Review: Philips Fidelio SoundSphere DS9800W Wireless Speaker with AirPlay
Innovation is rare -- moreso in the world of Apple speakers than elsewhere, as companies have too often been encouraged to do the same thing as a rival, only cheaper or more neutrally. So Philips' Fidelio SoundSphere DS9800W ($800) arrived at our door with a big feather already in its cap: the industrial design is decidedly different, and unlike anything we've seen before for the iPod, iPhone, or iPad. Virtually every Apple speaker these days has been crafted to be compact, simple, and streamlined, generally consisting of a single shape with a power cord hanging out of the back. With SoundSphere, Philips has gone in the opposite direction, creating a multi-piece audio system that will stand out in any room, filling it with rich, deep sound. Like Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin Air, the price tag here is steep, representing a design premium as much as anything else. But if you're looking for boom, and have the cash to flash, this is the first place we'd start.
SoundSphere consists of two cannon-shaped wood-cabineted speakers, finished in glossy black lacquer with matching swirled black and silver metal top housings, plus chrome accent pieces. Each speaker stands roughly 15” tall with around 9” of depth and 8.5” of width, though the measurements are confounded by reclines: rather than facing directly upwards, the cannons point somewhat forward, allowing sound to be channeled towards you. The metal portions of SoundSphere’s housings each hold an oversized 4.5” full-range driver under a magnetically detachable fabric grille, given unusual breathing room by the large, freestanding cabinets, while 1.1” tweeters are suspended above the main drivers inside of flower-shaped metal bulbs. Philips includes two cloth carrying bags in the unlikely event that you want to tote the speakers around.
Some will call SoundSphere’s design unusual, but we think it’s really cool, combining the size and stateliness of large vases with distinctively presented speakers. As contrasted with Zeppelin Air, which is similarly unique in design yet polarizingly masculine, the SoundSphere speakers have the ability to blend into an otherwise nicely decorated room rather than standing out. To this end, Philips includes around 15 feet of black flat cabling so you can dramatically separate the speakers from each other, plus a power cord that’s around five feet long for connection of the left speaker to a wall. If you want to use SoundSphere as a more or less conventional speaker system, you can just place the cannons next to each other and bundle the cabling behind them; otherwise, you could conceivably place the speakers in two corners of a room, and worry solely about where to hide the cords. Connecting the cables to the speakers and wall is a thankfully painless, straightforward, and short process.
Though it’s hard to describe SoundSphere as a truly “wireless” system given the aforementioned cabling, the design is made possible solely by wireless technology. There’s no dock built into either of the speaker cabinets; instead, Philips includes a separate dock that’s capable of charging iPads, iPhones, and iPods using its own wall adapter, enabling them to endlessly stream their audio over Wi-Fi directly to the speakers. Topped by glossy black plastic with a silver metal ring on its edge, the dock has a clear plastic back support that stays in the same place for all of Apple’s devices, and a flexible, extended Dock Connector plug that’s compatible with virtually every case we’ve tested for Apple’s iOS devices. The dock even emits a nice soft white glow from its bottom, a lighting system you can turn on or off with a small button on the undercarriage.
Like the rest of the system, Philips’ dock design is quite nice, though it has a couple of issues. Some iPad users will experience major physical connectivity problems with the dock, since the rear support doesn’t move, making the iPad 2 and third-generation iPad difficult to center on the plug when they’re inside cases. Once you get the distances and alignment right, everything works—and iPhones/iPods almost always plug in without challenges—but you’ll be annoyed every time you go to reconnect the iPads. A minor issue is Philips’ odd decision to turn the dock’s bottom light off as soon as something’s connected to it. While this places the emphasis on the iPod, iPhone, or iPad screen, the dock does look nicer illuminated, and the bottom button could accommodate this with more settings than “on and off.”
If there’s a weak link in the SoundSphere hardware, it’s the metallic remote control Philips includes in the package. While the pill-shaped remote is substantial-feeling and attractive-looking, topped with straightforward and useful buttons for volume, track, input, muting, and power control, it uses line-of-sight-dependent Infrared technology to communicate with the left speaker, and has a battery compartment that kept popping open on our review unit. While neither flaw is fatal to the overall system, particularly since iOS users can and will easily control most of these features from their devices—even including volume, which is mirrored between the iOS device and the speakers—we’d expect more from such an expensive system. A better-designed remote with RF, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth, perhaps rechargeable on the included dock, would have been a lot better.
The key phrase that describes SoundSphere’s sonic performance is “powerhouse.” At a 50% volume level, SoundSphere belts out the sort of rich—and importantly, very bass-detailed—sound that people would want from such an expensive, large system. Thanks to the huge chassis and large drivers, Philips’ speakers can deliver louder and deeper audio than even the well-equipped Zeppelin Air, reaching punishingly high (small room-filling) volume levels by its 75% mark and medium room-filling levels at 100%. At every volume level, the sound signature is judiciously bassy, with really nice, all but sub-sonic low-end accompaniment to what’s coming off the tweeters, with only midrange detail suffering somewhat due to the system’s focus on lows and highs; for this reason alone, some audiophiles may prefer the more balanced five-driver performance of Zeppelin Air. However, even at peak output, SoundSphere’s drivers don’t seem to be sweating that much, though you will be if you’re standing near them for any period of time.
Our only other major caveat relates to SoundSphere’s dependence on Apple’s AirPlay technology for wireless streaming. As we’ve noted in earlier reviews, AirPlay has certain advantages over Bluetooth streaming, including theoretical and actual benefits in distance, fidelity, and iTunes compatibility, but it remains fraught with issues: initial setup of the speakers on your Wi-Fi network will require you to consult an included manual, new iOS devices may experience streaming hiccups until software gets updated, and streaming can further be interrupted by router congestion. The latter two issues were thankfully not present during our testing of SoundSphere—notably including the release of the third-generation iPad—but the former was, and given problems third-party AirPlay speakers have experienced over the past year, it’s hard to predict how well streaming will work with different iOS devices and wireless networks. In any case, you can expect 3- to 6-second delays between pressing play or track buttons on your iOS device and hearing results on the speakers. Bluetooth speakers tend to be much easier to set up and far more responsive, but deliver lower audio quality, and offer nothing in the SoundSphere’s price or performance range.
In summary, we really liked almost everything about the Fidelio SoundSphere DS9800W: Philips deserves praise for its daring cannon-styled speaker design, its sharp-looking illuminated charging dock, and the raw power of the audio hardware it includes in the package. It’s very easy—and accurate—to say that this system delivers a thoroughly unique experience for its $800 asking price, thanks to its AirPlay wireless capabilities, user-positionable cabinets, and rich-sounding speakers, all of which contribute to our strong general recommendation and B+ rating. The only things that detract somewhat from SoundSphere are the included remote control, AirPlay-related setup and responsiveness issues, and the manner in which its dock interacts with some encased iPads. None of these things are minor quibbles, particularly for an expensive audio system, but they won’t bother every SoundSphere user, either. If you’re looking for a room-shaking wireless iOS/iTunes audio system and willing to pay for it, this is a very good place to begin your considerations, and since the list of alternatives is presently short, you might not need to look much further.