Great $150 portable speakers? Been there, done that, with both docking and wireless options. But finding a truly great $100 portable speaker with or without wireless support is another story. Years ago, Memorex was the rare company to chase the $100 market with iTrek, but various factors subsequently led developers to focus instead on $150 and $200 versions, notably including tiny, clearly overpriced units such as the Jawbone Jambox. In response to the Jambox, several companies announced more aggressively priced competitors, and the best of them was Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick ($100) — a budget speaker that impressed us enough to win our Overall Best of Show Award.
There’s a lot more to say about this speaker, but in summary, Sound Kick is a surprisingly big deal for such a small, affordable speaker, delivering build quality, multi-device compatibility, and features that would have been unthinkable back in iTrek’s day—or even last year. Made from a mix of black metal and hard plastic, the enclosure feels even more like a solid brick than the $200 Jambox, without compromising at all on fashion-forward style. Because it uses Bluetooth wireless streaming rather than a Dock Connector, Sound Kick works equally well with iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, and just as with top $150-$200 Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested, there’s a built-in rechargeable 2200mAh battery to let it perform music for between five and seven hours. It is simultaneously Soundfreaq’s most impressively designed speaker, its most affordable, and its most portable, successfully iterating on the several larger versions that have come before.
Though it might seem like the most trivial of Sound Kick’s assets, Soundfreaq’s enclosure is actually a literal testament to Steve Jobs’ famous maxim that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like; design is how it works.” Measuring 10.5” wide by 4.2” tall and 1.6” thick, Sound Kick initially looks like a black box with thin, interestingly detailed stripes on every side save for its notched top and flat bottom. Eight buttons sit inside the top notch, with all but the rightmost power button using capacitive touch rather than physical movement to register commands, while a bright white light bar hides underneath the company’s logo and behind the unit’s metal front speaker grille. This box exudes economy of concept but not materials; minimalist yet handsome for a $100 speaker, it looks and feels every bit as fancy as the company’s earlier and more expensive releases, only better suited for travel. It’s also at least a little smaller in every dimension than Logitech’s best current $150 portable systems, matching the company’s previously popular Pure-Fi Anywhere models in depth while narrower by inches and taller by less than an inch.
Jobs’ maxim most conspicuously applies to Soundfreaq’s latest novel engineering trick: an expanding compartment on Sound Kick’s back. Using two fingers, you pull a roughly 8.6” wide by 2.9” tall by 0.9” deep box outwards from the rest of the chassis, just like the pop-out stands often seen in rival portable speakers, only larger. Just as with earlier Soundfreaq speakers, which used smart workarounds to enhance their bass performance, the expansion of this rear compartment enables the then 2.5”-deep Sound Kick to deliver much better low-end sound than would otherwise have been possible from such a portable device. More to Jobs’ point, Sound Kick literally will not work unless the box has been pulled out; it will refuse to perform audio, awakening by showing its white front light only when expanded to full size. The box is also designed to let the speakers recline, rather than pointing straight forward, which makes Sound Kick look and sound even better.
A couple of Sound Kick’s smaller features are also worth mentioning. There’s a USB port on the back that can be used to recharge an iPod at full speed or an iPhone at half speed, assuming you self-supply the USB cable; this port works when the speaker is plugged into the wall with its included power adapter, or when the unit is running off of its own rechargeable battery power at less than 70% volume. An adjacent power input port has a small rectangular colored light to indicate charging status, while an aux-in port enables wired audio connectivity with an included 3.5mm cable. Soundfreaq also will offer case and cover options for Sound Kick.
Sound Kick also works with the App Store’s free Soundfreaq Remote app, albeit without any particular advantage over the built-in iOS Music application, as this unit has no radio tuner or ability to adjust settings, beyond a “UQ3” spatialization feature that you won’t want to turn off. The app’s playlist, play/pause, track, volume, and mute controls work, though Sound Kick doesn’t support actual volume mirroring with iOS devices; consequently, volume button presses on the iOS device do work to increase and decrease volume, but aren’t as sound quality-optimized as the buttons on the speaker. Soundfreaq only briefly notes app compatibility in Sound Kick’s simple instructions, and doesn’t seem to be pushing the app as particularly valuable here.
It’s not necessary, either, as everything else is straightforward; even wirelessly pairing Sound Kick is dead simple.
Hit the unit’s top pairing button when it’s turned on, and the front white light will flash; Sound Kick will appear as a choice under your iOS device’s list of Bluetooth devices, and a single tap will pair them together—very quickly, at that. Bluetooth works reliably at and beyond the promised 30-foot transmitting distance, experiencing drop-outs only at the 50-60 foot mark. Though it’s a Bluetooth 2.0 device in an increasingly Bluetooth 4.0/Smart world, Sound Kick can also remember its pairing with multiple iOS units, reminding you of its age only when you need to manually switch between them. This is a small issue, and one that while worth remedying in a sequel product will only bother a subset of this version’s users.
We say that because Sound Kick is going to appeal to a lot of people, as much because of its price as its sonic performance. Given the substantial differences in their sizes, it’s not particularly surprising that Sound Kick utterly destroys the Jambox sonically, performing music with such considerably expanded treble, midrange, and bass detail as to make the Jawbone speaker sound like a flat toy radio—it’s just worth emphasizing this point in light of their similarly major price differences. Thanks to two 2.3” drivers, Sound Kick sounds better at any volume level both units share, but its top volume level is perhaps twice as loud as Jambox’s, and there’s no distortion in Sound Kick’s audio as it reaches its peak amplitude. Soundfreaq has chosen and tuned its speakers particularly well; there’s also only the softest amplifier static, audible only when Sound Kick’s sitting idle at a high volume level. Jambox’s sole comparative asset is a small one: Sound Kick doesn’t have a microphone, which means that it can’t be used as a speakerphone for iPhones.
The only Bluetooth speakers that sound better than Sound Kick are options that require serious compromises on price, size, or both.