Review: Sony ICF-C1iPMK2 Speaker Dock / Clock Radio for iPod + iPhone
At least as of today, there is only one $100 clock radio that's certified to be both iPhone- and iPod-compatible, and that's Sony's new ICF-C1iPMK2 Speaker Dock / Clock Radio for iPod + iPhone. Though it's the unfortunate recipient of one of the most confusing names yet given to an Apple speaker system -- ICF-C2iP would have worked nicely, as it's the follow-up to an $80, iPod-only radio called the ICF-C1iP -- it's also an extremely strong value for the price, though not without issues.
In essence, the ICF-C1iPMK2 is the physical equivalent of iHome’s earlier iPhone clock radio iP99 turned on its face and reclined, with buttons relocated to its top and its clock face placed immediately below a Universal Dock that juts permanently out of its bottom. This design enables the 5.5” deep ICF-C1iPMK2 to preserve most of the cabinet area of the iP99 while shaving an inch or so off of its depth. Similarly, though it’s an inch and a half wider at 11.75” and two inches taller at roughly 5.13”, the height difference isn’t critical in practice: iHome’s design has an iPhone or iPod standing roughly 7” from a table’s surface, while Sony’s keeps even the super-tall iPhone at only 5.75” in height. Apart from their orientations, both systems otherwise share extremely similar design characteristics, such as metal front grilles, twin control circles with buttons in the middle, and white text-on-black clock screens. While the iP99 is only sold in matte black, the ICF-C1iPMK2 is sold in combination matte and glossy black or white versions; the dock is glossy while the rest of the casing is matte. You can decide for yourself which design you prefer; apart from color, we found the two systems to be roughly peers.
There are also similarities in these two systems’ features. Both include digitally tuned AM/FM radios, Infrared remote controls with iPod and iPhone menu navigation buttons, and dual alarms. They’re packaged with wall power supplies, backup batteries for their clocks, and external AM antennas; Sony pre-attaches the wall adapter and an FM antenna coil at the factory, as well as setting the clock.
ICF-C1iPMK2’s FM and AM radio tuners proved a little more proficient at picking up certain stations than the iP99, and though both units’ radios were subject to interference from external sources, Sony’s sounded clearer. The ICF-C1iPMK2 also includes 15 total radio presets—10 FM, 5 AM—versus 6 FM and 6AM in the iHome, and a sound field expander called “Mega Xpand” versus iP99’s spatializer SRS Wow. Neither does an amazing job of adding faux 3-D spatialization to your audio, but we’d give Sony’s implementation a slight edge, as it made certain songs pop a little bit more than the iP99.
In other categories in which these two products compete, however, the iP99 is a little bit better. iHome’s alarms offer everyday, weekday, or weekend settings—also called 7-5-2—while Sony’s don’t; the real estate on iP99’s screen is also used more effectively for time and date information, with larger, less cluttered text than on the ICF-C1iPMK2, and eight stages of dimming versus Sony’s three. The iP99’s buttons and dials are easier to use than ICF-C1iPMK2’s 22-button design, which offsets its one benefit—radio station seeking—with slower .1 increment tuning versus iHome’s faster .2 tuning. None of these are huge differences, but they may matter to some users.
Speaker quality isn’t stellar in either system, but the iP99 has the edge thanks to both user-adjustable treble and bass controls, as well as the ability to produce sound that’s a little warmer than the ICF-C1iPMK2. You may need to play with the iP99 to get its audio to your liking, but there’s a better chance that you’ll be able to tweak it to some personally acceptable level; ICF-C1iPMK2 doesn’t have any audio adjustment except for Mega Xpand. Neither unit’s speakers have dedicated bass or treble drivers, so the two drivers found in each system are trying to cover as much of the spectrum as possible, and exhibit a par level of distortion for their prices.
iPhone compatibility is also basically the same in both units. Though both systems carry Apple’s certification, neither one is completely free from the TDMA interference that could be heard in earlier iPod-only audio systems. Thankfully, only a hint of the noise can be heard at a very low volume during music playback, and then only when the speaker is on, the music is either silent or nearly so, and a local cell phone tower is being accessed. The interference is more noticeable in the FM radio, and then even more in the AM radio; having your iPhone on a local Wi-Fi network or avoiding data services while in the dock will reduce these issues dramatically.
A couple of other small differences are also worth noting. First, there’s a small difference between the units’ docks. Whereas iHome includes three Dock Adapters for its Universal Dock, Sony has a rear-mounted dial that adjusts a plastic pad to keep whichever iPod or iPhone you’re using from touching the unit’s metal grille. Thanks to the rear dial and pad system, we don’t really mind Sony’s omission of Universal Dock Adapters, but if you want to self-supply and use them, you can—good luck finding ones in black. As an offset for the missing adapters, Sony includes a short auxiliary audio cable, which connects to an auxiliary input on the system’s back; iHome includes the same port, but not the cable, with iP99.
Ultimately, there’s one factor that pushes the ICF-C1iPMK2 over the edge from a B+ rating and general recommendation to our A- rating and high recommendation, and that’s Sony’s considerably lower price: as the first $100 iPhone-compatible clock radio, ICF-C1iPMK2 delivers what we had expected from iHome at this price point. While iHome deserves credit for what the iP99 offers, namely slightly better audio, clock, and interface tweaks, the ICF-C1iPMK2 is aesthetically on par, while handling radio a bit better, offering two different colors, and selling for a non-trivial $50 less. If you can find both units for the same price, or if you really value iHome’s small feature or cosmetic differences, go with the iP99, but otherwise, the ICF-C1iPMK2 is a better value for its asking price—Sony’s best iPod and iPhone accessory yet.