PlayDock MP3: Big Sound In A Big Package

The Cambridge SoundWorks PlayDock MP3 is a big, boom box for docking your MP3 player. It's easy to use, but at 13.5 pounds, not easy to carry around. Still, the sound is so good (and so loud), it just might get you kicked out of your apartment.

David Haskin, Contributor

August 18, 2005

6 Min Read

The irony of Cambridge SoundWorks (CSW) PlayDock MP3 is that it comes from a company that was once known for getting incredible sound out of little speakers. After 12 years of daily use with my PC, I still adore my CSW satellite speaker and subwoofer system, which provides remarkably bright sound out of tiny speakers.

However, "tiny" is not an adjective you'd use to describe the $199 PlayDock. This 13.5 pound, nine-inch high, 11-inch wide and 10-inch deep speaker system for iPods, Dell DJ players and the Zen line of devices from Creative, which now owns Cambridge SoundWorks, isn't something you'll hide in a corner.

While big, this device is also notable for its simplicity, which is a two-edged sword. And, yes, PlayDock MP3 also produces excellent sound, although with some inevitable limitations.

Simplicity, For Better And Worse

This is the first PlayDock for the current generation of MP3 players, although versions are already available for satellite radio players and older versions of Creative's audio players.

The hardest part of setting up PlayDock is getting it out of the box; this is one heavy sucker. Once out of the box, you select the rubberized cradle that works best for your particular player. You plug in the headphone jack and a cord into the power plug so your device can get charged as it sits in the cradle -- but only if your device is from Creative since it doesn't charge iPods. Then, you plug PlayDock into a wall socket and you're good to go. Total set-up time: a minute or so from extraction from the box to playing music.

Note that while it will only charge Creative players, PlayDock MP3 will actually play music from any device with a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack.

Easy setup is the upside of PlayDock's simplicity. The down side is that, beyond playing music, it doesn't have many features. Besides the on-off switch, it has two buttons to adjust volume, a "wide" button to, as the company says, expand the sound for playing outdoors and in large rooms, and a button to mute the sound and to start playing it again.

The list of features PlayDock doesn't have is far longer than the list of features it does have. It has no LCD showing status, it has no visible indication of the volume (heck, even an old notched radio dial would be helpful). Bass and treble controls? Nope. Remote control? Dream on. And while this might seem silly, how about a jack for some serious headphones? I've always wanted to listen to my Zen Touch with my big Grado headphones without using a power amplifier. But, again, no.

This thing is simple, no muss, no fuss. But it sometimes felt too simple.

A Portable Player

CSW is touting its PlayDock line as the "next-generation boom box. I have an admittedly stereotyped vision of boom boxes -- they have a handle, weigh a few pounds and you can easily carry them wherever you go.

You could do that with PlayDock, but you'd better spend some time in the gym first because of its weight. It has a built-in handle that works well, but you're not going to want to carry it around for very far. But it has a major feature that boom boxes didn't have: A serious rechargeable battery.

In this case, it's a sealed lead acid battery, which certainly contributes to the device's heft. The battery is rated for eight hours of moderate-volume play and it wisely goes into power-saving mode after 10 to 15 minutes of inactivity.

There are a couple of minor downsides to the battery besides its weight. To refer back to the overly-simple thing I discussed above, there's also no indicator of battery level, let alone a simple idiot light telling me when the charge is low. You'll also need to remember that, when using the battery, the PlayDock does not charge the MP3 player, so make sure it's fully charged before you start. Otherwise, the music player will poop out before PlayDock.

The bottom line is that this is a music system you can comfortably take to the beach (as long as you don't park too far away) or carry around to various aprts of the house. But it's not truly portable. Luggable is more like it.

Sound Quality

It should go without saying that taste in sound is highly subjective. Personally, I prefer a clear, bright sound, which is why I love my old Cambridge SoundWorks satellite speaker system. Most of the time, the PlayDock MP3 produces lovely sound that can best be described by the word "warm."

This system has a frequency response from 80Hz to 20kHZ and has speakers pointing out at an angle, not straight ahead, on each side of its semi-circular cabinet. The subwoofer is in the middle, between the speakers.

At each point in the sound spectrum, sound quality is strong, with a special brightness in the mid-range. Bass response is strong and clear, without a trace of muddiness. Here I have a minor complaint, once again the result of the simplicity of PlayDock: I'd like to tweak the sound, particularly the bass. I actually missed a bit of thump on some louder music.

This system sounds best at moderate volumes with uncomplicated music. For instance, a folkie singing and strumming the guitar sounded impressively vibrant and alive. However, by putting the speakers at each side of the cabinet and pointing them outward at an angle, the designers seem to be depending on reflected sound to give the sound a sense of spaciousness. In my listening situation, at least, that didn't work. Plus, there was very little channel separation.

In normal usage, this lack of separation wasn't a serious problem until the volume went up (in fairness, way up). Then, it contributed to a jumbled-together sound that wasn't so pleasing, with distortion occurring sooner than I would have liked. Up until that volume point, however, sound quality was far superior to any boom box I've ever heard.

Having said that, these problems didn't manifest until well past the point that apartment dwellers would have neighbors pounding on the walls. However, given that CSW advertises this system as great for outdoor gatherings, this lack of performance at higher volumes will be a drawback for some. But then, sonic trade-offs are inevitable as you shrink sound systems down.

Given those inevitable trade-offs, PlayDock is quite pleasing to use. Cambridge SoundWorks has deftly balanced portability and sound quality in a package that will please most users most of the time.

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