Shopping for a speaker dock has to be one of the most daunting choices any music lover has to make. There are thousands: big ones, small ones, weird ones, blue ones... It's enough to make you want to stick with headphones. But cordoned off behind a velvet rope at the back of the shop are the special ones.
These audiophile iPhone speaker docks are a select bunch, full of high-class brand names, and they come with high price tags to match. What makes them different is that sound quality is their prime consideration, not just an adjunct to an iPod battery charger and some funny flashing lights.
The £499 Arcam rCube is our first port of call. It took the audio experts at A&R Cambridge three years to develop this little black box, and it's packed with amazing features: from its clever handle recess to the fact that you can stream music to up to four rCubes located in different rooms around your home.
Its arch-rival is the identically priced B&W Zeppelin Air: a heavily revamped version of the original Zeppelin with improved electronics and speaker drive units for an even better sound - it now features Apple's wireless speaker technology, AirPlay.
Moving up the price band a tad at £549 are our next two: the Geneva Lab Model 8 and Bose SoundDock 10. Both are rather ordinary looking when compared to the Arcam rCube or B&W Zeppelin Air, but they promise great sound aplenty.
Then finally comes the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8, a speaker dock that looks like it was beamed down from another planet - and costs the Earth to own at £895. Is it worth the money? Let's find out in our best iPhone speak dock test!
There's really only one way to test high-end speaker docks like these, and that's to load up your iPod, iPad or iPhone with some Apple Lossless tracks with a side order of 256kbps iTunes downloads. You then have to subject each dock to some rigorous testing with a wide variety of music from stirring, soaring classical to bass-heavy rock and Disco Stu-style, erm, disco.
First off the blocks is the Arcam rCube, which manages to pack in two side-mounted mid/bass drive units and two high-frequency tweeters into its tiny frame.
To get the best sound out of it, you'll need to stick it in a corner at a 45° angle, although Arcam has also included a bass boost button which beefs up low frequencies so you can place the rCube in open space, away from the bass-enhancing properties of walls and corners.
Sound quality's very good, with crisp, clean mids and highs that really let your music sing, although the bass is a little warm and lacking in low-end grunt.
Sadly for fans of wacky stereo effects, the rCube's soundstage isn't huge - although that's something that all the docks on test suffer from to a great or lesser extent: it's hard to get real stereo separation when your speakers are packed so close together. The Arcam rCube's volume levels aren't enormous either.
The Arcam rCube's closest rival in terms of sound quality and cash money is the B&W Zeppelin Air - essentially a revamped version of the original Zeppelin that should boast improved sound quality thanks to its jazzed-up speakers and electronics. These changes are immediately impressive, with the Zeppelin Air delivering a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy sound that instantly makes you want to get up and dance around the room. Even to classical.
This is no doubt down to the Zeppelin Air's 2.1 speaker arrangement, which delivers prodigious amounts of deep bass, but the speakers can do subtle, too.
In fact, it sounds great with almost anything. What we really like about it is how grown-up it sounds; not so much a speaker dock on steroids as a proper hi-fi wrapped in an exquisitely designed shell.
Next up is the most expensive unit in our test: the £895 Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8: a speaker dock that's centred on a wide bar of aluminium and plastic with two enormous cones at either end.
Peel off the removable grilles from each one and you'll find a tweeter and mid/bass driver - but you're better off keeping them on. Ugly isn't a strong enough word.
However, we're happy to say that the BeoSound 8 more than makes up for it with a sound that puts it within spitting distance of the Arcam and B&W. Its big, bold presentation practically begs you to keep it playing, and you soon find yourself spinning through your music collection to find out what hidden secrets its sound will reveal. The BeoSound 8's biggest problems really lie elsewhere, but we'll come to those.
After the BeoSound 8 comes Bose and its SoundDock 10 - a surprisingly compact, yet heavy speaker dock that promises high quality. As a performer, however, it's strangely unengaging. You find yourself admiring its technique without feeling the mark of inspiration.
That could be because the SoundDock is so well behaved; it'll handle virtually any kind of music that you throw its way, but only rarely makes you sit up and take notice. As a music system, it's more suited to background listening - an ideal accompaniment to a dinner party.
Finally we come to the Geneva Lab Model M, another big and brassy speaker dock that also boasts a built-in FM tuner.
Looks-wise, it's nothing much to shout about, but its sound quality is something else; it offers a crisp, clean and coherent presentation, matched with plenty of bass, but it's a little too clinical with dance and rock - something that can make it hard work to listen to for extended periods.
The Geneva Lab Model M fares much better with classical music and vocal recordings, its room-filling sound being both thrilling and enjoyable to hear.
The Arcam rCube has it made if the best things do come in small packages. It's the dock that feels the most considered in terms of design. The downside is that some features cost extra, such as the rWand (£70) and rWave (£79) dongles, which enable you to stream music from an iPod or Mac.
Only the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8 is physically capable of accommodating the iPad, although its low-slung docking brace doesn't reassure.
Of the rest, the B&W Zeppelin Air offers the most flexibility thanks to Apple's AirPlay, but setup can be tricky, while the Bose SoundDock 10 is let down by an indifferent remote and a lack of on-board controls.
The Geneva Lab Model M fares better; its controls include an iPod-like scroll wheel.
When you're paying a princely sum for a speaker dock, you expect its build to be top notch. That's true of the models here, save for the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8, which is not only the most expensive, it also feels the least robust.
We've already mentioned the fact that its removable grilles reveal a rather unlovely - and vulnerable - set of drive units, but behind its brushed aluminium front lurk poor-quality plastics and a flimsy panel that hides the power socket, audio inputs and mini-USB port. Even the remote feels cheap in the hand, its back pockmarked with screws that reveal a lack of attention to detail.
Apple would never get away with something this shoddy, so why B&O thinks it can on a £895 product is a mystery.
The best iPhone speaker dock is...
B&W Zeppelin Air
Let's get one thing straight right away: compared to your average run-of-the-mill, cheapie speaker dock, every one of our five is a revelation. It's hard to believe how great your music can sound when you team it with a machine that will do it justice.
All those naysayers who criticise Apple's devices as audio sources have it wrong; as long as you feed them with good quality AAC or Apple Lossless files, these speaker docks are an inspiration, as you'd expect from the premium pricetags that they command.
But since we have to decide between them, here we go.
First to fall are the Bose SoundDock 10, Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 8 and the Geneva Lab Model M. None are bad, per se, but all disappoint in slightly different ways.
The Bose SoundDock 10 fares worse because it simply fails to set your pulse racing in the way that an audiophile speaker dock should. It's like someone's put in all the ingredients for a fabulous dinner and then forgotten to add the seasoning.
The Bang & Olufsen fails because of its indifferent build quality and high price tag, while the Geneva Lab Model M falls short on its limited appeal - its aesthetics (or lack of them) won't please everyone, and it's really only suited to classical or vocal/easy listening.
Compared to these three, the Arcam rCube and B&W Zeppelin Air are in a different league entirely.
The Arcam's clever packaging, great sound quality and attention to detail are both inspiring and inspired, but it's pipped to the post by the rollicking B&W Zeppelin Air.
It does very little wrong, sounds fantastic with any kind of music, looks absolutely awesome and offers a fair degree of future-proofing and flexibility to boot. It's also great value for money at £499.