Close your eyes and imagine, for a moment, that you've popped to town on a sunny afternoon to buy yourself a speaker dock for your iPhone or iPod. Easy, right?
Well it is until you get to the shops and are confronted by row upon row of the things. All shapes and sizes, from cheap and cheerful to those costing hundreds of pounds. Even if the store attendants encourage you to have a listen to each in turn, a noisy shop floor is hardly a good environment to make an informed choice about which sounds best.
So we had ourselves an early Christmas and collected together dozens of iPod and iPhone docks, put them through their paces and picked out 24 to tell you about.
And by put them through their paces, we mean repeated side-by-side tests - to the point that we're sick of hearing some of our favourite songs!
To make the tests as fair as possible, we switched off our iPod's EQ, although where the docks had built-in EQs, we had a play with these to see if you could boost the sound this way. None will set you back more than £150, and to help you choose, we've divided them into three categories based on price.
As always with our group tests, though, just because something isn't the winner doesn't mean you shouldn't consider it. Some offer extra features you may want, others may represent fantastic value for money. So have a think about the kind of place you want to use your dock now: By your bedside? In the kitchen? In your children's rooms? As a sound system for your TV? Bear this use in mind as you read on.
As with all things in life, you get what you pay for with speaker docks. But don't forget that the sound isn't the only factor here: some of these docks include LCDs, can be connected wirelessly using Bluetooth, have alarm clocks and other fancy features that have to be paid for, and this may come at the expense of good sound.
What we tested...
Up to £60:
01. Altec Lansing InMotion Compact iMT320 - £37
02. Altec Lansing Octiv 102 - £29
03. Gear4 Explorer-SP - £45
04. Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock - £50
05. iLuv App Station iMM190 - £25
06. iLuv Vibe Plus iMM178DAB -£55
07. Logic3 i-Station 26 - £55
08. Philips Fidelio DS3020 - £50
09. KitSound Boom Dock - £87
10. Klipsch iGroove HG - £67
11. Klipsch iGroove SXT - £70
12. Logic3 i-Station SoundBar - £99
13. Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 - £75
14. Logitech S715i - £99
15. Sony RDP-M15iP - £90
16. ViewQuest Retro Radio - £87
17. Altec Lansing Octiv 650 - £129
18. Gear4 HouseParty AirWave - £109
19. JVC UX-SG5B - £150
20. Lenco iPT-2 - £150
21. Panasonic SC-HC05 - £150
22. Sony RDP-X60iP - £120
23. Soundfreaq Sound Step Recharge - £150
24. TEAC Mini Aurb SR80iDAB - £140
iPod and iPhone speaker docks under £60
Test one: Sound quality
Regardless of what bells and whistles you can get on your dock, the most important thing is the audio quality: do the speakers do justice to your favourite music?
Let's start with our least favourite and work our way up to the best. Two that failed to impress us were the iLuv App Station and the Altec Lansing Octiv 102. There's little depth to the sound from the App Station, and while the bass produced by the Octiv 102 surprised us given how small the unit is, it doesn't offer much in the way of treble clarity.
That said, these two are the smallest and most affordable docks we tested, and will do a perfectly good job if you just want to listen to spoken word (or watch videos, in the case of the App Station, which is the only one here that'll dock in landscape), but for music, we'd recommend looking elsewhere.
The iLuv Vibe Plus sits at the top end of this price category, but much of the cost appears to have gone towards extras; the sound feels like an afterthought. To its credit, there's more treble clarity than you get with the App Station or Octiv 102, and the built-in EQ does let you boost the bass or treble, which improves things somewhat. But you can do better for less cash.
Logic3's i-Station 26 offers improved treble over the aforementioned docks so acoustic music comes out well, and its angled speakers do a better job of separating the stereo than most here. Sadly, though, the bass is missing in action, and the midrange is a tad flat and tinny.
For a better, warmer sound at a slightly lower cost, there's the Gear4 Explorer-SP. We were surprised at how much bass oomph emanated from such a thin dock: it's not going to shake the glass in your windows, but there's a definite thump to it when you turn up the volume on a dance track. Even though this comes at the cost of a bit of treble clarity compared to the i-Station 26, we prefer the Explorer-SP's overall picture.
Fans of music that relies on lots of bass will like the Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock, because it can pump it out by the bucketload, especially if you switch its six-preset built-in EQ to the Rock setting. Dance tracks sound deep and punchy, R&B and bassy pop tunes sound nicely fullbodied, and it'll go reasonably loud without distorting. So while it certainly trumps the Altec Lansing iMT320 in the bass department, the latter does a better job of articulating and defining the mid and treble sounds, meaning that we preferred it for acoustic, classical and rock tracks.
Which brings us to the Philips Fidelio DS3020. Within minutes of having plugged our iPod into it, we were smitten, feasting on sound that's in a different league to the others in this category. That's not a slight on the rest, but a testament to how good this is. Most styles of music sound good on the DS3020, especially anything that benefits from its ability to produce crystal clear sound at the top end. Happily, though, that cleanliness doesn't come at the expense of the bass. Rock anthems, dancefloor fillers and R&B hits all have a nice punch to them. Admittedly, some may find it slightly too clinical, especially if you turn the volume up very loud, where the treble got a little bit overpowering. The stereo separation's not great either, but don't let these points put you off, because the DS3020 stands head and shoulders above the competition here.
Test two: Extra features
Pretty much any speaker dock will have extra features thrown in. Of the eight here, three can run off AA batteries (the Altec Lansing iMT320, Philips Fidelio DS3020 and iLuv App Station), while the Gear4 Explorer-SP has a built-in battery that charges from the mains.
If you want a remote control, the Logic3 i-Station 26 and both models from Gear4 come with one. All bar the iLuv Vibe Plus have aux-in sockets.
The iLuv Vibe Plus has a DAB radio built in, while the i-Station 26 and HouseParty SmartDock have a regular FM one, and all three have alarm clocks as well. In fact, the Vibe Plus takes waking you up in the morning to a whole new level of intimacy with a pod you put under your pillow, which will vibrate and play you music until you hit the Snooze button. Different, certainly!
Made for you
They're all 'Made for iPhone' or 'Works with iPhone' certified, and while none suffered interference when the iPhone rang, we found the iLuv Vibe Plus, Altec Lansing Octiv 102 and Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock buzzed if we left the phone docked during a call. Black marks for this.
Other features include on-board controls, which vary from none on the Altec Lansing Octiv 102 to comprehensive ones on the radio-bearing models. Though the Philips Fidelio DS3020 only has volume controls, they're easy to use even if you're not looking at them.
Gear4 has gone for style over usability with the controls on the HouseParty SmartDock: they look sleek, but aren't in intuitive positions.
And the winner is… Philips Fidelio DS3020 £50
However nice it may be to have an alarm clock or radio in your iPod or iPhone dock, these shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. For starters, a quick visit to the App Store will give you apps that provide this functionality and more.
For this kind of dock, your buying choice should be based primarily on sound. While the Altec Lansing iMT320 and Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock are decent enough options, they're blown out of the water by the brilliance of the Philips Fidelio DS3020, which is, without question, our winner.
As we sit listening to it, we have to keep reminding ourselves that sound this good is coming from a dock that's so small and only costs £50. Not only does it sound lovely, with clean treble tones complemented by powerful bass, but it looks stunning, and makes the others look quite, well, old-fashioned.
Its footprint is tiny, so you can squeeze it into even the smallest spaces around your home, and the volume control bar on the front is both functional and smart. It also does what few other docks do, and that's provide proper support for whichever iPhone or iPod model you dock in it, such that it doesn't wobble around as you tap the screen. Rather than have you mess around clipping in dock adapters, your device slots into the Dock connector and rests against the upper part of the speaker. Perfect simplicity.
And its use isn't limited to in the home: pop in some AA batteries and you can take your music out on the road with you, for great tunes on the go.
iPod and iPhone speaker docks £60 - £99
Test one: Sound quality
As we climb into this next price category, you get a noticeable difference in the sound over many cheaper docks: the only one we felt was sub-standard for its £87 price was the View Quest Retro Radio. Available in five colours, the casing looks the part, but the front panel seems cheap in comparison, and the sound is nothing particularly special. Unless you're dead-set on the looks of the thing, we suggest you go elsewhere.
Aside from the Retro Radio, all the docks have something to recommend them sound-wise. The Sony RDP-M15iP pushes out a reasonable amount of bass for such a small unit, but vocals sound a bit flat and lifeless, and the top end isn't as well defined as some other docks. It's by no means a bad system, but at £90, it sounds a bit mediocre compared to the competition in this price band.
You want bass?
The clue to the KitSound Boom Dock's strength is in its name: boy can this behemoth shake the floor. It gives dance music a powerful, full feel and is plenty strong enough to provide the soundtrack to your house party. Our criticism of it, however, is that it's a bit of a one-trick pony: by investing so much in the bass, there's little in the way of treble clarity, meaning that it doesn't do justice to rock or even R&B tracks.
If it is bass you want, there are other options, such as the Klipsch iGroove SXT. Though it doesn't provide the thump of the Boom Dock, the bass is picked out well, and it's certainly powerful enough to give a full sound. There's also more treble to the sound, making it an altogether more versatile option.
Roughly on a par with the iGroove SXT is the similarly priced Logitech Pure Fi Anywhere 2. It's a different kind of sound you get: clearer trebles and mids, and less powerful bass, though it's still well-defined. For their price tags - both around £70 - neither are bad products. But incredibly, you can come slightly down the scale and do even better.
The Klipsch iGroove HG, which costs just £68, is something of a dark horse in this category, since it gives the two most expensive options a real run for their money. Its bass is even more powerful than the costlier iGroove SXT, but that's not the reason we prefer it. What makes this dock stand out is that it doesn't neglect the treble, so rock tracks sound full and well-balanced, with the vocals clearly popping out. And although the front of the dock is concave, the speakers are actually angled outwards, meaning it does a surprisingly good job of separating the stereo, especially given how close together the drivers are set.
For even better separation of the left and right channels, the Logic3 i-Station SoundBar is worth a look. It's a wide beast, but the sound is pleasingly fresh, with a little bit of a bass kick in there, especially if you have a play with the built-in equaliser presets (if you choose to download the accompanying app, you can adjust the five-band EQ yourself).
Our favourite dock, though, is the Logitech S715i. It combines good stereo separation and lovely clear top-end treble with punchy vocals. The bass hasn't been forgotten about either, though. It may not have the fullness or raw thump of the Klipsch iGroove HG or KitSound Boom Dock, but it's nicely balanced with the rest of the sound. This is the most versatile offering here.
Test two: Extra features
Wherever you look here, there's a sprinkling of extras to tempt you. While these shouldn't be the only things you consider, if you're torn between two or more docks after our sound quality tests, these could help you make up your mind over which to go for.
A 3.5mm aux input is standard across the range (except on the Boom Dock, which has red and white RCA phono inputs), with the Klipsch iGroove HG providing an interesting take: for devices without a dock connector (very old iPods, say), there's a cradle that sits over the speaker's dock connector with a short lead attached, meaning you can stand your device in the dock position, even though it's connected using the aux-in. A nice touch.
The Logic3 i-Station SoundBar has RCA inputs, as well as composite and component video out, and the Klipsch iGroove SXT has an S-video output, making these two docks potential complements to your home A/V system - especially the wall-mountable Logic3 model.
A couple include radios as well: the View Quest Retro Radio has a DAB tuner, offering the full range of digital stations, and the KitSound Boom Dock and Logic3 i-Station SoundBar have traditional FM/AM radios.
These three all have built-in clocks, too; the Retro Radio and KitSound Boom Dock can double up as radio alarm clocks, if you're so inclined. If portability's your thing, the internal batteries in both Logitech docks and the Sony RDP-M15iP will appeal. The View Quest Retro Radio can also run off four C-size batteries, though we always find built-in rechargeables more convenient, even if they do add weight.
And the winner is… Logitech S715i - £99
Before we get on to why we've awarded our Editor's Choice gong to the S715i, an honourable mention for the Klipsch iGroove HG. It's almost a third cheaper than the winning Logitech model, but listening to it, you wouldn't think it.
In fact, if you're into the sort of music that benefits from lots of full, punchy bass, we'd probably recommend it over the S715i. Even if you're not, it's worth a look if you don't fancy spending just shy of £100 on the Logitech S715i.
The Logic3 i-Station SoundBar is also a very respectable offering: its variety of audio inputs and video outputs mean it could sit (or hang) under your home TV to provide the soundtrack. The LCD does detract from the appearance a bit, though.
The coveted award for this sub-£100 category goes to the £99 Logitech S715i for one key reason: its versatility. Its sound attributes do justice to just about any kind of music you throw at it: rock sounds crisp yet powerful; pop is punchy; dance sounds deep and full but doesn't lose the top end; and classical sounds nice and clean.
The key thing is its ability to produce those crystal-clear treble sounds, but the bass is by no means left behind. There's an almost tactile thump to the sound when it's cranked up. It's not going to shake the floor like the KitSound Boom Dock or the Klipsch iGroove HG, but its all-round sound is better.
Its versatility goes beyond its audio prowess, too. As long as you keep it charged, the internal battery allows you to take the dock anywhere in your house and beyond to provide the soundtrack to your life.
iPod and iPhone speaker docks £100 - £150
Test one: Sound quality
We're moving well past impulse-buy territory here; as the price edges over that £100 mark, you want to be sure you're getting a good product for your cash. So let's first of all strike one of these off the bill, since it sounds, quite frankly, dreadful compared to the others.
We're talking about the Gear4 HouseParty AirWave. While it boasts plenty of extra features, the sound's about as flat as a open bottle of Coke that's been sitting in the fridge for two weeks.
The Soundfreaq Sound Step Recharge also failed to excite us. The whole picture was just a bit, well, meh, especially for £150. There's some treble clarity but not much, little in the way of bass, and vocals sound a bit constrained. Like with the Gear4 HouseParty AirWave, your money's paying for the added features, rather than pure audio quality.
The Panasonic SC-HC05 also left us disappointed with its lack of attention to detail at the treble end. There's bass aplenty - which makes dance tracks sound good - but with the top end so weak, you lose a dimension from most other styles.
Might makes right
Now, the giant Lenco iPT-2. You can feel the testosterone oozing from its imposing form even before you dock your iPhone in it. And when you do, Lenco is keen for you to know about its audio might, especially the thumpingly powerful subwoofer. It's the kind of bass you feel deep in your bones, and it goes loud enough to fill a reasonably sized room.
The caveat is that it's light on the treble. It does have a two-band EQ you can alter to taste, turning down the bass and boosting the treble if you wish, but even when you crank the latter right up, there's not the clarity that others offer. Decent for dance and R&B, but we'd recommend one of the other docks for some added sophistication.
The JVC UX-SG5B, with its separate speakers, produces the sort of stereo separation and spatial sound that you just can't get with a one-piece dock; big thumbs up, in our eyes (or should that be ears?). Its overall sound is solid and fairly balanced, if unspectacular. The bass isn't as full as you get with the Lenco iPT-2 or Altec Lansing Octiv 650, and the treble isn't as clean, but vocals come to the fore nicely. And because they're separate speakers, there's always the option to hook up different ones.
Moving to the understated Sony RDPX60iP, we at last get some of that treble crispness that's been missing so far. Songs that sounded flat on all bar the TEAC SR80iDAB and Altec Lansing's Octiv 650 suddenly have a sparkle about them. The bass won't pound in the same way as with the Lenco iPT-2, but it's adequate if you're just listening at lower volumes, especially with the Mega Bass setting.
TEAC's SR80iDAB impressed us, thanks to its excellent balancing of the different parts of our music. The treble's clean but not tinny, the bass is well-defined (if a bit weak for bassy pop and dance anthems) but the vocals stand out beautifully.
Finally, there's the Altec Lansing Octiv 650. We've always been in two minds about this one. It'll produce beautifully clean treble, creating a bright and detailed sound picture. Then there's its subwoofer, which - even when dialled right down using the built-in EQ - is constantly thumping away, just in case you forget it's there. We don't mind this, since it undoubtedly adds depth and fullness to your music, but some may find it too much. And if you push the bass EQ the other way, it'll shake your floors.
Test two: extra features
Plenty of good added features here: all eight have remote controls, and we especially liked the more substantial one that comes with the TEAC SR80iDAB. Those provided by Lenco, JVC and Altec Lansing give a good amount of control, too.
And speaking of wirelessness, the Soundfreaq Sound Step Recharge, Panasonic SC-HC05 and Sony RDP-X60iP let you send audio to them over Bluetooth, meaning your device needn't be docked, and the Sound Step Recharge has a built-in battery too, so doesn't even have to be plugged into the mains. Thumbs up.
Video outputs are also popular, with composite sockets on the models from Soundfreaq, Lenco, TEAC, and Altec Lansing. The latter also offers component video out. This feature is useful if you keep lots of videos on your iPhone or iPod and want to watch them on your TV, but remember that composite quality is low.
All eight have additional audio inputs for greater versatility. The Lenco iPT-2 and TEAC SR80iDAB have RCA (red and white phono connectors), with the rest all having 3.5mm aux input sockets. The iPT-2 also has an SD/MMC slot, while the systems from TEAC and JVC have USB ports for sound input.
While we're on the topic of the JVC UX-SG5B, it even has a CD player and FM radio. You'll also find FM and DAB radios in the TEAC SR80iDAB and Gear4 HouseParty AirWave. The latter dock even boasts a built-in internet radio receiver. Add to this the clock and alarms and it seems like the perfect bedside dock, but the control buttons are tricky to press.
And the winner is… Altec Lansing Octiv 650 £129
The importance of choosing a dock to suit your needs is highlighted here more than it ever has been. Our gong goes to the Altec Lansing Octiv 650, for reasons we'll get to shortly, but take a moment to consider the Sony RDP-X60iP and TEAC SR80iDAB.
At £120, the RDP-X60iP makes an excellent audio system for in a small room, such as your study, student hall or bedroom. It's relatively small and the sound that emanates from its speakers is balanced.
We also like the TEAC SR80iDAB, primarily for its ability to provide a nicely balanced sound picture where it picks out the vocals well. But we just felt its bass was a tad on the weak side to do justice to styles of music that require a bit of extra depth.
So our winner is the Octiv 650. Ultimately, speaker docks must fulfil one key purpose: to help you get as much enjoyment as possible out of your favourite music. And whatever genre we chose, the 650 delivered. The bass can be overpowering, we don't dispute that. We found ourselves turning it right down and boosting the treble using the built-in EQ to get the sound picture we wanted for a lot of genres.
But requiring you to adjust the sound to taste is no crime; different styles of music benefit from different settings, and the fact that you can tweak things here is a plus. And if you do want some pounding bass, the Octiv 650 will deliver it without fuss, without compromising treble clarity. The unit itself is fairly small and unobtrusive, and at £129, it's not prohibitively expensive either.