Review: Bose SoundDock Series II
When Bose introduced the original SoundDock back in August, 2004, no one knew exactly what to make of the slate-like audio system. Featuring an iPod-matching glossy white casing, a single curved silver metal speaker grille and a front-mounted dock, the SoundDock didn't look like a typical audio system, and was the first iPod-only speaker to sell for $299 -- a princely sum at a time when most of its competitors sold for less than $199. Despite that price, the SoundDock re-defined the entire iPod speaker category: competitors spent years trying to duplicate Bose's visually neutral, sonically cozy formula, which helped it to sell literally millions of units with only tiny tweaks to the design and price.
Four years later, the world of iPod speakers has changed a lot. Now there are hundreds of all-in-one speaker systems, sold in different colors, shapes, and sizes, each with slightly different sound signatures and features. Most of them were specifically designed to rival or surpass the SoundDock’s sound quality at lower price points. And thanks to Apple hardware changes, the old SoundDock doesn’t work properly with iPhones; it can’t even charge the latest iPod or iPhone models. Therefore, Bose was all but forced to release a new version, SoundDock Series II ($299, aka SoundDock II or SoundDock 2), which brings the old design up-to-date with Apple’s latest technologies, but keeps almost everything else the same. The question is whether this substantially old design is still relevant in the current speaker marketplace.
The most obvious answer is “yes.” Bose clearly hasn’t sweated over the past several years of competition, leaving the SoundDock almost unchanged while Apple and others have radically pushed iPod and iPhone products forward on an annual basis. In fact, Bose’s biggest concession to changing tastes was to release a black-colored SoundDock in mid-2006. While everyone else fought to improve their speakers’ performance at various price points, resulting in $150 speakers that rivaled the SoundDock and $250-$300 versions that blew it away, Bose embarked on a global marketing campaign for its existing product, and continued to watch the money pile up. Thus, no matter what some may think of the SoundDock Series II, Bose is guaranteed to sell plenty of them, and that makes the product relevant.
Design and Features
But what does the SoundDock Series II actually offer to consumers? As was the case before, this is a simple, generally neutral all-in-one audio system. While preserving the same general cabinet design and identical dimensions from the original SoundDock—a counter-friendly 6.65” height by 11.91” width by 6.48” depth—it incorporates certain design touches introduced in last year’s SoundDock Portable, a $100 more expensive unit that added a rechargeable battery pack to the prior product. Specifically, Series II’s chassis has dispensed with the oversized speaker grille-holding lip found on the first model, going with front and top curves that look almost identical to Portable’s. Series II also includes the same eight-button Infrared remote found in Portable, rather than the six-button version included with the original SoundDock. In addition to a power input port on back, there’s an auxiliary audio input, which Portable had but the original SoundDock did not. You get a two-piece wall adapter and power cable rather than the windable one found in Portable. Other differences are hard to pick out.
But they’re there. Unlike the original SoundDock and the Portable, Series II is presently available only in a single color, black, which is glossy and shows more dust than the original white and silver models. The newer unit’s silver metal grille wraps a little around its sides rather than stopping near its front edges. And the iPod dock, which remains at the front and center, is like the first SoundDock in that it contains volume control buttons and does not retract into the unit for storage; Portable moved the volume buttons off to the system’s right side. On the back, Series II bears more similarity to the original SoundDock than the Portable: it has the same curves, there’s no handle for “portable” picking up, and the oversized battery pack from Portable is replaced with the large extended rear cabinet found on the first model. It goes without saying that Series II is not a portable system; it runs only off of its wall adapter, and has no compartment for batteries.
Functionally, Bose has continued to favor simplicity over user adjustability and control. None of the SoundDocks have other buttons, switches, dials, or options; from the top and front, they are as close to blank slates visually and functionally as iPod speakers have come. So it’s no surprise that SoundDock Series II follows in its predecessors’ footsteps in features: you plug your iPod or iPhone into the dock, the unit puts out a single, unchangeable sound signature, and the only adjustments to be made are in volume and the tracks you’re listening to.
The only modest changes in the new model are taken from the Portable: it chirps when you connect a power adapter and sometimes when you plug in a device, and signals volume changes and remote control commands by flashing a yellow-green light hidden behind the center of its grille. As with the Portable, there are also playlist selection buttons on the remote control, which are supposed to switch from the current playlist to the prior or next playlist, but did not work predictably in our testing. iPod menu navigation buttons would probably have been more useful.
iPod and iPhone Performance
The only “major” change between the SoundDocks is the Series II’s status as a “Works with iPhone” product, which is supposed to mean several things. First, a Works with iPhone product is supposed to eliminate audio interference caused by wireless communications. In our testing, though Series II did not exhibit the sorts of loud buzzes that plagued the original SoundDock and many other prior iPod speakers, it doesn’t appear to have received any additional shielding versus last year’s SoundDock Portable: both systems exhibit tiny hints of noise when an original iPhone is docked and being used for cellular or data purposes, but not enough to be detected unless you’re sitting up close to the speaker. As with other speakers, iPhone 3G’s interference is only apparent when it falls back into EDGE mode.
Second, Series II is guaranteed to charge both the original iPhone and iPhone 3G, which it does—just like Portable, but unlike the original unit, which charges only the original iPhone. Third, Series II does not display the same Airplane Mode nag screen that comes up when you connect an iPhone to the original SoundDock or SoundDock Portable. This latter “feature” is an improvement over Portable, but only to an Apple-created annoyance.
It’s worth only a brief note that the SoundDock Series II lacks one thing that its predecessor offered: charging support for the third-generation hard disk-based iPod. All other models, including the fall 2008 iPods, will charge and play audio; the earliest Dock Connecting iPod will only play audio, rather than charging.
Sound Quality and Comparisons
As readers will note, we’ve made clear in many reviews that systems from companies such as Altec Lansing, JBL, Klipsch, and Logitech offer a lot more bang for the buck, varying from product to product in horsepower, pricing, and frills such as wireless capabilities or more daring designs. Four years after the original SoundDock’s introduction, and despite Bose’s opportunity here to one-up its old product as Apple has done with iPods, there’s not much of a change to report here.
With SoundDock Series II, you’re once again getting a system that’s guaranteed to sound good right out of the box. By contrast with “flat” audio systems, Bose has combined two technologies that perform music in a way that users will find pleasant: first, there’s a chip that subtly adjusts the audio to make the most of the speakers, and second, Bose has picked a sound signature that has been tuned to present music with “warmth,” or slightly aggressive bass, rather than utter neutrality or balance. On a positive note, you dock the iPod or iPhone in the system and know that your music will sound nice—natural and smooth—but less positively, the system doesn’t create a huge, dynamic stage, there are no bass or treble controls to really calibrate the sound to your personal tastes, and Bose hasn’t built in the dedicated subwoofer speaker hardware found in many of its rivals. As such, systems from many companies outstrip the SoundDock in various ways, including sounding bigger, deeper, and/or sharper, sometimes letting you hear more detail in the same tracks.
Somewhat amazingly, the comparisons we made between the original SoundDock and its subsequent competitors still hold up with SoundDock Series II: the sonic differences between the Series II and its predecessors are so minor that you’d have to really listen closely to hear them. At the same volume levels, we noted that Portable had ever so slightly lower-reaching bass and clearer mid-treble than the original SoundDock; these same hints are only occasionally noticeable when comparing Portable to Series II. Similarly, there are no notable improvements in clarity or staging in Series II. By and large, Bose has kept its systems the same, which puts Series II more firmly in the “good, not great” audio category than before.
Given the huge number of iPod-friendly, more aggressively priced competitors out there, the only thing that precluded SoundDock Series II from falling short of our general recommendation this time was its iPhone compatibility—in the absence of comparably designed iPhone-ready systems from JBL, Klipsch, and Logitech, there are some users who will view Series II as the only option in its performance class. It’s not.
Altec Lansing’s T612 was specifically designed to compete against the original SoundDock, selling for $100 less and adding full iPhone compatibility nine months before the Series II showed up in town. To quickly sum up more extensive sonic test results, it suffices to say that the T612’s adjustable bass and treble controls give you more control over the sound of your audio, including the ability to offer noticeably deeper bass than the SoundDock Series II. Unfortunately, the quality of the added bass is dull rather than defined; T612 is also substantially larger than Series II, and its look isn’t quite as neutral. If you get past its design and small sonic issues, the T612 will bring iPhone users very close to the SoundDock’s sound quality, and you’ll save a significant amount of money doing so. Those not using iPhones can consider most of the B+ and higher-rated iPod-only speakers we’ve previously reviewed as smarter picks for the dollar, though they may prove less worthy of owning if you ever decide to upgrade to an iPhone in the future.
Despite occasional speed bumps in Apple’s release of new iPods and iPhones, there’s no doubt in our minds that the company has continued to seriously push both technology and design forward—so much so that four-year-old products such as the original SoundDock feel as if they were created in a different era. Both electronically and aesthetically, the release of the SoundDock Series II offered Bose an opportunity to update its successful past design for a new generation of iPod owners, ones accustomed to more aggressive pricing and superior sonic performance from their iPods, iPhones, and accessories.
Instead, what SoundDock Series II offers is basically just more of the same: the same audio performance and general enclosure styling as in past models, along with the same steep $299 pricing, which never made its predecessors seem like great values. iPod users will find the most significant differences to be the presence of the rear aux-in port and the changes to the remote control, which aren’t exactly groundbreaking. If the Series II’s plain looks and simple, familiar audio performance are highly appealing to you, or you really need a nearly identical iPhone-ready replacement for your original SoundDock, consider this a good option. Otherwise, we’d advise you to look at the many other iPod and iPhone speakers out there: the B+ and higher-rated speakers we’ve reviewed offer more aggressive design, features, and/or performance for their prices.