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When we think of Bluetooth speakers, the first word that comes to mind is portability. With our Jamboxes and Boombots, we're more than willing to sacrifice high-quality audio for lightweight, wireless freedom, but at home, we want our speakers to fill every inch of our rooms with sound, even if it means tethering our iPhones to clunky docking stations.
Soundfreaq's Sound Stack is a bookshelf hi-fi that lets you keep your iPhone in your pocket, provided its no more than 33 feet away. But while built-in Bluetooth adds an extra feature to an otherwise standard high-end digital music system, it mainly serves as a reminder of why many of its peers stick to a dock-only format.
Right out of box, Sound Stack has the feel of a sturdy, powerful speaker, and for $399, it should. Its industrial design looks a bit like a five-speaker rig, but behind the symmetrical cover layout lies an intricate 2.2 speaker configuration that matches "two full-range drivers with two active subwoofers in a push-pull configuration." For us non-audiophiles, that means Sound Stack is more than just an amplifier; its speakers are split evenly between the low and high ends, giving your music depth and balance without sacrificing clarity or precision.
There's not much to set up with Sound Stack. A bulky power adapter and FM antenna are the only cables to speak of, and a tiny remote magnetically attaches to the back of the case. Pairing your iOS device is equally simple -- press the pair button on the speaker, and connect in the Settings app -- but we had some trouble keeping the initial connection. After a couple stops and starts, however, our devices paired smoothly and we experienced no other hiccups.
The front of the unit features nine touch-sensitive buttons that mirror the remote's, but Soundfreaq clearly doesn't think you'll be using them very often. For one, the recessed design makes them nearly impossible to see in a dark room; for another, our Sound Stack's control panel was a fingerprint magnet, so we tried to avoid touching it.
Soundfreaq also offers a free bare-bones remote control app, but you can jut as easily control your iTunes library via your favorite music player app. Most fine-tuning will be done on your iPod anyway; the only sound setting on the Sound Stack is a button to control Soundfreaq's proprietary UQ3 technology, which is engineered to "create a psychoacoustic effect by controlling sound wave interaction that enhances the perceived stereo separation." It's not gibberish -- every track we sampled sounded better with UQ3 turned on, and we had a hard time finding an equalizer setting that came close to duplicating the rich, smooth sound it delivered across a range of genres.
But even UQ3 couldn't save our music when streaming over Bluetooth. Despite A2DP and AAC audio support, tracks sounded flat and listless, with little bass and muddled sound throughout. We expect that from a tiny Bluetooth speaker, but it was disappointing to hear such weak sound coming from such an otherwise impressive speaker.
The dock is another story. Without the lossy codec, the Sound Stack lives up to high-priced expectations, with full sound, crisp vocals and well-defined bass, even when playing a track written to shake the floor (though it's not powerful enough to actually shake the floor). We ran Sound Stack through its paces with an array of musical styles -- from Eminem to Ani DiFranco -- and Sound Stack delivered faithful sound every time, from subtle acoustic guitar harmonics to brisk snare rolls. The difference between wired and wireless is so striking, we recommend getting a second iOS device just to keep docked.
Along with the Bluetooth sound quality woes, we had some skipping issues -- both within songs and when changing tracks. When we weren't playing a playlist, Sound Stack's transition between songs we manually selected was choppy, especially when switching tracks before a song was finished. Also, we would have liked to dock our iPod without taking it out of the case, and the buttons on the unit really need to be illuminated.
The bottom line. Sound Stack will fill your room with booming sound, but only if you're willing to part with your iOS device.
iPod, iPad, or iPhone with 30-pin dock connector, Bluetooth device, or any audio device with a headphone jack
Excellent sound when docked. Good looks. Easy controls
Poor Bluetooth performance. Can't dock with case. Some pairing hiccups.