I didn’t even know Philips made a line of “universal” speaker docks for Android devices until I got to talking with one of their engineers at a pre-holiday press event last month in San Francisco. Apparently the company had launched an Android-specific branch of their Fidelio line of docks last September at IFA, but the news managed to fly beneath my radar. No matter – after expressing my admiration for, and curiosity about, the product line, the folks at Philips PR offered to send me a dock to review.
Philips’ Fidelio Docking Speaker AS851 for Android is part of a range of powered speakers that essentially trade an iPhone/iPad/iPod friendly 30-pin dock connector for a swiveling, sliding, tilting microUSB connector that has to be seen to be believed. In order to accomodate the many, many, sizes, shapes, and port placements found in the land of Android phones and tablets, Philips came up with a system that’s at once remarkably clever and almost absurdly complicated. The system isn’t as “simple” as the aforementioned magic USB plug, either – there’s also an app-driven solution for the strange problem that Android OS still doesn’t support audio over USB. Sliders and knobs and apps, oh my!
Complicated though it is, the “FlexiDock” system worked pretty well. The microUSB connector is mounted on a platform that slides left and right on a rail so you can center most any Android device, whether it’s got a 10″ screen or 3″ screen, and no matter where the USB port is located. The USB jack itself rotates 180 degrees to accomodate the lack of standard port orientation on Android phones, and independently height-adjustable pillars on either side of the jack let you compensate for uneven surface to ensure that your tablet’s screen is perfectly level when you’re watching a video clip. A tilt mechanism makes it a little easier to dock devices with hard to reach USB ports, though frankly I still had a bit of trouble getting thicker phones properly connected and seated.
Once I downloaded and installed the free Fidelio app from the Android Market, and paired my phone (a T-Mobile Galaxy S II) with the AS851, the Rube Goldberg magic kicked in. Every time I docked the phone, the speaker system powered itself on, the phone launched Fidelio, and the two paired themselves via Bluetooth. It really worked. Every time. Honestly, the Fidelio software isn’t good for much beyond that – there are a number of Android music apps I’d rather use than what Philips provides. But it’s not a problem, so long as your app of choice supports Bluetooth audio streaming.
The speaker system itself is a typical Philips affair, and by that I mean it’s lovely and sleek in an unassuming sort of way. Shaped like an elongated egg cut in two, my AS851 is built from glossy black plastic fronted by a sort of chromed black front grill. The front of the unit is curved, not flat, a design Philips claims enhances the acoustic properties of the unit. Rated at 30 watts of total power, this Fidelio won’t shatter any windows, but you can crank it up loud enough to fill a decent-sized room with decently loud music. To my ears the AS851 sounded really quite nice: highs were clean, bass full but not too boomy, and mid-range decently detailed for a $200 powered speaker. I’m not an earthshaking bass kind of guy, instead opting for clean, airy sound at all volumes – or at least as clean and airy as my budget will allow – and generally speaking I liked what I heard from the Fidelio during my tests with jazz (Bad Plus), rock (TV on the Radio, Led Zep, some random prog tracks), and funk (Tower of Power).
One thing holding the AS851 back, at least when used with an Android device, is that lack of support for audio over USB. The system’s app-driven automagic relies on a Bluetooth connection for stereo audio, which by nature isn’t as high fidelity as a hard-wired protocol. A rear panel 3.5mm audio input allows for better sound quality provided you’re willing to plug/unplug your phone every time you dock it. There’s also a second USB port ’round back so you can simultaneously charge two devices, which is handy.
Honestly, audio quality over Bluetooth was more than fine for the average would-be buyer’s needs.Using three different devices (Samsung Galaxy S II, Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, HTC Wildfire S), I was able to play locally stored tracks via Android’s music app and Songbird (part of the free Fidelio app) as well as music streamed via Google Music, Spotify, and Fidelio’s radio, and so long as the source file was of good quality I was happy. Again, you can go the 3.5mm cable route if you’re looking for the best possible sound reproduction; then again, you can also spend a lot more bread on a higher-end solution.
Just for fun I paired a Windows Phone device (HTC Titan) to the AS851 and audio played back flawlessly. While the whole USB/Bluetooth auto pair thing didn’t work – there’s no Fidelio app for Windows Phone, so how could it? – pairing was easy, audio was clear, and I was at least able to charge my phone via the dock’s microUSB connector. And when I turned Bluetooth off and then on again on my phone, it remembered the Philips and repaired with it automatically. That’s the nice thing about open standards like USB and Bluetooth – they’re (relatively) platform agnostic.
Creating a “one dock fits all” speaker system for the myriad Android devices currently in use is a daunting task simply because Google-powered mobile gizmos come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. And they don’t do audio out over USB. Philips has done an admirable job in coming up with FlexiDock, a clever solution to a rather absurd problem. FlexiDock – and the AS851 that uses it – isn’t perfect, but it’s inventive and it works. If you’ve got an Android device or three you’ve been itching to use as the center of your music system, the AS851 is worth a look. At $199 (around $160 online as of my writing this), it’s a good looking system with solid sound and a creative, if somewhat crazy, answer to the question, “How would a universal Android speaker dock work, anyway?”