Docking speakers 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.
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. Components and features affect the price and speaker docks start from a handful of dollars for the ‘mini alarm clock’ examples, going up to $30K, as in the now discontinued 10000 Watt Behringer iNuke BOOM. 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.
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm mini-jack
Wireless: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Wattage: 240 Watts (Peak, total)
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. 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 the top spot 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
Inputs: Aux In 3.5mm mini-jack
Wireless: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Wattage: 200 Watts (Peak, total)
What We Like: Looks, volume.
What We Don't: Audio detail could be better.
We like Parrot. Their designs are as quirky as they get without being a plastic dog, and if you take their reverse approach to product names (music - muzik - zikmu) you’ll get a sense of their brand ethos. With the Zikmu speakers, we previously said that despite their film set looks, their audio is quite average for their near-$1,500 price tag. However, they still sound way better than the pick below (Pyle Home at a distant third place). If there is still anything to really complain about, it’s that they feature the older 30-pin port design - a pity, though a suitable 8-pin lightning converter would fix the issue.
Having outlined some of the shortcomings, let’s talk about the good bits. The model comes in a variety of colors (subject to availability) and despite its older version docking port these speakers feature wireless connectivity - both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Although the latter does not support aptX, the Zikmu are NFC (Near Field Communication) capable, which is great for Android devices - just position one on the speaker and they’ll be paired for Bluetooth streaming. The looks and versatility are the strong selling points here. Sure, these sound loud enough (100 Watts RMS) but they are not for anyone looking for a bargain or on a shoestring budget. If money ain’t an issue though, the Parrots are great for any modern living space.
See the Parrot Zikmu
Inputs: Aux-In (RCA)
Wattage: 600 Watts (Peak, total)
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 one or even the Zep following this pick, below. Beware that 30-pin to 8-pin lightning port converters will work but might render the remote control useless.
Pyle Home PHST94IPGL
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: RJ-25 (ethernet), 3.5mm Aux
What We Like: Multiple connection options.
What We Don’t: Streaming not compatible with non-Apple products.
Compared to some of the docks farther down on our list, the B&W Z2 is a beast. To put this in perspective, the 40 watt Z2 has thirteen times the power of the KitSound XDock 4 Plus. The Z2 also features two 87.5mm drivers, which also makes it one of the larger docks on our list. This thing is not your average speaker dock.
The Z2 has a Lightning connector, as well as RJ-25 (ethernet), and 3.5mm Aux. This dock is B&W’s attempt to appeal to Apple users, as the dock itself is powered through AirPlay, Apple’s version of wireless connection. The design is a little strange, with the controls placed in the same space as the Lightning connector, but the unit does come with the standard egg-shaped remote. The Z2 also features a flow port in the back of the dock for bass clarity - something a lot of other dock manufacturers should take note of. As for playback quality, it’s a bright speaker with crisp highs, but you will lose some clarity if you blast the volume. That, unfortunately, means the highs get thinner as the volume gets louder. Still, it's a very decent speaker dock.
See the Bowers and Wilkins Z2
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wireless: AirPlay (via Wi-Fi)
Wattage: 150 Watts (Peak, total)
What We Like: Fantastic package and sound.
What We Don't: Bluetooth receiver would have been nice. And while it's really good, it's tough to find.
Bowers & Wilkins' older Zeppelin model is still tremendous value for anyone sporting an older gen 30-pin iDevice. Although the Zeppelin Air is a few years old now it is a formidable lightning port update to the famous Zep, keeping most of its original specs including the famed flamboyant looks. Bowers & Wilkins are well known for their stylish designs and despite of its somewhat striking shape, the Zep Air still pulls that contemporary smart appearance that is so well suited to any home. They no longer aggressively market this, preferring to stake their rep on the dockless Zeppelin Wireless, but this is still available and a killer choice.
The Zeppelin Air certainly can go loud, but its sound has plenty of clarity and spread and is really 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 and thanks to its centre subwoofer, two midrange drivers and two tweeters, the audio signature is on a par with many ‘proper’ A/V setups. The only reason this is below the Pyle is on account of having slightly less wattage, meaning the latter gives you more bang for your buck. Of course, the presence of the lightning dock supports all current iPlayers but you do get an extra bang for your back with its ability to act as an AirPlay wireless speaker. We explain the (big) difference between Bluetooth and AirPlay wireless streaming in our Buying Advice section below, but it’s worth noting that Zep 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. We say if style and design are as high on your agenda as great sound, the Zeppelin Air might be the one for you.
See the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux, USB
Wattage: 60 Watt (Peak, Total)
What We Like: Very solid performance.
What We Don't: Should be cheaper for what you get.
You might wonder why this is below a pick that is half its price - the answer is simple: clarity. The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Mini is simply more transparent, and in terms of audio quality alone, wins over the Yamaha. But this little CRX-330 combo of a standalone receiver and a pair of speakers is still excellent. Everything looks familiar and self-explanatory, like a pleasant trip to the past. This dock is pretty old, but for people with older 30-pin iDevices (or even lightning port ones, but converted) this Yamaha mini-system could do the job and do it well. It could even resurrect your long-forgotten CD collection (CDs still sound good, you know - better than regular iPod audio. Trust us.)
We like the added bonus of an additional USB port which can be used for yet another source - MP3/WMA file recognition and playback - whether stored on a USB stick or Android device. Wattage (please check our explainer below the picks) is rated at around 60 watts, which is more than enough for casual enjoyment. Another huge potential bonus is the fact that you could upgrade the speakers (with similar wattage but better audio quality) and this could really turn this docking system into a more effective - albeit smaller - audio hub. We really dig it, though we still would watch for that price to drop to around $250, which would make things perfect.
See the Yamaha CRX-330
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 hifi 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
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux, USB
Wattage: 80 Watts (Peak, total)
What We Like: Bookshelf looks and sound.
What We Don't: Quite an old model now.
The AktiMate Micro are an active pair of bookshelf speakers featuring a built-in 30-pin dock on top of the main speaker. By main we mean the one that houses the actual power amp, which in turn powers the ‘slave satellite’ passive speaker via the included cable. By going for such a hybrid design, AktiMate have managed to keep costs down, while still managing an impressive audio performance. A winner of multiple awards (at the time of its release) this little pair measures only at around 40 watts but the sound is very much in line with the looks - sort of a mellow, while tight, classic bookshelf speaker performance. They have none of the overcooked boomy low end normally associated with small plastic speaker enclosures.
Although coming in at half the price of the Sony RDP XA900IP above, if compared head to head, they’d be quite on a par in terms of audio quality. However, if you like to ride the volume high, the Sony above can get several times louder without even breaking a sweat. The AktiMates feature an additional 3.5mm aux in at the back, and it’s also interesting to see the inclusion of a USB port, reserved for computer playback, which means that the AktiMate Micros would act as DACs (Digital to Analog Converters) when in this mode. This really is a worthy little pair and despite its older spec docking port, the speakers represent a great value for money. What was that saying? ‘Old but gold’? Yep, it applies here.
See the AktiMate Micro
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 20 Watts (Peak, Total)
What We Like: Good design, cool sound.
What We Don't: No issues.
Soundfreaq have come up with the cool-looking SoundStep which is a speaker dock that can runs on rechargeable batteries. With a playback time of around seven hours, his looks a bit too smart for a ‘ghetto-blaster’ walk around the park, however. In our opinion it would be perfect for creative professionals needing constant music in the office (whether this is home, or an actual office).
The SoundStep doesn’t really do loud - not even near the AktiMate Micros (above). The wattage here is only around 20 watts, but the sound is pleasantly full - possibly on account of it being a mini 2.1 system (2 x 2” main drivers and a 3” basswoofer). Aside from lightning dock connectivity, the Soundfreaq also features Bluetooth streaming, FM radio (courtesy of the Soundfreaq app) and a mini-jack input for external sources. We like the minor but cool details such as including usb ports for charging additional handhelds and the little slot for the (included) remote, reserved right underneath the base of the unit - they do get easily lost otherwise, don’t they? If supersizing and cranking the level to eleven ain’t your thing, you could do worse than giving this a chance!
See the Soundfreaq SoundStep
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.
We’ve already discussed the impressive RDP XA900IPN further up on this list. 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 (Peak, total)
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 OS (Fire and 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
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 8 Watts (Peak, total)
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
Inputs: USB, Micro-SD (up to 64G)
Wireless: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Wattage: 2 x 5W
What We Like: Wireless and wired charging, good for presentations, all wireless.
What We Don’t: Not audio playback focussed.
The Azpen Dockall D100 is quite the nifty gadget. It’s one of the first speaker docks to feature wireless charging, which almost makes us wonder if it can still be called a “dock”. Just place your phone on the face of the Dockall 100, and your phone will be connected. And if you don’t have a phone with wireless charging - like the majority of us - then you’ll be the perfect candidate for the USB charging ports. The Dockall D100 has wired charging, as well as a 64G MicroSD slot, which the dock refers to as the “TF Card.” This dock has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, so most smartphones should be able to connect. What’s especially cool about this dock is that you can lay your phone or tablet flat on the face, and use it as a display setup for presentations or conference calls. It even has a built-in mic.
Sound quality wise, however, it’s not so impressive. Like most docks, the low end is lacking. But the highs are crisp and bright, which is all we can really say about the sound; beyond that, it's unremarkable. As long as you’re not planning on rocking out, this would be a suitable desktop speaker for the home office.
See the Azpen Dockall D100
Docks: 30-pin, 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wireless: Bluetooth, AirPlay
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: A little outdated.
This dock has been in the running for quite some time now. It was originally released in 2014, just on the cusp of Apple’s Lightning cable change-over. That’s why this might be one of the only docks on the market to feature both 30 pin and Lightning connection. That’s right - you can pull your old iPhone or iPod out of the bin and relive your teenage angst. You just know that thing’s filled with awful pop-punk hits that you once rocked out to. Go on, admit it. We won't tell.
Along with the traditional dock setup, the Pure Contour D1 Dock is compatible with Pure’s Connect App. So, although it doesn’t have a built-in radio function, you can stream thousands of stations and programs through the app. You can also add it to your network for multi-room streaming. The Contour D1 has a clean, bright sound that works well for vocals, but lacks the warmth and richness in music playback that some of the higher quality docks offer. If you’re a fan of podcasts, and just want a dock to charge your phone while you listen to them, we’d suggest the Contour D1.
See the Pure Contour D1
Docks: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
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
Dock: 30-pin, 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux, USB
Wattage: 20 Watts (Total, Peak)
What We Like: It will dock any iPod, iPad or iPhone.
What We Don't: Sound is OK, nothing more than that.
Here’s a pleasant surprise: with this fairly generic-looking docking speaker, you won’t need to buy docking converters as it takes both the older 30-pin devices and the newer 8-pin lightning port generation iPods/iPhones! Hence the name - dual docking. This of course is the strongest selling point, but luckily it doesn’t stop there: the G&S features a Bluetooth receiver, has the standard 1/8" (3.5mm) auxiliary input for non-Apple players and to top it all, you could even fill a flash drive full of MP3 files and the USB port at the back will translate them into a glorious playback. Win!
Glorious might be a bit of an overstatement, though the 10 watt (RMS) capacity is certainly OK for having some ambient music in the background. There’s enough mid and treble clarity, and the bass is there too (though not in spades) with the two acoustic ports at the back helping a bit in the lower end department. Overall, it has good built quality, some really smart features similar to our Richsound Research, and let’s not forget the FM radio and the soft alarm sounds. In the dying era of docking speakers, G&S have come up with a good audio solution for your Apple portable device.
See the G&S Dual Docking Station
Dock: 8-pin (Lightning)
Inputs: 3.5mm Aux
Wattage: 20 Watts (Peak, total)
What We Like: Good volume, wireless connectivity, mic for hands free phone calls.
What We Don't: Bluetooth sound not that great actually.
To end proceedings we have this somewhat generic but nevertheless impressive speaker dock by Inateck. 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
|Jarre AeroBull||$2,460||8-pin||3.5mm||Wi-Fi/BT||240||1 x 5.24", 2 x 2.24"||No|
|Parrot Zikmu||$1,390||30-pin||Aux In, 3.5mm||Wi-Fi/BT||200||Unknown||Yes|
|Pyle Home PHST94IPGL||$500||30-pin||Aux In||No||600||1 x 8", 2 x 3.5", 1 x 1"||Yes|
|B&W Zeppelin Air||$325||8-pin||3.5mm||AirPlay||150||Various||Yes|
|B&W Z2||$236||8-pin||RJ-25, 3.5mm||AirPlay||40||Various||No|
|Yamaha CRX-330||$240||30-pin||3.5mm, USB||No||60||Unknown||No|
|Bose SoundDock III||$218||8-pin||3.5mm||No||Unknown||Unknown||No|
|Azpen Dockall D100||$80||None||USB, Micro-SD||Wi-Fi/BT||10||Various||Yes|
|AktiMate Micro||$200||30-pin||3.5mm, USB||No||80||2 x 4"||Yes|
|Soundfreaq SoundStep||$149||30-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||20||1 x 3", 2 x 2"||No|
|Sony RDP T50IPN||$130||8-pin||3.5mm||No||Unknown||Unknown||No|
|Pure Contour D1 Dock||$64||30/8-pin||3.5mm||AirPlay/BT||20||Various||No|
|Grace Digital MatchStick||$93||8-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||8||Various||No|
|KitSound XDock 4 Plus||$83||8-pin||3.5mm||Bluetooth||3||Unknown||No|
|G&S Dual||$64||8/30-pin||3.5mm, USB||Bluetooth||20||Unknown||Yes|
- 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-skool’ 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. Take the Parrot Zikmu (at number two on this list) - if you are an Apple fan, the designs really complements Apple’s visual ethos while making their devices sound amazing.
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 as in the G&S Dual Docking Station. 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 equaliser 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. Equalisation 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 Equaliser, 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 prefered 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 theatre 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.