Review: iHome iBT4 Bluetooth Wireless Rechargeable Boombox with FM Radio
The line between "budget" and "cheap" speakers can generally be drawn at the $100 price point -- at a $100 retail price, good speaker designers can typically include enough quality components and features that most users won't so much need as want something better. iHome is the master of $100 speakers, having debuted its first Apple-specific product at that price, and many of its best subsequent releases right there, as well. Today, we're looking at two new iHome options at that price point: iBT4 is a wireless, battery-powered boombox with an integrated FM radio, and iBT25 is a wall-tethered but otherwise wireless system with fewer features and better sound quality. They look so completely different that they're not likely to appeal to the same people, but we're covering them together because of their functional and pricing overlap.
As their “iBT” names suggest, iBT4 and iBT25 are both part of iHome’s growing lineup of Bluetooth speakers, featuring dead-simple wireless pairing for iOS devices and the latest iPod nano. iBT4 is based heavily on the design of iHome’s earlier iP4, a twin-speaker boombox with a deliberately plasticky, flat-colored look, but achieves a considerably smaller size of 7.75” wide by 9.6” tall by 4” deep at its largest points, as measured with its movable handle up. The space reduction was achieved by dropping from stereo to monaural sound, losing the centrally-mounted iPhone/iPod dock, and selectively cutting other features; these changes also enabled iHome to snip iP4’s $200 price in half. While it includes a wall adapter, iBT4 has a built-in rechargeable battery should you want to use it on the road, as well as a really nice top-mounted screen for tuning the integrated FM radio, and a rear-mounted telescoping antenna to improve the already great radio reception.
iBT4’s industrial design is polarizingly inorganic and inexpensive-looking, but we’ve warmed somewhat to it over time, and the combination of simple box and circle shapes does work well for this unit—additionally, the choice of soft touch rubber as a coating for everything seems appropriate for a $100 speaker, moreso than it might for a $200 model. Power/input selection and volume dials are entirely intuitive up top, alongside tuning/track and play/pause/pair buttons, and there’s no mistaking the front speaker design for a truly stereo solution. Beyond the radio, iBT4’s only frills are a very solid-feeling handle that locks into either top or back positions, and an unusual aux-out input that enables you to make a wired connection between multiple speakers for additional power. iHome includes a very short 3.5mm audio cable to let you do this, or to connect a device without wireless features to a nearby aux-in port on the back.
Sonically, iBT4 is a competent rather than thrilling boombox, built to be turned up loud without a lot of other need for adjustment. At regular volume levels, it puts out pretty bass-dominated but decently treble-offset sound, maintaining both without audible distortion regardless of how the amplitude level increases. At its peak volume level of 20, it has more than enough power to fill a small room, and there’s no question whatsoever that you’ll be able to hear it outdoors. There’s nothing thrilling about its performance as an indoor speaker, but nothing offensive either, unless you’re unreasonably expecting audiophile-caliber performance from something that looks and is priced like a toy.
At their $100 price points, iBT4 and iBT25 are appealingly cut-down versions of earlier iHome products that are good enough to stand on their own. While neither is amazing when considered in absolute terms, iBT25 effectively brings some of iHome’s iW-series industrial design finesse down to a lower than ever price point—with good stereo sound—and iBT4 achieves a similar feat with the more polarizing yet separately popular iP4 design. We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either one of these speakers to users who like their aesthetics; they each have enough quality and versatility to merit B+ ratings and our strong general recommendation.