Believe it or not, iPod speakers were once rare objects--and Bose's SoundDock was one of the first to hit the market back in 2004. Since then, the company has followed up with the SoundDock II ($299) and the SoundDock Portable ($399), even as the iPod speaker category has become completely commoditized (nowadays, there are plenty of sub-$100 clock radios with built-in iPod docks). For the 2009-2010 buying season, Bose has gone back to the drawing board and produced the SoundDock 10.
Bose says it worked for several years on this new speaker system for the iPod and iPhone, with the lofty goal of building a product that can deliver "audio performance previously unattainable from a one-piece speaker system for iPod." The SoundDock 10 is bigger and more expensive (costing a whopping $599) than previous SoundDock models, but it's still relatively compact, measuring 17 inches wide by 9 inches high by 10 inches deep, and has a nice clean, understated design that gives the whole system a classy look.
We really liked the design, though it's worth noting that since there are no buttons on the unit itself, you have to use the included remote to control playback. Lose the remote and you'll have a problem, especially when it comes to adjusting volume. (The remote controls your iPod's basic functions, and, while the system does have a video output, Apple doesn't allow the iPod menus to be displayed on a TV or other video source, which would make it much easier to navigate the device from afar.)
The centerpiece of the unit is a hefty, custom woofer, bracketed by two Bose Twiddler transducers (no, that's not a new social-networking site; it's a combination of a high-frequency transducer and midrange driver). The woofer alone adds a lot of weight to the unit, and while the speaker can be moved around the house easily enough, the SoundDock 10 weighs a beefy 18.9 pounds (that's three times as much as the aforementioned SoundDock Series II and SoundDock Portable). Held in hand, this model feels quite substantial and well built.
As far as extra features go, you don't get a whole lot. There's no radio or clock, but you do get an audio input for other audio devices and a composite-video output for showing iPod/iPhone images or videos when connected to a TV. While Bose is known for its sound and not its video, we wish it had incorporated a component-video connection because composite video really offers a mediocre picture. Particularly at this price point, if you're going to include video, you might as well make it decent.
Bose also has equipped the SoundDock 10 with a proprietary interchangeable docking architecture, which it says is designed to "future-proof" the system and make it compatible with any hot media players or smartphones that might come along (around back, there's a USB port for uploading any future firmware updates). For instance, if Microsoft's Zune really took off, it could add a dock for that, but right now it's only offering an optional Bluetooth dock that costs an additional $149. For 600 bucks, you'd have hoped Bose would have integrated Bluetooth into the unit, but it didn't.
As you might imagine, that Bluetooth dock allows you to stream music wirelessly from your iPod Touch or iPhone to the SoundDock 10 using your Apple device as a source and a remote. When you move too far away from the device--we got about 40 feet away--or run into some interference issues (i.e., microwaves or other Bluetooth devices), a light starts blinking on the dock, which alerts you that the quality of stream may be affected. If the light blinks faster, you're more likely to have a problem.
For our Bluetooth tests, we used an iPhone 3GS, and the Bluetooth worked well. While Bluetooth streaming compresses the audio, we didn't notice a marked difference in sound quality (the degradation was only very slight). All in all, we really liked the option of using our iPhone as remote, but there's one serious drawback to the Bluetooth dock: if you have it plugged in, you can't charge your iPod or iPhone in the SoundDock 10. That's just unfortunate.
In terms of sound quality, the first thing you'll notice is that the SoundDock 10 plays loud and doesn't distort when you crank your tunes. Typically, most compact iPod audio systems just can't fill a large room with sound, but this model definitely plays much bigger than it looks.
We played an eclectic mix of music--everything from Bach to Dan Aurebach to Elvis Costello to Rihanna and Lady Gaga. The sound is rich, detailed, and well-balanced. That specially designed woofer delivers lots of bass. While it's not incredibly tight, it does have some good thump to it, and we agree with Bose that the SoundDock 10 has some party chops.
While some people might lament the lack of bass and treble controls, Bose tends to cater to an audience that isn't inclined to tweak their audio settings and just wants a system that's optimized out of the box. (Note: In some ways we prefer testing products that are optimized by the manufacture because it help eliminate a layer of subjectivity.)
So, does Bose deliver on its lofty sound goals? In large part, yes. For a compact speaker system, the SoundDock 10 sounds really good. If there's a weakness, it is that, like most iPod speakers that have their drivers placed right next to each other, you don't get much in the way of stereo separation. (Bose reps explained that its engineers designed the drivers to fire off at an angle rather than straight ahead, but you still don't get much stereo separation.) Despite that shortcoming, you'd be hard-pressed to find an iPod speaker system this compact that delivers better sound.
Of course, there's that little nagging issue of price. Six hundred bucks is a lot to spend on an iPod speaker and you can get home-theater-in-a-box systems that sound better for the same amount of money or even slightly less. You can also pick up something like the Altec LansingMix iMT800 iPod/iPhone boom box or the iHome iP1 for half the price of this model, but you're not going to get quite as good sound (the iMT800 is fairly close, however) or the upscale look of the Bose. B&W and Geneva also make iPod speakers in this price range that sound really good. However, their designs are more unique and may turn some people off.
Weighing the SoundDock 10's pluses and minuses, it's pretty easy to say that it's not for everyone. Its price is high and we wish Bose had integrated Bluetooth into the unit and not made it an extra feature that costs an additional $150. But if you're someone who's less concerned about price and really values the concept of a compact iPod/iPhone audio system that looks classy, plays loud (without distorting), and sounds really good for its size, we have no problem recommending the SoundDock 10. It's also worth noting that Bose does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can test it out yourself and return the thing for a full refund if you don't think it's worth $600.