Review: Bose SoundDock Portable

  • Love it or hate it, few iPod speaker systems rival the popularity of Bose’s SoundDock, which was released in late 2004 at a price point that iPod owners initially considered shocking: $299. At a time when there were relatively few iPod-specific speakers, and those that were available were selling for $150 or less, Bose strategically gambled on offering a highly simplified, visually neutral all-in-one audio solution, and the bet paid off. Despite the price premium, SoundDock became a major international hit, and inspired waves of competitors who thought they could improve upon Bose’s formula. Despite their best efforts, the vast majority failed.

Now Bose has a new option: an almost identical but portable version of SoundDock, which not surprisingly is titled SoundDock Portable ($399). As the name suggests, SoundDock Portable is capable of being used indoors or outdoors, regardless of whether you have convenient access to a wall outlet; it includes a brand new wall charger, as well as a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery pack that’s easily attached or detached from its rear. Plug the system in, and you’ll hear a little chime from the speaker to indicate that it’s charging. Remove the charger and it’ll chime again. Regardless of whether it’s connected to wall power, it will keep charging your iPod’s battery and playing back music until SoundDock Portable runs out of juice.

How “almost identical” are the two SoundDocks? At 6.75” tall by 12.06” wide by 5.31” deep, SoundDock Portable nearly preserves the dimensions of the original model, which measured 6.65” x 11.91” x 6.48”. In addition to having a slightly more shallow initial footprint, it loses a little over an inch in depth when the redesigned front-mounted iPod dock is rotated back into the system. This makes the system safer to carry out of your home or office than its predecessor, assuming that you’re willing to purchase an optional Bose carrying bag for $59.

SoundDock Portable’s aesthetics also have changed only modestly from the prior SoundDock. It now has metallic front accent panels that better match Apple’s latest aluminum-faced iPod nanos and iPod classics, a multi-colored status light behind its austere unified metal front grille, and depending on which colored model you pick, either black or white glossy plastic sides, tops, and backs. The volume controls have been moved off of the iPod dock and onto the system’s right side, replacing physical buttons with capacitive touch controls. Bose also includes a modestly improved remote control, which now features two playlist-switching buttons in addition to the prior six simple iPod and power controls, and looks a little nicer than before. An auxiliary input port has also been added to its back, enabling iPod shuffles and other Dock Connector-less devices to perform through the speakers; no other ports save the power input are there to be found.

Aside from those small differences, the major enhancement you’ll find in Portable is the rechargeable battery pack. For reasons unknown, Bose clocks it at a not-so-impressive-sounding 3 hours at full volume, without detailing how it will perform at normal listening levels. The company also takes pains to explain that the more bass your songs produce, the shorter SoundDock’s battery will last. Assuming those details weren’t enough to scare you away from further reading, you’ll be happy to learn that our test of the fully-charged system—with a mixed playlist of tracks, some bass-heavy, some not, at an average volume level—ran for nearly 14 hours before we couldn’t get the speakers to turn on again. Our test stalled at the 13 hour and 10 minute mark, while SoundDock’s red flashing light was indicating that a recharge was necessary, then continued for another 40-plus minutes when we again hit play. Obviously, your results may vary, but this run time is roughly comparable to what other systems achieve when loaded up with bundles of disposable batteries.

So how did SoundDock Portable actually sound during all those hours of playback? Simply put, “very much like the original SoundDock,” which we have continued to describe as pleasantly warm, with fine stereo separation and enough detail across the spectrum to satisfy most users, but lacking the superior fidelity, larger apparent soundstage, high-volume accuracy, and user-adjustable equalization of peer-priced—or certain notable less-expensive—options. Stated positively, what this will mean to most people is that you can take the SoundDock Portable out of a box, plug an iPod in, and enjoy the music right away at all but the most ear-splitting volume levels. Even at its peak volume output, which is medium-sized-room-filling, or dangerously loud if you’re nearby, it’ll still sound good enough to satisfy most users until their ears stop working, perhaps longer.

That the Bose systems sound so much the same was somewhat of a surprise. We expected to hear major differences given that Bose has had three years to improve upon SoundDock relative to its many competitors, and that it has touted Portable as possessing components used in its premium Wave music systems, certain new speakers developed specifically for this unit, and a new bass vent found inside a new rear carrying handle. However, having placed the new and old SoundDocks right next to each other, and listened to a wide variety of tracks at the same volume levels, the differences are subtle: Portable has slightly—truly slightly—lower-reaching bass, and almost equally small improvements to the clarity of its mid-treble. These are differences typical users would have to listen for, and even then, they mightn’t notice them.

Two of our editors were split on whether the sound tweaks made the new SoundDock better. One felt strongly that the slightly improved clarity and bass were unquestionably improvements, albeit small very ones, to the way the SoundDock rendered our varied test tracks. The other preferred the slightly “warmer,” if also flatter way certain songs sounded with the prior design. Having heard so many other speakers, however, both editors agreed that neither Bose system sounded fully worthy of its price relative to similarly-equipped competitors we’ve tested: similarly portable systems such as Altec Lansing’s $250 inMotion iM7 and Harman Kardon’s $350 Go + Play offer superior balance and bass extension at lower prices, with Harman’s and even Apple’s now-discontinued $349 iPod Hi-Fi excelling at high-volume performances. The collection of superb competitors only increases if battery-powered portability isn’t your key purchasing criterion.

That’s not to say that the SoundDock Portable can’t best some of the lower-priced portable speakers out there—it does, especially the ones that are smaller and/or thinner than Bose’s enclosure. For instance, it outstrips Logitech’s popular $150 mm50 and Tivoli Audio’s $300 iSongBook in body—particularly bass warmth—and amplitude, and if you’re comparing it to Altec Lansing’s briefcase-ready $150-or-less speakers, Bose will win by a landslide on detail, bass, and volume. On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise given the price differences, and the presence of its 13-plus-hour rechargeable, replaceable battery sets it aside from many but not all of the other options out there. On the other hand, Bose’s absence of radio, clock, and other frills also detracts from the system’s appeal for the dollar; less expensive systems are increasingly adding these features as differentiators, and SoundDock Portable consequently seems a lot more like a nice 2004 or 2005 speaker than a late 2007 model.

Of all the portable systems we’ve tested, the SoundDock Portable reminds us most of Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi in general approach: unlike the iM7 and Go + Play, which debuted eye-catching aesthetic designs at previously established price levels, Bose is again testing the waters of a high price point with a system that emphasizes simplicity, neutrality, and convenience over audio performance for the dollar. But it’s different in that it doesn’t aim to do more than its competitors. Ironically, by roughly preserving the size that was once considered too big for an iPod speaker, and both looks and sound that were generally received as nice but not amazing, it now sits squarely in the middle of competing portable options in all ways but price. There, it will once again shock some potential buyers but appeal to others, though the $100 additional premium will most certainly attract a smaller group than before.

We were on the edge of two possible ratings—given all the alternatives that are now out there, SoundDock Portable won’t blow anyone away for the $399 asking price—but we felt that it was still worthy of our general recommendation. As with the original SoundDock, this is an easy-to-enjoy, good-sounding speaker that will please all but the most demanding users, now coupled with a good rechargeable battery, and limited more by its premium pricing than its performance characteristics. Though we feel strongly that it would have made much more sense as a $299 replacement for the prior SoundDock than a $399 alternative, we’re anxious to see whether users agree.


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