Review: iLuv i552 Portable AM/FM Radio and Docking Speaker System (Version 2)
Pros: A black- or white-colored, boombox-style iPod speaker system with good sound balance, ample volume, and an integrated AM/FM radio. Includes dual iPod docks - one for iPod shuffles - as well as a matching Infrared remote control, power adapter, and audio cables; newer version also includes video cables for docked video output. Affordable price level and solid performance of all of its features, sounds better than less and more expensive competing options.
Cons: Sound quality isn’t stellar in absolute terms for the dollar; you’re compromising to get all of its other well-executed features. Remote control’s performance is only OK.
After an extended lull, the iPod boombox-style speaker category has started to take off: several competing options are now available at similar price and performance levels. Currently sandwiched inbetween iHome’s $150 iH30 (iLounge rating: B) and Memorex’s earlier $100 iMove Mi3005 (iLounge rating: B-) in price, the latest entry we’ve tested is iLuv’s i552 ($120), which shares design and feature similarities with both units, particularly iMove. The major differences are that i552 is better-executed in all regards than iMove, and even sounds better than the more expensive iH30.
i552 is basically a two-speakered iPod dock with a carrying handle at its top and a backlit LCD screen at its bottom - a boombox-style design that can be used at home or taken outdoors. In addition to the main unit, iLuv includes an 11-button Infrared remote control, power adapter, six dock inserts, and audio input cables for older iPods and non-iPod devices. Black (i552BLK) and white (i552WHT) versions are available, each with the same features: an integrated AM/FM radio with chrome extending antenna, auxiliary audio input and headphone output ports, and compartments for eight C cell batteries if you want to use the speakers away from wall power. (Units sold after August 2006 will also include a video output port on the back and a stereo AV cable in the box, collectively enabling you to connect this i552 to a television set or monitor for added audio support during iPod video or photo playback. If you don’t need the video feature, the current i552 is otherwise generally the same.) Metal grilles shield the unit’s speaker drivers, but the rest of i552 is glossy, iPod-matching plastic.
If this all sounds familiar from the iMove review, trust us, we know: to the average viewer, iLuv’s and Memorex’s designs look highly similar with an iPod inside. But on closer physical inspection, there are some differences. iLuv’s design includes an iPod shuffle dock - like the more expensive iHome iH30 - and allows you to toggle back and forth between the standard and smaller iPod docks for audio input; both docks properly charge their iPods while they play music. Also, iLuv uses radio tuning and volume dials, while Memorex uses buttons. On balance, we prefer buttons, but the dials are just fine here.
Predictably, the button arrangements are a bit different between the i552 and iMove systems - iLuv places five buttons (mode, radio, preset, play/pause, and power) on the unit’s top dock surface, with the two dials off to the sides of its internal LCD screen, which does not include a clock. Ten AM and ten FM presets can be selected and stored by the user. The 11-button remote features the standard iPod volume, track, and play/pause buttons, plus a mode switch to toggle between the twin docks, the internal AM/FM radio, and the auxiliary input port found on the unit’s rear. You can toggle radio stations, mute, and power off the system using additional buttons.
None of these differences matter all that much to i552’s appeal: from our perspective, the proof of its superiority starts when you push the power button. By comparison with iMove, you’ll notice a few things immediately: unlike the mediocre FM radio tuner and awful AM tuner of the Mi3005, the i552 actually tunes in radio stations on both bands - and pretty well. Though neither type of signal is without static indoors, you’ll actually be able to hear AM stations with more than acceptable clarity, and FM stations with substantial robustness; the difference is sharp when the two units are placed immediately next to each other.
Then there are the speakers. We’re not going to tell you that iLuv has delivered outstanding audio quality here, but it’s a notch above iMove - a bit less distortion, enough extra bass at average levels that you can hear the difference, and no glaring technical flaws on volume adjustment - here, there are 40 levels - or left-right stereo separation. Both systems have a bit of amplifier noise at all listening levels, with a little more as the volume goes up. iMove’s only advantage is a hint of additional volume - it gets a little, and we mean little louder than the i552, though it comes at the cost of additional distortion. i552 sounds a bit better at its peak volume, which is still adequate for beach parties or other outdoor purposes.
The real advantage of the i552’s speakers is that you’ll enjoy whatever they’re playing a bit more than with iMove: radio, auxiliary input, iPod shuffle audio and iPod audio all sound a bit smoother and richer, without compromising on the treble delivered by Memorex’s system. While you’re mostly likely to notice these sort of differences indoors, we always appreciate it when a speaker sounds equally good in different types of environments and usage situations. It’s also worth mentioning that i552 sounds markedly better than iHome’s iH30 and more recent iH31 systems, which cost a bit more - iLuv’s speakers are more dynamic, and not as low-end-weighted.
On a final note, iLuv’s included remote control works fine. With indoor fluorescent light interference - our stress test - it achieved 15-foot distances from the i552 before having issues, which is good by stress test standards, but it didn’t do better without fluorescent light, which isn’t anything to write home about. On a more positive note, the remote’s buttons let you more effectively make use of the unit’s various features - radio, docks, and so on - than the iMove remote, comparable overall to the more button-laden iHome iH31 remote.
Overall, the i552 walks on the fine edge of A- and B+ grades, but on balance, we consider it to be highly recommendable overall - a speaker that sounds good, properly delivers on its promised radio functionality, and includes iPod dock and remote features that have previously only been found in higher-priced offerings. And best of all, since iLuv appears set to officially drop i552’s suggested price to $100 upon release of the video-ported version 2 - a price you can already find at stores online - you don’t need to compromise on dollars to do better than its competitors. As iPod boomboxes go, it’s pretty great, and unlikely to disappoint anyone for the price.