Review: iHome iW3 Wireless Audio System with AirPlay
Two years after Apple introduced AirPlay, little remains unsaid about the Wi-Fi-based media streaming technology for iOS devices and iTunes. AirPlay is still one of the best features of the last two Apple TVs, impressively displaying videos and photos without cables, but third-party AirPlay speakers have continued to suffer from responsiveness gaps and music-stopping hiccups. Apple and developers have continued to tweak AirPlay accessories, but Bluetooth alternatives have remained easier to use, more responsive, and less susceptible to sonic drop-outs. Consequently, whenever companies release new and otherwise compelling AirPlay speakers, potential customers are always confronted with a threshold question: take a chance on AirPlay, or go with Bluetooth instead?
As its name suggests, iW3 ($200) is iHome’s third wireless speaker with AirPlay support, arriving one year after the iconic iW1 and several months after its better, less expensive sibling iW2. Shown together for the first time way back in early 2011, all three of these systems look basically the same—black fabric and plastic all-in-one units with chrome bases—but differ in sizes, shapes, and/or features. The extruded pill-shaped iW1 was most noteworthy for its semi-portable design, which relied upon a small recharging base and battery for several hours of use anywhere in a home, while its smaller, same-shaped sequel iW2 lost the battery and base, instead requiring wall power. iW3 sits conceptually between the other two models, regaining the battery and base while changing the shape to a roughly 4.6” square, rounded at the corners and extruded into a 9.4”-tall tower. You give up a bit of iW1’s stereo separation while gaining counter space and other iterative improvements iHome made after releasing the first system, say nothing of saving $100. All you give up relative to iW1 is an included and arguably unnecessary remote control; with AirPlay speakers, your iOS device is more likely to be all the remote control you need.
One of the iterative improvements is found in iW3’s Wi-Fi setup process, which is now even easier than in the pioneering app iHome created for iW1. This time, you don’t even need to load an app to get iW3 to join your Wi-Fi network: instead, you can just connect an iOS device with an included Dock Connector cable to iW3’s back, press a setup button, and authorize iOS to share its wireless settings with the speaker. A minute or so later, iW3’s on the same network as your device, and ready to receive whatever audio you want to send to it—pretty simple, and less time-consuming than downloading a special app or using a web browser to manually enter settings.
Another tweak comes from iW2: the replacement of iW1’s fancy capacitive controls with traditional buttons that you can actually see and feel. iW2’s buttons continued the unit’s pill shape, but iW3’s eight buttons are comfy, fingertip-sized squares mirroring this speaker’s footprint, each clearly labeled on its top. There’s still a less than ideally-located power switch to deal with on the unit’s back—the way iHome lets you reduce battery drain when the iW3’s not plugged into its base or playing music—as well as two setup buttons, but the unit can be controlled for the most part by its top controls, while letting you change tracks, volume, and play/pause status. Cleanly illuminated with white lights, iW3’s buttons are the family’s best yet.
One of iW3’s bigger surprises is its sonic performance, which despite significant price and size differences has plenty in common with the original iW1. Frequent readers may recall that we weren’t hugely impressed by the $300 iW1’s sound quality, which was substantially midrange-focused, leaning towards a mid-bass slant without much treble, with fairly obvious distortion at its peak, small room-filling amplitude. iW3 sounds very similar to iW1, with similarly decent clarity, slightly sharper treble and just a little less depth of bass, plus modestly less stereo separation because of its narrower, taller size. However, it needs to be underscored that sonic performance that’s not terribly impressive for $300 becomes a lot more acceptable at 2/3 the price—and even better when in a more convenient form factor.
That’s quite possibly the best feature of iW3—its shape. If you’ve been looking for an AirPlay speaker that can fit into a tight little nook in your kitchen, office, or bathroom counter, this small tower is more likely to work than any other option we’ve tested. The 4.6” square footprint is only barely larger than a typical two-quart milk carton, and a rear grip makes it extremely easy to pick up and carry wherever you want to listen to music. A bright green light shines through the front to let you know it’s on and active, turning off when iW3 is in standby mode; only the top white-lit power light remains on to let you know it’s ready to go if you start streaming from your iOS device or iTunes-equipped computer. Slightly awkward-looking behind the black fabric grille, that light is the only element that detracts from iW3’s classy, handsome design; even then, it’s not a show-stopper by any means.
As one might guess, the biggest issues with iW3 stem from its use of AirPlay wireless technology, though iHome has made some under the hood improvements. Like all AirPlay systems, iW3 still requires several seconds to buffer audio before playing, doesn’t instantly respond to track changes, and may—depending on your Wi-Fi network—suffer from audio drop outs. However, iW3 was a lot more stable than iW1 during direct testing, never failing to begin playing music that was streamed to it, and maintaining audio playback pretty reliably. We still prefer Bluetooth to AirPlay for a variety of reasons, but AirPlay does offer advantages to users who want to stream to multiple speakers at once, or easily pair with multiple sources, so long as there’s an existing Wi-Fi network to handle the connections. Aux-in and USB ports on iW3’s back allow analog and digital wired connections as options, should you need them.
A smaller issue worth mentioning with iW3 is something that isn’t a huge problem, but deserves to be called out anyway: iHome’s increasing ambiguity about what’s inside its audio systems. The company’s web site doesn’t mention that there are four speakers inside, nor does it note their sizes, and it also doesn’t provide any sort of specifications for the integrated lithium-ion battery. These omissions make it unnecessarily difficult to meaningfully compare the company’s different systems, and frankly should make consumers weary—most speaker makers are transparent about the number of playback hours one can expect from their batteries, or the types of drivers they use. We’d hope to see more and better detail from iHome on what’s actually inside its audio systems in the future.
All in all, iHome’s iW3 is a very good wireless speaker, taking some of the best features from the earlier iW1 and iW2 while preserving the latter’s more mainstream price point. If we had to pick just one of the systems on raw sound signature, we’d lean towards the iW2, but iW3’s shape, battery-powered portability, and solid sound performance are praiseworthy for the $200 asking price—worthy of the same B+ rating and strong general recommendation. iW3 is certainly one of the most compelling AirPlay speakers yet introduced, and even small steps forward are welcome for Apple’s wireless standard.