Review: iHome iP47 Wireless Speakerphone and Alarm Clock Radio for iPhone + iPod
If there is any as-yet-untapped type of audio accessory that could help Apple's iPhone become a bigger player in the business world, it would be a speakerphone. While the iPhone already has limited integrated speakerphone capabilities, it's less than ideal in input and output volume, and can benefit from a better microphone and speaker combination for users who like to make calls from their desks. For these reasons and others, iHome's new iP47 ($200) initially seemed like an attractive solution: it combines an iPhone dock with a speakerphone and desktop-ready AM/FM clock radio. However, iP47 experienced some issues during our testing that precluded us from recommending it to our readers; depending on your personal needs, it may do enough to be worthy of consideration anyway. Updated July 10, 2008: Please see the bottom of this review for additional details.
iP47 is based heavily upon last year’s iHC5, a comparatively little-known iHome product that attempted to fuse an alarm clock with a mobile phone-ready speakerphone. The idea was that the $150 iHC5 could serve as a standalone AM/FM alarm clock similar to iHome’s sub-$100 offerings, but added an integrated microphone and Bluetooth wireless features to pair with your cell phone, interrupting music for phone calls. With some phones—not the iPhone—it could also perform streaming wireless music. From a features standpoint, iHC5 was a pretty good idea, but in practice, it suffered from crippling TDMA interference whenever the iPhone was placed nearby. Users were instead supposed to place the iPhone in a standalone plastic dock, connect it to iHC5 with Bluetooth, and make calls without moving the phone too close to the speakers. It was a considerably less than optimal implementation, and hard to take seriously as an iPhone accessory.
By comparison, iP47 is much closer to a true iPhone speaker system. While preserving the same general shape and features as iHC5, iHome has overhauled the design from the outside in, replacing its matte silver paneling, standalone dock, and Bluetooth 1.2 support with iPhone-ready components. The newly all black system has internal iPhone interference shielding, a top-mounted dock, and Bluetooth 2.0 support to let you take calls using the iPhone’s phone functionality. While it preserves the stereo Bluetooth audio streaming capabilities of iHC5, iP47 still can’t play music wirelessly from a connected iPhone—Apple’s limitation, not iHome’s—so for iPhone users, the Bluetooth feature is solely for making and receiving calls.
Of course, you can still hear an iPhone’s music by plugging it into the dock, switching the system to “iPod” mode, and pressing play; an iPod can be docked there, as well. Two active speaker drivers and two passive ones do a fine if not especially detailed job of performing iPod or iPhone audio, delivering sound that is warm, though on the flat side for a system of iP47’s size and price, plus not user-adjustable with either 3-D spatialization or unit-integrated equalizers. iHome’s recent iPod and iPhone clock radios offer greater user control of the sound signature, as well as SRS WOW or other faux 3-D audio effects.
Controlling iP47 is achieved through a surprising variety of buttons. Rather than dials, the system uses left-mounted track or radio setting buttons and right-mounted volume and call starting/ending buttons, plus a set of 12 preset, alarm, power, mode, and dimmer buttons situated above its large integrated digital clock. None of this is a surprise, but pressing an eject button under the clock reveals a complete dialing panel for the phone, which is mimicked along with traditional iPod controls, sans menu navigation buttons, on the Infrared remote control. Consequently, you can dial telephone numbers directly from the iP47, its remote, or the iPhone, but if you want to navigate your contacts, you’ll need to use the iPhone’s touchscreen. Frankly, we were just pleased that the remote and iP47 could properly dial for the iPhone, a feature we hadn’t yet seen in any iPhone Bluetooth accessory, though the system could lose the slide-out dialing pad without any complaint from us. The system also continues to have rear-mounted clock setting buttons, as well as a bottom battery compartment to save settings.
As an AM/FM alarm clock radio, iP47 is adequate rather than spectacular. You can set the first of its two alarms to play audio from the docked iPod or iPhone, as well as wirelessly from a non-iPhone Bluetooth connected device; the second alarm can be set to the AM or FM bands on your choice of presets. These features are more limited than iHome’s most current models, which offer 7-5-2 daily/weekday/weekend alarms and greater versatility in picking their audio sources, and the blue-backlit front clock’s dimmer has similarly dipped down to only four settings, one super-bright, one medium, one nearly off, and the other off. Four presets are available for AM stations, and eight for FM stations, falling from 24 total on other iHome systems. In other words, if the speakerphone feature isn’t important to you, you’ll find better clock radio functionality in iHome’s recent iP99 system for iPhone, though like iP99, iP47’s AM and FM radio tuners are still susceptible to TDMA interference, which is more noticeable when the iPhone’s receiving both data and calls from cell towers.
The speakerphone is the iP47’s major innovation over other iPhone speaker options, and it’s here that the system experienced the most serious issues in our testing. We started testing iP47 in an office environment, as we felt as if the speaker would be ideally suited to use on a desktop as an office telephone and audio system. But during every call, the people on the other side reported hearing buzzing noises that varied slightly in intensity and sound but consistently made us difficult or impossible to hear. On our side, the buzzing noises weren’t as obvious—we could sometimes hear a little iPhone TDMA noise creeping through the speakers—but callers appeared to drop out on our end when they were having problems hearing us on theirs.
Over the course of a week, we tested different iP47s, different iPhones, and different rooms with different possible sources of interference, and found that the problems persisted. Eventually, we felt as if we had traced the interference to the microphone area immediately in front of the dock; it was our impression that the shielding there and around the dock wasn’t adequate. Notably, we found that if the iPhone was completely removed from the dock, the interference went away, and phone calls proceeded more or less normally. Like the iHC5 before it, iP47 seemed only to have interference issues when the iPhone was too close.
There was another speakerphone issue, as well: iP47’s microphone isn’t great. At distances of two feet or more from the unit—a reasonable distance for a desk-mounted speakerphone—callers sometimes told us that they had trouble hearing us and that we sounded like we were in a tunnel, even when there was no other audio in the room. The closer we got, the better the system did, but we heard repeatedly that we sounded markedly better on the iPhone handset than we did through iP47. That’s a shame, because we really enjoyed hearing callers through iP47; the speakers do a considerably better job of presenting them than the iPhone’s integrated speakerphone hardware.
From our perspective, iP47 is a decent first step towards an iPhone-ready speakerphone, but iHome still has some work to do before it perfects the formula: the $200 price tag more or less demands very good speaker, radio, clock, and speakerphone performance, and iP47 falls a bit short on each count relative to other options we’ve tested. Given its Works With iPhone certification, the presence of cell phone interference in both the unit’s radio and speakerphone struck us as unimpressive, and the fact that it sells for such a premium over the otherwise better-designed iH9 or $150 iP99 doesn’t help, either. On the other hand, it’s the only major iPhone speakerphone option out there right now, and if you’re willing to work around its issues by keeping the iPhone away from the integrated dock when you use iP47 as a radio or speakerphone, you’ll have a better experience, if not the one you might reasonably expect for the price. Our inclination would be to wait for a more streamlined and bulletproof sequel, as it’s clear that iHome and others are slowly but surely heading in the right direction.
Updated: Soon after our review of iP47, iHome contacted us to let us know that it had traced and isolated the shielding problem with the system’s dock, and said that it was remedying the problem in units shipping to consumers. We have been testing a revised iP47 and found that it does not have the dock interference issues previously noted, however, radio tuner interference still is present, and the system’s microphone clarity remains unchanged.