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The Fidelio Primo vs the Arcam rCube vs Zeppelin Air vs Go Play 2
on 15 December 2011
Want an iPhone dock? Confused? So was I, until I gathered enough intelligence on the subject to open a library. Eventually, I overcame severe purchase-inertia (it's a new term I've learnt which means "stalling on a purchase due to information overload"...if you're a fellow geek, you'll understand) and thankfully, I have now resolved my oh-so First World Problem of "buying the best iPhone dock possible". Here I present my findings to fellow Amazonians, free of charge. Aren't you lucky little beans?
First, let's rewind to my pre-research iPhone dock ruminations, when I set some "purchase criteria". "An iPhone dock must sound superb", I said to myself one day reflectively. "And it must be compatible with *both* an iPhone 4 and an iPad 2 for music playback" and... "the iOS device must be clearly visible for navigation purposes when docked: that's also important."
This dismissed all average-to-good sounding speakerdocks, including some good budget choices such as the Logitech S715i and the pricier SoundFreaq SomethingOrOther. Despite the price value of these options, having listened to them at various stores including Best Buy, PC World and John Lewis (yes I really am that...thorough) I decided that they were just a disappointment in terms of sound quality: good but just not great. And by "sound quality" I'm referring to the *clarity* of the sound, not the ability to reproduce low frequency bass notes at ear crushing levels, as some other dubiously praised budget options are designed to do extremely well (see the frankly ludicrous marketing of the KitSound Boom Dock here on Amazon, for example).
These criteria led to various in-store product "auditions". (Sales people seem to love that phrase: "Would you like to 'audition' this one, Sir?" "Sure, don't mind if I do. Shall I put on a rubber Simon Cowell mask and award points in a superior, narcissistic manner as well?"). Anyway, these "auditions" led to a shortlist which included the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin Air, the Arcam rCube, the Philips Fidelio Primo DS9000, and the Harman Kardon Go Play 2. Of these, I dismissed the Harman because of the design. The iPhone is not visible from the front, and that is just plain disappointing. It sounds lovely, but the design is an issue. It also can't dock an iPad. It does have a baby brother called the Harman Go Play Micro, which solves the visibility problem in exchange for less punchy sound quality. I also dismissed the rCube because it can't dock an iPad, and because it really doesn't "feel" as beautiful a product as either the Fidelio Primo or the Zeppelin Air.
So then, what of the big two?
Let's be clear: they both sound utterly superb and there is very little to split them in terms of sound quality. If testing them blind, I would not be able to distinguish between them. Beware reviewers who say things like "X wiped the floor with Y". No it didn't. The audio characteristics of these excellently engineered products are too comparable for this long-time audiophile to detect any substantive differences, so consider the matter simply one of personal preference and budget. Unless of course you have superhuman hearing! :-)
The good news is that the Fidelio is significantly cheaper than the Zeppelin and looks absolutely fantastic. It's made of sheets of wood to form a beautifully carved-looking device which elicits major geekgasms each time I look at it. After hearing it, I was sold. I saw no reason to pay twice the price for a Zeppelin when the same sound quality was achievable in this phenomenal product. And if there are any brand snobs out there, I'll have you know that Philips is a Dutch company which invented the compact cassette and have a long tradition of important contributions to the history of technology. Indeed their attention to detail is quite evident in the DS9000. The dock connector, for example, has been engineered to accept any iDevice. Even my 2003 iPod works with it perfectly without the need for an annoying, fiddly adaptor.
To be sure, the Zeppelin Air has Airplay technology built in, which the Fidelio lacks. This is nice. It allows you to stream music over WiFi stright to the dock. The Fidelio lacks this feature, but it wasn't important to me because there is plenty of flexibility in streaming music wirelessly without Airplay. I use Apple's Home Sharing mode to stream my entire iTunes library from my MacBook over WiFi to both my iPad 2 and iPhone 4. It works a treat. The iDevice must be docked for this to work, but it works well and negates the need to obsess over AirPlay for music streaming. The other alternative is to buy an AirPort Express and run an Auxiliary cable from it to the 3.5mm port (it has one) at the back of the Fidelio for wireless music streaming. Still another idea would be to buy a bluetooth 3.5mm receiver for little over a tenner here on Amazon and plug it into the aux port on the Fidelio and simply stream via bluetooth from an iOS device. In short though, AirPlay was no big deal for me. Nice, but not crucial.
Having now purchased and used the Fidelio Primo for a month, I am truly smitten. This ranks as one of the best technology purchases I have ever made, alongside the iPad 2, MacBook Air, Cowon D2 and Sennheiser HD 595. Audiophiles will truly appreciate the Fidelio's sound quality, and this is no mean feat for a speakerdock. The fact is, the Fidelio Primo doesn't just sound good "for a speakerdock". It sounds spectacular, period. It normally retails at £400, so Amazon's current price is scarcely believable. If you have the inclination, do go ahead and have your own in-store "auditions" of my shortlisted speakerdocks. I challenge you to find one that sounds better. Philips engineers, if you're reading this: I tip my hat.
EDIT (27/11/2012): Still going strong and the recent upgrade to an iPhone 5 with a lightning connector has proved irrelevant because I now use an AppleTv which streams all my music from a Mac directly to the Fidelio Primo over AirPlay. (The dock is hooked up from a HDTV's 3.5mm audio jack to the Fidelio, and sounds spectacular.)