If someone mentions a docking station in conversation, it is safe to assume that the device is compatible only with Apple products. The proprietary connector offered by the iPod, iPad and iPhone along with Apple’s walled garden philosophy when it comes to its products, helps audio manufacturers plan their future accompanying devices in detail. Compare that to Google’s anything goes policy when it concerns the Android based devices and you will understand why there are so few docking stations designed for it.
However, that product segment might be shedding its reputation with a helping hand from Philips as they expand their vaunted Fidelio line-up to include four new-comers that are targeted exclusively at Android users. The Philips Fidelio AS851 is the best docking station on offer from the lot and will cost you S$349. That is about a hundred dollars less than what Philips charges the excellent Fidelio DS9/10 which is available to Apple users. Naturally we will be comparing the two products to gauge their worth. Will the Android counterpart match up in terms of performance and features?
The AS851 is instantly recognizable as a Philips Fidelio product as it bears the hallmark curved back design that the other docking stations from the range also boast. The design of this particular speaker however has more in common with the higher-end DS9000 rather than the DS9/10. While the latter is convex and almond shaped, the Fidelio AS851 has a recessed and indented front face like the former. Instead of the wood grain finish, the AS851 has a glossy black exterior. In our opinion, the looks and aesthetics of the new product have taken a slight hit. Though they are likely to be compatible with Android smartphones, the air of classy, premium quality is somewhat diminished by the plastic demeanor.
In terms of girth and size, the Philips AS851 measures in at 421 x 157 x 140mm. This makes it smaller than the DS9/10, but far from being portable. Though easier to manage and handle, the Android docking station from Philips still requires a power adapter to function as it has no on-board battery, making it ill-suited for use on the go. At the back of the device you will also find a 3.5mm audio input connector and a USB port. While playback from the USB port is not possible, it is able to charge a secondary device in addition to the one you have docked.
When compared with the DS9/10, you will notice that the recess in the middle is not present, but the reflex ports for boosting the bass performance have been retained. We will be using our standard test tracks to determine how good the low frequencies sound on the AS851 as that particular spectrum of sound is usually very difficult for docking stations to reproduce with fidelity due to their size. Simple buttons for powering on the docking station, activating Bluetooth and controlling the volume are also present on the front. Sound itself is delivered by twin 3-inch full range woofers.
The problem with Android devices with respect to docking stations, as mentioned earlier, is the non-homogenous design of products. Google lets the myriad of manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung and many others to decide for themselves what the best placement for the micro-USB port should be. While this may offer a great degree of freedom to smartphone makers, it means that audio accompaniments like sound docks become difficult to implement. That's why there are so few elegant docking options for the Android devices.
Philips seems to have found an elegant solution for the aforementioned problem with their patent-in-process Flexidock connector. Firstly, the Flexidock is capable of sliding left and right on a horizontal axis so as to accommodate the diversity of size, shape and design of Android devices. At the same time, the plug itself can be tilted forward and rotated a complete 180 degrees about a vertical axis so as to provide easy docking and to accommodate different orientations of the micro-USB port for different models.
Finally, the Flexidock also has two support blocks in order to provide stability for your docked device and their height of which can be adjusted individually with the help of a ratchet. While the ratchets might be somewhat hard to turn if you have big hands, the provision of the support blocks really helps. When we plugged in our Samsung Galaxy Nexus, it was quite wobbly until we adjusted the support blocks to make flush contact with the device. All in all, Philips seems to have found a good way to overcome the challenges of the Android device marketplace.
An important point to note is the fact that audio playback is accomplished with the help of Bluetooth connectivity. This means that unlike the Apple docking stations, the Philips Fidelio AS851 is unable to provide plug and play functionality right off the bat. Users must install the DockStudio applications from the Google Play store which facilitates pairing of your smartphone with the docking station. After the first time however, plugging in your Android smartphone with the AS851 will instantly trigger the DockStudio app to establish a Bluetooth link removing the "first time use" hassle.
The Bluetooth profile the Philips AS851 runs with is A2DP. As long as your device is compatible with its particular standards and protocols it should not be a problem to make use of the speakers. Windows Phone, iOS devices and even laptops can wirelessly stream music to the docking station. The only preferential treatment meted out to Android products it seems is the fact that they can be charged at the same time when they are docked. That is not a huge advantage since you can just as well plug in and charge your iPhone or iPod with the extra USB port provided on the AS851, while making use of the Bluetooth connection to stream music. It must also be mentioned that A2DP is a lossy standard and we will definitely be paying close attention as to how Philips’ choice affects the performance of the docking station.