Just as it has become with headphones, managing a short list of potential iPod speaker docks has gotten a lot more complicated due to the overwhelming number of options now available. That’s where we come in. We check out some of the most popular iPod speaker docks (and a few you may never have heard of) to give you a qualified overview of how well these products deliver on the promise to provide easy-to-access, great sounding music from your iPod, iPhone or iPad.
Our iPod speaker dock testing methods are, in many ways, very similar to our headphone testing methods so don’t be surprised to see that reflected in this article.
Out of the box
The unboxing process involves not only physically removing the dock from its packaging, but taking note of the out-of-box experience as a whole. We like to see a nicely presented product and at this stage we’ll be getting our first impressions of build quality and sound quality as well. After taking an inventory of any included accessories, we take a brief listen to the dock to ensure there are no obvious defects and get a feel for how it sounds right out of the box (bearing in mind that break-in almost always changes a speaker’s sound). Once completed, we will connect an audio source and break it in by playing random music at a medium volume for at least 40 continuous hours.
The testing gear
With our break-in period out of the way, we’ll begin a critical listening session. This usually takes place over the course of several days and may, at some point, involve some gear harvested from our “headphone test bench” which currently includes a HeadRoom Micro DAC, HeadRoom Micro Amp, NuForce Icon u-DAC2, NuForce iDO, and a variety of music tracks ranging from 128k mp3 and AAC files to uncompressed WAV and FLAC files. Our primary testing sources, however, are an iPhone 4S and an iPad 2.
Our sound quality evaluations are based entirely on listening tests. Therefore, our conclusions are the result of subjective analysis. Though not as common with iPod speaker docks, some reviewers will employ measurements taken by electronic testing equipment which can chart the frequency response curve of a speaker. We have plenty of respect for that approach, but it isn’t for us.
We believe that specifications only tell a small part of the story. A lot of listeners aren’t interested in getting a flat frequency response (moreover, we believe that many of our readers couldn’t care less about a frequency response curve and that those who do will probably be reading more than one review anyway). Manufacturers know this and voice their speakers to sound a certain way. The Beats by Dr. Dre brand is an excellent example of this. The Beatbox, for example, is intentionally designed to deliver huge bass response. We don’t need a frequency response chart to tell you about that. Also, we feel that, as important as the sound quality of a speaker dock is, there are other vitally important factors to consider such as ease of set-up, ease of use, device compatibility, portability, battery longevity (if applicable) and build quality.
A look at the specs
While specs don’t tell the whole story, they can give us a clue as to the pedigree of a speaker dock. Those with built-in DACs, for instance, will almost always sound better than docks that don’t. DSP can also be a big benefit, especially for those docks that use smaller speakers but aim to produce lots of bass. We’ll also take this section of the review to go over any other potentially valuable features such as customizable EQ, video output, speakerphone or wireless streaming capability.
Finish and Build
The build quality and finish of a speaker dock should match its intended use. For instance, a portable speaker dock should be built to hold up under harsher conditions while a high-end speaker dock intended to be integrated with the decor of a common area in a home should offer an attractive, high-quality finish.
We like to take a look at some oft overlooked factors such as whether the speaker dock requires the use of a huge “power brick” or has a built-in power supply, how resilient the finish is and whether the iDevice is held securely when docked.
This is a pretty straightforward process. We listen to music tracks that we know inside and out. Some of the music we use was recorded, mixed and mastered by us, which gives us the best possible insight into how the reproduced track should sound. The first thing we listen for are blatant diversions from reality. If a speaker dock’s high frequency response is thin, metallic or artificial sounding, we’ll hear it right away. Likewise, if vocals are muddled or recessed, it will be pretty obvious. Speaker docks that exhibit this sort of behavior will likely fall to the bottom of the heap and receive a fairly low score.
If a speaker dock doesn’t do anything especially bad, we start listening for more subtle queues. For instance, we’ll listen to bass response to determine if it has been boosted, then turn our attention to the midbass frequencies to see if they are coming across murky as a result.
After poring over minutiae, we take a step back and consider whether the speaker dock might appeal to a broad enough spectrum of listeners. We may not particularly care for a speaker’s particular sound but if that sound is going to satisfy a certain audience, then it has its place in the market and should be noted as such.
Ease of use/ Feature Performance
With the addition of wireless streaming technology such as Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth, a new level of complexity has been brought to what might otherwise be a plug-and-play device. We look for AirPlay and Bluetooth setup to be easy to understand and easy to execute. Bonus points are issued for those manufacturers that go beyond a written guide to provide a video tutorial or specialized app to assist with setup.
Many speaker docks are marketed as portable, though we have found that many of them don’t really fit the profile of a portable device. If a dock is meant to be portable, we consider whether or not we’d be likely to haul it out to the beach or the back yard. If the dock includes rechargeable batteries, we’ll take notes on how long it takes to charge them and how long they lasted under medium performance strain. We do the same stress test for standard cells as well.
Writing the review
For us, simply organizing our evaluation notes into something that resembles a narrative is not good enough. We aim to give a little back-story on the manufacturer, describe our experience with the product and put its sound signature into a context that is understandable, even for those not familiar with the audiophile lexicon. We hope that by reading our iPod speaker dock reviews you will walk away with a feel for whether that particular model is something you should bother to audition yourself or remove from your short list because, ultimately, the review that matters most is your own.