Speaker docks have been around for nearly two decades now, having grown as a separate, symbiotic A/V branch out of the big Apple tree - almost instantaneously since the iPod’s birthday. Nowadays, of course you’ll find a zillion third party manufacturers trying to outdo each other at creating the perfect docking speaker system. And to use them, you only need one thing - a compatible iOS or Android device. Easy to use, cable-free, functional, and often decent sounding, they have been a super-popular choice for many people. With so many models crowding the market, we’ve picked some of the best to enhance your living space. If you want to learn more about picking the right speaker dock, see our comparison table and buying advice.
How We Choose
Fair warning: you're going to see a lot of older models here. Speaker dock production has waned in the past few years, with several manufacturers updating their ranges to wireless only. Don't worry - if you still prefer to plug in, there are plenty of options to choose from, and we stand by all our picks.
As with all of our “Best of” TMS series, we gather our picks by eyeing them with an end-user approach - checking out important stuff like physical size, features, component choice, sonic clarity, loudness, looks, and of course, price. We’re also interested in value-for-money - not from a savings perspective per se, but whether the gear in question is the best you could get for a particular budget. We’ve aimed to cover units which are either the latest generation, or ones which are timeless classics. When arranged from top to bottom, this - more often than not - means that expensive does mean better quality.
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 30 Watts
What We Like: Decent audio quality, Bluetooth, and easy to use.
What We Don't: No remote, 30-pin connection is quickly phasing out.
Best doesn't always mean newest, as is the case with JBL’s OnBeat Venue or many other speaker docks on this list. Still, in the current era of wireless-only speakers, if you want to dock your 30-pin iOS device, the OnBeat Venue is perhaps the best speaker dock in terms of value. After nearly five years since peaking as a firm market favourite, the OnBeat Venue still manages to impress with its audio quality. Rated at 30 watts, it can get loud with plenty of headroom. Even at a lower volume it delivers clarity and consistent low end - which, for its size, is only matched by something like the Bose SoundDock III at number five on this list.
Needless to say - although we do anyway in our Buyer’s Advice below the picks - you could pick up a 30-pin to lightning port adapter for a few dollars. This, and the fact that JBL have included not only a 3.5mm Aux input but also Bluetooth connectivity, justifies investing into this old-timer. There is no remote control and, in all honesty, JBL’s MusicFlow app is not the most straight forward we’ve used, but that aside this speaker dock is a breeze to get set up and pumping. We’d say JBL OnBeat Venue is suitable for anyone looking for a great sounding system, whether they're using a docking device or not.
See the JBL OnBeat Venue
A Close Second
Inputs: Aux-In (RCA)
Wattage: 600 Watts
What We Like: Good audio detail, lots of bass, plenty of volume, video out.
What We Don't: Industrial looks might not suit every room.
Pyle are well known for their wide range of A/V product lines, but naming their Home PHST94IPGL could have been a bit more subtle, as it does sound like R2D2 swearing in machine code language. Still, this docking speaker is mighty impressive in looks, even if it’s a bit industrial in its design. The size hints at massive audio punch capabilities - there’s plenty of wattage, though we have to say, far from enough to get you evicted from your apartment.
Being one of the more powerful speaker docks on this list, the Pyle Home (let’s use that as a short name) features a built in 8” subwoofer, dual 3.5” main drivers and two 1” tweeters. The 30-pin port cradle positioned on top is suitable for all current iDevices, and is complemented by an additional panel at the back, allowing for the (analog) connection of external devices through an RCA Aux-In and even an S-Video out port - good for streaming your iPad visuals to a TV. We would have preferred it to be powered by a proper 110V current instead of the external 27V PSU but overall, the spec is pretty good. Audio performance is solid; we’d describe the sonic detail as more than decent but a bit short of the wow awarded by the Dog at number four. Beware that 30-pin to 8-pin lightning port converters will work but might render the remote control useless.
See the Pyle Home PHST94IPGL
Best Budget Speaker Dock
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 20 Watts
What We Like: Good volume, wireless connectivity, mic for hands free phone calls.
What We Don't: Bluetooth sound not that great actually.
This somewhat generic but nevertheless impressive speaker dock by Inateck still manages to impress. Like others on this list, the Inateck is a rechargeable portable speaker and it’s just a tad wider than an iPad. It’s a 8-pin lightning port affair, also featuring additional mini-jack audio in and Bluetooth wireless streaming which is of course supported by both iOS and Android devices, or any suitable wireless audio device for that matter.
What is interesting (for a docking speaker) is that Inateck have included a built-in mic which makes this suited for hands free calling. It’s not just a gimmick - it works well. In terms of audio performance the two five watt drivers may surprise you - louder than what the figures suggest, and with plenty of clarity for the price and size - not that behind behind the previous two picks in fact. Recharging is done via a USB cable and everything else works as expected. This unit is really well built, and it would be a great first introduction to the world of docking speakers.
See the Inateck Bluetooth Speaker
Best High-End Speaker Dock
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wireless: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Wattage: 240 Watts
What We Like: Crazy looks which work, plenty of volume.
What We Don't: Looks and price are not for everybody.
It was on top before, and with our latest update, the dog remains there - albeit in our High-End category. Meet the AeroBull - an exotic-looking speaker system clearly aimed at fashion-conscious music lovers, created by Jarre Technologies. It must take an extra dollop of courage and an eighties synth-pop electronica wizard (Jean Michel Jarre) to come up with such a concept: a shades-wearing bulldog-shaped 2.1 speaker system (two stereo speakers plus a sub), capable of 240 Watts of clean power. The speakers, by the way, are in the sunglasses, and the remote is bone-shaped. Of course. By the way, don't mistake its looks for a gimmick - well, they are a gimmick, but it sounds good enough to warrant a high placement here.
Starting with the docking station, which is positioned on its head, it’s good to know that this fully supports all current generation iDevices with its lightning connection. This also means that if your device uses the older 30-pin protocol you might need a suitable adapter. Alternate wired audio connections (for TV, DVD and so on) are easy with the included 3.5mm mini-jack aux input, but the AeroBull’s name hints at wireless talents, as this is indeed one superb wireless Bluetooth speaker - an altogether different subject perhaps.. But it’s worth noting that just like its physical inputs, the AeroBull’s Bluetooth spec is a current generation, which means support of the high-resolution aptX (wireless audio codec) streaming - up to CD quality in fact. The audio detail is mighty fine and especially so when positioned facing the room and with its back (think sub) towards a corner. The AeroDog proves that it’s far far more than just a modern art piece and may indeed easily become your iPhone/iPad’s best friend. Be warned: it's often hard to find, although we still think it's a top pick.
See the Jarre Technologies AeroBull
Best Old-School Speaker Dock
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
What We Like: Classic Bose sound.
What We Don't: Fairly basic specs.
Bose Corporation’s presence in the hi-fi industry is like Coca-Cola’s within the food industry and the SoundDock III is a deservingly popular docking speaker - despite what some audiophiles may think. This is a compact package designed for casual listening and this is probably the very definition of Bose’s ethos. With so many successful ‘mini’ designs, it probably took the design team mere minutes to ‘retrofit’ a powered Bose speaker with a lightning port (a 30-pin dock version is still available on Amazon).
What we mean of course is that you if have ever owned or listened to a Bose, you will know the signature sound which is present here - more than slightly emphasized top frequencies, scooped mids and big but at times boomy bass. This is not a criticism (unless you expect audiophile frequency response) - it really works, and for the SoundDock III’s size, the audio is solid, although we’d still choose any of the Zeppelins (at number 4 and 5) due to their slightly more faithful representation of middle and treble frequencies. If the company’s famed digital signal and acoustic processing may give the SoundDock a slight advantage over some of the previous picks, the lack of any wireless capability is a slight let down for the price - unless of course you start considering additional wireless adapters. Non-lightning port (and legacy) devices can be connected via the auxiliary 3.5mm input at the back, and all is controlled by the included RF Bose remote. A near classic.
See the Bose SoundDock III
Best of the Rest
Inputs: Aux-In (RCA)
What We Like: The perfect docking speaker/soundbar hybrid, subwoofer out.
What We Don't: Don’t expect proper surround.
Look no further if you're shopping around for both a speaker dock and a soundbar. The iLive 3.1 is exactly that - a hybrid of the two hugely popular formats. The 37-inch wall mountable bar includes a motorized tray, allowing you to dock 30-pin iOS devices. This makes for a simple and discrete setup when you want to undock and listen to other sources, or just watch some movies. There are two RCA aux-ins, which are perfect for your TV and BluRay set-up - or any other line source - to be permanently patched in. Source selection, which also includes FM radio, is made easy by the included remote control, letting you become the couch potato you've always dreamed of.
All of these features wouldn't count for much if the audio quality was substandard. Luckily, there's enough volume and clarity here to justify not spending tons of cash. It might not be the best speaker, but the number 3.1 in the model title points to the SRS XT surround codec, and you even get a subwoofer out. Most of the picks on this list aren't large enough to deliver any serious bass frequencies, but with the iLive 3.1, you can hook up a nice subwoofer and let the neighbours know about it.
See the iLive 3.1
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 3 Watts
What We Like: Cool design, good sound.
What We Don't: Basic feature set for the price, don’t expect bass here.
The Memorex MA3122PK is a serious case of “Honey, I shrunk the speaker dock.” Its hot pink color may not be to everyone’s taste, but it's undeniable that the foldable design is cool. Looking a bit like an old-fashioned spectacle case when closed, the Memorex is designed to be taken anywhere - yes it can be powered by both a wall plug or AAA batteries.
Despite its somewhat basic set of features, when paired with an iPod or a 30-pin iPhone 4 (or a lightning port device via a suitable adapter), the Memorex MA3122PK delivers a surprisingly room-filling volume of sound. Of course, as it's usually the the case with miniature speaker devices, bass frequencies are in reality more like over-emphasized mids. But the sound here is pleasant and non-fatiguing. Memorex have included a 3.5mm aux-in for external sources and, in our opinion, the only other thing that would have been nice to have, especially at this price, is Bluetooth support.
See the Memorex MA3122PK
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
What We Like: Good design and decent audio.
What We Don't: General build is on the flimsy side.
This naming scheme really must be some sort of internal joke for Sony’s R&D department, because here we have the smaller (and much cheaper) version called RDP T50IPN which may have a somewhat similar audio character but without its sibling’s punch and power. This little speaker’s primary purpose is to live somewhere in your kitchen, ideal for when you are relaxing, cooking for friends and impressing them with some cool mellow background music - nothing heavy, intrusive or loud. If this is something you are looking for, well you’ve found it.
It is portable, it comes with a remote (which tucks behind the unit - we like that) and apart from charging and playing audio from your iOS device through the lightning port, it can accept external audio through a mini-jack. There’s no Bluetooth or AirPlay wireless option here but while docked, your iOS device could still work its wi-fi magic and translate it into countless DAB radio stations or streaming services. The sound quality is nothing more than what you can expect from a unit this size but nothing really less than Sony’s usual high standards. Recommended!
See the Sony RDP T50IPN
Dock: micro-USB port
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 32 Watts
What We Like: Sturdy and loud enough for most.
What We Don't: Analog audio transfer via 3.5mm jack.
OK, we simply had to include the MatchStick on this list - on account of its unique operating system (Fire, not iOS or Android) and as a product naming example for other docking speaker manufacturers. The MatchStick fills a gap in the market - so many people use the Kindles as their main choice of handheld device, and in our opinion there should be a lot more speaker docks catering for Fire devices. The MatchStick delivers on its primary objective - to charge and amplify the kindle - but unlike its name, it just feels a bit uninspired and basic. It could have been better with just a few tweaks.
Sure, we understand the challenges of designing products for a unique operating system, like the choice of the 3.5mm jack taking care of audio transfer. What this means that users are essentially stuck with the quality of the built in DAC (digital-to-analog-converter). This is a big deal, since better DACs can be built into docking speakers and when utilizing digital connections, audio quality can be vastly improved (a fine example for that is the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin at number 4 featuring superb D/A conversion). On the positive side, the MatchStick is surprisingly loud, featuring 16 watts (RMS) of Class-D amplification powering two front main speakers and two rear bass ports. There’s plenty of projection, though this gets a bit diminished when the (rotating) bracket cradle is positioned in a ‘landscape’ mode - the tablet then happens to cover a large area above the speakers. Controls are basic but we have to say that the longer you spend with the MatchStick the brighter it glows. If you use your Kindle a lot, you should give this a try.
See the Grace Digital MatchStick
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 8 Watts
What We Like: Sturdy and stylish.
What We Don't: Not loud enough for most.
The Richsound Research DS406 may look like a regular alarm clock slash tabletop radio, but it is in fact a very capable and versatile speaker aimed specifically at Apple iOS users. It is very smart and professional-looking with its sturdy aluminum body, featuring a flip-up lid containing the 8-pin lightning port. It’s quite clever as when you flip the lid open it creates a back support for your iOS device, if you want to use its Bluetooth function just close the lid and it’s all looking discreet.
The DS406 can accept audio through a mini-jack and you will also see a USB port at the back but this is only for charging of additional devices. The initial alarm clock looks are there for a reason: this model features a dual alarm buzzer as well as a twenty-preset FM radio, but in no way is the DS406 some overpriced alarm clock. It is well connected, up to date and sounding pretty fantastic for its size. This may be a bit of a different visual statement to the Philips at number 12, but audio performance is pretty damn close in our opinion. It may not run on batteries but it’s highly portable, so you could easily take it anywhere with you.
See the Richsound Research DS406
Wattage: 2 x 10W
What We Like: Has 30 pin and Lightning to accommodate older iPhones and iPods - if you still have one kicking around, a good budget option.
What We Don’t: Hard to find new, expensive if you do manage to find it.
In the not so distant past, when speaker docks were the product of the day, Sony were one of those brands that kept releasing a new model every month. You’ll still find a ton of Sony products in the second-hand market, but the SRS-GU10P has proven to be one of the all time favorites amongst speaker dock users. It would look and feel dated to anyone accustomed to the slick efficiency of a quality wireless speaker. The SRS-GU10P has no wireless features or any additional bells and whistles that might normally spice up the presence of its somewhat dated 30-pin dock.
What might be of surprise is how good this speaker sounds. In fact, it might be one of the most balanced-sounding speaker docks on this list. Its 20 watts of power might not be loud enough to replace a regular hi-fi system, but the clarity and detail awarded by the duo of 2.25” speakers is impressive. Sony’s expertise is evident in how well tuned this speaker is - the bass content is clear despite the fact that there’s only a passive woofer present. The 3.5mm aux input is a standard feature and the supplied remote control is also very welcome. The whole package may feel a bit bare-bone, but if you love your 30-pin device, the SRS-GU10P deserves your attention - even just for its audio quality. The $588 price tag for a shipment from Japan is a bit outrageous, in our opinion, but there are plenty of used ones around.
See the Sony SRS-GU10IP Dock
Docks: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 10 Watts
What We Like: Great layout, additional USB source charging.
What We Don’t: No wireless option or remote.
Despite being something of a glorified alarm clock, the iHome iDL44 is packed with features, making it the ideal centrefold of any bedside or kitchen table. Sporting an 8-pin lighting port, the iDL44 accepts compatible iPhones and iPads, as well as charging, and even streams from additional devices through its rear USB port. This is ideal for a busy individual or a family with multiple devices - to keep daily schedules on point, the iHome automatically syncs its internal time and date to that of the docked device.
There are no wireless features, unfortunately, but there is a 3.5 aux input at the back, as well as a FM radio with six favorite preset buttons, and an easily reachable snooze function. Audio quality is very decent, with a tight and controlled sound. It might not be a hi-fi system, but thanks to its digital EQ presets, it's still closer to delivering a full-bodied sound than most of the picks gracing the bottom of this list.
See the iHome iDL44
Wattage: 2 x 8W
What We Like: Great DSP option like built-in EQ and compression, good overall sound.
What We Don’t: Sadly, this is becoming harder to find.
The On Stage 200ID is one of the numerous speaker docks produced by JBL, and if you are still in love (or stuck) with your old iPod Nano or any iPhone up to the 4S, this might be the perfect fix. The built in DSP processing aids the Class D amplification with a capable EQ that is specifically optimized for the unit. JBL have also included the so-called OCT (optimized compression technology) which is just fancy jargon for a level limiting processor. This ensures clean sounding audio peaks - think snare hits, etc. - even at high volume. Those are the usual culprits responsible for harsh speaker distortion.
The 200ID features a built-in AM/FM radio, as well as a classic alarm clock. Any of these, also including files from your music library, could be selected as a wake-up alarm and a simple 3.5mm aux connection allows for external sources to be played through the speaker dock. The remote control can access all the usual duties, such as source selection, as well as all of your iPod browse functions. Is it worth the $200 at the time of writing? In our opinion, it is. Similarly to the Sony SRS up at number 11 on this list, the JBL 200ID was built to last and to sound good.
See the JBL On Stage 200ID
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 20 Watts
What We Like: Decent bass, thanks to the subwoofer - yeah it’s a 2.1.
What We Don't: Old school specs.
With a dog-shaped speaker leading the pack at number four, we must include the Impecca AS2000, which looks like an imperial stormtrooper octopus. We’ll admit that it's a bit of an attention grabber, though even at first glance it seems to lack the expensive bite of the dog. The Octopus is equipped with a 30-pin dock and an auxiliary input. In terms of connectivity, that’s about it - no radio, USB, or Bluetooth. The on/off switch - which also acts as a volume control knob - is at the front, with the speakers hiding behind the black ‘eyes’.
The surprise comes in the form of a small but fairly capable subwoofer, which is hidden at the bottom of the unit. This feature is what makes the Octopus a good choice for a speaker dock in this price range. Even if it’s lacking in the spec department, in comparison to the “alarm clock” type docking speakers, it at least manages to handle more playback. Rated 20 watts peak power, shared between the speakers and the sub, this little 2.1 system is more than capable of bass frequencies below 100Hz. Lastly, the animal character trend doesn’t stop here! The same line also includes a Panda and Koala variety too, if that’s your thing.
See the Impecca AS2000 Octopus
Docks: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 3 Watts
What We Like: Gets the job done.
What We Don’t: Limited inputs compared to others on the list, no low end, we wouldn’t use it as main speaker.
The KitSound XDock 4 Plus is near the bottom of our list because, well, it’s more or less an alarm clock with Bluetooth. Nevertheless, it does play music and charge your phone at the same time, so we can’t complain much. Plus, it costs less than a night out. The XDock 4 Plus is a bedside alarm with built-in FM Radio, Bluetooth compatibility, and a Lightning dock for Apple devices. It also features a 3.5mm auxiliary connection for non-Apple devices, and allows you to set two separate alarms through the internal system. Though the majority of us would just set alarms on our smartphones, someone at KitSound must have been excited about the dual-alarm system. Good for them, we guess.
This dock has two 1.5 watt drivers, meaning it has about as much power as a pair of headphones, and the lows cap at 70Hz. In other words, you’re not using this thing to blast your favorite hip hop album. But, it does have a bright LCD clock display, which most of us yearn for in our homes - and if you’re looking for a basic speaker dock at a good price, this is the one for you.
See the KitSound XDock 4 Plus
16. Marquee Qi ($40)
Wattage: 3 Watts
What We Like: Bluetooth compatible, wireless charging.
What We Don't: Middling audio quality.
Technically speaking, the Marquee is not a docking speaker - it is a Bluetooth speaker with an added Qi wireless charging feature. The process is very similar to docking though - just leave your Qi compatible device on the speaker, pair it via Bluetooth, and off it goes, playing and charging at the same time. The majority of current generation smart devices support Qi wireless charging - not only the latest iPhones, but also Android-based Samsung, Moto, Sony and Nokia models.
Marquee have clearly got something cool going here and they have ensured that both vertical and horizontal device positioning are supported. Aside from the conductive Qi coils at the front, the unit itself is a backfiring Bluetooth speaker. It is portable and when charged - via its USB port - it delivers approximately six hours of Bluetooth audio playback. The audio quality will not win any awards, but it's better than any phone’s internal speaker. We think this is an easy way to enjoy audio-visual content when charging, and it clearly points to the direction of where the speaker docks of the future are heading.
See the Marquee Qi
A Little Old But Worth Buying
Dock: 30-pin, 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 150 Watts
What We Like: Fantastic package and sound.
What We Don't: Bluetooth would have been nice, only compatible with Apple devices.
Bowers & Wilkins original Zeppelin is still tremendous value for anyone sporting an older-gen 30-pin Apple device. Although the Zeppelin Air is a few years old now, it has a formidable lightning port update, and keeps most of its original specs - including the famed flamboyant looks. Bowers & Wilkins are well known for their stylish designs and, despite its somewhat striking shape, the Zeppelin Air still pulls that contemporary smart appearance that's well suited to any home.
The Zeppelin Air can certainly get loud but its sound has plenty of clarity and spread. It's well suited for casual music listening and sofa movie marathon sessions. With a power rating measured around 150 watts, this is a truly capable unit that projects well even in large spaces. Thanks to its centre subwoofer, two midrange drivers, and two tweeters, the audio signature is on par with many 'proper’ A/V setups. Of course, the presence of the lightning dock supports all current Apple products but you do get an extra bang for your back with its ability to act as an AirPlay wireless speaker. We explain the difference between Bluetooth and AirPlay wireless streaming in our Buying Advice section below, but it’s worth noting that the Zeppelin Air needs to be incorporated in your Wi-Fi network (via the Ethernet port at the back) and the big advantage (over Bluetooth) is that it can stream video content and lossless audio. The disadvantage here is that only Apple devices can make use of AirPlay. If style and design are as high on your agenda as great sound, the Zeppelin Air might be the one for you. Note: The Zeppelin Air ranges in price and availability. We've seen them for as low as $499 and as high as $650.
See the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air
New Speaker Docks Coming Soon
There aren't any. Well, that isn't quite true - it's just that for all our research, we haven't come across anybody making new speaker docks. That's because docks, as a whole, have been largely overtaken by Bluetooth audio. Whatever their merits, they are a technology that is stuck firmly in the past. Don't get us wrong: we still think they are worth buying, in certain circumstances – we wouldn't have done a list like this unless we did. But you need to be aware of the limitations, and of the fact that most speaker docks these days are a few years old.
Instead, let's talk about where this list is likely to go in the future. Take a look at the number 16 pick on our list, the Marquee Qi. It's not actually a dock – you don't actually plug your phone in. Instead, you rest it on top, where the phone will charge using the Qi wireless power transfer standard. This is a pretty miraculous bit of technology, which allows you to charge devices by sending power over short distances. The Marquee Qi is technically a wireless speaker with Qi charging, but we totally counted as a dock. Right now, speakers like the Marquee Qi are few and far between, but we fully expect them to become more and more common. In the future, expect to see them overtake traditional docks on this list.
|JBL OnBeat Venue||$169||30-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||30 Watts|
|Pyle Home||$500||30-pin||3.5mm||No||600 Watts|
|Inateck Bluetooth||$30||8-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||20 Watts|
|Jarre AeroBull||$2,460||8-pin||3.5mm||Wi-Fi/BT||240 Watts|
|Bose SoundDock III||$218||8-pin||3.5mm||No||Unknown|
|Memorex MA3122PK||$163||30-pin||3.5mm||No||3 Watts|
|Sony RDP T50IPN||$140||8-pin||3.5mm||No||Unknown|
|Grace Digital MatchStick||$93||8-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||8 Watts|
|Richsound DS406||$75||8-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||8 Watts|
|Sony SRS-GU10IP||$588||30-pin||3.5mm||No||20 Watts|
|iHome iDL44||$100||8-pin||3.5mm||No||10 Watts|
|JBL On Stage 200ID||$200||30-pin||3.5mm||No||16 Watts|
|Impecca AS2000||$100||30-pin||3.5mm||No||20 Watts|
|KitSound XDock 4 Plus||$83||8-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||3 Watts|
|Marquee Qi||$40||None||N/A||Bluetooth||3 Watts|
|Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air||$650||30/8-pin||3.5mm||AirPlay||150 Watts|
- Docking Speakers vs. Regular Speakers
- Are Docking Speakers Still Relevant?
- Cheap vs. Expensive Docking Speakers
- Docking Speakers: Android vs. Apple Devices
- Port Converters and Alternative Connections Explained
- Wattage Explained
- Enhancement Apps Explained
- Audio Quality: Docking vs. Wireless
Docking speakers (or speaker docks) are self-powered stereo speaker systems incorporating a docking port station for Apple iDevices (iPods, iPads and iPhones). There are manufacturers also releasing docking models for Android and even Kindle Fire devices. Their popularity began with the birth of the original first generation iPod, and their specs such as connectivity, size, portability and wattage can vary enormously. Docking speakers also usually allow for direct amplification of the device’s audio while also acting as charging docks. They fulfil a different role to the ones regular speakers do.
As a general rule, speaker docks exhibit all the characteristics of regular speakers - the quality of audio reproduction is down to the unit’s power amp capacity, the number, size and wattage of the speaker drivers and whether there is a subwoofer driver present. But not unlike soundbases, speaker docks exhibit a very limited physical space for all of their components to be placed in, while at the same time, consumer expectation - we can even call it pressure if you like, for audio quality to match that of conventional home theater setups is sky high.
If we take any award winning speaker dock design as an example would be a good way of understanding how the choice and the positioning of the tech housed inside dictates sonic performance. For instance, the placement of tweeters and drivers within Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin as far apart as possible (and the subwoofer in the centre front) has resulted in the Zeppelin Air's impressive stereo spread - wider than that of most docking speakers. Indeed, this is one of the common weak points of most speaker docks - they can so often sound like mono units on account of their narrowly-spaced drivers.
To counter this, audio spread and room-filling dispersion (in great docking speaker designs) are often aided by strategically placed high rigidity speaker cones minimising distortion. Cabinet ‘tuning’ is perhaps the most challenging task when designing small speaker enclosures and this where bass ports save the day. Last, but not least, considering the fact that speaker docks are designed with digital audio in mind, the digital-to-analog converter chips (DACs) within the circuitry play a huge role in the overall subjective audio detail.
To many people the idea of speaker docks may feel a bit like yesterday’s newspaper - or just newspapers in general - but if you have ever played music through such a setup, you’d never deny their easiness of use. Yes, wireless streaming has taken over the world, but at the time of writing wireless charging is still not really a reality. So docking speakers already have a leg-up there - they’ll charge your phone or tablet while you listen.
Nearly a decade after the first proponents became available, and long after the iPod’s retirement, speaker docks are still going strong. Swapping the touchscreen navigation with an ‘old-school’ remote and limiting your attention to just a playlist or a movie, is perhaps a very healthy therapy for the growing cases of Facebook addiction, to name but just one of many. The very fact that over 70% of all YouTube content is streamed through a handheld device, explains the lasting popularity of speaker docks. People just love them and new models are still popping up frequently - just like the monster Pyle Home, number three on our list - placing one of them in your living room or even a kitchen can still be most people’s requirements for a smart A/V home theater solution.
Audio quality and (wired and wireless) connectivity do affect price, and higher quality speaker docks are much better equipped, pretty much in every way.
Docking speaker manufacturers tend to mainly focus on small to medium designs - sort of starting from the ‘glorified alarm clock’ docking package and stretching up to something...still smaller than a regular A/V system. All of these are mostly aimed at providing a decent sounding audio for your living room or kitchen - you know, for playing some tracks in the background, YouTube videos and so on. By ‘decent audio’ we mean that by casual listening standards - the majority are certainly loud enough and with enough clarity, though would not overpower a regular conversation or win any audiophile awards.
When stretching above the $250 price bracket, you will start seeing higher wattage specs - 100 watts and above - plus larger drivers and the inclusion of integrated subwoofers. These are the main factors for getting more grown-up audio performance - fuller yet tight bass, transparent mid registers and silky top frequency content. Some higher quality speaker docks (above $450) can really sound (close to) spectacular, also on account of the audio circuitry and choice of components. The amplification and the DACs used (Digital-to-Analog Converters - the hardware chips converting digital audio to analog sound) make a crucial difference and combination of features, components and quality of build really can justify the higher price tags.
With Apple’s dramatic spec changes and u-turns, iOS docking speakers have gone through several compatibility challenges and are largely classed as ‘old’ and ‘new’ on account of their docking connection. The original 30-pin i-connector is a legacy protocol not supported by newer products - since October 2012, Apple has been using the smaller 8-pin lightning port instead. The cheeky replacement of the old 30-pin design with a lightning connection did create a momentary speaker dock market confusion, but the ‘recovery’ spawned yet more merch ideas: newer lightning port versions of ‘old classic’ docking speaker models and naturally: a myriad of 30-pin to lightning port converters (more on those below) which make some of the legacy docking speakers a real bargain!
Both port varieties are still relevant, as people still use surviving older-generation Apple handhelds and of course there are converters which can easily ‘update’ an older (but good) 30-pin dock speaker to a lightning 8-pin variety. It is interesting to note how Apple's famous, brave design concepts have been emulated by many of the best-selling speaker docks.
Onto Android. When reminded that Android devices command over 80% of the market share, it is easy to see why so many iOS docking speaker models also come in an Android version. Although Android device sales outnumber Apple iOS sales several times over, the higher end of the speaker docks market has been historically largely Apple-focused.
The main reason for that is the wide variety of Android designs. Although the physical port connections (mainly mini-USB, now also USB-C) may be fairly universal, Android devices do come in a myriad of types, sizes and shapes, which makes designing a one-for-all speaker dock close to impossible. As a whole most docking speaker manufacturers have treaded the safer path of catering for the iOS market. It’s interesting that the brilliantly named MatchStick has also joined the ranks, bringing Amazon’s Kindle Fire range of devices up to speed with speaker dock setups - just another proof that these are still a force to be reckoned with.
The converters are mostly self explanatory: just slot them in and they are ready to accommodate a device. It is worth mentioning that not every converter out there is suited for audio, even if it seems compatible - manufacturers do (or should ) point out if this is the case, as some converters can only charge the connected iOS device, as opposed to transmitting audio. The other thing is that using converters may affect port stability, and make the fit unsteady and often require you to remove any case or shells you may have on the device. One last thing - even if certain models may work well with 30-pin and lightning port converters, we have noticed (and flagged) some issues with certain features being inaccessible - as with the Pyle Home in our picks above.
In terms of connectivity, most speaker docks feature at least one additional audio connection - most likely a 3.5mm mini-jack input. But it is increasingly common, almost expected, even, to have some sort of wireless connectivity - whether it is AirPlay as part of an existent Wi-Fi setup (via a Ethernet port) or Bluetooth streaming. You may also find USB ports and even external (SD card) storage slots. All of that makes speaker docks well suited for general A/V use and such features have extended their ‘life expectancy’ enormously, though as of this year you may well find that you are using them a little less as docks and a lot more as wireless streaming speakers.
As mentioned, docking speakers are often preferred over conventional hifi setups due to their user-friendly convenience, but wattage comparisons (and expectations!) between such differing approaches to home audio entertainment are inevitable.
Wattage refers to how much power a speaker puts out - a rough analogue for how loud it will go. With several exceptions (the four picks at the top of this list) speaker docks exhibit lower wattage than, for example, regular bookshelf speakers. This is still OK as docking speakers are not intended as reference-grade audiophile systems, or designed to have the same power.
It is worth noting how manufacturers measure and quote wattage as this can often be a bit misleading. Since the wattage rating of built-in amplifiers is matched to that of the unit’s speaker drivers, manufacturers quote the figure of the amp module, times two. For instance, if an amp has a continuous power rating (also known as RMS Power) of 20 watts, manufacturers will normally quote 40 watts and this is known as Peak Power.
In many cases, more than one amp module may be present - the second one, for instance, powering the built-in subwoofer. If this second amp is again rated at 20 watts, then the wattage figure on the unit’s spec sheet would be 80 watts Peak Total (as in 2 x 40W).
Why is this slightly misleading? Well, because peak power figures are just for audio labs - referencing a maximum (and very occasional) level peaks. The real, continuous wattage figures actually give the right idea of how this will be translated in ‘loudness’ and this is also a good place to mention that rarely a speaker dock will sound at its best if cranked over three-quarters of its maximum volume capacity.
Take any current A/V Receiver and you will see in the specs at least a few EQ options, volume levelers, HD and surround audio codecs, room correction algorithms and so on. Most speaker docks don’t even have a basic equalizer or even a volume control, relying entirely on the iOS device to act as an actual preamp. What this means is that the smartphone does all the hard work.
This may seem a limitation, but can in fact be turned into an advantage, considering the ‘fluid’ nature of smart devices. Add some cool apps to fine-tune your docking speaker’s audio performance, frequency characteristics and so on, and you’re in business. EQ apps in particular can be real game changers, especially with the often boomy and artificially ‘over-cooked’ bass response of some of the smaller sized docking speakers out there.
If you’ve never used an Equaliser we can give a couple of simple tips. Equalization is at its most efficient when used to dip, rather than boost frequencies - go easy, small changes go a long way! Most user-definable EQs, short for Equalizer, feature the most crucial frequency zones - sub-bass, bass, low mids, high mids, high frequencies (also called treble) tied to a particular ‘fader’ or slider - pretty much following that order from left to right.
These ‘faders’ or sliders (also often found in the device’s regular sound preferences) are very much like a volume control but for a particular frequency ‘zone’ only. If attempting to unclutter the low end and make it cleaner and tighter, we recommend lowering the low bass (far left slider) ever so slightly and the lower mids - normally the (left side) mid-position sliders.
Trying and comparing EQ presets is the best way to ‘calibrate’ your ear and hear as well as see the changes that EQ positions produce. Most apps come with a ton of presets and if you don’t have a clue which EQ to look for in the iOS app store, check out SmartEQ or the brilliant EQu.
Speaking of wireless audio streaming, this is quickly becoming the preferred template of home hi-fi audio and you might be asking yourself, wouldn’t it be better to just go for a wireless-only speaker? Why bother with a dock Well, that may well be the case in a few years - the signs are strong that the hi-fi/home theater industry is headed there. But as of today wired or connected audio still beats wireless streaming in terms of audio quality.
AirPlay which as we have already explained, is Apple’s proprietary wireless protocol. It is lossless and therefore capable of ‘beaming’ not only hi-res audio but video content as well. The feature is often found in (mostly higher end) speaker docks and if yours doesn’t have it you could always consider an Airplay adapter. When available as a feature, the speaker dock needs to ‘talk’ to your Wi-Fi via an Ethernet cable and therefore its wireless performance and coverage is entirely dependent on an existent Wi-Fi home network. Bluetooth on the other hand is lossy protocol format by default and connecting a device through a dock port or audio wired connection will surely ‘sound better’. It’s important to note the version of the speaker dock’s Bluetooth receiver (if present), ok that gets really geeky we know, having to check spec sheets and so on, but for your info, Bluetooth versions before 3.1 can be considered as old school, and not cool either. Versions 4.0, 4.1 and later are the ones good for audio (but not video) streaming and they also support third party high res audio codecs such as aptX.
It would be therefore exciting to see what version 5.0 has in store for us, as it is already announced that it will quadruple range coverage and increase the capacity of wireless data broadcasts by eight hundred percent. We can do the simple maths - this would easily mean that version 5.0 will handle super high-res files with ease! Which would most likely mean death to all cables...and ports. About damn time, if you ask us.