged alone without reference to competitors, it’s hard to understand what Bose thinks is worthy of $600 here—in the typical, quiet environment it’ll be heard in, many people will find the SoundDock Series II to be equally if not more appealing, and the almost complete lack of frills in the box or extra features is all but puzzling. Yet when it’s placed in the same space as Zeppelin and Focal XS, SoundDock 10 will strike some as a fair compromise, a “less is more” alternative.
As noted at the start of this review, SoundDock 10 really sits on the edge of our general (B) and limited (B-) recommendations—we’re not part of the Bose hype wagon, so when we drop $600 on a speaker system, we expect a lot more for the money than a brand name. Apart from its weight and size, which are all but irrelevant to us, it’s hard to say that SoundDock 10 measures up to a $600 level of expectation. Some people will like it because of its name, the simplicity of its features, and/or its generally unobjectionable design, and if one or all of those factors is enough to sway you to the SoundDock 10, we wouldn’t try to turn you away from it. For the same dollars, however, we’d sooner go with the Zeppelin or the Focal XS instead, and advise like-minded people to pick the one that’s better-suited to your specific needs; if looks didn’t matter as much as bang for the buck, we’d also consider Altec’s versatile, powerful iMT800 at half the price. The SoundDock 10 will hold the greatest appeal to those who are looking for something that’s visually neutral, sonically acceptable rather than a stand out, and pricier than its features really justify. In other words, it’s a fitting new member of the SoundDock family in all respects—good enough to pass muster, but not the best we’ve seen in any of its specifics.