Review: FriendTech iDea Wireless Home Dock and Hi-Fi Headset
Pros: A 2.4GHz wireless audio dock and headset combination capable of broadcasting and receiving acceptable-sounding audio at 60-100 foot line of sight distances, less if walls and other conditions interfere. Sold at an affordable price with the option to add multiple additional headsets inexpensively. Works with iPods, Sony PSPs, and music cell phones. Additional receivers for home stereo and wired headset use are promised. Includes remote that is unusually powerful by Infrared standards.
Cons: Somewhat flat, base static level audio does not live up to promised “lossless,” “CD-quality” claims with the headset, which is large and not fashionable. Interference creeps in based on existing wireless signals in area, reducing distance and sound quality. Controls are a bit awkward, and cannot be accessed from a room away, like the audio. Dock is very large by iPod standards, and feels light and cheap.
It is widely assumed that wireless technologies will play an important role in the iPod’s and iTunes’ future: generally, the idea is to let you listen to your music anywhere in a home or office without connecting the iPod or a computer to headphones or stereo speakers. While most third-party developers have been working on Bluetooth wireless accessories, Apple has been developing 802.11-based Wi-Fi devices such as AirPort Express, and a few companies have gone another route, with old-fashioned, telephone-like 900MHz and 2.4GHz hardware. Each solution has its advantages: Bluetooth boasts broad compatibility and acceptable quality, 802.11 can deliver true CD-quality audio and in some cases interact with existing wireless networks, and 900MHz/2.4GHz phone-style technology is cheap.
With a slogan of “Presents the Best Value in the home entertainment!” - their writing, not ours - Taiwan’s FriendTech has developed a set of comparatively inexpensive 2.4GHz accessories for the iPod, all linked to a central device called the iDea Wireless Home Dock ($150). iDea is comparable to previously released $170-200 Bluetooth sets from companies such as Belkin, Macally, and TEN Technology: here, you buy that oversized white plastic iPod dock and get two other items for the price: a 16-button Infrared remote control, and your choice of either a “Wireless Hi-Fi Headset” (shown) or an “Wireless HD Audio Receiver” for attachment to a home stereo. FriendTech also sells the Headset, Receiver, and a third device called the Wireless Hi-Fi Portable Receiver separately for $50 a piece; each lets you listen in on the iPod audio that the Wireless Home Dock is broadcasting, and unlike many competing solutions, multiple receivers can be used at the same time.
FriendTech’s Wireless Home Dock box is loaded with cables: a wall power adapter that charges your docked iPod, a minijack-to-minijack audio cable, RCA-style composite A/V cable, S-Video cable, and USB cable are all inside, along with a plastic iPod dock sizer and a 3.5mm to 2.5mm audio adapter. The latter part - and the Dock’s comparatively gigantic size - are attributable to the company’s decision to make iDea compatible with not only the iPod, but also music cell phones and Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld game console. You can plug the audio adapter into your phone’s headphone port to broadcast its audio wirelessly, or pull off a plastic piece on the Dock’s top and rest a PSP inside for charging and audio output. A large power indicator and Infrared sensor is built into the Dock’s front face. The unit feels lightweight and somewhat cheap, but other than its size and a goofy Apple carved into the iPod dock sizer, doesn’t look bad.
At the rear are all the ports for audio, video, power, and data that the previous cables would suggest should be here - power, USB, S-Video, composite video and stereo audio, plus a minijack-style line input - not output - designed for connection to an iPod shuffle or phone. Taken together with the system’s Infrared remote control, it’s easy to understand why FriendTech boasts that the Dock is more fully featured as a wired iPod dock than DLO’s HomeDock. But then, it probably should, given that it can’t be purchased for DLO’s considerably lower $100 price. You get more, particularly in the wireless department, but you also have to pay more for it.
It’s worth a brief note that FriendTech’s remote control provides the standard iPod play/pause, track, and volume controls, plus shuffle and repeat buttons, and a few others: backlight, menu, scroll left and scroll right. We’ve seen similar menuing controls once before, and noted that while they let you operate the iPod’s full menu structure from a distance, they’re almost useless in that you can’t see the iPod’s screen unless you’re close enough to use its integrated controls; you may like these buttons if you have a fantastic memory. FriendTech also includes two other buttons: an RF power button, which is in addition to the dock’s standard power button and turns on wireless broadcasting, plus a RF channel button, to help you find a station that doesn’t contain radio interference. We didn’t like using the RF power button in addition to the standard one - it just seemed unnecessary - but found the channel button useful for reasons described below. The remote performed unusually well by Infrared standards in our distance testing, achieving 30-foot distances even with fluorescent light interference. It’s actually one of the best IR remotes we’ve seen for an iPod dock, bar none.
However, given that the biggest selling point of the Wireless Home Dock is its wireless performance, it’s unfortunate that the company’s promises are more than a bit aggressive given the limits of the technology used inside. For instance, FriendTech’s web site claims that the Wireless Home Dock delivers up to 30 meters (100 feet) of line-of-sight broadcasting distance “with perfect reception,” and CD-quality, “44.1K sampling rate and 16-bit resolution.” In other words, you should be able to get triple the distance of a Bluetooth system and superior sound quality - if these features were combined, any company would kill to offer them. But to cut through what would be a lot of unnecessary verbiage on these points, you won’t. This isn’t to say that iDea is a bad, well, idea, but if you’re considering a purchase, you’ll need to go in with more realistic expectations about what it delivers for the dollar.
In our testing with the Wireless Hi-Fi Headset, the only one of the three receiver accessories FriendTech made available, the iDea system fell short in two regards: reliable distance and quality. It’s worth noting up front that the Hi-Fi Headset is powered by two included AA batteries, and has its own performance claims - namely, that it receives “digital transmission at a CD audio quality,” and has “lossless sound,” but unlike the 100-foot Dock, is guaranteed only to work from a distance of up to 20 meters or 66 feet away “with perfect reception.” Admittedly, “up to” is a loaded phrase, but we frequently experienced interference and popping issues with our headset within less than 10 feet of the Dock, which remained or increased as distance went up; movement was one trigger, and position of the Dock relative to other wireless devices appeared to be an issue. Under some conditions, we could hear our music from 60 feet or further away, but it was RF channel dependent and not entirely reliable. Far from CD-quality - not that we expected it - the audio had a noticeable but low base level of static and sounded flat when heard through the headset, though not objectionable or bad, and did exhibit actual stereo separation. It was pretty much what we would have expected to hear if music was played through a good 2.4GHz telephone connection and then filtered a little: acceptable, but certainly not “Hi-Fi.” As with other wireless headsets we’ve tested, the issue is no doubt partially just the speakers in the earpieces, which should be noted as large and unfashionable by comparative standards, but not uncomfortable, thanks to soft padding and an adjustable headband.
Our only other knock on the iDea package will arguably be a strength to some people, and in certain applications: we’re not sure of the wisdom of binding a radio-based wireless dock to an Infrared remote controller that’s physically separate from its three potential radio receivers. Bluetooth systems by TEN and Wi-Gear have incorporated iPod controls right into their sides; FriendTech’s headset only includes an on/off switch, power LED, and volume knob. The volume controls on the remote can’t change the volume levels on the headset, and you’ll need to carry the remote around - conceivably into rooms and other places the remote cannot reach - if you want to change what’s playing on the dock. On one hand, this means that a “master” user can use the remote to control what everyone’s hearing on separate headsets at the same time, and the headset users can’t do anything but change their volume. On the other hand, no one - well, few people, and only in specific applications - really listen to audio in this way. Most of the Bluetooth sets we’ve previously tested strike us as more practical for our own use, though few strike us as truly mainstream listening accessories.
It’s no surprise, and not especially impressive, that the Wireless Home Dock’s top audio quality comes from its rear ports rather than its wireless feature: plug virtually any wired dock into the iPod and you’ll get the same results. Its wired video output is similarly fine, and notable only in that you get the cables and ports for both S-Video and composite video, which less expensive competing devices lack. The Dock works to sync your iPod with a computer regardless of whether the included AC adapter is connected.
Overall, our take on the Wireless Home Dock and Hi-Fi Headset is simple: if you want an iPod dock and are looking for a way to distribute acceptable quality audio to a number of different wireless headsets at once, you may like FriendTech’s solution, as it’s fairly affordable, serves as a full wired AV dock, includes a good remote, and can be upgraded with optional headsets at a low incremental cost. But if you’re in a location with existing 2.4GHz wireless devices that could cause interference, or plan solely to use the iPod with a single listening device, the options we’ve previously reviewed will provide superior iPod control, and in most cases audio quality, as well.