Review: Soundfreaq Sound Step Lightning SFQ-02L
Soundfreaq's mid-2011 release of the Bluetooth and docking speaker Sound Step was a pretty big deal for the then-small company, following up the original Sound Platform with a more compact and potentially portable option. Sound Step came in two versions: the $130 SFQ-02 lacked a battery and ran only off wall power, while the $160 SFQ-02RB added a six-hour rechargeable cell for music and on-the-road device recharging. This week, Soundfreaq released a sequel to SFQ-02 called Sound Step Lightning ($130, aka SFQ-02L), which is substantially just a Lightning connector-equipped version of the prior SFQ-02 at the same price. [Not reviewed here, Sound Step Lightning Recharge will be released in August 2013 for $150.] While most of the details have been previously fleshed out in our earlier Sound Step review, there are a few changes worth spotlighting below.
Featuring the same design language we’ve seen in nearly all of the company’s other speakers, Sound Step Lightning is a compact, boxy audio system with a trapezoidal platform base. Measuring 3.5” tall, 13” wide, and 5” deep, it’s unusual in that it’s noticeably shorter than almost all of the iPods and iPhones that it connects to. Like the prior Sound Steps, Sound Step Lightning can support a full-sized Retina iPad on its central dock, as the fabric-grilled speaker box has twin 1.8” drivers off to the sides of its front, and a 2.5” subwoofer on the back. As we noted in the original Sound Step review, Soundfreaq unusually nests the subwoofer inside a boxy rear compartment that lets it fire downwards without rattling a table or consuming as much space as it would have required facing forwards or backwards. There are a variety of reasons that Sound Step Lightning still feels like the product of smart engineering even two years after its predecessor’s introduction; another is that the front dock looks to have been ideally sized for the new iPad mini, which rests perfectly centered atop a thin white light bar on the front.
One of Sound Step Lightning’s several small changes is something that average users mightn’t notice, but we really appreciated. The prior models had four capacitive buttons on the front left side, starting with “UQ3” before moving onto Dock, Bluetooth, and Aux sources. Lightning replaces the “UQ3” button with “USB,” simultaneously adding the ability to play audio from a USB-connected device—a way to both hear and charge old Dock Connector devices—and removing the once-unnecessarily optional “UQ3” spatialization feature. On Sound Step Lightning, UQ3 is on and remains on, presenting the speaker’s best possible audio presentation without the need to fidget with a button. This might seem like an omission, but it’s really a positive for the design.
Sound Step Lightning’s other buttons and features generally remain the same. The front right side has seven buttons, one that’s large and pressure-sensitive for power—easy to touch and feel confident in activating at any time—while the rest are small and capacitive for changing tracks, volume, play/pause status, and Bluetooth pairing. Soundfreaq’s aforementioned light bar shows that the power is on, and flashes to reflect button presses. Ports on the back are largely similar to Sound Step’s, including a power input for attachment to an included wall adapter, an aux-in for a self-supplied 3.5mm audio cable, and an FM antenna input for a packed-in antenna wire. A slightly updated Infrared remote has been pared down a little to remove the UQ3 button, and Soundfreaq now includes two rubber dock-modifying inserts, but one thing’s been removed: an analog video output, support for which Apple has eliminated from Lightning devices. Everything else looks the same, including the bottom recess that can hold the Infrared remote when it’s not in use.
Functionally, and apart from the absent video out port, the only major issue worth noting on Sound Step Lightning is the design of its Lightning connector. As with all of the Lightning speakers we’ve tested so far—but notably not a couple of the Lightning docks we’ve reviewed—case compatibility is severely cramped by an apparent Apple mandate that an oversized base surround the metal plug to provide additional physical support for the connected device. Ironically, the Lightning connector’s base is roughly the size of Apple’s classic 30-pin Dock Connector, which means that you might be able to connect a full-sized fourth-generation iPad to Sound Step Lightning if the iPad’s in a third-generation iPad case. Unfortunately, you’ll almost certainly be out of luck with most of the iPod touch, iPhone 5, iPad mini, and iPod nano cases that have been released specifically for Lightning devices.
Unlike some of the Lightning speakers we’ve tested, Sound Step Lightning at least attempts to work around the Lightning connector issues. One rubber insert can be pulled out around the connector’s edges, helping the Lightning plug to fit into Dock Connector-sized holes in some iPad cases. Another much larger rubber insert can be attached, covering the plug entirely to let devices just rest atop the docking surface without electronically mounting or charging. The rear USB port in the back can be used for charging and/or audio; Bluetooth streaming, of course, remains an option if you don’t care about charging or mounting your device.
Sonically, Sound Step Lightning is a very good budget performer. Despite reasonably similar price points, it delivers around twice the maximum volume output of JBL’s Lightning-equipped OnBeat Micro, with comparable clarity and a bit more reach and depth in the bass/mid-bass department. We’d describe the sound signature as balanced with a modest mid-bass skew, lacking only a little in the highest highs and lowest lows. Bluetooth performance is at least as strong as before, combining excellent sound quality with tested 60+-foot unobstructed range without hiccups, so you don’t give up anything but charging by going wireless. FM radio tuning is only slightly impacted by static, and objectionable mostly in that you’ll need to use a less than thrilling iOS app to handle tuning and preset programming; Sound Step Lightning oddly doesn’t have a dedicated input selection button for the radio.
Overall, Sound Step Lightning is a very good Lightning speaker. The price thankfully remains the same as before, and you don’t lose much from the prior $130 Sound Step; in fact, this model’s ability to play USB audio, Lightning audio, and Bluetooth audio makes it a relatively versatile audio system. Although we’d tend to lean towards the upcoming battery-powered version if given the option, Sound Step Lightning is a solid value for its price, and compatible with plenty of devices, albeit compromised a bit due to case-compatibility limitations. If you’re looking for a nice combination of sonic performance, features, and style on a budget, you’ll find it to be one of the top Lightning options on the market.