A Visit to iHome: Alluring New Speakers, From $60 to $300
There’s something to be said for seeing the entirety of a company’s current and near-term upcoming product library at once, in one large room, organized by category across a collection of display shelves: if there’s any better way to get a sense of where one of the iPod and iPhone industry’s biggest players is headed, we have yet to experience it. This was the scene as we toured the Rahway, New Jersey headquarters of iHome, which has dominated the iPod alarm clock business since the release of its first Apple-specific product, iH5, subsequently debuting numerous sequels and a variety of tangentially related products that we’ve reviewed.
Before we dive into the new products, a little background: today, iHome continues to make its famous alarm clocks—the colorful “ColorTunes” ones you almost invariably see at the end of aisles in Target stores, the new ones that show up first for the iPhone in Apple Stores, and other models that range in price from $50 to $150 depending on design and features. It also makes clock-less speakers, one of the iPhone’s only speakerphones, and hybrid speaker cases. A licensee has produced iHome-branded iPod-docking lamps. And now, the company is expanding further.
There are five particularly noteworthy products in iHome’s near-term future, starting with one that’s really outside the box conceptually: iHMP5 (~$50-$60). As iHome’s first pair of headphones, these mini-cups actually double as an actively amplified portable speaker system, using a novel safety mechanism to guarantee that they don’t blow out the listener’s ears when they change volume levels. When used as headphones, their twin AAA batteries and amplifier aren’t engaged, but when the cups are pivoted outwards and locked together with a simple magnetic central connector, the 50mm drivers transform into miniature desktop speakers. Three colors—gray, red, and purple—will be available.
The item that iHome is justifiably most excited about is iHome One ($300), an aesthetically breathtaking audio system that relies on thick plastics to achieve a modern, minimalist design: a large translucent smoke black front frame is interrupted by four opaque black plastic tubes, two housing 1” tweeters and two containing big, high-quality 4” drivers, as well as a central iPod and iPhone dock. As cool as it looks in photos, iHome One looks even better in person, presenting a cleaner version of the four-driver audio and electronics array we’ve seen in a number of prior iPod all-in-one speaker systems.
Though we have yet to be able to give iHome One the sort of comparative sonic workout a $300 audio system really needs to receive, we were able to hear it in a closed, quiet environment, and do have a higher than average degree of confidence in its capabilities. The system’s components, amplification package, and tuning were handled by Bongiovi Acoustics’ Tony Bongiovi, a man who has had the rare distinction of working on the studio engineering side of albums for major label recording artists—Frank Sinatra, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, and others—as well as on the electronic engineering side of audio systems. He knows both what artists want their music to sound like, and how to tune consumer speaker systems to sound like a professional recording studio’s monitors.
Bongiovi’s breakthrough contribution to iHome One is a six-stage audio processing technology that dynamically measures both the electrical and frequency characteristics of your iPod or iPhone’s audio output, enabling the speakers and amplifier to perform with optimized dynamic range at any given volume level—including enhancing whatever parts of the audio that were weakened by MP3 compression. This should eliminate one of the biggest issues we hear in most speakers: their tendency to sound good to great at one “sweet spot” volume level, but increasingly mediocre the further you go above or below it. Additionally, Bongiovi cites his considerable studio recording and car audio engineering experiences as keys to letting iHome One perform with an authentic yet flexible sonic signature, one that adjusts to perform tracks of various genres as the artists originally intended them to sound.
iHome One offers component video output capabilities, a full-featured remote control with bass and treble adjustments, and somewhat amusingly, a “B” button to indicate that the Bongiovi Acoustics audio tuning is being turned on and off. As we told iHome when listening to the system, the button’s not particularly useful: turning the tuning off is the equivalent of telling the device to play audio “bad,” in a flat, lifeless blur. It’s there, the company told us, to demonstrate just how much better the Bongiovi tuning makes your audio sound, and though that’s gimmicky, there’s no doubt that it makes a point. We’re looking forward to hearing how iHome One fares against similarly DSP-assisted audio systems from JBL and Bose when it arrives around July.
The third of the new products is iP49, a brand new portable Bongiovi Acoustics-based audio system that we can tell you about, but can’t yet show you. Silver, dark gray, and black, iP49 is probably the first really interesting looking portable audio system we’ve seen for the iPod or iPhone in several years, merging the look of a MacBook into a four-driver speaker, clock, and FM radio with an integrated rechargeable battery. iP49 was not yet ready for an audio demonstration, but Bongiovi Acoustics promises to tune the little system to sound as close as possible to its bigger ones; if nothing else, the novel folding design and highly modern look of its interior components will win fans.
For serious iPod and iPhone users, iP88 ($150) is set to become the company’s next “deluxe” alarm clock. Cosmetically, the black and silver unit has some obvious new design touches: dual iPod/iPhone docks on the top, swirled metal dials, and a diamond-cut front face that hides improved, larger speaker drivers, but what’s really going to be new is the on-screen menuing system. iHome promises to use an intuitive, iPod-like screen design to provide easy access to alarm and other settings, improving on the samey, functional interfaces we’ve been seeing in the company’s clock radios for years. A new DSP inside promises to enhance the audio quality, as well.
The final major system, and one that has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated, is iH15: a brilliant little $60 speaker system that is designed to match the colorful family of iPod nanos. Equipped with active left and right audio drivers, plus a passive central subwoofer for bass, the white, cube-shaped iH15 can change colors while your iPod’s on top, shifting from red to pink, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, or staying in your color of choice—a simple but seriously cool little trick. You can control the slow or fast speed of the color shifting, and even turn the colors entirely off if you just prefer the look of the white and silver box as is. Affordably priced and appropriately equipped sonically, iH15 could have easily been a super-expensive museum piece if the company had wanted to take it in that direction; as-is, it’s one of the rare iPod speakers that we think is cool enough to merit seeing in person.
There were other new items on display, including iPhone-ready versions of iHome’s prior iH51, iH69, and iH70 audio systems—including iP71, a remix with the combined looks of iH69 and iH70—plus a Sonic Impact-like folding speaker in a hardcase, and too many budget-priced mini speakers and clocks to count: the company’s colorful dish-shaped iH17s were obviously inspired by, but not complete rip-offs of JBL’s various On Stage systems. At a time when so many other iPod and iPhone accessory companies have retrenched or started to fade away, it’s obvious that iHome isn’t just stable—it’s unquestionably growing stronger, more confident, and better at developing new products. We’re really looking forward to seeing what comes next.
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