Philips Fidelio AS851 – world’s first Android speaker dock review

Classy debut for an Android-based music system
Photo of Philips Fidelio AS851 – world’s first Android speaker dock
£199.99

Anyone without an iPhone must have been gazing at the hundreds of docks dedicated to Apple’s smartphone with downright envy – and for some years, too. All that ends right here with the unveiling of the world’s first Android smartphone dock from Philips.

The AS851 is a standard Fidelio design – almost. The 421x157x140mm device’s rear hosts a single 3.5mm audio input (there’s the necessary cable in the box, too) for hooking-up any audio device in a thoroughly old fashioned way, while the front takes care of phone duties. In a recessed area either side of the stereo 15W speakers, a small platform houses a Micro USB dock connector on a ‘rocker’. So designed to accept Android phones of various shapes and sizes, that Micro USB is a wise choice by Philips, but it does comes with some quirks.

A good fit?
Whether the Philips is a good fit depends what phone you have. We tested the AS851 with a Samsung Galaxy Fit GT-S5670 smartphone, which has a Micro USB slot – but it’s on the top of the phone, which therefore has to be docked upside down, which is hardly ideal. We also tried the AS851 with another Samsung smartphone in the vicinity – this time the Korean brand’s Solid Immerse, whose Micro SD connector is on its side. To be fair, Philips’ designers have done their best – that Micro USB connector is on a slider, so can be moved up to 5cm from its central position to cope with odd-shaped phones. It’s also physically quite difficult to sheath that Micro USB connector with a phone – it’s just so small. It’s just as well, then, that Philips has decided to fit the AS851 with wireless streaming abilities.

A feature that’s been much missed on iPhone docks (save for the penchant for Apple AirPlay docks of late from the likes of Bowers & Wilkins, JBL and Marantz), the AS851 uses the less-than-lossless Bluetooth tech to get tunes to the dock. Aside from charging a docked Android phone, we’re fairly sure that this feature alone will prove popular enough as it is – so maybe that sliding Micro USB dock should be recessed even more, or hidden under a flap.

User interface and operation
Fire up the AS851 and it immediately begins communicating with our Android phone before revving-up the free Fidelio app. This constitutes the user interface for the AS851 – and it’s ridiculously easy to use.

The central menu has options to initiate Songbird (a third-party app that forms the music centre of the app), Radio, Clock (an analogue clock against a blue sky, with temperature, weather, and a useful alarm clock that can play your music or photos as you wake), Settings and a ‘scan for device’ linking page.

The last of these takes longer than it should to find the AS851 (around 30 seconds), but pairs quickly, and with an audible tone from the AS851. The AS851 now takes over from an Android phone’s built-in speakers, so any sound from your phone (text message tones, typing tones, whatever) will emerge from the dock’s speakers.

We’re prompted us to download the iTunes-esque Songbird music player app from the Android Market. It’s this nicely designed and speedy app that controls music – and it’s simple enough to choose songs to stream to the AS851.

The other source of music is Radio, which is essentially a skin for the TuneIn Radio app. From a huge list of genres and locations we streamed Radiohead from Australia’s Triple J, The Charlatans from XFM and some good ol’ country tunes from Florida’s Cat Country 98.7. All tuned in within a few seconds, though sound quality does vary because of low bitrates used, and buffering is common. We also sneakily chose the AS851 as the audio output on an iPhone over Bluetooth, which worked absolutely fine.

The Settings pages are also crucial; as well as being able to set location and choose from just two colour themes for the app – metallic or black – a Sound Settings tab contains a simple graphic equaliser and presets for classical, jazz, rock and pop. There is also a sound enhancement technology, DBB, which is available in two strengths, though engaging them caused the app to stall for several seconds.

Crucially, the interface is simple and there’s always a tab at the bottom of the screen to return to the central menu.

Performance
It’s not up there with the bigger, pricer iPhone docks, but sound quality from the AS851 will suit most casual users. Clarity is excellent, with plenty of treble detail in a soundstage that is fairly narrow.

The sense of stereo you’ll get from such a small device is obviously a question of geography, but if you sit in front of the AS851 there’s a noticeable division of channels. Low frequency sound is just about sufficient to cope with different kinds of music, with the AS851′s soundstage at its most joined-up when the volume is cranked up. This is all with an Android phone physically docked, and though Bluetooth sound does lose a bit of its edge, it’s always highly listenable.

The AS851 isn’t alone in Philips’ arsenal of Android docks, though soon it will have more than just the smaller mains or battery powered AS351 (£129) and alarm clock dock AS111 (£70) for company; Philips has revealed that it’s working on Android docks for 2012 that will feature lossless wireless tech similar to Apple AirPlay – now that really could be the answer to the Android dock conundrum. For now, the AS851 is a good value start.

Company: Philips

Website: http://www.philips.com/sound

Contact: Philips on 0906 1010 016

Positives
  • Build quality, easy-to-use Fidelio app, sound quality.
Negative
  • Micro USB connector isn't quite as versatile as it thinks.

Verdict

Despite Philips' brave attempt at formulating a dock connector versatile enough for Android phones' myriad designs, the AS851 can never be comfortably compatible with all phones. Our advice is to try your phone before you buy, though the AS851 is arguably of more use as a wireless Bluetooth speaker. In that regard it works with absolutely any phone - even an iPhone - and pumps out music with fabulous clarity and just enough bass to fill a small room. With a great app and user interface, this is a fine debut in the emerging Android dock genre.