Review: Philips SBD8100 Speaker Dock for iPod and iPhone
Had Apple decided back in 2007 to make the iPhone and iPod touch user interface entirely horizontal rather than mixing vertically-arranged icons with a horizontal video interface, many speaker accessories would have made a single major change back then: they'd have redesigned their docks to perpetually hold these devices on their sides rather than upright. But because of the iPhones' and iPods' accelerometer-aided orientation shifts -- a feature subsequently added to the fourth-generation iPod nano -- speaker developers have had to figure out whether to let users mount them in one position or the other, or come up with passive, orientation-agnostic device docks that use flexible headphone plugs rather than fixed Dock Connector plugs. These solutions haven't been ideal, but they've sufficed for many users.
Back in January, Philips unveiled two different alternatives to address the needs of iPhone, iPod touch, and fourth-generation iPod nano users, both of which are becoming available in stores this month. One is the circular SBD7000 ($120), and the other is the wider SBD8100 ($150), both designed for affordability and compatibility with most but not all recent iPod and iPhone models. Notably, these systems both come with physical support cradles for both iPod touch models and the iPhone 3G—the SBD8100 also includes a 4G iPod nano cradle—but neither promises support for other models, such as the iPod classic or the prior-generation iPhone. These other devices do physically fit on the docks, but Philips makes no assurances as to their performance or stability.
The SBD7000 is the simpler of the two systems. It’s subtitled “Rock ‘n Roll” and packaged in an amusingly cool circular box, highlighting both its shape and the user’s ability to manually rotate the system on one of two angles: iPod or iPhone vertical, with the Dock Connector at the bottom, or horizontal, with the Dock Connector on the right. These changes are made via a pop-out rear stand that is required to prop the system up; otherwise, it will wobble on a flat surface like a half-globe. It’s capable of running off of four AA batteries for around 10 hours; Philips includes a power supply in the package, but nothing else save for the cradles. A top-mounted power button, two volume buttons, and a bass boost switch are all found on top; a backlighting switch—discussed further below—is hidden in the rear battery compartment.
By comparison, SBD8100 is a little more expensive and a lot more complex. Using a curved, handle-laden 16”-wide enclosure that’s designed to sit flat on a surface without any support from a stand. Rotation of the iPod or iPhone is handled here with a unique motorized dock that can accommodate vertical or widescreen devices with equal ease, switching between the positions at the touch of a button. Notably, this button is located on an included Infrared remote control along with 11 others, collectively permitting menu navigation, track and volume control, muting and a bass boost feature. SBD8100’s top features power, volume, bass boost, and backlight controls; you can manually rotate the dock with a gentle push. On the bottom is a compartment for eight AA batteries that deliver the same roughly 10-hour run time, though a wall power adapter is once again included, along with an auxiliary audio cable.
The comparatively small price to performance differences also extend to the audio in the two speakers. Each system uses a substantial, nice-looking black fabric grille to completely obscure the small 40mm (~1.6”) speaker drivers they both use, with a mix of gunmetal gray and black plastics for the rest of their bodies. SBD7000 offers a modest 4 Watts of amplification to the SBD8100’s 10 Watts, which largely explains the larger system’s greater battery drain, but we’d also surmise that SBD8100 uses four drivers to SBD7000’s two—the bigger unit sounds considerably better. SBD7000 is somewhat underwhelming sonically, with relatively flat sound that’s a bit bass-deficient even when the bass booster is kept turned on, as it should be; its clarity isn’t on the same level with top portable JBL speakers. By contrast, SBD8100’s renditions of the same songs have more high-end sparkle and low-end thump, the sort of differences we’d expect from a system that’s using four speakers rather than two. It’s a more powerful system with superior detail, though if you’re willing to ignore the motorized dock and industrial design, there are many speakers with stronger sonics in its price range, as well. On balance, we’d call SBD8100 a very nice-sounding system given all of its features, while SBD7000 is only a little better than okay.
One issue that bothered us with both of these units and reduced their ratings would have been completely avoidable, and we suspect that it’ll be corrected at some point in the future: the power cord connectors are very loose. Simply picking up either unit and tilting them back disengaged the power connector during our testing, an issue that bothered us more on the SBD7000 because of the user’s need to manually switch its physical positions; the SBD8100 is intended to be left in one place except when it’s being carried around as a portable system and equipped with batteries. Both units lost a fraction of a letter rating due to this problem, which hasn’t plagued the vast majority of speakers we test.
Another small issue worth mentioning is the speakers’ iPhone shielding. Both have no problems when used with an iPhone 3G in 3G mode, but a very low-volume typical chirping when EDGE mode is activated. This is probably the reason that neither system promises original iPhone compatibility, but if you’re in an area without adequate 3G coverage, you can expect to hear a little interference from EDGE signaling overlapping your audio.
Overall, between its motorized dock, remote control, superior sonic performance, and reasonable price, the SBD8100 isn’t just a novel design—it’s also a very good speaker for the dollar, missing a higher rating solely because of its loose power connector issue. While users shouldn’t expect it to rival similarly large but more expensive speakers in horsepower or fidelity, it’s a truly nice-sounding audio system with a cool iPod and iPhone dock at center. By comparison, the SBD7000 is a more compact and easy to carry system with more compromised audio and fewer frills at a somewhat lower price. While we really liked its industrial design, we weren’t as thrilled by its sound or—given its need for manual turning—the inconvenience of its loose power connector. If you’re won over by its looks, particularly if you’re planning to use it with batteries rather than wall power, we wouldn’t dissuade you from considering it, but there are other iPod and iPhone speakers with better sound in the same price range. The neat shapes and backlit docks are the main reasons to consider both of these systems over competitors.