Bose has real chutzpah. Three years ago--an eternity in tech time--it brought out the Bose SoundDock iPod speaker system for $300. Now the company has released the SoundDock Portable, a slightly smaller mobile version of the SoundDock, complete with lithium-ion rechargeable battery and recessed carrying handle. Most companies would simply lower the price on the older SoundDock to, say, $250--or even $200--and release the SoundDock Portable at $300. Not Bose--it leaves the SoundDock at $300 and is offering the portable version for $400.
We rarely feature price so prominently in the opening paragraph of a review, but in this case it seems appropriate considering price is this product's main sticking point--or at least the one thing everybody seems to balk at when we mention it. And that's too bad, because the SoundDock Portable is an attractive iPod accessory. Available in black or white, it has nice clean lines, a nifty little hideaway dock that swivels open and closed when you press on one corner, a simple-to-use remote, an auxiliary input for connecting other portable devices, and decent performance. But tell someone it costs $400 (after they listen to it) and you'll get plenty of head shakes. And to be clear, that's a firm $400--you won't find this discounted at Amazon or Buy.com.
So, are you a sucker if you decide to buy this thing? Not exactly, but you sort of have to embrace the idea of overpaying for a product and not worrying about it. It helps that the SoundDock Portable is well-built. Pick it up and you'll notice that it's got a nice heft to it. Weighing a tad less than five pounds and measuring 6.75 inches tall, 12 inches wide, and just more than 4 inches deep, it's almost the perfect size: light enough to carry around but heavy enough to make you feel that it's made up of quality components.
There are smaller--and much less expensive--portable iPod speaker options out there; the Altec Lansing iM600 ($120 street) and the Logitech mm50 (soon to be replaced by the Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere) come to mind. Those flatter models are easier to pack in a suitcase, while the fatter Bose is probably better-suited to being moved from room to room at home (or out on the deck). Its bigger size means it'll offer a richer sound, with more clarity and better bass--and play flat-out louder, too. While the Altec Lansing's built-in rechargeable battery is rated at 7 hours and the Logitech's at 10, the Bose's is rated at just 3 hours--though Bose says you'll get several hours more if you keep the volume at mid to lower levels. As for the SoundDock Portable's battery, we did appreciate that it's detachable and replaceable, though they'll cost a steep $89. (Thankfully, you should get several years of use before needing a replacement.)
It's worth mentioning that when your iPod is docked and the SoundDock isn't plugged in, its battery not only powers the speaker but keeps your iPod charged at the same time. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but chances are the speaker's going to lose its charge before your iPod does, so it might not be the most efficient use of power.
A couple of other nitpicks: a lot of today's iPod speaker systems have built-in AM/FM radios. This one doesn't. Also, you won't find any bass and treble controls on the unit or its remote. If you want to play around with the EQ settings on your iPod, you can (we turned the EQ to "off" because any other setting seemed to have an adverse effect on the sound), but the speaker's settings are fixed and you get the impression that the speaker is processing/filtering your music to optimize it for the speaker's frequency range. That's mostly a good thing, but some audio purists might find the lack of flexible controls unsettling.
The body of the speaker itself has only two buttons--volume up and down--while the remote has just eight buttons that offer basic control over your iPod. You can skip tracks forward and back, pause and play tracks, do some rudimentary menu navigating, raise and lower the volume, and turn the speaker off. The remote is well-designed, with a rubberized coating on its face and buttons below that feel nice and tactile. No complaints there, but just remember you'll need to walk up to the unit to see the iPod's screen if you're looking for a particular song.
As far as the sound goes, we tested the SoundDock Portable with a variety of musical styles, and it did well compared to other compact iPod speakers. We went through a mix of songs--a variety including the Arcade Fire, Snoop Dogg, Annie Lennox, Prince, the Fray, and Angelo Badalamenti (the Twin Peaks theme), and more. A couple of severely bass-heavy tracks on Prince's 3121 album brought the little Bose to its knees (read: things got a little crunchy), but all in all, the low end held together well, even at relatively high volumes.
We expected the system to sound best with acoustic material, which tends not to challenge small speakers, but we were surprised to find that it actually did better with the pop and hip-hop stuff; the midrange just isn't as tight as you'd hope. That said, the speaker does play fairly loudly, particularly for its size, and is well-suited for deck and poolside listening. It will also fill a small to midsize room with sound, but like a lot of other compact iPod speakers, you won't get much stereo separation unless you stand directly in front of the speaker, a few feet away from it.
The Bose SoundDock Portable is easy to sum up. This is a nice product with good sound and solid build quality. It's missing one key feature--a built-in AM/FM radio--and it's at least $100 overpriced. What can we say? Buy it if you can live without the radio and don't mind paying a premium for the Bose name. Those on a tighter budget would do better with something along the lines of the aforementioned Altec Lansing or Logitech solutions, or even the dockless Tivoli Audio iPAL.