Fluance may be far from a household name, but we were blown away by the value and performance ratios of its SX-HTB and AV-HTB 5 home theater speaker packages when we reviewed them here on CNET many years ago.
Now the Canadian company has entered the fiercely competitive iPhone/iPod speaker-dock market with the FiSDK500 and managed to pull off the same feat, delivering a winning combination of excellent performance and a distinct design for just $200.
Nearly all iPod speakers are made of plastic, so we were happy to see the FiSDK500 features a sturdy medium-density fiberboard cabinet, finished in high-gloss black paint. It's also a bigger than average model and measures 20.4 by 5.8 by 7.1 inches, and weighs 13.4 pounds. Sleek, the FiSDK500 is not, but it is distinct looking, and when it comes to sound quality, size still matters.
The FiSDK500 has stereo .6-inch soft dome tweeters mounted in the center of its 5-inch woven fiberglass woofers. That's pretty exceptional. "Two-way" tweeter and woofer iPod speakers are rarely seen in this price range, and they usually have much smaller drivers. For example, Altec Lansing's Octiv 650 iPod speaker ($200) is an above-average performer, but it doesn't have tweeters, Rather, it features two 3-inch "full-range" drivers, plus a bottom-firing 4-inch "subwoofer." The Octiv 650A is a lot smaller and about one-third the FiSDK500's weight.
Built-in stereo 10 watt per channel amps provide the get-up-and-go for the speakers. Connectivity options beyond the multipin iPod dock include stereo RCA inputs, plus composite and S-Video outputs for routing iPod/iPhone images or videos to a TV. The top of the speaker has power on/off, input selector, and volume up and down buttons directly in front of the dock connector. The small plastic remote duplicates those controls and adds bass and treble controls that operate in 10, 2 dB steps, from -10 to +10. It's easy to fine-tune the sound to your liking. The remote can also navigate through your iPod/iPhone's menu options.
Clearly, Fluance didn't build just another "me-too" product. Another noteworthy touch worth highlighting is the hardwired AC power cord. Most powered speakers come with an external, wall-wart power supply, but FiSDK500's power supply is in the unit and it has a simple power cord that terminates in a two-prong plug.
The speaker comes with a two-year parts and labor warranty.
As with most other iPod speakers, the FiSDK500 sounds best from 3 to 6 feet away. Listen from much farther than that and you'll start to become aware of its size and you won't get much stereo effect (the speakers are just a little more than 12 inches apart from center to center). However, listening close up the stereo imaging is surprisingly good. There's a nice sense of spatial depth and image focus is pretty good.
The FiSDK500's size advantages over typical $200 iPod speakers are immediately obvious in the way it sounds. Bass avoids the thick and bloated sound we've heard from countless small docking speakers. The bass is powerful but never overdone and pitch definition is excellent.
Trent Reznor's savage "Driver Down" from the "Lost Highway" soundtrack was potent, even when the sound is turned up fairly loud. That said, the FiSDK500 has its limitations compared with actual hi-fi speakers, but if you really want an iPod speaker that can play loud we'd suggest Monster's Beatbox, which sells for around double the FiSDK500's price. The Beatbox will play louder, but we think the FiSDK500 sounds more refined and clear.
And clarity is what really separates the FiSDK500 from its competitors. Listening to She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M.Ward), we were mightily impressed by the speaker's midrange detail; voices, strings and percussion all sound remarkably natural. It's also nice to have the option of fine-tuning the sound with the bass and treble controls, and again few docking speakers offer that level of adjustability. (A remote is included with the unit).
We also used the FiSDK500 as a sound bar speaker with our 32-inch Samsung LNT3242H TV. If anything, the FiSDK500 sounded even better playing movies. The "Hanna" DVD, in which Saoirse Ronan plays a young girl trained by her ex-CIA dad to be an assassin, sounded great. Dialog was clear, and the realistic looking and sounding fight scenes packed a wallop. The only real downside to using the FiSDK500 as a sound bar is its lack of stereo separation when you're listening from more than 6 feet away.
The FiSDK500 might be too big a speaker for some people, but it will be ideal for anyone looking for the best-sounding $200 iPod/iPhone speaker on the market.