Test one: Sound quality
Regardless of what bells and whistles you can get on your dock, the most important thing is the audio quality: do the speakers do justice to your favourite music?
Let's start with our least favourite and work our way up to the best. Two that failed to impress us were the iLuv App Station and the Altec Lansing Octiv 102. There's little depth to the sound from the App Station, and while the bass produced by the Octiv 102 surprised us given how small the unit is, it doesn't offer much in the way of treble clarity.
That said, these two are the smallest and most affordable docks we tested, and will do a perfectly good job if you just want to listen to spoken word (or watch videos, in the case of the App Station, which is the only one here that'll dock in landscape), but for music, we'd recommend looking elsewhere.
The iLuv Vibe Plus sits at the top end of this price category, but much of the cost appears to have gone towards extras; the sound feels like an afterthought. To its credit, there's more treble clarity than you get with the App Station or Octiv 102, and the built-in EQ does let you boost the bass or treble, which improves things somewhat. But you can do better for less cash.
Logic3's i-Station 26 offers improved treble over the aforementioned docks so acoustic music comes out well, and its angled speakers do a better job of separating the stereo than most here. Sadly, though, the bass is missing in action, and the midrange is a tad flat and tinny.
For a better, warmer sound at a slightly lower cost, there's the Gear4 Explorer-SP. We were surprised at how much bass oomph emanated from such a thin dock: it's not going to shake the glass in your windows, but there's a definite thump to it when you turn up the volume on a dance track. Even though this comes at the cost of a bit of treble clarity compared to the i-Station 26, we prefer the Explorer-SP's overall picture.
Fans of music that relies on lots of bass will like the Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock, because it can pump it out by the bucketload, especially if you switch its six-preset built-in EQ to the Rock setting. Dance tracks sound deep and punchy, R&B and bassy pop tunes sound nicely fullbodied, and it'll go reasonably loud without distorting. So while it certainly trumps the Altec Lansing iMT320 in the bass department, the latter does a better job of articulating and defining the mid and treble sounds, meaning that we preferred it for acoustic, classical and rock tracks.
Which brings us to the Philips Fidelio DS3020. Within minutes of having plugged our iPod into it, we were smitten, feasting on sound that's in a different league to the others in this category. That's not a slight on the rest, but a testament to how good this is. Most styles of music sound good on the DS3020, especially anything that benefits from its ability to produce crystal clear sound at the top end. Happily, though, that cleanliness doesn't come at the expense of the bass. Rock anthems, dancefloor fillers and R&B hits all have a nice punch to them. Admittedly, some may find it slightly too clinical, especially if you turn the volume up very loud, where the treble got a little bit overpowering. The stereo separation's not great either, but don't let these points put you off, because the DS3020 stands head and shoulders above the competition here.
Test two: Extra features
Pretty much any speaker dock will have extra features thrown in. Of the eight here, three can run off AA batteries (the Altec Lansing iMT320, Philips Fidelio DS3020 and iLuv App Station), while the Gear4 Explorer-SP has a built-in battery that charges from the mains.
If you want a remote control, the Logic3 i-Station 26 and both models from Gear4 come with one. All bar the iLuv Vibe Plus have aux-in sockets.
The iLuv Vibe Plus has a DAB radio built in, while the i-Station 26 and HouseParty SmartDock have a regular FM one, and all three have alarm clocks as well. In fact, the Vibe Plus takes waking you up in the morning to a whole new level of intimacy with a pod you put under your pillow, which will vibrate and play you music until you hit the Snooze button. Different, certainly!
Made for you
They're all 'Made for iPhone' or 'Works with iPhone' certified, and while none suffered interference when the iPhone rang, we found the iLuv Vibe Plus, Altec Lansing Octiv 102 and Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock buzzed if we left the phone docked during a call. Black marks for this.
Other features include on-board controls, which vary from none on the Altec Lansing Octiv 102 to comprehensive ones on the radio-bearing models. Though the Philips Fidelio DS3020 only has volume controls, they're easy to use even if you're not looking at them.
Gear4 has gone for style over usability with the controls on the HouseParty SmartDock: they look sleek, but aren't in intuitive positions.
And the winner is… Philips Fidelio DS3020 £50
However nice it may be to have an alarm clock or radio in your iPod or iPhone dock, these shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. For starters, a quick visit to the App Store will give you apps that provide this functionality and more.
For this kind of dock, your buying choice should be based primarily on sound. While the Altec Lansing iMT320 and Gear4 HouseParty SmartDock are decent enough options, they're blown out of the water by the brilliance of the Philips Fidelio DS3020, which is, without question, our winner.
As we sit listening to it, we have to keep reminding ourselves that sound this good is coming from a dock that's so small and only costs £50. Not only does it sound lovely, with clean treble tones complemented by powerful bass, but it looks stunning, and makes the others look quite, well, old-fashioned.
Its footprint is tiny, so you can squeeze it into even the smallest spaces around your home, and the volume control bar on the front is both functional and smart. It also does what few other docks do, and that's provide proper support for whichever iPhone or iPod model you dock in it, such that it doesn't wobble around as you tap the screen. Rather than have you mess around clipping in dock adapters, your device slots into the Dock connector and rests against the upper part of the speaker. Perfect simplicity.
And its use isn't limited to in the home: pop in some AA batteries and you can take your music out on the road with you, for great tunes on the go.