Soundfreaq Sound Step
In 2010, an upstart company called Soundfreaq came out of nowhere with a versatile, snazzy, and sonically solid speaker dock called the Sound Platform. For the company's sophomore release, Soundfreaq took the same concept and aimed smaller, producing the Sound Step (SFQ-02).
Priced at $139, the Sound Step can charge and play music from any of your mobile gadgets, including the Apple iPad, iPhone, and iPod. For an extra $20, you can purchase a model with a rechargeable battery called the Sound Step Recharge, which offers all of the same features plus 6 hours of battery life.
Measuring 13 inches wide, 3.75 inches tall, and 5 inches deep, the shoebox-size Sound Step could be at home on either a nightstand or a countertop. The minimal design has a refined Sony quality to it that doesn't call attention to itself.
The body is mostly made from plastic, with a matte finish on the top and a high-gloss finish around the sides and back. A cloth-covered speaker grille on the front conceals a pair of 1.5-inch drivers that are spaced far enough apart to not be obscured by a docked iPad. There are signs of some clever porting between the speakers to help with overall tuning and maximize the effect of the 2-inch woofer tucked away on the back of the unit.
Beneath the speakers you'll find the 30-pin dock connection, compatible with Apple's iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. If you're using the Sound Step with non-Apple devices, you can use the full-size USB port on the back and conceal the dock connection on the front with an included rubber bumper.
The small buttons on the front of the Sound Step are responsive to the slightest touch. On the left you'll find buttons for each of the three sound sources (dock, Bluetooth, and aux input), as well as a button to activate Soundfreaq's UQ3 audio enhancement mode. Buttons for power, volume, track skip, play/pause, and Bluetooth pairing are located on the right.
On the back are sockets for the power adapter, aux input, and FM antenna wire. The full-size USB charging port is also back here, along with a composite video output for running video from your docked Apple gadget out to a TV. Overall, there's a nice selection of extras back here, but the use of a clumsy FM antenna wire works against the compact, minimal design--especially if you're springing for the portable model.
One final design extra on the Sound Step is a little fitted slot in the bottom of the speaker for the included remote control. If you tend to lose your remotes, or rarely use them, this cubbyhole is a nice detail. The remote itself is unspectacular. You get controls for volume, mute, track skip, play/pause, audio enhancement, and source, and an operating range of 10-15 feet. We're happy to have it, but didn't find many occasions to use it. After all, one of the great things about Bluetooth speakers is that the mobile device basically becomes a remote control (one with better range, too).
In addition to a dock that supports the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, the Sound Step offers an FM radio, composite video output, line input, UQ3 audio enhancement, an extra USB port, wireless Bluetooth audio, and the remote control mentioned above. Again, the Sound Step Recharge has these features plus a 6-hour rechargeable battery.
You should take the Sound Step's FM radio capabilities with a grain of salt, though. In order to take advantage of it, you must first download a free app to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch and use the docked device as your tuner interface. Without an iOS device to plug in, there's no radio. If you do have an iOS device in the dock, it raises the question of why you're bothering with terrestrial FM radio when there are so many great music and news programs you can stream to the device. It would be one thing if you were catching a local game over an AM station--but AM isn't an option.
Still, feature for feature, the Sound Step offers a better value than competing wireless or iPad-compatible docks in this price range. For example, an iPad-centric speaker like the Altec Lansing Octiv Stage lacks the FM radio, USB charging port, Bluetooth audio, remote control, and video output. The same can be said when you put the Sound Step up against a portable Bluetooth speaker like the Jawbone Jambox (with the exception of wireless audio).
Unfortunately, the favorable comparisons fall apart when you give the Sound Step a listen.
The Sound Step's sound quality is disappointing. In a sonic shootout between the Sound Platform, the Philips Fidelio DS8500, and the Logitech S715i, the Sound Step was left lying in the dust with its thin, lifeless sound.
In Soundfreaq's defense, most of the speakers we compared the Sound Step against offer only half as many features as the Sound Step (though all are in the same size and price range). But when the word "sound" is in both your company name and product name, it tends to set certain expectations.
Our disappointment was also compounded by our love of last year's Sound Platform, which is still available and priced only a few dollars higher than the Sound Step. You can't dock your iPad in the Sound Platform, but it remains one of our top choices for iPad users due to its Bluetooth audio capability and great sound quality.
Once you get past the gee-whiz factor of all the features included in this speaker dock you'll have to come to terms with the fact that the Sound Step falls flat when it comes to a speaker's most fundamental purpose--making your music sound good. If you're looking for a great speaker for your iPhone or iPod, you should visit CNET's list of the best iPod and iPhone speakers.