Soundfreaq tries to cover all the bases with its latest product. (July 5th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Soundfreaq
- Clear audio
- Several supported inputs (Lightning, Bluetooth, USB, FM, aux-in)
- Attractive design, relatively compact footprint
- Convenient, highly ergonomic button layout
- Audio distorts at high volumes
- Not properly built to hold iPads
- Too-simple IR remote
- FM tuner requires app
The market for iOS speaker docks is sharply divided these days, and it's all Apple's fault. By switching to the new Lightning format last fall, it forced accessory makers to cater either to the broadest market of Apple devices -- which still use 30-pin connectors -- or the bleeding edge. Soundfreaq's Sound Step Lightning is of course aimed mostly at new hardware, but also takes something of a shotgun approach by including Bluetooth, USB, FM, and auxiliary inputs to boot. In our review, we'll see if the Sound Step holds up in terms of quality, not just support.
The speaker certainly makes a good first impression: it's all black, angular, and glossy, something that would fit right in next to a high-end home theater system. It's not a small unit, but neither will it consume as much space as hign-end docks from companies like Logitech or Bowers & Wilkins. It's disappointing that the speaker is primarily made out of fragile plastic, but that shouldn't be an issue as long as there aren't any accident-prone people around. Since it uses AC power, you won't be carrying the Sound Step around on any picnics or business trips.
Its control options are also relatively impressive. The on-unit buttons are both touch-sensitive and depressed into the surface, making them unusually pleasant to tap. Soundfreaq has moreover included dedicated buttons for playback, Bluetooth pairing, and source selection, the latter letting people jump straight to the source they want, instead of cycling through all of them. You do have to cycle through sources on the very simplistic IR remote -- which doesn't have any pairing or menu buttons, for instance -- but for most intents and purposes, everything works smoothly.
Sadly, I wasn't able to test the actual Lightning dock, since I have yet to be provided with a Lightning-equipped test device. There are a few things I can point out, however. For one, the dock is (mercifully) compatible with many cases -- all you have to do is pull out a rubber insert. I would be extremely careful when docking an iPad, though. A note included with the Sound Step warns against tilting an iPad while it's connected, or even moving both devices at the same time. That seems to imply that the dock isn't built to stabilize an iPad properly, which is a fundamental design flaw for something marketed as compatible with the tablet.
That being said, it's not like you don't have other options. Indeed, for a lot of people the best way of connecting may be Bluetooth. It sacrifices some of the audio fidelity other inputs offer, but does mean you get full control, since you can do far more with an iPhone, iPod, or iPad in your hands. It also means being able to change tracks or volume without being in the same room, and of course, it liberates you from the Apple ecosystem if need be.
The same can't be said of the USB port, located on the rear like the aux-in jack. When a Galaxy Nexus was connected, the port refused to either charge the phone or play music. A third-generation iPad, by contrast, functioned perfectly. The FM tuner is also (strangely) tied to Apple platforms, being dependent on a custom app. That's a little redundant when you have the whole Internet at your disposal through iOS.
In terms of audio quality, the speaker ranks above average. Sound is quite clear throughout most of its range, and while it won't be rattling any windows, a dedicated subwoofer adds just enough punch to bring out the bass in a track. If there's a fault, it's that cranking the Sound Step to high volume brings out some noticeable distortion. Keep volume at low or moderate levels and you'll be fine.
In the end, it's difficult to offer an authoritative opinion without being able to test the Lightning connection, but I will say that a general-purpose dock the Sound Step is a solid choice for the price. It's rare to find something that can handle so many different inputs without making any major sacrifices in quality. It might not be best for iPads or loud parties, but I could see making the speaker a permanent fixture in a home.