Review: Bose SoundDock | iLounge

Review

Review: Bose SoundDock

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Company: Bose Corporation

Website: www.Bose.com

Model: Bose SoundDock

Price: $299

Compatible: iPod 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo

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Jeremy Horwitz

Pros: Second-best iPod-matching speakers we’ve tested to date on sound quality, featuring rich, clear sound out of the box and clean design. Great remote control included for purchase price.

Cons: Price is substantially higher than all iPod-matching competitors, size, weight, and lack of battery option preclude use as truly portable speaker system, can’t dock with computer.

First impressions count for a lot in this world, and by that standard, Bose’s new SoundDock ($299) iPod-matching speaker system is undeniably attractive. Combining the heft and sound of a Bose Wave Radio with the styling and general functionality of Altec-Lansing’s inMotion iM3 speakers, the Sounddock offers iPod owners a high-end audio solution at a premium price. Though we’re certain that it’s not going to be right for everyone, we’re equally sure that it’s going to be popular with the same crowd that enjoys Bose’s other products.

Background

Apple didn’t need Bose’s endorsement in order to cement the iPod’s status as a major player in the audio business, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Bose’s retail stores decided to carry iPods in July of 2003 - right before sales of the third-generation iPod began to take off - and the company has now furthered its commitment to the iPod with the SoundDock.

Bose, like Apple, specializes in elegant, near-luxury products that polarize potential customers. Some people absolutely love the sound of Bose speakers regardless of price, while others - particularly serious audio fanatics and value-conscious consumers - claim that the company’s products are overmarketed, and overpriced relative to their technical performance. After testing the SoundDock, we have far greater appreciation for both sides of the debate.

Design

Certain trade-offs are implicit in the design of small speaker systems, one of which is that rich, clean audio with a perceptible stage full of distinct sounds is harder to achieve in a small enclosure. For this reason, Bose’s one-piece speaker systems routinely use larger enclosures than competing products, sacrificing travel-friendly portability for sound quality. It’s a different approach from that taken by Altec Lansing with the truly portable inMotion series, for example, and the polar opposite of Monster’s iSpeaker and similar products that have no illusion of quality sound but are almost the size of compact disc cases or even iPods.

The SoundDock stays true to Bose form, and is currently the largest iPod-only speaker system on the market. Though these measurements are slightly deceiving because of the SoundDock’s unusual shape and slightly reclining speaker position, it measures 6.65” x 11.91” x 6.48”, including a large white plastic-framed and gently curved speaker enclosure, a single metallic gray grille on its face, and a rounded iPod dock in its center. Using five replaceable plastic sizers, the dock is large enough for any Dock Connecting iPod (including the iPod Photo) and has depressible plus and minus volume controls to its left and right.

So large is the SoundDock that it dwarfs any iPod placed in its dock, and it’s also heavy, weighing a hefty 4.5 pounds. Six rubber feet hold it in place on a table, but trust us when we say that it’s not going anywhere once set down. Its white corded power supply is also unusually large, and features an odd computer-like power connector that inevitably sparked a little every time we connected it.

Readers may recall that we balked at the practical portability of Tivoli’s iPAL, which measured a milk carton-sized 6.25” x 3.69” by 3.88” and weighed 2 pounds. Neither device can practically be toted back and forth from place to place in a briefcase or backpack, and as iLounge has pointed out on many occasions, these devices therefore fall into our “carry them from room to room, but not from house to office or airplane” category of speakers. The SoundDock also doesn’t include a battery or the ability to be powered off of a source other than its packed-in power adapter.

That said, the SoundDock’s design is attractive in a minimalistic way, and its value is bolstered by a matching white plastic infrared remote control with six buttons: “Off,” volume up and down, track forward and backward, and a combined play/pause button. Unlike Altec’s iM3s, which also included a remote control, the IR port isn’t visible from the front of the unit - it’s likely hidden inside the unit’s metal grille. Regardless, the remote worked well in all of our tests, and seemed to provide smooth volume adjustment rather than distinct and choppy steps.

Two noticeable omissions from the design, however, are the pass-through Dock Connector and direct line input ports we’ve come to expect on many dockable iPod stereo systems. The back of the SoundDock is bare save for its power input port, and as a result, a plugged-in iPod only charges off the AC power, and can’t sync while inside. Other devices besides iPods can’t be connected to the SoundDock, either. Suffice to say that while these omissions don’t impact our own use of these speaker systems, they do make the SoundDock less useful to potential buyers. We would call them design faults, save for the fact that unlike many comparable speaker systems, the SoundDock is surprisingly good at its primary intended purpose.

Performance and Comparisons

iLounge remains committed first and foremost to evaluating products based on their value to our readers, and as such, we have been put off in recent months by the introduction of a number of speaker systems with a relatively low sound quality-to-dollar ratio. In the headphone world, for example, there are fairly clear distinctions between $40 products and $100 products, $100 and $200 products, and $200 and $300 products. True, the distinctions become smaller the further one goes up the price chain, but as a general rule, you get better quality if you spend more money with the right companies.

This isn’t necessarily true in the speaker world - in fact, it probably isn’t true at all. New iPod speaker accessories are routinely being priced at inordinately high levels, even though their performance may not correlate in any way with their price tags. The reason, we believe, is that some speaker manufacturers - not necessarily Bose, mind you - are trying to take advantage of both Apple’s own reputation for premium pricing, and consumer uncertainty as to price-to-performance ratios. The owner of an iPod is perceived to have more extra money to spend than the owner of a Dell Digital Jukebox, so the same accessory is sold for a higher price to iPod owners than others.

Bose’s SoundDock is generally spared the brunt of our criticism on this point for one and only one reason: out of the box, and when not compared against anything except our memories of other speaker systems, the SoundDock produces very pleasant sound. We say “very pleasant” instead of “excellent” because we know from past experience that it’s the sort of sound that most of our (non-audiophile) readers enjoy - warm, clean, and as loud as you want it. Rather than exposing what appear to be four speaker drivers - two very large, and two very small - or clearly presenting two left and right channels, the SoundDock’s single unified grille hides them all. As previously noted, Bose places its speakers on a gentle recline, and with the gentle curved shape permits them a slight arc rather than blaring left and right channels directly into your face. The result is sound that is even across the SoundDock’s face, and distinctly (if not incredibly broadly) separated into left and right channels.

The SoundDock also fared well in comparative testing against the most recent crop of iPod-specific speakers. Putting the SoundDock up against Altec’s iM3s, for example, we heard not only a similarly bass-heavy sound, but better resonance, clarity, and stereo separation. Bose’s low-distortion sound was similar to JBL’s On Stage, but richer, and the SoundDock offered even more power. We’ve come to believe that the reason so many people - especially non-technophiles - like Bose speakers is the same reason that so many non-technophiles like Apple products. You don’t need to screw around with their products to have an experience that 75 or 85 out of 100 people will enjoy. Some people are even willing to drop $300 for a product that “just works.” Sound familiar, iPod fans?

But because we test so many speaker systems, and because we’re technophiles, we have heard better. And at a substantially lower price. The reason we keep coming back to JBL’s Creature II speaker system ($99.00, now available for as little as $62 online) is obvious: it’s always a fraction the price of any other option we’ve tested for the iPod, sounds better in every way, and offers a user complete control over the treble and bass response of the speakers. Out of the box, the Creature system sounds comparable to the SoundDock, but when you tweak JBL’s treble and bass to perfectly match the sound you like, then position the speakers to achieve true left and right channel separation, the Creatures sound considerably better. Multiple listeners concurred that the Creatures outperformed the SoundDock, which outperformed the iM3s and modestly the On Stage.

The single issue people cite about the Creatures is size, but when compared against the large SoundDock, there’s less of an issue. While the Creature system includes a large subwoofer, and five or so people out of 100 might complain that JBL uses cables to connect the two left and right channel satellites to the subwoofer, there is absolutely no denying that for $62, you get speakers that like the SoundDock aren’t portable, but do sound better in each of the categories we’ve mentioned. We won’t claim that the Creatures are “excellent” in the pantheon of speaker options available outside the iPod world (i.e. electrostatic discharge speakers, etc.), but they match the iPod, attach to any iPod Dock, and work beautifully.

A second issue we point out with the Creatures is considerably more substantial, however. Bose’s remote control system works really well, and JBL offers no perfectly equivalent alternative for use with the Creature system. The best one can do as a substitute is to purchase a product such as Ten Technologies’ naviPod ($49.95), which unfortunately doesn’t offer the same Dock Connector-friendly volume control capabilities as Bose’s remote. (You connect the naviPod to your headphone jack, and then must connect your speakers through the headphone jack in order for naviPod to control the iPod’s volume.) As a result, if you plan to keep your iPod docked yet at some considerable, remote control-friendly distance from your chair and/or computer, the SoundDock will likely be a better option for you than the Creatures.

Conclusions

If you narrowly constrain the SoundDock’s competitors to only iPod speaker systems that include built-in docks, Bose wins the sound quality category handily. We are certain that any person who hears the SoundDock - especially when, as in an Apple Store, it’s sitting next to the JBL On Stage and Altec Lansing’s iM3s and imMinis - will be seriously impressed by its audio quality. Our first test of the device two weeks ago left us with a positive overall impression, and we continue to feel very pleased by its audio performance today.

But we think that focusing solely on speakers with docks would be a myopic way to evaluate iPod speakers, because many stores (including Apple’s) have been selling non-docking speakers that work perfectly well with the iPod. Once you consider all of the options that match the iPod, you have some better choices - including the Creatures.

Considering that the SoundDock’s $299 price tag could literally purchase a second iPod, and that a superior-sounding (and equally non-portable) alternative under most circumstances is available in JBL’s less expensive system, it’s hard for us to award the SoundDock our highest recommendation without substantial qualification. An iPod owner would have to (a) go out of his or her way to ignore or dislike the Creatures given the very dramatic price difference, (b) not need a dock that connects to his or her computer, and (c) want the SoundDock mounted at a distance out of arm’s reach in order for its remote control functionality to be a real advantage. For users in those three categories, we would feel very comfortable recommending the SoundDock, but for all others, there are several comparable alternatives available at lower prices.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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