Review: Sonic Impact T24 Digital Audio System
Pros: A worthy rival to Bose’s popular SoundDock at a substantially lower price, equipped with similar body design, overall audio quality and volume, plus additional rear ports for video-out and audio-in, a slightly better Infrared remote control, and superior bass. Recessed dock is a bit safer for transportation than Bose’s design.
Cons: Audio skews very warm, even by SoundDock standards, lacking the treble response of Bose and better all-in-one systems, and the bass/treble controls that might modulate the effect. Staging and clarity are on par with SoundDock, fine for average but not demanding listeners. No black dock insert for iPod nano is included; only available in black.
Even though it’s nearly two years old, Bose’s all-in-one iPod speaker system SoundDock continues to cast a long shadow in the iPod speaker market: because of its good brand name and sound, and despite its price, retailers report that it’s still the most popular iPod speaker dock by a considerable margin. Serious audio companies ranging from Altec Lansing to JBL and Klipsch have sought unsuccessfully to unseat the SoundDock, trying everything from slightly more aggressive pricing to radically different and sometimes superior cosmetic designs, but nothing has worked.
This week, two companies have tried the same new tactic to challenge Bose: release conservatively designed, SoundDock-like speaker docks with virtually identical features - each at a $100 discount off of Bose’s $300 price. All three systems run off of included wall power adapters, and though they’re easy enough to transport around, all are intended for in-home use only; none has a battery compartment. Sonic Impact’s black and gunmetal T24 ($200) adds a little width and additional speaker cabinet depth to the SoundDock design, while Altec Lansing’s M602 ($200) goes even wider and taller. While both new systems are more than worthy rivals for the SoundDock, and certainly will save you some cash, neither decisively tops Bose’s design on sound quality - they each skew towards a different direction. Our review of the T24 is below; our M602 review is separate.
Of the two systems, the T24 is the most like the SoundDock in design and appeal. It’s not a fancy, eye-catching design, and is available only in the depicted color scheme rather than in both white and black versions. Sonic Impact has also kept its buttons simple - there are only two, one for volume up and one for volume down - and its rear ports equally so. There’s a power input, an auxiliary audio input (with a short included cable), and a composite video output, the latter two ports missing from the SoundDock. It’s not intended to connect your iPod to a computer - T24 just plays audio, and lets you connect your iPod for bigger-screen viewing if you desire. Five large rubber feet on the bottom provide stability and prevent you from scratching the plastic undercarriage.
Following Bose’s model, Sonic Impact uses an Infrared remote control, but has 10 buttons to Bose’s 6: in addition to SoundDock’s power, volume, track and play/pause buttons, Sonic Impact includes mute, repeat, aux-in and iPod toggles. One point shouldn’t be lost here: neither the SoundDock nor the T24 has a power button on its own body, and unlike Bose’s design, which gently awakens the speaker as soon as you’ve pressed play on the iPod’s face, the turned-off T24 requires you to use the remote to power it on again, an occasional inconvenience if the remote’s not nearby. Luckily, the remote works well by IR standards, communicating properly with challenging fluorescent light interference at a distance of 20 feet, and without such interference at a distance of 30.
More importantly, Sonic Impact has rethought three of Bose’s key design choices, with generally positive results. Most notably, the T24 recesses its iPod dock - here, an Apple-standard Universal Dock, complete with three black Adapters - inside the speaker chassis, which makes it more protective of any docked iPod, and a bit easier to transport from room to room. Unfortunately, the adapters aren’t all the ones we’d hoped for: there are two full-sized iPod adapters and one for the iPod mini, with none for iPod nano, so you’ll need to use the white one Apple includes in the nano’s box, or make due with an oversized Adapter, instead. Though it’s obvious that T24 shares a lot of cabinet design in common with the SoundDock, Sonic Impact has expanded T24’s rear speaker cabinet to add a little more depth, which provides the unit with added bass resonance that some listeners will like. Finally, the company has included one of its famous Class T (Tripath) Amps, which provides low-distortion amplification, even at ear-splitting levels. The resulting sound is a bit cleaner than the SoundDock at its lowest and peak volumes, particularly at the bass end of the spectrum. Both systems can fill a room, but the T24 does it a little better.
In direct comparisons against the SoundDock and the M602, it’s clear that T24 offers a compelling and affordable alternative - if you like very warm sound. Though clean and pleasant to listen to, Sonic Impact’s audio is further from a neutral, balanced response than the somewhat warm SoundDock, turning everything it touches into a richer, smoother version of its past self. This has the positive effects of taking a bit of the metallic edge off of heavily compressed MP3 files, and adding a little extra resonance to low notes, but the consequence of rendering songs a little less detailed in the treble department than we prefer. Music doesn’t so much sparkle as it flows from the T24, and there’s no way to change this - unlike the Altec M602 and some other systems we’ve tested, there are no bass or treble controls; you’re stuck with the sound as-is. Also, neither system does an especially extraordinary job of creating a large, believable soundstage - they’re roughly equivalent. Given how successful the SoundDock has been with these limitations, most listeners won’t mind, but audiophiles and tweakers will not be blown away by the sound quality of either system.
Thankfully for Bose and Sonic Impact, audiophiles don’t rule the marketplace - average consumers do - and so pricing, design, and branding remain as important as sound quality in determining the success of iPod speaker systems. From where we stand, anyone considering the Bose SoundDock should give serious thought to the T24 as well - for $100 less, you wind up with a system that’s equally powerful in amplitude, better in the bass department, and a little better in other small ways: input and output ports, plus iPod docking. The only offset is its even warmer-leaning sound, which is noticeable mostly in direct comparison to other speakers. Because of its more aggressive styling, better audio balance, and greater versatility, we’d still pick Altec Lansing’s aggressively discounted inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) as a better overall system, but T24 does a very competent job at a reasonable price.