Lauren Goode

Sound Kick: Solid Sound, but a Shaky Speaker

Speaker systems used to imply large towers, mountains of components, spaghetti-like piles of wires, and lots of listening to Pink Floyd to gauge sound quality. On the portable end, there was the boombox, clenching your cassette tapes in its teeth while you boosted it on your shoulder.

Today there are wireless, Bluetooth-enabled speaker docks that are smaller than a shoebox and allow you to play thousands of tracks from a single mobile device. Since I’m not really an audiophile, a speaker that works with my iPhone and gives good sound is good enough for me. But even some of those cost a few hundred dollars. That’s where Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick might come in handy.

This new portable Bluetooth speaker, which has an expandable chamber that pops out in the back for fuller sound, hits the market today at $99. It’s available exclusively through Target stores and through Soundfreaq’s Web site, to start. The Los Angeles-based company says the device will be available on Target’s Web site in a couple weeks; it will eventually be sold through other mass retailers, as well.

After five days of using the Sound Kick, I preferred its sound over that of its main rival, the best-selling $200 Jambox speaker. But the Sound Kick is a bit wobbly when standing upright, and isn’t nearly as portable as the compact Jambox, making it a tweener when it comes to being both an at-home dock and portable speaker.

The Sound Kick works with a variety of Bluetooth-friendly devices, including iPhone, Android phones, BlackBerry, iPad and some laptops. And unlike the Jambox, it has a USB port for charging devices while you’re playing music or audio.

Made of plastic, with a steel-coated front grill, the Sound Kick is a rectangular-shaped device weighing 1.6 pounds and measuring 10.5 inches by 4.2 inches. When closed, its thickness is actually the same as the Jambox; when the extra sound chamber is extended, the device is 2.5 inches wide.

Like some of Soundfreaq’s other products, it has smooth, indented, touch-sensitive buttons for adjusting volume and controlling music tracks. The speaker is available only in black, though Soundfreaq plans to introduce carrying cases in a variety of colors.

To test the sound quality of the speaker, I connected both my iPhone 4 and iPad 2 via Bluetooth, then set my entire music library to shuffle on my iPhone, which means some audio files would be higher-quality than others. (This was also a good reminder that I’ve downloaded some really bad music in the past. And I can probably ditch the Christmas tunes when it isn’t the season.) I also played Pandora Internet radio songs from an app on an Android smartphone. I set the volume on my phones to around 75 percent, and the Sound Kick’s volume was at about two-thirds of its capacity.

The songs playing through the Sound Kick easily filled the small living room of my apartment at mid-to-high volume levels, without losing quality or starting to sound harsh. Some songs sounded tinnier than other, but that likely had to do with the music files themselves rather than the speakers.

Soundfreaq says the Sound Kick provides optimal sound quality through two techniques: The extra chamber on the speaker set, and a digital-enhancement button, called the UQ3 button. The pop-out chamber in the back is meant to help the resonance of the acoustics of the speaker, while the digital enhancement gives the listener the impression that the speakers inside the dock are spaced further apart, more like surround sound.

When I pressed the UQ3 button, some songs did sound fuller, with stronger bass. With other, more layered songs, instrumental sounds that had previously taken a backseat to the vocals got a slight boost.

Otherwise, the digital enhancements weren’t that noticeable to me. I also watched videos from “The Daily Show” on the iPad, and patched the audio through the Sound Link speaker. Since mobile phone and tablet speakers can be relatively weak, I liked the added oomph I got from the Sound Kick. But when I pressed the UQ3 button, it had little to no apparent impact on the sound quality.

The Sound Kick outputs at a higher decibel level than the Jambox does — 92 decibels, compared to the Jambox’s 85 — but this is a way to measure the amplitude of sound, and is not an indication of better quality. Basically, the Jambox’s amplitude peaks at a lower level than the Sound Kick’s does.

The Sound Kick has a lithium-ion rechargeable battery that the company says should last approximately seven hours with an iPhone 4 or iPod Touch connected via Bluetooth, with the volume turned up 66 percent. During my test, I had the speaker turned up to around two-thirds of maximum volume, and the battery lasted about eight hours.

But there were a few things about the Sound Kick that lowered its grade for me. Unless you have the back portion of the speaker fully extended, the Sound Kick won’t power on at all. Also, while I liked the touch buttons, I sometimes accidentally stopped a music track or jacked up the volume when I was moving the speaker around.

Unlike the Jambox, the Sound Kick isn’t a two-way Bluetooth speaker, so when my iPhone rang during testing, the Sound Kick wouldn’t patch my calls through the speaker.

The Sound Kick’s biggest design problem is that it didn’t feel very stable. The extra speaker space makes the device back-heavy, so when I propped it upright, it fell back; when positioned at an angle — as it’s supposed to be for better sound — it tipped over if I bumped my arm against it. Soundfreaq says that when it’s in the “kicked” position, the Sound Kick should be stable, but in the event that the speaker is knocked over, its steel front grill is meant to protect it from scratching or breaking.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive speaker dock with good sound quality that works with mobile devices and could be considered portable in a pinch, you might want to consider the Sound Kick. But, as I’m planning for my next couple trips, I realize I’m more likely to take something like the Jambox with me during travel. It’s just that much easier to carry around, also has good sound and acts as a two-way speaker, whether in the conference room, car or at home.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik