Review: Emerson iTone iE600BK Home Audio System with Docking Station
Pros: An all-in-one iPod dock, clock, CD player, and AM/FM radio, with three internal speakers, integrated glowing lights, and a 23-button Infrared remote control that responds well from 20-foot distances. Even includes an iPod shuffle dock.
Cons: Sound quality isn’t on par with other iPod docking systems in its price range; clock feature is hindered by tiny numbers and an odd backlighting system that requires all of the unit’s lights to go off, or stay on. iPod controls - especially through the remote control - are confusing. No remote control over iPod shuffle’s play/pause or tracks.
iPod speaker manufacturers tend to agree that there is incredible demand for options in the $150 price range, and we’ve seen many new options over the course of the last several weeks. Today, we look briefly at three $150 speakers - Emerson’s iTone iE600BK Home Audio System, mStation’s Orb 2.1 Stereo, and Speck Products’ SpeckTone Retro, each a single-piece stereo designed solely to run off of wall power. Though each one includes an iPod dock and three speakers, they’re hardly equivalent to one another in any other way save price: they differ substantially in design, sound quality and other features. We’re giving them only short individual reviews because we weren’t impressed enough by any of them to call them standouts.
Of the three systems, Emerson’s iTone iE600BK is the most visually neutral, the most packed with features, and the least impressive in sound quality. In essence, Emerson has grafted both an iPod Universal Dock (with six inserts) and iPod shuffle dock onto the front of a black and gray CD player and clock radio combination, creating a speaker that looks from the front like a Bose Sounddock with large blue lights. In addition to left and right speaker drivers and a built-in subwoofer, the iE600BK includes a CD player that’s CD-R/RW/MP3-compatible, a digital AM/FM radio tuner, and a blue-backlit LCD screen that’s used for a clock and system status information. It’s clear that Emerson wants people to perceive the design as a “do everything” bedside alarm clock and audio system.
From the top, it gives off a cheap air of sophistication, mostly because it’s laden with numerous buttons. The left side alone has 14, including separate iPod and CD play/pause controls, a toggle between audio from the iPod and shuffle docks, tuning buttons for an integrated AM/FM radio, and a toggle for auxiliary audio input, amongst others. A panel on the right hides five more - a “stereo surround” button, a toggle between 4 equalizer (and normal) presets, a memory button for the radio, a play mode toggle, and a sleep button. Two more buttons on the iPod dock turn the clock alarm on and off, and do the same for snooze mode and the unit’s lights. (You may well want to turn those lights off; one otherwise positive observer commented that the iE600BK “looks like 1985” when she saw them turned on.)
At some point, you realize that the iE600BK could have used far fewer buttons to manage all of its features more efficiently, and that point is hammered in when you look at the large, 23-button Infrared remote control included in the package. There are actually two more buttons on the remote than on the system itself - Emerson actually included a total of two sets of play/pause, track backwards, and track forwards controls. Though the remote is large and substantial in your hand, the buttons don’t always work as you’d expect for iPod controls, which initially feels like a lack of responsiveness but turns out just to be weirdness in the way the controls work. For instance, you can’t control the shuffle’s play/pause status or tracks at a distance; you’ll need to use the buttons on its face. Thankfully, for everything else, the remote performed well in our distance testing, working reliably from over 20 feet away once we got a hang of the buttons and their limitations.
Beyond its interface oddities, the iE600BK’s performance as an all-in-one speaker and clock system wasn’t especially impressive - on one hand, mediocre per-part performance is exactly what you’d expect from something with so many different components, but on the flip side, one would hope that its core features would be good enough to satisfy most people. In our view, though, it lacks in its two most critical features - its iPod docking speaker feature, and its clock - neither one doing as well as other, less expensive options we’ve tested. While it docked and properly charged both iPods and shuffles, we weren’t impressed with how they sounded.
The key word we’d use to describe the iE600BK’s sound is “distorted” - even at low to average volume levels, the unit’s mid-range and bass sounds muddy by comparison with the other speakers we tested, and exhibited a bit of sizzle with current-model iPods and nanos, rendering voices, beats, and anything in-between difficult to separate from one another. Contrasted against the best sub-$100 speakers we’ve heard, such as JBL’s Creature IIs (iLounge rating: A), the iE600BK’s bass response is flat and boomy, rather than smooth, and only acceptable at this price level because of the unit’s other features. We’d call the treble response average for the price - neither great nor bad. Stereo separation is fine (and properly divided to the left and right) for a system of its size, but nothing special.
Regrettably, the unit’s other major feature - its clock - is equally weak in execution. Emerson’s used the smallest numbers we’ve seen on any iPod clock system, and a combination of black digits on a rich blue background. The combination is difficult to read from more than a couple of feet away, and worsened by the fact that the backlight and speaker side lamps turn on and off at the same time. If you don’t like the side lamps, you can’t keep the clock lit. Given its weaknesses as a timepiece, we’d question whether anyone would even want to use the unit’s alarm at all; we’ll note only briefly that the AM/FM radio has a fair bit more static in its signal than the best iPod radios we’ve seen, and that the CD player works as expected.
Overall, the iTone iE600BK is merely an OK iPod docking speaker option - from the oddities of its iPod and remote control interfaces to the quality of its sound and clock features, it’s not an option we’re inclined to recommend for the dollar. If you’re looking for something with a smorgasboard of features, fairly executed, we wouldn’t dissuade you from trying this, but there are many better iPod speakers and clocks out there.