Review: IK Multimedia iLoud Portable Personal Studio Monitor
As G-Project demonstrated with G-Boom earlier this year, it's possible to build an excellent portable four-driver Bluetooth speaker system for $100; many other companies have released alternatives with different industrial designs and features for anywhere from $100 to $300. So when IK Multimedia announced iLoud ($300) earlier this year, we were simultaneously intrigued and concerned. On one hand, first-time speaker makers historically haven't had a particularly great track record, as inexperience and manufacturing challenges too often combine to create all sorts of unexpected last-minute problems. But on the other hand, IK Multimedia has actually justified its "Musicians First" tagline by consistently delivering good to great prosumer and professional-grade iOS accessories for musicians. So the fact that iLoud continues the company's impressive roll isn't surprising; while it's not perfect, this new accessory is one of the best-sounding portable Bluetooth speakers we've tested.
Understanding iLoud’s place in the current Bluetooth speaker universe requires a little background. Although the $300 wireless speaker market is presently defined by squat, brick-like speakers such as Jawbone’s Big Jambox and its somewhat superior rival Braven 850 HD, portable iPod and iPhone speakers historically had taller profiles, enabling some developers to fit large audio drivers inside. iLoud returns to the classic form factor, with a 9.8” wide by 6.3” tall by 2.3” deep plastic chassis that reclines with a central fold-out foot to an expanded depth of 4”. To put those numbers in context, iLoud’s face has roughly the same dimensions as Apple’s first four iPads, but it’s six or seven times thicker and stands upright. While it’s surprising that the only obvious metal in the exterior design is found in a red light-ringed swirled metal volume knob in the center, an iLoud logo below it, and a 1/4” guitar/mic port on the back, the unit doesn’t feel or look cheap. That said, both the Jawbone and Braven designs are far more conspicuously metallic and fancy, if cosmetics and substantial weight are what you’re looking for. iK includes a matching black wall charger with several feet of cabling, and a one-meter audio cable in each package.
Although the pithy name suggests that iLoud is merely an Apple device-ready boombox, the concept behind iLoud is actually to offer studio monitor-quality performance in a portable enclosure, a non-trivial engineering challenge. While it’s easy to put four speakers inside of a plastic box for $100, making the speakers sound great—particularly when the box is small enough to toss into a backpack—isn’t simple at all. From the front or side, you mightn’t guess that IK’s 3/4” tweeters and 3” full range drivers could outperform the slightly larger speakers and nearly twice as deep chassis found in G-Boom, but they do: iLoud demonstrates the difference that higher-end drivers and superior amplification can deliver when properly tuned. Additionally, IK’s bi-amped 40-Watt amplification system is actually over twice as powerful as G-Boom’s, and backed by a rechargeable battery promising 10 hours of normal volume use to G-Boom’s 6; the run time notably drops to three hours at iLoud’s small room-filling peak volume, making the wall adapter a better idea for use in this manner. The performance differences between iLoud and G-Boom aren’t a shock given the huge price gulf between models, but they’re indicative of what’s possible when an developer doesn’t have to make as many compromises to hit a low price point.
Sonically, iLoud is a really good-sounding speaker—a couple of steps above the Big Jambox, Braven 850 HD, and G-Boom, though in different ways. Listened to in isolation at normal volume levels, iLoud is very easy to enjoy without fussing with any settings: conspicuously detailed and balanced across the frequency range, presenting music with a pleasant sharpness that we’d call measured rather than clinical. Bass isn’t overwhelming or deep, but it’s there, controlled in a manner that audiophiles will appreciate. By contrast with the G-Boom—a system optimized for high-volume performance though entirely competent at normal volumes—iLoud is just a little louder, with noticeably better control over its drivers at all but its loudest levels of performance, where distortion becomes evident throughout the frequency range, and some fairly typical amplifier static becomes apparent. It’s also markedly better in treble and clarity than the Big Jambox and Braven 850 HD, rendering songs with additional layers of apparent depth that make the same-priced speakers sound flat. While the differences between models aren’t night and day profound, iLoud is the best of this bunch on sound; whether you’re willing to pay three times as much as a G-Boom is another question altogether.
Beyond its superior portability, iLoud offers another reason for musicians to prefer it to rivals: the aforementioned rear guitar/mic port. This port works with the 1/4” guitar and pro microphones used by musicians, though in a different way than might be expected—like an iRig unit, it passes through the instrument input to the iOS device for processing with an app, rather than playing it through iLoud’s speakers. Most users will have no need for this feature, but musicians may appreciate it.
The only other points worth making on iLoud relate to its user interface, specifically what’s missing compared with other portable Bluetooth speakers. IK has kept the design simple from the front, with a volume knob that is as simple to use as twisting left or right, with the red power light flashing to indicate that it’s as loud or quiet as it gets. While we would have preferred that IK integrate the power button into the knob rather than placing it on the back as a small on-off switch, this was likely done to reduce accidental power use when iLoud is tossed into a backpack. IK similarly placed Bluetooth pairing and mic/guitar gain knob controls on a small back panel, along with a small yellow power/charge light, power input, and audio input. Unlike many rivals, iLoud has no track control buttons or other iOS remote features, such as Siri activation, anywhere on the unit. There’s also no speakerphone functionality, which is often though not universally found in Bluetooth speakers at this price point.
Overall, iLoud is a very good portable Bluetooth speaker—superior in audio quality and top volume level to similarly priced rivals, and equipped with musician-specific benefits, though offset a little by its substantially plastic body, somewhat spartan interface, and controlled rather than deep bass. Just as IK Multimedia suggests, it is ideally suited to musicians and audiophile listeners who prize sonic accuracy and want something that can become quite loud when necessary; it will be less appealing to users looking for a fashionable speaker, speakerphone, or option with deep, booming bass. It’s worthy of our strong general recommendation and B+ rating.