Review: Bose SoundDock Series III with Lightning Connector
Bose's SoundDock family has branched off a little since the release of the progenitor in 2004, but until now, there was only one direct sequel: 2008's SoundDock Series II. Following Apple's switch from the Dock Connector standard to Lightning, the Massachusetts company has released SoundDock Series III ($250). Compared to the evolution we saw from the first to second editions, this one is only modestly updated, both inside and out. Apart from the swap to a Lightning plug, there are few details that suggest it's a truly new unit, despite the four and a half year gap between models II and III. A lot has changed in the speaker market in that time, especially when it comes to performance for the price, and the popularity of wireless streaming. Consequently, SoundDock Series III feels like it hasn't come very far -- a problem that's more pronounced for a somewhat pricey eight-year-old audio system than for other hastily Lightning-updated speakers we've tested.
SoundDock Series III is exactly the same size as its direct predecessor, measuring 6.65” tall, 11.91” wide, and 6.48” deep, and it’s only available in black. From the bottom, top, back, and sides, it’s nearly identical, including the same glossy plastic, and the same DC power and audio-in ports. The metal grille has a slightly more copper tone than before, but doesn’t look too different. Despite the age of its design, however, SoundDock Series III is a handsome device. The design holds up surprisingly well after all these years, and there’s nothing cheap-looking or -feeling about it. You get a two-piece wall adapter and power cable in the box—the new power brick is slightly smaller—and the same eight button remote control as before. SoundDock Series III has no battery for portable listening, so it needs to be connected to a wall.
Jutting out of the front of the speaker is a black plastic semicircle, with the namesake dock located in the center. Gone are the volume buttons on either side; all controls are now handled either by the iPod, iPhone, or the included remote. With SoundDock Series II, we found the dock base to be far too loose, to the point where it nearly felt broken. This one is slightly sturdier, although we still wonder why it’s a separate piece rather than molded into the unit. Instead of the recessed Dock Connector plug, there’s now a raised Lightning plug on a pivoting base, with a 1” tall plastic and rubber wall behind it. Unfortunately, as has been true with every Lightning-enabled speaker we’ve reviewed, the plug offers little to no case compatibility because of the flat plastic that surrounds the plug. Bare iPods, iPhones, and even iPads—the latter not officially supported—will fit without issue, though. There is still no Bluetooth or AirPlay connection. Volume is now mirrored between your device and the speaker, so you’ll see the on-screen scrubber move up and down as you press the remote.
Sonically, SoundDock Series III is just about identical to SoundDock Series II. We’d call the differences so small as to be nearly imperceptible, although the treble seems to be just a little clearer. As we said in our previous review, “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.”
Since SoundDock Series II launched, and over the past two or three years specifically, speakers have come a long way. One can now reasonably expect to pay $100-$200 and get a speaker that would have been great by 2008 standards—it’s not necessary to pay a huge premium for what the average person would consider a high-quality unit. Most of today’s speaker systems have also added wireless streaming options, either in place of or in addition to docks. As all of Apple’s devices (save for the iPod classic) now ship with Bluetooth, those units guarantee compatibility with current and future devices, each in or out of a protective case. The only major positive of SoundDock Series III’s dock is that it adds device recharging capabilities for iPods and iPhones, but it’s otherwise very limiting. So while we appreciate that Bose finally dropped the price on this unit to a somewhat more reasonable level, that change is just not enough given the variety of better options out there today. Had this model made strides in audio quality, or added noteworthy features, it’d remain more relevant. At $249, SoundDock Series III is a good speaker at a price that’s too high, and earns our limited recommendation. Bose may have brand recognition on its side, but most other speakers we’ve seen over the past few years offer superior balances of quality and value.