31
Oct
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I wouldn't exactly say it's a secret, but I'm a bit of a closet audiophile. I've reviewed a couple of audio products for Android devices in the past (like portable speakers and headphones), and am always interested in Android-friendly sound solutions.

Today, I'm taking a look at the Philips Fidelio AS851 (yes, that is kind of a lame name), Philips' top-of-the-line Android speaker dock. How can a speaker dock be designed for Android, you ask? Well, Philips realized that their popular line of iPhone docks could pretty easily be converted to be Android friendly by changing the dock connector to a microUSB connection, and releasing the Fidelio app for Android handsets. We'll get into the app a bit later.

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I'll just say it now: Philips has set the bar for speaker docks with this device. The AS851 sounds amazing, has a convenient IR remote, a decent Android app (with a 5-channel audio equalizer!), and it's just a stylish piece of kit. While the AS851 does have a few flaws, those shortcomings can't bring down this otherwise fantastic audio accessory.

In A Nutshell

Overview

Philips Fidelio AS851 speaker dock for Android:

  • Price: $200
  • 30 Watts max output / 2.0 speakers with bass pipes
  • Wireless Bluetooth A2DP audio playback
  • Hardware DSP (digital sound processing)
  • microUSB docking connector with slide and swivel action (for landscape layout on some phones)
  • Rear USB port for charging additional devices
  • Auxiliary 3.5mm stereo-in jack (male to male 3.5mm cable included)
  • IR remote control
  • Philips Fidelio app with internet radio, Songbird integration, and 5-channel audio equalizer.

The Good

  • The sound from the AS851 will honestly leave you floored. The tight bass response and loudness of this thing belies its deceptively low 30W output rating, it can really fill a room. Of course, it does weigh about 5 pounds.
  • Wireless Bluetooth audio means even when you're not docked with the AS851, you'll still get crystal clear sound - that makes this thing great for watching movies on your tablet or phone from afar.
  • The swivel and slide action on the mUSB docking port ensures the AS851 can accommodate any Android phone, no matter where its USB port is located, and can be adjusted such that any phone will sit in a centered position in the dock.
  • The Fidelio app has a built-in equalizer, internet radio, and a convenient dock home screen that displays the time, date, and weather quite stylishly.
  • The IR remote control is a nice convenience.
  • Rear USB port means you can charge more than one device at a time, and the 3.5mm jack means Bluetooth isn't a requirement.

The Not So Good

  • The Fidelio app isn't exactly coded perfectly, and is a bit slow at times (especially with internet radio).
  • The Fidelio app also has memory issues - as in, it doesn't seem to remember settings after a reboot.
  • The IR remote doesn't always play nice with other music apps (such as Pandora or Amazon MP3), and sometimes won't resume when pressing play after an earlier pause.
  • There's no way to see what the volume level on the dock is.
  • $200 isn't cheap, though it's not unreasonable for what you're getting.

The Sound / Connectivity / Hardware

As I said previously, the AS851 provides truly outstanding audio - but how outstanding is outstanding? Well, for my daily listening, I use a pair of Klipsch bookshelf speakers that have an output of 100 watts RMS apiece (that's a lot). While the AS851 can't get as loud, at normal to slightly above normal listening volumes, I honestly forgot that I was listening to the dock at times. It's that good.

Most docking speakers give themselves away with tinny highs, buzzing bass, or an unnaturally punchy mid-range. The Philips AS851 is balanced, and that's probably the most important characteristic of any audio device if you're using it for music listening. Philips claims its DSP (digital sound processing) has been configured to preserve, rather than "enhance," the quality of audio when it's played back. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to use a speaker that I don't have to "tweak" to get music sounding the way I want it. I can hear with surprising clarity all of the little details in my favorite songs without having to crank the volume to the moon, and in my book, that's one of the marks of a great speaker.

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Philips claims the curved design of the AS851 provides superior acoustics.

If you're an audiophile, you probably share some of my concerns about the merits of Bluetooth A2DP as a medium to transmit audio. Wireless is kind of sacrilege for the sound-faithful. Bluetooth A2DP basically emulates the quality of a 192kbps MP3 (at least), depending on the driver stack. I've never been able to hear the difference between 192kbps and 320 or lossless, so for me, Bluetooth A2DP doesn't disappoint. I haven't experienced any interference or connection issues, either.

Of course, if you're a die-hard about wired sound, the included 3.5mm jack will ensure you get your 100% good old fashioned copper-transmitted audio fix without any new-fangled wireless witchcraft getting in the way. One analog feature the AS851 does lack is a volume level indicator, so you're never quite sure how loud it'll be the next time you power it up. It's a minor concern.

But for sound, the AS851 will be a difficult feat to top, even from the likes of Bose.

Charging on the AS851 was very quick, I'd say slightly faster than my wall charger when I used it to juice up my BIONIC. It's also just a lot more convenient than a cable. As you can see in the picture below, my BIONIC, even with its oddly placed microUSB port, looks right at home in the AS851 thanks to the sliding dock mechanism. That was truly a stroke of minor genius on Philips' part.

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The hardware buttons on the AS851 all work well (all four of them), and the speaker just feels solidly put together overall. Given its substantial weight (about 5 pounds), you're unlikely to knock the Fidelio off your desk or nightstand in a fit of morning alarm-clock rage, either. And let's be honest, the thing just kind of looks sleek - Philips' minimalistic design is quite eye-catching.

Controls / IR Remote / Fidelio App

Unfortunately, this is one area where the AS851 is less than perfect. However, I think you'd have a difficult time finding a speaker dock that has quite the control functionality of Philips' product in the first place. Let's start with basic playback.

If you're not docked to the AS851, obviously your phone will act as the primary remote. Used this way, I had no issues with the AS851. The Bluetooth connection never dropped, and the range of the connection was within what I'd expect for a device like this (about 5 meters with a clear line of sight). This means you can set the AS851 on your desk or nightstand, and watch a movie on your tablet in bed without struggling with pesky wires, or batteries on a portable speaker.

The IR remote ensures you won't even have to get up off your rear-end to crank the volume. For controlling the dock itself, the IR remote works great - it even has input toggles to switch between Bluetooth and the 3.5mm jack. It's when you try to use it to control a docked device that issues arise.

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The remote, as you can see, has a number of controls for your Android device. This includes a play/pause button, next and previous track buttons, and specific buttons for going into Philips' internet radio UI in the Fidelio app, the Fidelio homescreen, and Songbird. I don't use Songbird, so I never actually got to see how the integration really works. But, I'm pretty sure it's limited to launching the app itself, and not much else - as pressing the button just provides a link to the Market page.

Philips could have won me over even further by, instead of making it a Songbird button, using it as a programmable button to launch an app of your choice (Pandora, for example), or even as a programmable shortcut to a specific radio station in the Fidelio app.

The IR remote also has issue playing nice with other music apps. I often found that after pausing music in apps like Amazon MP3 where the app was running in the background or with the display turned off, I couldn't resume playback. This can be annoying, obviously. Additionally, if I started playing a track in Amazon MP3 with the phone docked and let the display time out, sometimes the app would just stop playing music. Powering off the display manually seemed to prevent this issue, which was apparently limited to Amazon MP3.

Philips' Fidelio app is another sometimes inconvenient convenience. For example, after rebooting my phone, the Fidelio app tends to forget the settings changes I've made (such as the app theme, EQ settings, weather location). This is annoying. As far as how the app functions, Fidelio offers a wide variety of internet radio options courtesy of TunedIn, though some of them don't stream in Android-friendly formats.

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The Fidelio app has a fairly polished look, though it does have slightly iPhone-ish menus, and a dated Android settings pull-up drawer. Still, it's an attractive interface, and the clock home screen can be configured for always-on mode, turning your AS851 into an Android-powered clock radio. To be honest, the app exceeded my expectations, especially aesthetically.

The 5-channel equalizer works as advertised - and this isn't software equalization. When you adjust the EQ in the Fidelio app, the setting change is sent to the speaker, meaning you're getting true hardware EQ controlled through the Fidelio app. The dynamic bass boost is great when you're trying to fill a larger space with deep, resonating sound.

Conclusion

For $200, the AS851 is a great investment if you're looking for a robust speaker dock for your Android device(s). The Fidelio app really does add value to the speaker (unlike so many other product-bundled apps), and the hardware EQ works surprisingly well. Of course, you may not even need to adjust it, since the AS851 sounds pretty damn awesome right out of the box.

Its robust build quality, good looks, and flexible docking port mean you'll likely be able to enjoy your AS851 for years to come, as well. After using the AS851, I'd have a hard time buying any other dock, as I've honestly become quite attached to its wonderful sound.

My only substantial complaint is the IR remote control issues with other music apps - that can be truly annoying. But honestly, I find myself generally using my phone, rather than the remote, to control playback. And that's not exactly an inconvenience. If the AS851 came without a remote, I wouldn't have had much of anything to complain about, as the lack of one would by no means be a fatal flaw.

With all this in mind, I still would recommend the AS851 to anyone looking for a speaker dock for their Android phone, it's a truly superb product.

The AS851 is available now, and if you buy one on Amazon, you'll even receive a $15 Amazon MP3 credit with your purchase.

David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • bccbryan

    Great review...I bought the clock radio version (AS111) and it does sound great. It exceeded my expectation on sound quality too!! The only thing that I would have liked on that are some buttons to change tracks. I would have to use my phone to change tracks. Also when connected to the dock notifications/ringtones don't play off the speaker. The only time I heard any type of notification play was when I was playing music. Phone calls just vibrate and stops the music.

    Okay I wasn't imagining the Fidelio app forgetting my settings on reboot. The Fidelio app was only used to set the time and turns on/off the bluetooth.

    I'm actually happy with the build quality and sound quality of my dock.

    • http://www.gradweil.de alvinx

      How does it work as alarm clock ?
      Any issues ?
      Do you have to use the fidelio-app to set alarms via bluetooth audio ?
      Or does it work with the default android alarm clock as well ??

      • David Ruddock

        alvin - any audio that your phone puts out while connected to the dock via Bluetooth (or 3.5mm, I assume) will get put out to the speaker. I didn't experience the issue with no notifications coming through unless music was playing. I didn't test the stock Android alarm clock specifically, but I'll do that when I get home and confirm for you.

      • bccbryan

        You don't need to use the Fidelio app. You can use the built in alarm clock or another application. I use Alarm Clock Plus. I actually found out you don't need the fidelio app to even connect to the dock. You can pair it just like any other bluetooth device.

        The only thing that the fidelio app did was sync the time between the dock and the phone.

      • http://www.gradweil.de alvinx

        Thank you guys !

  • Bryce

    I rarely leave replies in blog posts, but I just started looking for an Android speaker with dock, exactly what this product offers, and have an observation.
    These statements don't really mesh and make me wonder about the actual (sound) quality of this product (and the reviewer's opinion):
    "I'm a bit of a closet audiophile"
    "I've never been able to hear the difference between 192kbps and 320 or lossless"
    "the AS851 will be a difficult feat to top, even from the likes of Bose"

    I'm not a Bose fanboy, but they do make decent (or better) audio products, albeit overpriced. I love Klipsch, have Reference home speakers and Image S4 headphones.

    I'm highly doubtful that this $200 speaker playing Pandora via Bluetooth can even come close to to using PowerAMP connected to my home speakers using FLAC source files. Yet, that's what the review claims, at least "at normal to slightly above normal listening volumes."

    • David Ruddock

      I never said the device was equivalent to a set of high-end reference speakers.

      But for casual listening, yes, the quality of the audio *is* high enough that it at least approaches a proper audio setup - which is what I meant when I said I sometimes "forgot" that I was listening to the dock. It's not a replacement, but it is a damn good speaker for its size and price, as well as its bonus functionality.

      If you're doing a strict comparison, the AS851 obviously lacks a lot of the subtle bass reproduction and resistance to distortion at high volume when compared to a good set of analog speakers. And clearly, the audio components are of a lesser quality - I'm not disputing that.

      As for Bose's products, I've never been particularly impressed - I'm sure their closest product to the AS851 technically outperforms it, but I've never heard a Bose product that has left me really impressed given its MSRP.

      And as for the whole bitrate debate, you know as well as I do that there is constantly conflicting empirical data out there about what humans can hear and what they can't, and I've read enough to know that there's substantial support for the notion that difference in quality anything above 192kbps is generally inaudible to the untrained human ear.

      If I listen to my tracks side by side, one on my bookshelf speakers, one on the dock, of course I can tell the difference. But my point is that the Philips comes so much closer than other products out there in terms of providing a real, quality listening experience, and not just a charging station with a speaker inside.

  • Neil

    Are phones physically supported only by the MicroUSB connector? Doesn't that put a lot of stress on the phone's socket?

    What about large/heavy phones with the connector on the bottom?

    • David Ruddock

      the mUSB connector has two side-supports, and the whole mechanism tilts backward and forward so that your phone will rest against the rubber guard on the speaker grille.

      So, even a large/heavy phone will fit, you just may need to tilt the connector forward a bit - the phone will still rest the majority of its weight against the speaker itself, such that there's no torque force on the docking connector / USB port.

  • kj

    Can you test this with a galaxy s (captivate) to see how it works with the plug being at the top of the phone. I would be afraid that the curve on top would make it useless.

    • David Ruddock

      I'm afraid I don't have one to test it with. I see what you mean, though I still think it would fit - Philips deliberately made the mUSB connector extra long, such that it has an extra 2mm of vertical clearance.

      • kj

        if that is the case, i think it might work. thanks.

  • Aeires

    Do you have to use the app or can you use Google Music instead? If so I'll dig out my N1, which isn't used anymore, and use it as a permanent connection to my music.

    • David Ruddock

      You can use any app that outputs sound.

      • Aeires

        Sweet. Thanks.

  • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

    Can you play music with this on the go like you can with the JAMBOX? Does it have a battery? If so, is it rechargeable and how long does it last? Is the whole thing pretty portable or would you only use it at home?

    • David Ruddock

      Not unless you carry a gas generator with you.

  • http://kenkinder.com/ Ken

    David, thanks for the review. I've always wanted something like this and I've been contemplating the Bose bluetooth speaker set at $300.

    I'm also in the camp that's interested in using this as an alarm clock. Specifically, does the device work well as an alarm with Internet radio? For example can I configure it to wake up to a given streaming mp3 URL?

    If I dock the phone into the speaker, does it automatically start up bluetooth *and* pair? That is, can I just come home at night, dock my phone, and go to bed knowing that I'll wake up to it? How secure would you feel about that? And does the in-app alarm work over your phone's regular speaker if, for example, power is lost?

    Thanks for the review. I'm very near buying this.

    • David Ruddock

      Yes, it auto-pairs. However, I've had some difficulty getting it to play back alarms or notifications unless I'm using the Fidelio app, which has it's own alarm clock that does work with the speaker. You can set the app to launch automatically when you dock your phone.

      The auto-pair is also glitchy, in that sometimes it won't pair (it'll get stuck "scanning" for the connection) if you dock the phone with the display off.

      I wouldn't say it's quite at the reliability level of "set it and forget it" - but if you use the Fidelio app, you just need to make sure you dock the phone with the display unlocked and then let it connect.

      I believe the alarm in Fidelio will work with the speaker powered off and play through the phone, as well.

  • Kuang

    I love my Philips Fidelio speakerdock. It has one major flaw.

    Unless you use the stock music player you can't pause and resume with a third party music player.

    I use doubletwist as my music player and whenever I pause it and resume it will start the stock player. This always happen when the screen is of. When the screen is on it won't happen. This is annoying since I listen to the dock when I got to bed and it would be stupid to leave my phone screen on all night.

    The only way to stop this bug is to remove or freeze the stock music player.

    I run cyanogenmod 7 and use titanium backup to freeze the stock music player. Freezing is one step away from removing the app and its like putting the app in a deepfreeze. This is the only way for me to use a third party music player with the fidelio audiospeaker. Now I'm a happy fidelio user.

  • Mistert

    Once docked can I punch in a number and not have the phone wobble and will the music auto pause on an in or out call automatically?