[See conclusion for rating]
Pro-Ject’s little Dock Box S Digital is a great audio product but it’s designed to connect to the previous generation of Apple products.
This is effectively part four of my Small Audio Saga blog series, so let’s call it “The Dock Is Dead, Isn’t it?” For the most recent installment, click here.
PRO-JECT’S DOCK BOX Fi has been one of the cornerstones of my stereo system since October 2010, when I bought one (click here to read the original review). The Dock Box Fi is an unassuming little dock that sounds great and it’s proved to be an exceedingly simple way to integrate computer audio into playback infrastructure. Almost all of my music is stored on iTunes, which means that I can dump most of it into my 80Gb iPod Classic, dock it and just push play. That seemed like a perfect interim solution to the perplexing computer audio problem (DAC or streamer? Wired or Wi-Fi?), but in recent times, I’ve become hooked on internet radio Apps running on my iPhone.
This has meant that Bluetooth streaming from the phone is now my preferred computer audio option – I have a bunch of my favourite CDs stored on the phone, so I can stream that music too. Occasionally however, I still dock that old iPod Classic to run through a specific playlist or to shuffle through the extensive collected works of a single artist or band.
As good as the Dock Box Fi sounds, it’s still an analogue device. Pro-Ject was a little slow to release a dock that can access the digital stream on Apple devices. When the Dock Box S Digital was announced, it seemed to be the right product at the wrong time – the prevailing wisdom in audio land is that the dock is dead, and that the future is wireless. The plethora of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth audio devices being released at the moment are testimony to this trend, but in the same way that vinyl didn’t die because of CD, there are still going to be people who want a high quality dock to give them easy access to the music on their Apple device.
Unfortunately, the Dock Box S Digital isn’t just fighting off the wireless onslaught, it’s also saddled with the old 30-pin Apple connector, which is a sign of just how far back this Dock Box’s design goes. The local agents have verified that the unit works with a 30-pin to Lightning adapter, but that elevates the Apple device to a precarious position above the clever adjustable backing plate, which defeats the point.
So why bother reviewing the Dock Box S Digital then? Well, I wanted to hear if the digital access to the Apple device made an appreciable difference to the sound quality. There’s also the fact that Pro-Ject may well release a version of this product with a Lightning connector (in the same way that B&W offers a Lightning dock on its brand new Z2 wireless music system) and once it does, the performance of this version will pretty much carry over to the new model. And of course, there are heaps of people out there with existing 30-pin Apple products who have no intention of upgrading. I’m one of them: that iPod Classic will stay with me until one of us is no more, which means that this sort of product might just prove to be handy for a while.
Features & Construction
The Dock Box S Digital is a simple enough device, at least externally. It uses the same rugged bent-metal chassis as most of the Box Design range, so it’s compact but at over half a kilogram, it’s about as solid as a chunk of machined metal. There’s a power switch on the front of the unit, which is a refreshing change from the model I’ve got. Round back is the power input, S-Video output, analogue outputs and a digital coaxial output that allows the Dock Box S Digital to function as a transport feeding an external DAC. A credit card-sized remote is included, along with a compact wall-wart power supply, which is much friendlier than the oversize PSU’s that have shipped with Pro-Ject products since time immemorial.
Internally, the Dock Box S Digital runs a Cirrus Logic 24bit/192kHz DAC and XMOS audio processors that guarantee “ultra-low jitter levels”.
There’s no doubt that the Dock Box S Digital sounds better than my analogue Dock Box Fi. The sound quality steps up a notch in terms of transparency, with the digital unit sounding more natural and more open. It’s the same kind of improvement you get when moving from a CD quality file to a high-res download, just not as dramatic. Cymbals ring more vividly, vocals and instruments are rendered with more textural detail and the bass is just a fraction more articulate.
The difference between the two isn’t huge, but if you were to pick the one that sounds more like a high-quality digital transport, you’d pick the Dock Box S Digital every time. It certainly sounds as if jitter is under control in there based solely on the clarity of the information getting through to the rest of the signal chain. With CD-quality files running from the flash memory of an iPhone, the Dock Box S Digital sounded like a good CD player, and that’s high praise indeed. The only downside in the overall performance is a small reduction in outright dynamics – the Dock Box S Digital is marginally more restrained than its predecessor but that’s not enough to offset the areas where it’s made gains.
Critically, the Dock Box S Digital sounds better in almost every way than a Bluetooth-based internet radio stream from my phone, even with QED’s excellent uPlay Plus (review here) on the end of the wireless signal. This is only logical – the internet radio bitrates are miserly at best and can’t match a 320kbps file from the iPod, but even when the same files are compared, the docked solution has the edge. That’ll be an important consideration for some, but in my case, it doesn’t outweigh the massive convenience of the streaming solution.
As a simple “dock and forget” solution, the Dock Box S Digital is an easy recommendation for those with a deep attachment to 30-pin Apple products. Would I flog my Dock Box Fi and replace it with the digital version? Not a chance, because of my aforementioned move into Bluetooth streaming. When (if?) Pro-Ject releases a Lightning-equipped Dock Box with digital access, then it’s likely to be a standout product in its category, but as has been repeatedly pointed out in recent posts, that category is fading fast.
The best thing Pro-Ject could do is to implement a best of both worlds solution and build both a Lightning connector and Bluetooth into the same chassis. That may or may not even be possible given the limitations of the form factor but if it was done right, it would be a winner.
In the 30-pin Apple dock context, this is a 5 star product at the price – it’s actually that good. In the current “Lightning or nothing” context, it gets 2 stars. You know which context you’re in. ASHLEY KRAMER