At low volumes the sound is okay, but everything seems boxed in around the mid-range, with no sparkle at the top end, and very little in the way of bass. Here's where that bass boost button actually comes in handy, pushing the bottom end up so that you can hear, say, the bassline in Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight. All the same, it's a dull, muddy kind of bass, and not the sort of thing that makes you want to play Massive Attack or DJ Shadow. Vocals and acoustic guitars seem to stand up better, as a blast of Don't Let it Bring you Down from Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall proved, but throw anything heavy, complex or dynamically rich at the CDB-50, and it really does struggle to cope.
At higher volumes things improve slightly, and you're actually better off switching out the bass boost if you want a crisp sound. Tracks from Bat for Lashes' Two Suns album begin to come alive, and slick, pop productions from Take That or Justin Timberlake develop a little punch. Nonetheless, there's always that slightly plastic, boxed-in quality to the sound. The bass doesn't really cut through. The treble never shimmers or reveals much detail.
Listen to Aimee Mann's You Do from the Magnolia soundtrack and the vocals come through rich and clear, but the details in Jon Brion's idiosyncratic production are buried. Rockier tracks from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mastodon are all mid-range mess with no dynamics, and you can forget about classical; the CDB-50 just doesn't have the subtlety or definition to cope. In general, if something sounds good on the average car stereo, then it's probably going to sound good on the Gear4 CDB-50. If it's the sort of thing you'd rather listen to on headphones or on your stereo back home, then it will probably just about sound okay.
This isn't a disaster, for the simple reason that at £70 I don't actually expect an iPod Speaker dock to sound incredible, and just about okay might do for a spot of kitchen listening when I'm doing the washing up. All the same, were I spending my own money I'd stretch my budget a little further to something like the Klipsch iGroove SXT or Gear 4's own BassStation. It might not have the portability or the cool retro styling, but give me sound over image any time.
While its blend of ancient and modern is appealing, there's no escaping the fact that the CDB-50 is only an average performer. Nice looks, good value, mediocre sound.