Review: Soundfreaq SFQ-01 Sound Platform for iPod + iPhone
They look different. They sound different. But the concept's the same for two just-released iPod and iPhone audio systems, Soundfreaq's SFQ-01 Sound Platform ($200) and XtremeMac's Tango TRX ($180): offer sleek-looking all-in-one docking and wireless speaker hardware at a price point that's aggressive relative to long-standing heavy-hitters such as Bose's SoundDock, then toss in a free remote control application for iOS users. While neither of these audio systems supports Apple's just-released AirPlay wireless streaming standard, their developers' decision to go instead with Bluetooth results in substantial savings, immediate retail availability, and some modest sonic and UI compromises. They're both good bridge options until and unless sub-$200 AirPlay wireless speakers are released for the iPod and iPhone, and thanks to their Bluetooth support, each can play audio from the iPad as well, though neither can dock or charge Apple's large tablet device.
Start with XtremeMac’s less expensive Tango TRX, which is part of a family of Tango speakers that dates back to an aesthetically cutting-edge 2006 model that was followed up by a stripped down semi-sequel called Tango Studio and a more direct follow-up called Tango X2. All of the Tango speakers have sold for $200 or less, and stood out from the pack more for their industrial design than sound quality.
Tango TRX is XtremeMac’s first wireless audio system, borrowing and remixing design elements from past models: there’s the fabric front grille of Tango Studio, a front-mounted volume knob akin to Tango X2’s, and a clean, slab-like design that vaguely recalls the original model, albeit with a decided shift in orientation and size. The mostly black TRX is taller than it is deep, a boxy wedge-like shape with embossed gray sides and sloping, open feet; orange accents are used for the volume knob and pinhole-sized power and source indicator light. Rather than centering its dock, Tango TRX places it off to the far left bottom side, while including five buttons—play/pause, bass, treble, source, and power—along the right side of the top surface. Only an aux-in port and power port are on the back, while a metallic grille on the bottom is there for the system’s bass driver; four other speakers fire forwards through the front grille.
Control of Tango TRX is handled through either an included Infrared remote control that works with any connected device, or with a free Tango TRX application that can be downloaded from the App Store. Interestingly, one of the app’s screens all but fully mimics the remote, with source, volume, track, play/pause, bass, and treble buttons, omitting only the power toggle on the Infrared unit. Both remotes work from 30-foot distances, though the dedicated one requires line-of-sight contact with Tango TRX’s IR receiver, while the app can be used anywhere within the 30-foot range. More interestingly, the app offers something that iPod fans have been dying to have integrated into their devices for years—a graphic equalizer, here with five presets and five tuning bands. It’s the sort of cool feature that a long-standing iPod accessory maker like XtremeMac would naturally think of including, even if the seemingly granular bands don’t really wind up making a difference in how TRX sounds. We played with the equalizers for a while and they didn’t seem to be actually changing Tango’s output; only the buttons on the unit’s top, in conjunction with the volume knob, really changed things.
The story with Soundfreaq’s SFQ-01 Sound Platform is somewhat similar, though Soundfreaq is new to the iPod/iPhone accessory world, and its implementation is at least a little different in almost every regard. Soundfreaq has designed a system that is hard to place in terms of visual style or theme—made predominantly from glossy black plastic, it has some of the starkest lines of any iPod or iPhone audio system released to date, yet each is offset by an accent of some sort that prevents the system from looking underthought. The front, for instance, is a black slab of fabric with a thin silver line above, and a thicker silver and black pedestal below. A dock sits at the center, with three swirled metallic sound tuning controls on the left, and concave track, volume, source, power, and pairing buttons on the right. Turn the system to the right and you’ll find a storage compartment for the included ten-button Infrared remote, illuminated with an orange light bar that’s paralleled on the similarly glossy but permanently closed left side. The back is vented, letting the system’s Kevlar-reinforced drivers breathe.
In short, when viewed from the front, both systems look like simplified, thoroughly modern all-in-ones that have orange accents, though Soundfreaq’s design is comparatively far less minimalist. There’s an orange text screen near the capacitive buttons to indicate, in a word, the name of the current audio source; it works with an included antenna cable to let you digitally tune FM radio stations, as well. Yet another light bar behind the iPod/iPhone dock glows or flashes on and off when audio’s playing. It’s not exactly classy, but it’s not horribly distracting or bad, either. Soundfreaq’s iOS application, SoundFreaq remote, essentially just combines the IR remote control’s features with bass and treble controls and a playlist-based playback mechanism for music. Both Tango TRX and SFQ-01 are more easily controlled through the native iPod or Music applications of Apple’s devices, though only the devices’ Infrared and app remotes can properly adjust the speakers’ volume; changes within Apple’s iPod and Music apps merely attenuate the volume of the output from the device, leaving the speakers at their prior levels.
However similar they might be in other regards, including wireless performance—both pair easily with iOS devices and play back music properly using Bluetooth—there are some significant sonic differences between the speakers that didn’t play out exactly as we’d expected. One surprise: Soundfreaq doesn’t spend much time discussing SFQ-01’s speakers, and only after digging did we discover that all the unit includes inside are twin 2.75” “full range drivers,” which as audio fans know is typically the kiss of death for $200 speakers—one driver per channel attempting to do everything from high treble to midrange to low bass is generally a recipe for disaster. But we were generally impressed by the quality of the drivers in SFQ-01: they’re not superstars, but given the price, they deliver more sparkle and a little bit more thump than might have been expected from the limited hardware. By all rights, the two speakers in SFQ-01 shouldn’t rival the five in Tango TRX, but they did. Further, we found that playing with SFQ-01’s equalization knobs yielded more meaningful bass improvements.
Though Tango TRX’s sound is on rough par with SFQ-01’s overall, they differ a little: TRX has a slightly warmer, less clear signature, while SFQ-01 sounds cleaner and does better with high-frequency sounds. Bass beats have a little more resonance in TRX, while voices stand out more from songs when played through SFQ-01. Neither system is audiophile-quality, but SFQ-01 sounds like it’s doing a little more with less, while TRX has a “just good enough” signature that wasn’t as impressive as we’d expected from a system with five speakers inside. At higher volumes, SFQ-01 preserves most of its sonic capabilities, while TRX’s drivers begin to show significant distortion. We would normally be more concerned about this at the $200 price point, but for a $180 speaker that packs an otherwise solid Bluetooth streaming feature, it’s not hugely objectionable.
Radio functionality is the final major feature that’s offered in SFQ-01 but not in Tango. A digital FM radio enables the system, with the aid of the aforementioned included antenna wire, to pull in signals that range from lightly staticy to surprisingly clear, complete with 20 selectable presets. We’d call the radio one of the better ones we’ve tested in iPod and iPhone speaker systems, and a very nice little feature for those who still enjoy listening to FM stations. AM tuning is not available.
All in all, both Tango TRX and the SFQ-01 Sound Platform offer nice collections of features that will appeal to users who want to enjoy docked or wireless audio from their Apple devices but don’t want to wait or pay a premium for AirPlay speakers. While each system’s remote control app could stand to improve at least a little, and the current iOS integrated music app volume controls will confuse some people, the underlying speaker units both offer solid sound and otherwise straightforward interfaces. Pick Tango TRX if you’re looking to enjoy a nice sound signature at normal listening levels and don’t need the FM radio; SFQ-01 is a little more expensive but justifies its price with strong radio tuning, slightly clearer-sounding audio, and superior high-volume performance. By today’s standards, they’re both worthy of our B+ rating and general recommendation, though we strongly suspect that the upcoming release of AirPlay-compatible wireless speakers will shake things up considerably.