Hardware: unusual...Unusual is the word that best describes the two speakers that make up the SoundSphere kit. They're sort of open eggs out of which a sort of E.T.'s forefinger appears. They certainly won't go unnoticed.
The power supply plugs into the left-hand speaker. You can send sound to this stereo kit (because that's what it is!) via a mini-jack socket but the main audio in is via the wireless AirPlay system, the Apple 'technology' that is simply a hidden, autonomous wi-fi network created in parallel to that used for all standard devices, very much in the way Sonos does with the ZoneBridge. The advantage of this is that no complex configuration is required. AirPlay is not universal and you have to use it with a compatible device or piece of software, though this is, after all, a product for the iPod/iPhone.
The dock is simply there to recharge your device and isn't required for the audio side to work.
Note, the speakers are 37 cm high so you'll need to make sure you have space for them. If you're looking for a compact solution, the DS9800 isn't for you! In addition, there are no controls on the speakers themselves, which means you'll need to have your source to hand, even for regulating volume, which may be a problem under certain circumstances.
Audio: the benefits of two-speaker kitsOf course you get better stereo from a kit with two speakers than you do with one. The DS9800 has just one woofer and one tweeter, which is a good deal down on the competition, but here they're bigger and distributing them between two speakers rather than grouping them into one makes all the difference as you can place the speakers a good distance one from the other.
It's certainly welcome to see that stereo is back in fashion in the fabulous world of iPod docks. We also appreciate the fact that bass is back, as this has also been sorely missed.
On the DS9800, things are much improved. The bass won't wake the neighbours (we're 'only' talking 2.0 after all) but you'll hear it. Mediums are well rendered and the high-end is clean. The spatialisation is excellent and there's no problem with the detail. The 5-star rating is much deserved.
That said, the criticisms previously levelled against the SoundSpheres still hold. The fact that the tweeter sticks out the top of the speaker doesn't seem to be justified and makes the high-end very directional. The almost vertical orientation of the woofer also brings about a loss in spatial detail. As a result, while the DS9800 outdoes all the traditional competition, it won't stand up against a real multimedia speaker kit.
This Philips solution is an undoubted success and most other manufacturers will have to react to compete. However the Focal XS beats the DS9800 hands down and is well over £100 cheaper. For the price of the Philips kit, you can even get a better Hi-Fi solution that is also Apple compatible. Finally, the DS9800 perhaps presages the end for very high-end iPod docks, which, as they get more expensive, will end up costing more than same brand Hi-Fi hardware. This may be the time to think more radically about integrating digital sound with high-end audio solutions.