Review: Soundfreaq Sound Stack SFQ-03
Over the past two years, a small company named Soundfreaq seemingly came from nowhere to become a noteworthy iPod, iPhone, and iPad speaker developer, releasing a series of distinctively boxy all-in-one audio systems at reasonable prices. In 2010, Soundfreaq unveiled Sound Platform, a surprisingly powerful mid-sized $200 desktop system with an iPod/iPhone dock and Bluetooth wireless streaming capabilities. Less than a year later, Soundfreaq released smaller, less expensive versions called Sound Step and Sound Step Recharge, the latter with a rechargeable battery inside. Now Soundfreaq has moved upmarket with Sound Stack ($400), a larger, non-portable model that ups the ante in audio performance while climbing in price, positioning itself directly above mainstream $300 units such as Bose's SoundDock series and below $600 models such as Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin Air. While this price tag will deter some users, Sound Stack is a middle-ground compromise that will particularly appeal to users looking for iPad compatibility, wireless functionality, and solid, bass-rich audio.
Sound Stack is a large but not imposing system by comparison with most of the $300 speakers we’ve reviewed for iPods and iPhones in the past—despite its compatibility with pocket devices, it looks as if it was designed to match the proportions of the iPad. Most of its 17.25” width is attributable to a large speaker box that extends beyond the sides of a 7.5”-deep stable central platform, each part using an attractive combination of plastics and metals that feel solid and durable. Standing 6.5” tall, Sound Stack is just large enough to make a docked iPod or iPhone look tiny, but with an iPad up front, it mimics the visual balance of the Sound Step with one of Apple’s smaller devices attached. This visual consistency from unit to unit is really appealing, and speaks to an industrial design department that knew what it wanted to achieve across a lineup rather than just tossing different ideas out from product to product; no matter which Soundfreaq speaker appeals to your pocketbook, you’ll like how it looks if you like the family’s angular styling, which we really do.
Soundfreaq has also designed its audio systems to have a lot in common internally. Sound Stack continues the family’s tradition of including Bluetooth 2-based wireless streaming capabilities, a digital FM radio tuner, and a centered Dock Connector engineered for compatibility with bare or encased devices. A matching Infrared remote control is included in the package, as are a wall power adapter, external FM radio antenna, and dock-adjusting inserts. Like the Sound Steps, FM radio tuning is accomplished using a free Soundfreaq app that iOS users are prompted to download on the first physical or wireless connection to Sound Stack; this app also lets you manage track, volume, and source input selections, effectively replacing the included remote control if you don’t want to keep your device docked. The app also includes bass and treble adjustment buttons, though the system has been optimally tuned with a default “UQ3” output setting that effectively eliminates the need to play with EQ levels.
There are differences between the Soundfreaq models, however. Unlike Sound Platform but like the Sound Steps, Sound Stack has a USB port on the back, enabling users to additionally recharge a non-tablet device such as a phone or wireless headset while the main iPad, iPhone, or iPad is refueling on the central dock. Sound Stack loses Sound Step’s video output capabilities, but gains an optical audio input port, which sits next to the analog aux-in—these two ports enable you to connect any 3.5mm source or high-fidelity audio device, such as an Apple TV, should you want to do so. There’s also a nook on the back of the unit that allows you to magnetically attach the remote control, which is particularly attractive, making better use of its space than prior versions.
Sound Stack breaks most from its predecessors in using more fabric to encase its speakers than before, separating its central box into five almost pillow-like sections that are soft on the top and front. There’s also a large fabric grille covering one rear-firing speaker, which is located right around the place you might otherwise expect to find a handle. Because the rear fabric feels delicate, you’ll probably want to grab the system by its sides rather than the top center if you want to move it around.
As the price suggests, Sound Stack is sonically a step up from some $300 speakers—notably Bose’s SoundDocks—and a step down from $600 models such as B&W’s Zeppelin Air. Inside are two full-range drivers and two active subwoofers, all very similar to one another in size, in a configuration Soundfreaq calls “DubSub.” On its default settings, with Soundfreaq’s UQ3 optimization feature activated, the unit puts out relatively warm, bass-focused sound that will be familiar to SoundDock users, though with superior midrange clarity, slightly better high volume performance, and less treble.
To be clear on this point, we liked how Sound Stack sounded, though as we’ve noted in the past, ideally-designed systems at or above a $300 price tend to have dedicated treble, midrange, and bass drivers rather than lacking in one of those categories—Soundfreaq skimped a little on the treble hardware here. Consequently, songs played through Sound Stack benefitted from powerful low-end emphasis that made beats and basslines really stand out in a nice way, and the UQ3-assisted spatialization helped music appear to project at least a few inches beyond Sound Stack’s wide edges. On the flip side, treble details tended to be lost at the expense of low notes, and in order to avoid obvious distortion, Sound Stack doesn’t blare at the super-high volume levels that pricier systems such as Zeppelin Air excel at. Sound Stack is capable of filling a small room, but it stops decibels short of the Zeppelin’s peak; for better or worse, this isn’t a boom box-style screamer.
One nice thing about Sound Stack’s audio is that wireless and wired performance are basically indistinguishable. In addition to solid Bluetooth streaming performance without any of the hiccups we’ve experienced with AirPlay-equipped speakers, Soundfreaq notes that the system supports “lossless transfer of AAC files offered on iOS devices” over Bluetooth, and claims that “there is no degradation of the quality of the music file” when played wirelessly. Just as with AirPlay speakers, AAC and MP3 songs both sounded the same through Sound Stack regardless of whether they were played wirelessly or from the dock, but unlike AirPlay, this unit didn’t suffer from extended buffering lags during music playback. While it’s worth noting that the system’s speaker design—forward-firing full-range drivers off to the sides of the box, plus separate forward and rear-firing bass drivers closer to the center—modestly incentivizes iPad users to use Sound Stack in wireless mode, where the tablet isn’t blocking one of the bass drivers, most users would never notice the difference between these modes, and smaller iPods/iPhones present no bass challenge at all.
A few small things detract a little from Sound Stack’s overall user experience. Unlike many competing wireless systems we’ve tested, this one doesn’t offer any iOS device volume mirroring when you’re streaming audio, which means that volume adjustments need to be handled separately between the iOS device and speaker. Second, while FM tuning is relatively straightforward when handled with the app, there’s more than a whisper of static in the audio signal, and performance does vary considerably based on how you position the exterior detachable FM antenna. Third and finally, Sound Stack’s numerous audio inputs can and do lead to a little bit of source device confusion if you’re toggling between docked and wireless playback. Bluetooth pairing is exceptionally simple, but you’ll sometimes need to use either the integrated, IR remote, or app Source button to manually toggle between playback modes, whereas some other audio systems automatically and quickly switch to whatever input’s playing audio. Each of these little issues could really stand to be tweaked.
Overall, Sound Stack is another very good member of the Soundfreaq speaker family—attractively designed, sonically more than solid, and laden with smart little touches that will particularly appeal to option-starved iPad and wireless iOS device users. The highly case-compatible dock, smart remote control storage concept, and bass-rich audio will appeal to many people, while other features such as the app-assisted FM radio tuner, secondary USB charging port, and optical audio input also help elevate Sound Stack over today’s common $300 audio systems. Soundfreaq’s high asking price and small UI challenges could both stand to be improved a little, but Sound Stack is a very viable step-up audio system if you’re looking for something better than a SoundDock. It’s worthy of our strong general recommendation.