- Luxurious sound quality
- Gorgeous design
- Built-in Wi-Fi and AirPlay
- Tricky network setup with PC
- No direct iPod connection
- Easy to knock over
- Review Price: £699.00
- 2 x 50W digital amplifier
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- SoundSphere speaker design
Philips DS9800W is an iPod dock with a difference. Whereas most of them are designed for casual background listening in the kitchen or bedroom, this is a centrepiece system aimed at more discerning listeners for whom sound quality is everything, using the company’s SoundSphere technology inside the speakers.
The big news, however, is that the DS9800W is equipped with built-in Wi-Fi and AirPlay, which is sure to attract the interest of Apple fans everywhere. It means you can stream music conveniently from iPods, iPhones and iPads without cables cluttering up your lounge. The system comes with pair of speakers with all the amplification and wireless technology built in, plus a separate iPod/Pad/Phone charging dock and all the cables you need to rig it up.
Philips’ design wizards have excelled themselves yet again. The SoundSphere speakers feature stunning rounded cabinets that lean forward – kind of like two high-class biscuit barrels – and shoot sound from the speaker drivers at the top. The gleaming gloss-black finish and silver trim make us go weak at the knees, while the placement of the tweeter in a separate enclosure is an arresting visual feature. But the speakers do require a completely flat surface as the base’s surface area isn’t very big and a robust nudge makes them wobble around like Weebles.
Build quality is nothing short of incredible, brought about by bonding multiple pieces of hand-crafted wood together and slathering it in seven layers of lacquer. The use of advanced wood bending techniques gives the enclosure its distinctive curves, as well as providing the rigidity needed to keep distortion at bay. This design was seven years in the making, a product of Philips’ Innovation Lab in Leuven.
One of the speakers features a Wi-Fi receiver and a 2 x 50W digital amplifier, and as a result sports a little panel of sockets and controls. These include a 3.5mm aux input for audio devices, standby and ‘Wi-Fi setup’ buttons, a port for the mains lead and a pair of sturdy binding posts. The other speaker simply sports binding posts on the back. Also in the box is a dock that lets you charge your Apple device while it streams via Airplay (there’s no direct connection to the speakers), itself a gorgeous-looking round device that matches the speakers perfectly in its gloss black and silver styling.
The SoundSphere design is a key feature of these speakers, and was born of a desire to deliver an ‘uncoloured and accurate’ sound with wider dispersion than conventional box speakers.
To achieve this, Philips has mounted the 25mm tweeter in its own thick aluminium enclosure, held above the 5in mid-bass driver by a rigid arm. Philips says this frees the tweeter from interaction with the mid-bass driver and ‘limits refraction caused by sound waves reaching the edge of a box or baffle edge’.
The odd forward-leaning design helps to aid projection while the tweeter and mid-bass driver are positioned to ensure that sounds are ‘time aligned’, reaching your ears at the same time.
Elsewhere AirPlay is the highlight, but FullSound technology restores detail and depth to compressed music and there’s also a free Fidelio app that affords you greater control over the DS9800W’s sonic performance, offering a five-band equaliser (with various presets), plus alarms, playback modes and a clock.
Installing the speakers is simple enough – simply connect the two speakers’ binding posts with the supplied (and pleasingly thick) cable, position as necessary and plug in the power lead. It’s only when you begin network setup that things start getting more complicated.
This is not the sort of system where you can throw away the manual and configure on instinct alone. The esoteric nature of the speakers and lack of display panel means you have to rely on flashing lights, buttons and the browser on your PC or Apple device to get it to talk to your home network.
Unfortunately this isn’t an easy process. You hold down the ‘Wi-Fi Setup’ button for five seconds and the DS9800W creates a temporary network connection in your list of available routers. Connect to it, and visit the DS9800W’s setup page by entering its IP address into your browser. Here, you’ll find a drop-down menu containing all available routers. Select yours, and the Philips is supposed to start talking to your network within two minutes.
Sadly it refused to connect properly – all we got was a flashing green light on the back of the unit indicating that it hadn’t worked and no confirmation beep. We tried several times to no avail. Thankfully we were still able to check out the Airplay performance using the temporary Fidelio network connection and had no trouble streaming audio from our laptop, although we couldn’t use the internet.
The system comes with a chic and dinky remote, sporting just a few buttons to control iPod playback, input selection, mute and power. It’s very well made and sits comfortably in the palm of your hand.
If you can get it up and running, concerns over the tricky setup are washed away the moment music hits your eardrums. Its sound quality is a revelation, a level of performance we’ve only previously encountered from the Monitor Audio i-Deck and B&W Zeppelin Air.
Streaming Amy Winehouse’s Half Time (from her Lioness: Hidden Treasures album), the DS9800W floods the room with sweet, warming keyboards, impeccably crisp beats and astonishing vocal purity. Those SoundSphere speakers really do open up the music and allow you to hear details you might not have noticed before, like little string parts and background flute licks.
It’s a beautifully smooth and lucid sound, with refined high frequencies and deep, well-integrated bass. You might like something with a little more edge and aggression but even so you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this gorgeous sounding system. And you get this same luxurious sound quality no matter the source, be it iPod, iPad or MP3 player connected to the aux input.
Philips DS9800W isn’t a cheap option, but it delivers fantastic sound quality to go with its premium price tag. Smooth and refined, it’s quite simply one of the best-sounding speaker docks around. What’s more it looks stunning, with unique rounded SoundSphere speakers that boast exceptional build quality. On those scores we can’t recommend the DS9800W highly enough – but the uncooperative network setup dented our admiration for this system. Hopefully it’s not a universal problem, as the lack of direct iPod dock connection is otherwise a little limiting.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 9