Review: Excalibur iBlaster Clock Radio - Alarm Clock
Pros: A single-alarm clock radio with stereo speakers and an iPod dock, plus an included Infrared remote control, and substantial audio/video output ports on its rear.
Cons: Not up to standards of comparably priced iPod clock radios on sound, with a flat, untuned signature, and video quality from rear ports isn’t fantastic. AM tuning is messed up, FM tuning requires a bit of extra labor. Screen and button brightness issues will put off light-sensitive users.
Because New Jersey’s iHome created and continues to dominate the iPod-ready clock radio speaker market, its iH-series products have become the benchmarks by which other options are judged. The iHome iH5 (iLounge rating: A-) was first to create a true nightstand-ready alarm clock with both an iPod dock and AM/FM tuning, and its sequels iH6 and iH7 (iLounge rating: A-) added dual alarm clocks, a more user-adjustable face dimmer, and station preset buttons to the mix. Whether or not you like these offerings, virtually all of the alternatives we’ve seen aren’t as well-made for their respective prices, and many are surprisingly poor when you get beyond their similar-looking shells and actually listen to the sound they put out.
Over the last month, we’ve spent some time with two low-priced iHome alternatives - Excalibur’s iBlaster Clock Radio/Alarm Clock ($80) and Jensen’s JiMS-190 Docking Digital Music System for iPod ($70) - each undercutting the price of iHome’s $100 iH6 and $150 iH7 by at least $20-30. Because of recent iHome price shifts, however, they’re both priced on par with the earlier iH5, which now can be had for $80 at many major retailers, as it’s a few steps behind the iH7 and Apple Store-exclusive iH6 in features. For that reason, our short reviews of the Excalibur and Jensen radios offer direct comparisons to the iH5 rather than its newer, more expensive brethren; just bear in mind that spending a little more will get you more features.
Of the clock radios we’ve seen, the iBlaster Clock Radio is amongst the least impressive, but not entirely for lack of trying. Shaped like half of a tube, it contains two forward-firing speakers behind separate metal grilles, 11 buttons on its top and two dials on its sides, and an iHome-like but cheaper-looking LCD screen that displays time on the left, month and day on the right, and alarm activity above the date. An iPod dock, predictably, is centered on the unit’s top. In addition to a color-matched remote control, its package contains a collection of iPod dock resizers for all models of Dock Connector-equipped iPods and the first-generation iPod shuffle, as well as an auxiliary audio cable to connect the shuffle to the unit’s back. Stereo video cables, external AM and FM antennas, and a power supply are also in the box.
The iBlaster Clock Radio has basically one advantage over the iH5: rear ports. Excalibur includes line out, line in, S-Video out, and composite audio/video out ports, which is a fairly staggering array of outputs by clock radio standards, and explains the unit’s dual marketing as an “AM/FM Radio & Video Player.” The idea’s supposed to be that you can buy this clock radio and also use the system as a full-fledged iPod video output dock - not a data dock - if you have a video-ready fifth-generation or color fourth-generation iPod. This won’t be a major feature except for those who keep a TV near their clock radios, and even then, it’s not great: the composite ports were all loose, and the S-Video output quality wasn’t very impressive.
Nor was its audio quality. iBlaster has the flat, bass-heavy sound of typically untuned speaker drivers - bland enough that it sounded distorted and lacking in energy by comparison with even the Jensen unit, and a few steps below the better-tuned iH5. Though music doesn’t sound strictly bad through iBlaster, the low level of clarity muffles its mids and even its stereo separation, while trimming off all of the highs and pop of similarly-priced systems. You can do much better for the dollar.
Radio performance was mixed. It looks like no one paid attention to proper tuning for the AM radio, which dials in unfamiliar stations (such as 576), rather than moving in 10-digit increments. Similarly, the FM radio also tunes in .1 increments starting at 87.0FM, a sign that the iBlaster Clock Radio was not customized for the U.S. market, which only needs tuning on the .2s from 87.7FM to 107.9FM. On a more positive note, when iBlaster tunes in a station, it sounds as good as possible given the flatness of the speakers - relatively static-free and strong, roughly equivalent to the iHome iH6/7 on any given FM station. For proper AM sound, you’ll need to connect the included external AM antenna to a port on the back right next to the integrated FM antenna, but even then, you’ll have to deal with the screwy AM tuner.
The unit’s screen and buttons are similarly so-so. iBlaster’s left side has an illuminated Snooze/Dimmer button (for four shades of LCD screen brightness) and a Volume knob, while the right top has ten buttons - iPod play/pause, Radio, AM/FM, Sleep, Clock, Alarm On/Off, Alarm Set, Wake To, Alarm Reset/Power Off, and Time Zone. A Set +/- dial for the radio is on the unit’s right side. On a positive note, the unit’s screen can be moved through four total dimmed levels of brightness, starting at normal illumination and ending with no illumination at all. But the unit’s top buttons, none of which look or feel especially great, remain very brightly illuminated at all times. Those light-sensitive sleepers who had issues with iHome’s bright screen will find iBlaster’s lighting system to be downright maddening; on the flip side, the brightly-lit buttons do work to activate and toggle between the unit’s various features, including the single buzzer- or iPod-based alarm.
Finally, there’s the nine-button remote control, which has standard iPod controls, a power button, volume, radio, and snooze/dimmer buttons. It’s Infrared-based, and performs adequately, though it doesn’t let you move through presets. The only major positive is that it’s guaranteed to be in the box; depending on where you buy it from, the iH5 may or may not include a remote, so you’ll need to shop carefully if this feature is important to you.
Overall, the iBlaster Clock Radio isn’t an option we’d recommend to our readers. Whether judged as a speaker, video dock, or clock radio, it doesn’t do anything so well that it will satisfy pickier users, and though its pricing somewhat reflects that reality, there are thankfully better options available even to those with limited budgets. If you happen upon one, you’ll find its performance to be decent - the mark of our C-level, “okay” ratings - but will likely find the devils to be in its details.