Start up a conversation about high-end audio docks and you’ll hear people talk about the B&W Zeppelin, the Bose SoundDock and other comparable offering from companies like Bang and Olufsen or Harman Kardon, but no one will talk about Philips. Philips is the perennial dark horse in the high-end audio segment. It makes some awesome products but they are neither marketed well nor easily available. Their latest offering is the Fidelio SoundSphere 9800 AirPlay enabled speaker system and mark my words its no ordinary AirPlay enabled dock. It’s expensive, it looks the part and Philips claims that it even sounds the part. Let’s see if it can hold a candle against the B&W Zeppelin, which is amongst the best in the business.
When I reviewed the B&W Zeppelin, I called the design inventive, but boy, Philips has reimagined iPod enabled speaker design yet again with the SoundSphere. Unlike most dock speakers that are singular units that have many speakers packed in, the Fidelio 9800, is a dock with a difference. There are two separate speaker modules that are fundamentally spherical domes. I am not even sure if I can call the Fidelio SoundSphere an iPod dock, because it’s unlike anything else on the market.
Philips supplies a separate dock for iDevices that is only meant for charging the device, so the audio either comes via AirPlay or via an auxiliary cable. Additionally, I’ve heard some people crib about the absence of audio input via the dock. For me, this is not a big deal because anyways, the product performs superbly wirelessly and if a tethered connection is needed then the auxiliary input is there. The one gripe I do have with dock is with the design because cradling an iPad is a very finicky process and one gets the impression the dock connector could fall off anytime. Besides this, I do want to warn people that it’s using the old 30-pin dock connector as it came out much before the iPhone 5 was announced, but I have tested it with the iPhone 5 using a lightning adaptor and it works just fine.
Coming back to the speaker design, Philips really has gone well beyond the realm of the imaginable with the design of the Fidelio SoundSphere. The design is truly futuristic; there is no other adjective to define it. Even the B&W Zeppelin borrowed its space age design from the Zeppelin Air Ships, but here we witness speaker design inventiveness and innovation apart from anything else.
Both speaker modules are wooden, but the nature of the material is hidden as Philips coats them in dollops of lacquer giving them a glossy external look that is very modern. That said, these are really big speakers and you will need a lot of space to house them. They are not meant for an innocuous corner as they are approximately 15-inches tall and rather bulbous with a diameter of 8.5-inches.
Both speakers are home to 5.1-inch mid-range/bass drivers that fire upwards while leaning forward. In a way they give an effect many car owners are used to with their rear speakers. Additionally, adding the depth of the space-age design we have two 25mm tweeter modules that sit right above each speaker in a dome-like house supported with an aluminum arm.
The left channel speaker houses two class-D amplifiers rated at 50 Watts per channel, converting to a total power stamp of 100 Watts that has potential for creating quite a racket. This is higher than the Zeppelin Air. Additionally, the left channel also houses the auxiliary port, the Wi-Fi module for AirPlay, and the IR sensor for the supplied remote. Both the speakers are connected via a large cable that can be tied into the rear connectors. The supplied cables are of very high quality except for the aux cable, which does leave a lot to be desired.
The supplied remote feels solid in the hand but the buttons are rather stiff and can be a handful to use on a daily basis. Apart from this there is no audio calibration/equalization mechanism, but iOS users can download a Philips Fidelio app for the same, which gives limited control over the sonic frequencies.
The SoundSphere offers a very simplistic AirPlay setup. As it itself has a Wi-Fi module built-in, one does not need to set-it up using a cat5 cable manually with the laptop, it just happens on the fly. Either it’s a case of directly connecting the SoundSphere to you iOS device or hooking it up with your Mac, the process is quite simple. The manual offers a simple process of how to connect audio via Air Play and in my experience the process was much simpler than the B&W Zeppelin.
At Rs 65,990, one is making a hefty investment and makes it costlier than the B&W Zeppelin Air, which according to me is the best iPod Dock one can buy. So how does the Philips Fidelio SoundSphere compare and what does it offer that the Zeppelin Air does not?
Well, there is no easy answer to that question because purely in terms of aural fidelity the Zeppelin is a hard act to follow. But, the SoundSphere does have a few distinct advantages over the Zeppelin Air. Firstly, proper stereo separation and a wider sound stage. That goes without saying because the Zeppelin Air has all its speakers housed inside a singular module, while the Fidelio SoundSphere has two separate speaker modules.
Its tone is surprisingly neutral and that is something we don’t get to hear very often. Like the Zeppelin Air, it sounds very warm, but because of its upwards firing design, to me the bass sounded tighter than the Zeppelin Air and the mids were on par, or slightly inferior to the Zeppelin.
Of course, the dynamics of the sound remained consistent wirelessly via AirPlay and also via the wired auxiliary connection, but the AirPlay sound was definitely slightly better than the Zeppelin Air. I suspect this was due to the FullSound technology Philips has applied that restores depth and detail to the compressed wireless audio. On the other hand, because the Zeppelin Air has a fully digital dock connector that takes audio, its sound while tethered was much better, albeit without the stereo separation.
I tested a number songs ranging across a number of genres. Front old school blues-rock, to electronica to metal I covered almost everything. I even tested a couple of live concerts and the Dark Knight Rises on Blu-Ray. I was definitely left impressed with the sonic scope of the product.
For instance, while playing the Guns and Roses classic Sweet Child O’ Mine the sound remained balanced especially during the opening riff that has a distinct pop due to the harmonic overtones produced by the guitar. The same can be said about the vocals and the mid-range surprisingly remained crisp and clear.
Even more impressive was the way the speakers handled Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and the face melting blues riffage was reproduced to the tee. The Wah-Wah sound literally melts into the ear, it was not shrill like it can be on many a tinny sounding dock and this is not only a good test for the mids, but also for the highs, because with Voodoo Child the highs can pierce through one’s ear.
Changing direction, I also tested bumbling low-end thump of Da Funk by Daft Punk and the result was nothing short of spectacular. Even at 60 percent volume, the Fidelio SoundSphere reproduced a sonic avalanche that could just turn your room into a club. This is where I actually believe that; it had an edge over the Zeppelin Air.
For the ultimate test of vocal clarity I decided to play the Pink Floyd classic The Greatest Gig in the Sky. Everything from Rick Wright’s haunting piano melody to the operatic vocal background sounded grand and epic. The sound remained balanced and that’s the word sound engineers always look for while they talk about reference monitors, not that the Fidelio is that good, but for a home audio product, it will not disappoint audio purists.
Finally, I tested the staccato driven metal mayhem from Tool – Jambi. This was actually one area where I felt that the bass became a little too big for its own good, in the process overwhelming the entire mix. Nonetheless, it was not bad, but not as good as the other songs in my testing.
In addition to this I also had the privilege of testing the Led Zeppelin Celebration Day Concert. The sound was impressive, but when compared to the Zeppelin Air, I felt the sound of the Fidelio SoundSphere had a little too much treble for my taste. This was especially true for Jimmy Page’s guitar sound.
I was lucky enough to still have the Fidelio in for review when I got my hands on the Blu-Ray of The Dark Knight Rises. As expected, the experience was very nice and the advantage of the stereo separation payed great deviants during the movie especially during the opening airplane sequence and when Batman makes his grand entry. I can easily say unlike most docks in the market, it does not really suffer from the limitations of a limited sound stage.
On a side note, one feature that was present in the Zeppelin Air and is not present in the Fidelio SoundSphere is USB input, which can be used to drive audio on a PC or Mac. This would have been a nice addition, and could dramatically improve the general sound quality that comes out of a computer. Considering it is almost Rs 18,000 more expensive than the Zeppelin Air, I believe this was a major miss.
At Rs 65,900 the Philips Fidelio SoundSphere is not cheap. Heck, it’s a good Rs 18,000 more expensive than the B&W Zeppelin Air. But there are few things that go in its favor – its brilliant design, stereo separation that lends its sound a balance normal docks don’t have and its performance with movies. Besides this, it sounds almost as good as the Zeppelin Air in most circumstances and does better than it wirelessly on AirPlay. Setting up AirPlay is also a hassle-free process, which makes it a better all-rounder than the Zeppelin Air. But is all this worth the extra money, I think not because aurally it’s not as balanced as the Zeppelin Air.
That said, if one intends to watch a lot of movies and wireless is the way you want to go then the Rs 65,900 price tag might be worth the extra cash especially for the stereo separation, quality of sound via AirPlay and bass response for people who are into electronic and hip-hop music genres.