As Apple Computer's IPod has become a cultural phenomenon akin to Sony's Walkman, the market for IPod accessories has exploded--some of the biggest names in computer and home audio have responded with speaker systems specifically made for the IPod (and, just as significantly, incompatible with other portable players).
Bose has recently joined the fray with its $300 SoundDock speaker system, which uses the now-familiar dock connector base for IPod connectivity. Featuring a glossy white body and a large, full-face metal grille, the SoundDock is a good aesthetic match for full-size IPods (and even silver IPod minis) with an attractive but simple appearance that won't dominate your decor.
It would be tough to find a speaker system that's easier to set up than the SoundDock. When you first open the SoundDock package, the interior box flaps provide clear illustrations of the three-step setup process: You attach the dock slot adapter for your particular size IPod (included are five sizes, for any dockable IPod except the new IPod Photo), connect the power cable, and then place your IPod in the dock slot and enjoy the music. (Your IPod also charges while it's in the SoundDock.) The only other piece in the box is the included credit card-size wireless remote, which lets you play, pause, skip forward or back, adjust the system volume, and turn your IPod on or off.
Though the SoundDock does not include a dock slot adapter specifically for the IPod Photo, Bose's official position is that the included adapter for the 30GB/40GB (3rd-generation) IPod should be used for IPod Photo compatibility. In my testing, this adapter worked, but as the IPod Photo is slightly thicker than previous IPods, the fit was very tight--a bit too tight for my tastes, as I was concerned that I was bending the dock connector or scratching the IPod's front by forcing it into the slot.
Like JBL's On Stage speaker system, the SoundDock is not made to be portable, despite its all-in-one design. It requires AC power, and although it's certainly smaller than a full-size system, at 11.9 inches wide by 6.7 inches high by 6.5 inches deep it's sizable enough that carrying it from room to room is the extent of its practical transportability. It's clearly intended for home or office use.
As we've noted in reviews of other one-piece, desktop speaker systems, these units will never sound as good as a quality set of home computer speakers with a subwoofer and satellites, especially in terms of stereo imaging and bass response--their smaller drivers simply don't have the ability to reach the low end, and the drivers are too close together to provide significant stereo separation. (If you're looking for the best sound for $300, the Altec Lansing FX-6021 provides deep bass, excellent imaging, and some of the best overall sound we've heard in the computer speaker market.)
However, just as a laptop isn't designed to outperform a desktop computer, small desktop speaker systems like the SoundDock aren't designed to best home speaker systems in output or imaging. You're paying a premium for the ease of use, space-saving design, and "movability" that such a system brings. If you need or appreciate these attributes, you will likely find them worth paying for and will be willing to sacrifice sound quality to get them.
That being said, of the desktop systems we've tested, including JBL's $200 On Stage and Altec Lansing's various InMotion models ($130 to $180), I found the SoundDock provided the best overall sound quality by a fair margin. Although it doesn't have the impressive treble response and the airy feel of the On Stage--which at times errs in the opposite direction, with too much treble emphasis--the sound the SoundDock produces is well rounded and enjoyable. Its bigger size allows it to use larger speaker drivers, which provide a fuller sound with more bass and a warmer midrange. And thanks to AC-only operation, it likely uses a more substantial power supply and amplifier, which would explain why it has more of what we in the business call "oomph" than systems restrained by battery-life considerations. (I say "likely" because Bose as a rule doesn't provide power specifications.) The SoundDock also has more presence than the other systems, with the ability to easily fill a decent-size room with music--none of the other desktop systems I've tested can come close to producing similar volume levels without distortion.
The Missing Sync
As much as I liked the SoundDock as a desktop speaker system, I missed a couple of significant features present in the less expensive offerings from JBL and Altec Lansing. First, there's no dock connector on the Bose unit, so you can't sync your IPod with your computer while it's in the SoundDock; you must remove it from the SoundDock and connect it to your computer via the IPod's dock cable or dock base. Second, the SoundDock has no auxiliary audio-input jack, so despite its superior sound you can use it to listen to audio only from a docked IPod. With the JBL and Altec Lansing systems, you can connect your computer, your TV, or another portable player.
At $300, the SoundDock is more expensive than competing systems that offer a few more convenience features (such as auxiliary inputs and syncing ability). However, it's currently the best sounding of the one-piece speaker systems I've tested, and its uncluttered elegance and ease of use make it an appealing offering for those people willing to plunk down the change. If you're using the SoundDock in the types of environments for which it's intended--on a desk, or in a bedroom, office, or kitchen--you'll be rewarded with good sound in an eye-catching package.
This story, "Elegant Bose SoundDock Broadcasts Your IPod's Music" was originally published by MacCentral.