Review: Memorex Mi9490 Sound System for iPod and iPhone
One of the things that almost invariably impresses us about Memorex's iPod and iPhone audio systems is their value for the dollar: with only rare exceptions, every one of the company's products seems to get at least a little smarter and more polished than before. The company's Mi9490 Sound System ($140) -- a two-driver speaker system with a clock, an iPod/iPhone dock, a CD player and an FM radio inside -- is an obvious example: though it's not perfect, it's a substantial and generally smart rethinking of the prior Mi1111, which delivered similar features in a much larger and less attractive package. Though an iPod or iPhone fan's need for a CD player is increasingly questionable with every passing year, Mi9490 is a sleeker option for CD users than its predecessor, requiring only 14 inches of width and 5 inches of depth to spare on a surface.
Most notable about Mi9490 is the fact that it doesn’t look, feel, or constrain components like the typical $140 iPhone-ready audio system: JBL’s On Stage 200ID is just one example of a two-driver iPhone-shielded speaker unit that costs more and doesn’t have the clock, CD player, or FM radio found in this unit. Unlike the white and black Mi1111, which used plastic, rubber, and fabric to mixed effect, Memorex this time has gone with an all-black enclosure, mixing prominently matte plastic with touches of glossy plastic and an all-metal, wraparound front grille. Even before you take its size changes into account, Mi9490 just looks nicer and more neutral than its predecessor; its included 26-button Infrared remote control has received the same redesign considerations and now packs more into a better package.
Appreciating Mi9490’s functional similarities and changes doesn’t require a full knowledge of all the clunky CD-slash-radio-slash-speakers that have come before, but a quick look at the Mi1111 reveals just how streamlined and comparatively compact the newer unit is. Rather than placing the CD drive on top and the iPod dock in front, then trying to sneak a clock under the dock, Memorex this time has placed the iPod dock on top, a slot-loading CD drive in the unit’s gently bulging center, and the clock face immediately above the slot. Critically, it has achieved a dramatic space reduction in the process: the old unit looked like an eye from the top, the CD forming a small cornea, while the new one is just barely deeper than the dimensions of the CD, and tapered at the top such that the CD hangs over its sides.
Despite the smaller size, Memorex has managed to make some design improvements that make better use of the system’s body. Clusters of buttons found on the prior unit’s top have been realigned in a more attractive, straightforward way, with five radio preset buttons rather than plus and minus preset toggles, plus large and prominent volume buttons up front, alongside an obvious set of buttons to toggle power and access to the docked iPod, CD player, and radio. Time setting controls are all in a line, and a CD eject button is right next to the CD slot on the face. Alongside it, Mi9490 replaces the Mi1111’s small, single-line display with a larger version, still blue with white letters.
If there’s anything worthy of major criticism in this unit’s functionality, the screen would be it. Those hoping to find a good alarm clock or even a good clock screen will be disappointed once more by this display, which is divided in half and used for two lines of text: the clock oddly reads “TIME AM 10:20,” and disappears entirely when the iPod, CD, or radio are engaged, with one full line becoming occupied with either “CD,” “Radio,” or scrolling iPod track details, and the next displaying track and timer information. No matter which mode the system’s in, the two-line screen feels partially wasted, and it’s not a great display, either: the numbers invert quickly when you’re off to the right, top, or bottom of the central viewing angle. There are several different ways the display could have been better, but Mi9490’s approach is more functional than appealing, and even then, not as functional as it could have been.
While the system’s CD playback performance is fine and as expected, the FM radio is only decent. Saddled with slow 0.1 tuning—unnecessary for U.S. users—stations tend to come in with a noticeable base level of static, but we found that positioning of the detachable rear FM antenna wire can help to substantially reduce the static under certain conditions. Programming presets is more difficult than it needs to be, as well.
That said, we were impressed by the system’s iPod and iPhone performance, as well as the speakers. iPhone EDGE interference is present but very minimal, and 3G interference is seemingly non-existent, both positives for iPhone users. In a direct comparison against JBL’s aforementioned On Stage 200ID, which we noted offered “very good out-of-box audio quality” but lacked for amplitude and user-adjustability, the 30-Watt amplification package in the Mi9490 helps it go screamingly, dangerously loud, and offers bass, treble, and midrange controls that enable users to get pretty good sound out of the unit at lower and normal volumes, as well. Though the 200ID’s drivers are a little clearer, and have been both balanced and optimized for safe listening levels, Memorex’s larger 2.8” drivers deliver somewhat deeper bass response on their default (+3) setting, and you can play with the sound a bit to bring it closer to your preferred levels. You’re not giving up much sonically by going from a system such as the 200ID to the Mi9490, but you’re saving money and gaining some features.
It’s worth a brief note to mention that Mi9490 does lose a couple of features from the earlier Mi1111. Gone is the prior unit’s AM radio, which we previously found to be OK, as well as a third audio driver—a dedicated bass speaker—found at the bottom of Mi1111’s chassis. As we noted in our review of the Mi1111, however, the bass speaker was either cheap or mis-tuned, producing “bass distortion, which varies from unobjectionable to bad enough that you’ll want to turn the unit’s default level of bass down.” Memorex’s decision to remove it from Mi9490 and use better full-range drivers instead is no great loss; this is actually one of those rare addition by subtraction scenarios where a 2.0-channel audio system will offer a better experience than a 2.1-channel one.
Overall, the Mi9490 is one of the best CD player-centric iPod audio systems we’ve tested, and the first we’ve seen with true iPhone compatibility—a very good value for the dollar, and an generally impressive design. While remaining comparable in width to JBL’s latest On Stage systems, it uses its added depth and height nicely to house bigger and more powerful audio drivers and one of the most elegantly integrated slot-loading CD drives we’ve seen, both of which make this system a solid option for people who still listen to CDs. As it’s marred only by a sub-par display and less than spectacular FM radio functionality, it’s not a top pick for those who need a great clock or radio, but it’ll do the trick in a pinch for both of those things, as well. Even at a price premium over its predecessor, it’s a better overall design.