Alongside toothbrushes, dogs called “dog”, and ex-pro hurdler Marina Stepanova, Sky’s Soundbox appears to have graduated from the school of literal naming. It delivers sound. From a box.
Yes, a box. Based on its dimensions alone, then, it's a bit of an odd-one-out in the home cinema world: not bar-shaped like a soundbar, but also not big enough to support a TV and qualify as a soundbase either.
But don't worry too much about that, because the Soundbox promises to give your telly the sort of sound it's long deserved. And that's got to be more important than what shape it is.
DESIGN AND BUILD: YES, IT'S A BOX
Think of the Soundbox as a giant lunchbox, but one without a carton of apple juice and a Penguin inside. Or, if we’re keeping comparisons on-tech, a Sonos Play:5 on its back.
Its rather compact 37.5 x 21cm proportions mean it's not much bigger than a Sky Q box itself, but it's still too deep to sit in front of a TV. Instead, it’s designed to perch on a rack just in front of your telly. Still, it's fairly short at around 9.5cm, so you shouldn't need to peer over the top of it during subtitled films or when the Sky Sports football scores come in.
The Soundbox’s shape and size aren’t the biggest curveballs Sky is throwing, however. That’d be the price.
The Soundbox is £250 for existing and new Sky Q Multiscreen customers and £300 for existing Sky TV customers. For everyone else? £800. (No, that’s not a typo, and yes, that is almost the price of a whole year’s subscription to Sky‘s Q Silver Bundle.)
The discounted rate certainly sets a new bar for loyalty rewards programs. However, the expensive base price is easier to swallow upon learning that it's actually made by – soft-spoken inflection and French accent at the ready? – Devialet. If you’re cluelessly nodding away like you used to do in French class, let us initiate you.
The French brand (pronounced “duh-vē-a-lay”) is like the cool, rich kid of the hi-fi world; a magnet for superlatives thanks to its futuristic, all-powerful £1500+ Phantom wireless speakers and multi-thousand-pound amplifiers. But realising its customer base is limited to owners of bank accounts with multiple zeros (or those willing to sell body organs), Devialet is on a mission to make “smaller, lighter and more affordable” products – and the Soundbox is its first modesty dress.
It’s a win-win for both collaborators. Devialet gets the attention of over 20 million Sky subscribers, while Sky can leave the Soundbox in safe hands and sleep easy. Whether they’ll challenge Kim and Kanye as the ultimate power couple is still to be seen (or indeed heard)…
Devialet hasn’t quite started afresh, either. Like the Phantoms, the Soundbox has a sealed enclosure and uses the brand’s push-push woofer technology to deliver deep bass response from a closed cabinet. Class D amplifiers drive six 7.5cm woofers (two front-firing, four side-firing firing) and three 5cm full-range drivers.
Inside there's also processing that works like a road junction to split audio frequencies to specific speakers – ambient sounds, for example, are pointed to the rear-side ones so they can reflect them off the wall around you for a more immersive soundfield.
Sound: A small box with a big presence
So, the make-or-break question: does it sound immersive? To find out, we connect our telly via the Soundbox’s 4K-supporting HDMI input and output (there’s also an optical socket, and a USB input and Bluetooth for music playback), and put our feet up to The Grand Tour.
Like most Michelin-starred food, the compact Soundbox demands not to be underestimated for its size, throwing out a sound that’s as wide-open as the Californian desert the trio drive through.
It’s a small box with a big presence – just don’t expect proper “surround sound”; it’s no miracle-worker. And while it hardly makes you feel like you’re in the car with Clarkson and co, engine noise feels guttural enough to be called “experience changing” - at least when compared to listening through bog-standard TV speakers.
SPECIAL FEATURES: IT'S BETTER WITH SKY Q
The jewel in its sonic crown, mind you, is its penchant for vocal delivery. And, to draw direct inspiration from Amazon’s current Clarkson-starring Fire TV Stick advert, it’s good news if you like the sound of Clarkson’s voice even more than he does, because it really captures his gusto and anchors it with impressive weight.
In fact, Sky claims customer feedback included people’s wish for clearer dialogue while watching TV. To that end, it has not only breathed clarity and richness into the Soundbox’s midrange but also created Soundbox-specific audio settings for Sky Q users.
Press the ‘?’ key on the Sky remote and three user sound modes pop up. ‘Speech’ enhances voices; ‘Kids’ sets a limited volume to protect your kiddiwinks’ lugs; and ‘Late Night’ reduces bass levels to keep the moaning neighbours at bay.
More impressive still is the ‘Q Sound’ mode, whose purpose is to create a more involving audio experience: it identifies the metadata of the content you’re watching and matches it to three sound profiles within the Soundbox – sport, music or cinema.
We give it a try with the Rugby Union and immediately find that stadium noise is atmospherically amplified. For the sake of a button press, we’d certainly keep it on. Our only peeve is its lack of absolute bass and dynamic punch – something that comes to the fore when swinging cranes creak during Death Note’s action climax, and as buoyant basslines come into play when we stream Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. over Bluetooth. Ultimately, though, the Soundbox is a born entertainer.
Sky Soundbox verdict
As with birthdays, there are two ways to look at Sky’s Soundbox.
Full-priced, it's not quite special enough that we'd recommend it over the almighty (in sound and size) class-leading Dali Kubik One. It could do with a greater punch and bass boost to the sound, for starters, and ultimately that box-like form isn't quite as user-friendly as a soundbar or -base. Dolby Atmos would be nice too, especially considering Sky Q is broadcasting 124 matches of the Premier League 2017/18 season in the surround sound format.
Not in Sky’s camp and don’t plan to be? Then perhaps swipe left on the Soundbox.
But if you are a Sky customer...? Well then it's a different story. And one with a much happier ending.
That £250/£300 price tag is low enough that any minor quibbles about its form fade away, while the audio quality you're getting here is way above anything else at that price. Throw in the fact that it sounds better still when teamed with Sky Q and it looks like a no-brainer.
Is it the best sound... thingy in the world? Obviously not. But is it the best way for a Sky customer to upgrade their telly-watching experience? You betcha.