Speaker Docks Awards – Q1 2013

3/19/2013 3:07:59 AM

More and more people use a portable device as their main source for music. So a brilliant dock ought to be at the top of any wish list

Product of the year

Best speaker dock: $525+

JBL OnBeat Xtreme: $600

JBL OnBeat Xtreme, the best speaker dock: $525+

JBL OnBeat Xtreme, the best speaker dock: $525+

The OnBeat Xtreme is a new entry in our Awards, and it’s seen off competition from pretty mighty rivals in the shape of Arcam and Bowers & Wilkins. JBL has gone down two connection routes here: you can dock your Apple portable physically as normal or you can stream wirelessly to it from any Bluetooth device. Welcome to the fold, Android user…

If you’re working out the not inconsiderable sum of $600 for a dock, you expect a certain standard of build, finish and features. Sporting twin mid/bass drivers and tweeters in a quirky ‘crossed-arms’ enclosure, this is an eye-catching affair and it doesn’t feel plastic KY or cheap. That goes for the remote control, too.

Docking our iPod Touch into the rotating clamp, we got the ball rolling with a blast of Chan Chan by the Buena Vista Social Club. Low-frequency heft is impressive given the OnBeat’s relatively small drivers. Detail in the sweet midrange and treble is rarely swamped by this, though indeed the midrange is pleasingly (and appropriately) prominent. Individual instruments are given plenty of breathing space, although vocals sometimes sound just a touch damped when the going gets complicated still, we’d take that does of excitement over the humdrum any day.

Dynamics are handled with no alarms, and there’s plenty of scope to go loud should you fancy a little neighbor-baiting.

Effective wireless Bluetooth connectivity

Pair your source with the OnBeat via Bluetooth (a simple task) and results are decent given the constrains of the technology. The JBL doesn’t use the higher-quality apt-X Bluetooth, so if you’re using a Galaxy S3 you won’t get the highest-possible audio quality, but iPhones don’t support this format yet anyway, so no bothers there for Apple users.

You can even make phone-calls via the dock’s build\t-in microphone. Sound quality is fine, and voices are picked up well at the other end.

This is a great-looking, well-thought-out and versatile unit that would serve more than adequately as a replacement for any ageing micro system indeed, we use one as our office system. And now that it’s down to $600 from its original $750, there’s even more reason to buy one.

Best speaker dock up to $300

Logitech S715i: $120

Logitech S715i, the best speaker dock up to $300

Logitech S715i, the best speaker dock up to $300

The S715i has been comfortably at the top of the pile for the past two years when it comes to affordable iPod docks. Many rivals have tried to topple it, but this little Logitech has seen them all off in convincing style.

We still think the S715i is everything an affordable iPod dock should be. It’s thoughtfully bundled in with a paddled travel case, and you’ll also find an auxiliary input for any non-Apple portable on the reassuringly weighty chassis.

A fold-out support props up the unit and keeps it relatively still provided you don’t poke at the controls too ham-fistedly. If that does prove to be a problem, however, there’s a remote control handset that you can use as well.

The unit comes with a rechargeable battery inside. It will provide you with up to eight hours of playback on the move-enough for most situations. There’s a mains power cable supplied as well for more permanent locations.

The S715i is ‘Works with iPhone’ as well as ‘made for iPod’ certified too, so you can dock your Apple product if choice to enjoy the sound without the need to switch to Airplane mode.

Sonic quality is, of course, most crucial, and also where the S715i really streaks ahead. This may not be the loudest or biggest-sounding dock about, but it’s the smoothest, most dynamic and most detailed we’ve found at the price, delivering impressive punch and insight for such a small unit.

Vocals from Bonnie ‘Price’ Billy sound intimate, with small inflections in his voice picked up better than any similarly priced rival. And Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out shows the S715i capable of delivering solid, musical bass in a soundstage that remains balanced and clear.

It may not be the loudest, but it’s detailed, delivering impressive punch and insight for such a small unit

The ideal budget dock

If your budget for an iPod dock is anywhere near the $150 mark, this really should be near the top of your shortlist. Logitech is now moving its product range over to the UE (Ultimate Ears) brand, as you’ll see from the Air Speaker below, so this could well be the last year it’s available. Snap one up while you have the chance…

Best speaker dock: $300-$525

Logitech UE Air Speaker: $450

Simple set-up: mating your device to the UE dock is a double: stick it in the dock, run the free app, follow the instructions. And that’s it…

Simple set-up: mating your device to the UE dock is a double: stick it in the dock, run the free app, follow the instructions. And that’s it…

Logitech has established itself as a manufacturer of some excellent, affordable desktop audio systems. Its iPod-friendly products such as the Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 ($120) and the S715i ($120), for instance, have both won our hearts and Awards over the years.

The Logitech UE (Ultimate Ears) Air Speaker is its first AirPlay speaker dock, and its most expensive speaker doc to date. And it continues the company’s fine form.

The UE Air Speaker produces an entertaining, rhythm-driven sound. There’s a sense of agility and craft to low frequencies

Handy control app

The key any device that deals with networks over physical connections is ease of use and in this aspect the Air Speaker excels. The simplest way to get going is via Logitech’s UE Air App. Download it free from iTunes, dock your iDevice on the 30-pin connector, open the app and you’ll be given an option to rename the dock and be prompted for your network password. Tap it in and you’re AirPlay enabled.

Engage AirPlay and the same track displays a hint of coarseness, and sacrifices a little in the way of refinement, but that’s no different from other AirPlay-enabled devices so we’ve no real complaints. The UE Air App lets you alter bass and treble settings, but it performs just fine out of the box and there’s no need to tweak unless you’re a glutton for bass.

Logitech has taken a gamble moving up to a more expensive price level, but it’s absolutely paid off. The UE is a superb AirPlay speaker dock and a great option for wireless music.

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