Rating: ★★★★☆

Something was lost when music moved to a digital format. Not to MP3, but CDs. The move from cassette players to CD players practically killed the boombox. Sony’s disc Walkman put headphones in our ears, and since then the only place we share music is in the car. That’s why the Philips Fidelio DS8550 is all John Cusack would need in a remake of Say Anything. Yes, this iSpeaker dock has a battery.

Philips, a company fresh out the gates after a serious overhaul, at CES displayed a wide selection of iOS products, including the reviewed DS8550. This iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch dock is no ordinary stand or charger, nor is it a typical stereo speaker to leave in place for groggy mornings or Sunday brunches. No, the DS8550 is made to sit on the shoulder just as easily as any of those things, blasting tunes on Venice Beach up to 11 without a care in the world.

But let’s take a step back. The Fidelio DS8550 is a speaker dock for any iOS device first and foremost, but works as an auxiliary speaker just as well. It can connect to any Bluetooth device. Finally, and a strangely pertinent selling point, the DS8550 has iPad support. Not only can users plug their iPads in and connect them via Bluetooth, there is an app to take the most advantage of the iPad, along with all other iOS devices.

iPad support at first glance doesn’t seem that pertinent. The tablet is great for many a thing, and with a dock can make an excellent alarm clock, an option which has been largely ignored by hardware makers. Thanks to the available hardware and free Fidelio software, the iPad gives the Sony Dash a run for its money.

Hardware

Carrying the Fidelio DS8550 is a cinch. Throwing it over the shoulder requires a bit more finesse…

The Fidelio DS8550 looks and feels like a small boombox.  It’s sleek with a full black mesh cover and rubber grips to keep connected devices in place. Four light-up buttons are all the dock needs, though the included remote control is far more convenient to use, even for Bluetooth-connected device. The four buttons – power, Bluetooth on/off, and volume controls – are all that’s really needed. The rest is handily controlled via touch or remote.

The rear has a pleasant silver build with a handle, two air-holes for bass, and power and auxiliary ports. As mentioned earlier the DS8550 comes with a built-in battery, which Philips claims to last  five hours per charge. I’m pleased to say that, while such a strict number is questionable – volume level,  Bluetooth, charging an iOS device, and other factors affect battery life – I averaged roughly four hours per charge under moderate to heavy use.

Just in case your current speaker system breaks down, the DS8550 can make an excellent replacement

So if your car stereo’s been stolen, or if you want a decent set of computer speakers, or just something for when company is over, the Fidelio DS8550 suddenly becomes exceptionally useful. Not only does it deliver excellent sound on all levels – bass is slightly muffled, and some high notes do screech, but otherwise audio quality is pitch-perfect – you can pick it up and take it with you on the go, and not have to worry about running out of juice.

While testing the DS8550 I had to drive a friend’s car, which has terrible reception and no AUX port. So I grabbed the DS8550 and tossed it in the passenger seat, connected my iPhone to it, and was streaming my music collection in under 30 seconds. An otherwise quiet, droll ride was kept lively by the likes of Bon Jovi, Mudvayne, Queens of the Stone Age, and Tan Dun.

The remote is extremely handy to have…when it actually works.

It’s not all flowers and death metal. Bluetooth on the DS8550 tends to be a hit-and-miss adventure, where sometimes it will connect in just a few seconds and other times takes several minutes to establish a connection. Directly plugging an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch also doesn’t work properly every time, which is troubling. On a few occasions I was forced to plug my iPhone in and out of the DS8550 three times to get it to connect…and that is completely a hardware issue, no software involved.

The biggest culprit of nuisance is the remote control, which can be an absolute nightmare. Wonderfully built, with all the necessary buttons, commands just don’t get through. The infrared sensor is weak and often fails to read presses, and most clicks go unnoticed by the dock. It just doesn’t work half the time. For $300, using a weak IR sensor cramps an otherwise great product. Sadly, I’ve spent nearly as much time pressing buttons over and over again as I have actually listening to music on the DS8550.

Software

Since receiving the Fidelio DS8550 for review, the Fidelio software has gone through one major upgrade. The app isn’t required, and in fact I rarely use it outside of the clock functionality mentioned earlier, because it just isn’t convenient when compared to the standard iPod app. That said, the app is great for a few other reasons.

Fidelio, as the app is called, works specifically with playlists when it comes to music. It’ll play anything currently paused, and allows users to view all the music on the iPod, but only as a list of songs, not based on artist, album, etc. This may be updated in the future, but right now it’s a huge crutch for anyone who wants to use Fidelio without being forced to switch between it and iPod.

The clock and alarm settings are excellent, giving users the option to set time, which days for the alarm to repeat, a choice of four built-in sounds or any song on the device, a personalized name for the alarm, and even a photo to wake up. The Fidelio is great to download just because of it’s clock. The only downside is that the app must be running for the alarm to go off.

The software has a few other tricks, like connectivity with Twitter and Facebook, local weather reporting, detailing battery life on the dock and iOS device, along with several background and clock options. These all slightly improve on the quality of the application, though the biggest crutch is that Philips can’t get around Apple’s requirements.

Today’s Boombox

It must be the modern-day romantic in me, but the boombox disappearing was really a turning point for society. People just don’t share music the same way they did back in the 80’s and 90’s. If you aren’t at a club or restaurant, then the music comes through headphones, and that’s a damn shame. Music is meant to be shared, on the streets if it can, and in the home without a doubt. Without that sharing, we lose yet another small chunk of our humanity.

While we as a society may have moved past such notions, Philips has still delivered an excellent speaker dock with the Fidelio DS8550. Great sound, a solid form factor, excellent options through Apple and Bluetooth-ready devices, and an average of four hours of battery life make the DS8550 a real force to contend with. All that holds it back is a poor sensor in the remote/dock, which makes the control almost useless, and the hit/miss connectivity issues. Whether you hold it to your girlfriend’s second-story window or on the nightstand, this boombox is ready to go when you are.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.