Best iPad speaker dock: 5 reviewed
16th Oct 2011 | 11:00
Top speaker docks for your iPad - from £60 to £350
Best iPad speaker dock: 5 reviewed
The first extra thing you buy when you get an iPhone is likely to be a speaker dock, and with good reason: having one gives you somewhere safe to set your iPhone down, that keeps its charge topped up and ready to go, and that gives your music some richness and power compared to the reedy little built-in speaker.
And it's exactly the same with an iPad, except up until now there haven't really been enough speaker docks built for Apple's tablet for us to be able to out them together in an iPad speaker dock group test.
Happily, though, we've brought five together here, and spent weeks listening to all kinds of music on them, using them every day with both the original and second-generation iPads to reveal which is the best iPad speaker dock.
It's worth nothing that although we've specifically picked speaker docks that work with an iPad, all the models here will work with an iPhone or iPod touch too. Those from Altec Lansing, iLuv and, to a lesser extent, iHome look a bit silly with an iPhone docked instead of an iPad, but JBL's OnBeat and especially Philips' Fidelio DS9010 look great.
Because there are still so relatively few speaker docks for iPads, we've got a broader range of features and prices in this group than we'd normally like, which is why we've got one model that has a built-in battery and one with a video port through which you can connect your docked iPad to a TV, alongside more straightforward units.
It's also why the most expensive speaker dock is nearly six times the price of the cheapest. Still, only one of them will walk away - not literally; how disturbing - with Tap!'s top award, an Editor's Choice badge. Which one? Well, that would be telling!
Altec Lansing Octiv Stage MP450 - £88
iHome iD9 - £69
iLuv iMM727 ArtStation - £59
JBL OnBeat - £97
Philips Fidelio DS9010 - £349
Test one: Audio quality
You might mainly use one of these docks as somewhere handy to keep and charge your iPad, but how well they play music or give iPlayer enough audio oomph to match the iPad's gorgeous screen is still important.
Of the five here, three are competent, one disappoints, and one is smack-you-in-the-face-and-steal-your-wallet fantastic. The disappointment first.
As well as looking and feeling cheap, iLuv's ArtStation sounds cheap too. It's not actually bad enough that you can't listen to it, but it's thin and quickly breaks up when you try to push it towards high volumes - not that it gets especially loud anyway. Worse, music just feels harsh, and with no warmth.
Better than this, happily, are the models from Altec Lansing, iHome and JBL. Of these three, the Octiv Stage MP450 is the best, with reasonable richness and depth, along with good separation of different frequencies.
Unlike with the models from iLuv and even JBL (though the problem's not as bad with the latter), there's little muddiness, and vocals sit nicely on top of the melody.
As with all the speakers in this group bar the Fidelio DS9010, you'd be disappointed if you were to try filling a room with sound with the Octiv Stage MP450, but it's fine for watching TV and doing a little light rocking out.
iHome's iD9 might feel a little cold and lacking in a bass punch, but we still really like it, largely because of the positioning of the speakers on the ends. This adds the impressive stereo separation that we're so unused to hearing in speaker docks, and the effect is genuinely arresting.
Philips' Fidelio DS9010, however, is in an altogether different class. It's just stunning. And yes, it damn well better be for £350, but, oh man, it's seriously gorgeous. It's not just the sweetness of the sound, or the fact that you can easily pick out every single part of complex tracks in everything from orchestral works to The Beach Boys.
No, the real joy of the DS9010 is the sheer gutsiness of the sound. It's rare to find a speaker dock that gives such low-end grunt to music without the bass becoming flabby or overwhelming. You get none of that nastiness here; you just feel like this is what your music is supposed to sound like, and you've been missing out of its full grandeur for years. In spite of this, it really is spectacularly refined and controlled. The Philips produces a truly glorious sound that rivals speakers that cost twice as much.
Test two: Design
Top marks to Philips here, too. Though big, the DS9010 looks great, works superbly well, and has commendably fine-grained volume control.
The model from iHome is nicely compact and looks smart, and we have a real weakness for the boxy, computer-like charm of Altec Lansing's model. (Mind you, the volume keys are in fiddly positions.)
The models from Altec Lansing, JBL and iLuv allow the iPad to be rotated 90° so it works in landscape as well as portrait (great for iPlayer). The OnBeat rotates, but only with an iPhone or iPod touch; it's locked when the iPad mount is used.
iLuv's ArtStation isn't lovely. Not only are the materials and finish unpleasant, but tapping your docked iPad produces a ridiculous bounce on the silly rubber feet.
Test three: Extras
Only the model from iHome doesn't include an infrared remote control (the chic, pebble-like aluminium one that comes with the DS9010 is especially nice), but there again, the iHome iD9 is the only device here to include a built-in battery. This makes the iD9 a great device if you want to carry your music into different rooms, to the beach or out to the garden for a barbecue. (And you can buy a remote control separately for the iD9.)
All have the option of plugging in non-iOS devices using a 3.5mm audio jack, and the JBL OnBeat, uniquely here, can output composite video. (Because it's composite, it's low quality, mind you.)
The speaker docks from both JBL and iLuv have a USB port at the back, through which you can sync with your PC or Mac.
The best iPad speaker dock is: Philips Fidelio DS9010 - £349
Look, we don't want to do this to you. We don't want to make you contemplate spending nearly as much on a speaker dock for your iPad as you may have on the iPad itself. But we're gonna.
The problem is that, while there are speaker docks here that are perfectly acceptable charging stands for your iPad, and while they pootle happily along outputting absolutely adequate audio, if you're unlucky enough ever to hear what the Philips Fidelio DS9010 actually sounds like, you will feel dissatisfied with every other option.
Let's calm down a bit and look at this rationally. If your budget just can't entertain the idea of a £350 speaker dock - and believe us, we understand - then you can get something that's still good. Altec Lansing's cute little Octiv Stage MP450 is the best all-round choice. It's sturdy, sounds fine, and can flip your iPad easily and smoothly between portrait and landscape, holding it securely either way.
We like the iHome iD9 too, for its compactness and built-in battery, and the striking effect the strong stereo separation gives your music. JBL's OnBeat didn't stand out as being especially good or bad; unlike iLuv's ArtStation, about which the less said the better.
But if you can at all justify and afford £349, you won't regret buying the Fidelio DS9010 for a second. It looks beautiful with an iPad or iPhone in place, and there are some lovely tiny design touches that make it feel like a deserving partner for an Apple device.
There are, for example, volume controls next to the Philips logo on the front, which light up - fading, not snapping, on - as your hand gets close. It's an almost entirely pointless feature, but it will make you smile a little to yourself every time you adjust the volume.
And then there's the sound. It's stunning. Properly stunning. Properly 'sit down and lose hours of your life playing all your favourite tracks just to see how awesome they sound when played through the Fidelio' stunning.
It's an immense amount of money (for people who aren't hi-fi nerds) to consider spending on a speaker system, but we cannot recommend it highly enough.
First published in Tap! Issue 08
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