The Philips AS851 is somewhat unique in that it is one of the first ‘Android’ speaker docks to hit the market. It is, in-fact, the flagship dock from the Philips ‘Fidelio’ range, which offers the first ever microUSB connection in the speaker dock style that has previously been reserved for iPods only. Let’s have a look at how it measures up.
Philips has plenty of experience in designing iPod docks and this is reflected in its Fidelio range. The AS851 looks and feels premium, as does its included remote control. The dock weighs about 2kg and isn’t much shorter than half a metre in width, but isn’t too cumbersome when moving it from room to room. The curved design is complemented by a black finish, which more often that not matches the design of the docked handset. A black speaker grill covers the entire front of the dock, housing the microUSB connection and physical controls. A secondary USB port and 3.5mm AUX in connection on the rear offer further charging and connectivity options.
In designing the AS851, Philips has done well to anticipate a problem that could easily have been overlooked; the location of the microUSB port varies on each Android handset. This has been accounted for by a slideable connection with adjustable bumpers, which can be raised to make the fit as snug as possible. Handsets that have the microUSB connection in the middle, ideally on the bottom of the device rather than the side, will dock the best. Those that do have the microUSB port on the side, such as the 2011 HTC range, will of course be docked horizontally. However, docking is not required for playback or charging, so the position of the port shouldn’t be too big a consideration if you’re thinking of buying.
While the AS851 is similar to an iPod dock in terms of design, it differs in functionality. Your Android handset is docked via the microUSB connection in the same way that you would dock an iPod, but the sound is transferred via Bluetooth instead of the connection itself. Needing to connect by Bluetooth can perhaps be a bit more time consuming initially, but thanks to the speed at which handsets connect this is marginal and is further reduced once a device has been paired for the first time. Having the sound transfer via Bluetooth also means that playback is still possible should the microUSB connection become damaged and unusable. Bluetooth profiles that are supported include A2DP, AVRCP and SPP.
Of course, due to the fact that the audio connection is created via Bluetooth, there is no need to have your handset docked in order to play music. This means that the USB connection is solely used for charging the handset (sound can only be transferred via microUSB using MHL). This differs to iPod docks which transfer sound via the connection itself. The Bluetooth therefore has an advantage in that the handset can still be carried round the room with you (up to 10m) whilst connected, it does not need to be docked. However, docking it will keep it charged, ensuring that your battery is not drained whilst playing back music.
The AS851 beeps twice to let you know when a device is connecting or disconnecting via Bluetooth. Due to the Bluetooth settings, it is not possible to have more than one device connected to the dock at any one time. However, connecting a device is simple using Android. This is useful if you are in a room with a group of friends and you want to take turns sharing your music. Simply disconnect one device to allow another one to connect. Most devices will connect automatically once they have been paired for the first time, meaning that switching between handsets is just a matter of turning Bluetooth on and off. Failing this, it only takes a few seconds to navigate to the Bluetooth menu and reconnect to the Philips dock.
On the rear of the dock there is a USB port, meaning that you can attach a USB cable and charge a second device. For me, the ability to keep a device charged via a microUSB cable also has another advantage; it makes device navigation and therefore the selection of tracks easier. While the microUSB connection on the dock is secure on the handsets that I have used, it could feel a bit flimsy if it was not positioned centrally on the handset. It therefore makes sense to connect your handset via the rear microUSB port and navigate with the device in hand if you want to browse your device a lot during playback. If you do have a second device that needs charging, it can be docked on the front of the speaker.
Philips has developed a free app, Fidelio, to work in conjunction with its Android docking range which as well as the AS851, includes the AS351 and AS111. It also recommends that you install Songbird, an app for syncing your music collection, discovering new artists and sharing tracks with friends. The Fidelio app itself is not required to use the dock (although this is stated otherwise in some of the documentation) and can at times be a hindrance. It’s received some rather negative press on the Android market and my opinion is that you are probably better off without it.
For me, the only reason to use Fidelio over other apps would be the alarm feature. When using apps other than Fidelio to play an alarm, the sound is played through both the handset and the dock, creating an echo. This is only a minor problem, as an alarm doesn’t need to be so loud as to require the volume level that the AS851 provides, so you may be better off just running the alarm through the handset as usual. It is worth noting that the Fidelio app also needs to be left running in order for the alarm to activate, plus the dock must be powered on. It does have some nice features, but none that could not be found in other Android alarm apps. The fact that it needs to be running in order to activate also means that it is slightly less reliable than other apps.
One redeeming feature that Fidelio does offer is the radio function. However, this is simply TuneIn Radio. In order to use TuneIn radio via Fidelio, you need to have the handset docked on the AS851. However, TuneIn radio is available to download for free from the Android market (there is a pro version as well) and running the app outside of Fidelio means that the handset does not need to be docked and could therefore be connected to the rear power outlet of the AS851 instead. Playing music through TuneIn radio independently as opposed to through Fidelio does not affect sound quality. It also saves you from running two apps at once, so won’t go so hard on your battery life. I
If you are considering the purchase of a Philips Android dock, you should not let the negative reviews of the Fidelio app put you off. Its functions can be emulated just as well, if not better, using the normal functions of your handset.
When it comes down to it, the AS851 is essentially a Bluetooth speaker. Bluetooth does not offer the best sound quality out there, but the dock does a good job of filling the room with the right level of bass, treble and mid-range. There are several ways to control volume; using the hardware or software on your handset, using the remote, or by using the controls on the dock. The Philip’s speaker dock suffices whether you’re using its services for a small gathering, or for casual listening around the house.
When playing music back through other apps such as Spotify, the sound is clear and can play to a good level without distorting. As well as Bluetooth smartphones and tablets, the AS851 can also connect to desktops. I was easily able to connect the dock to my iMac, although the sound quality wasn’t quite as good as when connecting to phones. Still, this does mean that if you have a setup with limited space/budget, a Philips Bluetooth dock could replace your stereo as well.
The Philips AS851 is a premium dock that is worth the splash if you’re big into your music. It’s great as a bedroom accessory – use it as an alarm, speaker dock or link it to a desktop computer with Bluetooth connectivity. It’s also great for around the house, especially if you’re with a crowd of people often and you all like to share your music. The versatility that the Bluetooth connection offers is a real plus point and means that despite being advertised as an Android dock, the AS851 can connect to any device that has the supporting Bluetooth profiles. The best generic Bluetooth speaker dock out there at the moment.