For years, it was all about speaker docks — standalone, table-top systems that plug into the wall and hold your phone, charging it and playing your songs at the same time.
More recently, we’ve seen a flood of smaller, cord-free speaker systems that play streaming music from your mobile device. The king of this category is Jawbone’s Jambox, a six-inch-wide stereo speaker box with a USB-rechargeable battery, a rubberized case and a Bluetooth radio. It doesn’t charge your phone, but you can take it just about anywhere.
I love this category — I have a wireless speaker in every room in the house — so I was excited to test the Sound Kick, the newest speaker from Soundfreaq.
It’s a speaker box that hits a sweet spot between the compact Jambox and a larger, more traditional dock. It’s portable, uses Bluetooth to stream wirelessly, has a rechargeable battery, and it also charges your phone (any phone, not just an iPhone) via a USB port on the back. It sounds great, and it’s only $100 — half the price of a Jambox.
The manufacturer, Soundfreaq, is a small American company that makes a handful of mobile-centric products, including the Sound Stack, a traditional speaker dock with built-in Bluetooth that we rated very highly in 2011. The company also makes the Sound Step Recharge, another speaker system with a rechargeable battery.
But the Sound Kick is cheaper, more attractive and more portable than either of those. It’s not that small — about 10.5 inches long, 1.4 inches thick and about 4.5 inches tall, roughly twice the size of a Jambox and a bit heavier. A portion of the back panel pops out, letting it tilt back. The box-shaped section, which pulls out easily with two fingers, doubles as a speaker enclosure, so it improves the bass response from the pair of 2.3-inch drivers.
Along the top are standard controls: play/pause, forward/back, volume, power and a Bluetooth pairing button. There’s also a button marked “UQ3″ that adds some “spatial enhancement” to your audio. Most small speaker system have a similar feature, some DSP magic that pumps up the reverb and widens the stereo image. I don’t like it — the music sounds more delicate and distant — so I left it off most of the time.
Otherwise, the Sound Kick sounds amazing. It slaughters the Jambox when it comes to performance. It’s louder, more nuanced and much more clear in the highs and lows. There’s no distortion at full volume. It sounds markedly better than any other speaker box I’ve tried at the $100 price point, and it even rivals Logitech’s larger $150 wireless boombox, which has four active speakers.
Also, it stays put. This is a quibble, but some of these speaker boxes (the Jambox especially) are so small, the vibrations from the drivers make them dance around on the table and even fall off the edge to their potential deaths. The Sound Kick doesn’t move. It’s got a wide enough footprint and enough grip that it won’t budge, even when cranked.
To test the 2200mAh battery, I charged it all the way and ran it dry twice. I got almost exactly six hours of continuous play time out of it both times. That’s while streaming music over Bluetooth from an iPhone and an iPad. To recharge, the Sound Kick uses a standard wall wart — no USB charging here, unfortunately.
Its ability to charge a smartphone or an iPod works even when it’s running solely on the battery. Plug your phone’s charging cable into the USB port on the back, then start turning the volume down. Once you get to about 60 or 70 percent volume, you’ll see your phone switch into charging mode. Turn it up past that threshold and your phone stops charging. The lower volume level required to get it to charge your phone is a little too quiet, but it’s a fair tradeoff — you can sit in the park and keep your phone alive the extra hour it takes to polish off the twelver of PBRs as long as you’re willing to turn the Fleetwood Mac down a couple of notches. As you’d expect, the Sound Kick’s battery won’t last as long if you’re also using it to charge your phone, but it’s a convenient add.
Also, we should note that the Sound Kick is hitting shelves just as rumors about a bigger Jambox heat up. Jawbone has filed a design with the FCC for a 10-inch-wide, 2.8-pound Bluetooth speaker. It’s likely to be called the “Big Jambox” and sell for $300.
Seeing as how it’s only $100, the Sound Kick is an excellent buy. It’s available starting this week exclusively from Soundfreaq’s website and at Target stores, but a Soundfreaq spokesperson tells me the Sound Kick will make its way to other retail outlets in the coming months.