Review: Soundfreaq Sound Rise SFQ-08 Wireless Speaker with Alarm Clock
For better or worse, Apple accessories appear to have officially entered a "post-dock" era - a transition away from the convenience of placing your iPad, iPhone, or iPod on a dock for charging and audio, instead relying on wireless streaming for audio, and a separate USB cable for charging. This change was unquestionably caused by Apple, which imposed overly stringent requirements and high fees on Lightning accessory makers, leading many developers to walk away from making Lightning docks. In most cases, this hasn't led to positive changes for Apple users, but Soundfreaq's new Sound Rise SFQ-08 ($70) demonstrates what developers can achieve by ditching Lightning in favor of a purely Bluetooth solution, including a considerably smaller form factor and lower price tag.
Also known as SFQ-05, the original Sound Rise debuted in October 2012, shortly after Apple introduced the Lightning connector in the iPhone 5 and two iPods. Sound Rise consisted of a plastic and fabric rectangular box atop a trapezoidal platform with a Dock Connector plug in the front, and Bluetooth wireless hardware inside for audio streaming. In anticipation of a possible connector change, Soundfreaq included a rubber cap for the docking plug, and a rear USB port for cabled charging. Users of new devices could cap the dock, lay iPhones or iPods on their sides atop it, and self-supply a Lightning cable as needed for power. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but then, Apple didn’t let developers or users have any Lightning docking option for months.
By tossing the Apple dock and bottom platform out altogether, and making other adjustments to its design, the new version of Sound Rise shrinks considerably from its predecessor. Previously 5.7” deep, the new model is closer to 3.3” deep, with a 0.6”-narrower 5.2” width and 2.5”-shorter 5.5” height. All that Soundfreaq has left is the rectangular black plastic and fabric box, with a clock face that’s brighter and roughly the same size as its predecessor’s, despite every other feature falling in size.
The smaller footprint enables Sound Rise SFQ-08 to take up less space on a nightstand or table, offset only by the requirements that you provide your own Lightning cable for charging and rest your device somewhere off to the side. As before, Sound Rise has a rear USB port that supplies 1 Amp of output power for device charging, sufficient to refuel iPhones and iPods at full speed, with slower-speed recharging of iPads. Bluetooth 4 is used for wireless streaming, a mostly invisible upgrade from the prior model’s Bluetooth 2.1. A battery backup compartment keeps the clock running if power is interrupted to the included wall charger, and an FM antenna is also included to boost the power of the radio tuner inside. We found the FM radio tuning to be strong and fairly clear with the included antenna, with a low level of static in the signal.
Functionally, the new Sound Rise is nearly identical to the prior model. The clock provides you with 12- or 24-hour time, plus the day of the week as indicated by one letter. There are two alarms that can independently be set to single-day, everyday, weekday, or weekend use, complete with your choice of a three-beep tone, streamed Bluetooth audio, aux-in audio, or FM radio audio that fades upwards to whatever volume you prefer. You can toggle between the three audio sources using a button with a musical note icon, pairing Bluetooth devices with a clearly-labelled Pair button. Six presets are included for the FM radio tuner, which is otherwise scanned through in 0.1 increments using the top buttons.
One major positive change to Sound Rise is a redesign of the prior control system. While Soundfreaq previously tried to achieve a nice balance of minimalism and functionality with the prior capacitive controls, which were hidden on the sides of the clock face, the fact that they disappeared when not in use made them difficult to access at times. The new Sound Rise has a notch in the top with physically-depressed circular and boxy buttons, including clearly-labelled track, volume, alarm, and snooze buttons. This time, Soundfreaq undertook extra efforts to think through the way users would interact with the controls, such as mapping a clock dimmer feature to the volume buttons when they weren’t in use for audio, and adding an equalizer-toggling “tone” control button to the back. With the exception of initial device pairing — which unintuitively requires you to first press the musical note button and then initiate pairing mode — these sorts of thoughtful touches enable Sound Rise to be the rare sequel that’s easier to use than a much larger predecessor.
Apart from the missing docking plug, an omission that’s entirely excusable given the $30 drop in price, the only thing prior Sound Rise users might miss in the new version is a bit of audio performance. Due to a switch from stereo speakers to a single monaural driver, Sound Rise SFQ-08 is both a hint quieter and more obviously distorted at its peak volume level of 30. But the bigger difference is in bass performance, where the older model clearly wins out at all volume levels — even if SFQ-08’s “warm” equalization setting is on. If the original Sound Rise sounded better than most $100 clock radios, Sound Rise is sonically in the “typical radio” category: good enough for bedside use, but not great.
Overall, the new Sound Rise isn’t so much a sequel as it is a “mini” or distillation of its predecessor’s best features into a smaller and more affordable enclosure. While the reduced sound quality and lack of integrated charging collectively preclude it from meriting our highest rating, the overall experience it offers is very good — worthy of our B+ rating and strong general recommendation. You’d be hard-pressed to find another Bluetooth alarm clock that looks as nice as this one and offers similar functionality for $70.