Review: iHome iA100 Bluetooth Audio System for iPod, iPhone + iPad
Very few of the Apple accessories released over the past three years have been truly important -- a word that we use rarely, as much due to limitations in developers' vision as flaws in execution -- so when we say that iHome's new Bluetooth 2.1 wireless audio system iA100 ($200) is as important of a speaker as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad have seen in years, know that we mean it. Moreover, we've had multiple occasions to worry about what would happen with iA100, which was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January but was then delayed for a makeover and price bump, all due to the company's decision to add iPad compatibility. But the resulting product now attempts and succeeds at so much that it's impossible to ignore, meriting recognition as one of the very best products of 2010.
Viewed through history’s lens, iA100 is actually a combination of three earlier iHome products, each of which had potential but fell short for one reason or another. From the company’s mid-2008 model iP47 comes wireless Bluetooth speakerphone functionality, which is accessed via glowing talk and end buttons on iA100’s top. Shared with March’s iA5 is compatibility with the iHome + Sleep application, capable of expanding now typical dual-alarm clock radio functionality with weather alerts, additional alarms, and numerous other features. Most of the rest of its capabilities come from the iP99, its 2008 premium/step-up model that was early in its attempts to streamline the look and feel of iHome’s less expensive, prior-generation models, or the later iP90, an internally similar version with a sleeker industrial design.
iA100 actually looks a lot like iP90, using the same combination of matte black and semi-glossy silver plastics for its casing, though with classier touches that enhance its perceived value: side and front speaker grilles made of fabric, and loop-like sides that raise the chassis nearly an inch off the surface of a table. Front and center is a nearly identical clock face with large modern numbers and smaller matching weekday, month, and day information below it, illuminated by an eight-stage dimmer that ranges from very bright to as dim as can be. White lights on the top of the unit dim simultaneously with the clock, letting you see the volume, track, bedtime, wakeup, sound enhancement, dimmer, and power buttons with ease; the talk and end buttons glow green and red when a Bluetooth device is paired. Hitting the talk button re-initiates pairing with a previously connected device; a row of small buttons hidden on the back of iA100 provides as-needed access to clock, EQ, pairing, nap, alarm 1 and alarm 2 settings.
Where iA100 differs most from iP90 and almost all of iHome’s prior-generation alarm clocks is in the fact that most of those buttons are completely optional if you’re using an iOS device with stereo Bluetooth streaming capabilities. Go into the iPod music playing mode after wireless pairing and, by default, iA100 will just wirelessly stream the device’s audio without even making a physical connection—assuming the iA100’s power is on and it’s in Bluetooth receiving mode. Volume controls work from the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad so that you needn’t touch them on the iA100, though you can turn the iA100 up much louder with its own controls; this may change with a later firmware update. Sound quality is typical of stereo Bluetooth: not as clean as with a direct wired connection, but apart from a modest flattening of the signal, hard to tell the difference for most intents and purposes. Bluetooth doesn’t offer audiophile-quality sound, but if you want to play music from 30 feet away—no more, as the signal begins to drop—it’s a great solution.
Making telephone calls with iA100 as a Bluetooth speakerphone for an iPhone is equally easy and satisfying. When iA100 and the iPhone are paired, the iA100’s speakers ring, and if you press the button on iA100, the call starts there; otherwise, it goes through the iPhone first. Most callers told us that they could barely tell the difference between the way we sounded on the iPhone 4 handset itself and through the iA100. This is a very strong performance characteristic that shouldn’t be taken for granted in light of the many other, less positive experiences we’ve had with other iPhone-ready speakerphones; only one caller mentioned a very slight muffling, but said she wouldn’t characterize it as “bad.” On the flip side, callers all sounded a lot better to us on iA100 than they did through Apple’s handset, with volume—not clarity—that was incomparably stronger than what any of the iPhones’ small speakers have been able to muster.
Where iA100 surges past merely being a much better version of the iP47 speakerphone is in its added support for the aforementioned iHome + Sleep application, which has been updated since our review to include iPad support, Retina Display graphics, and other improvements. With iA100 and this application, you’re able to program each of the two “everyday/weekday/weekend” alarms inside the accessory using the iOS device’s screen, make granular EQ adjustments, adjust the clock, calendar, and FM radio inside, and even update its firmware. Additional device-specific alarms, sleep and wake hour tracking, and other settings remain available, as well.
There’s only one major issue with iA100’s iHome + Sleep integration, and that’s something we’d expected would be in the app by now but isn’t: wireless access.* Originally pitched as part of the app’s feature set back in January, the idea was supposed to be that iPhone and iPod touch users would be able to load the app and change the accessory’s settings without being physically connected, a convenience that would really make alarm setting and radio tuning easier for users who didn’t want to walk over to iA100. Our hope is that this feature is added in an update, because its absence unnecessarily limits the value of the device’s Bluetooth hardware, and makes the user experience less thrilling than it could be.
[Updated October 25, 2010: Following publication of our review, iHome contacted us to let us know that the iHome + Sleep app’s wireless access to iA100 should have worked—and after further testing, we confirmed that it did, though we believe that a multi-device Bluetooth pairing glitch was likely to blame for two days of problems. Our initial testing of iA100 included two separate devices (iPhone 4 and iPad), neither of which showed the tell-tale signs that iHome + Sleep was wirelessly commanding the device: additional controls for iA100’s built-in alarms, or a collection of device-specific settings options. But after freshly pairing the iPhone 4 again to iA100, the wireless features all snapped to life, enabling it to do everything from afar as we’d expected, from setting the hardware’s alarms to changing the volume, brightness, mode, and radio station iA100 was on. This wireless functionality all helps iA100 live up to its initial promise, though the device does have issues with handling Bluetooth connections from multiple devices. In light of our multi-device pairing issues, it might be nice for the iHome + Sleep app to gain a conspicuous main screen indicator that indicates that it is communicating properly with a wireless iHome speaker, with a button to try and force the connection if not.]
At this point, it’s also worth mentioning that iHome’s eleventh-hour decision to retrofit the iA100 with iPad support turned out to be a truly great idea, and something we weren’t expecting back when the unit won a “Best of Show” award from us in January. The subsequent hardware and price changes frankly could have completely invalidated that award, and to be clear, we aren’t thrilled with the $200 price tag given that all iHome added for the $30 premium was an iPad-compatible 2.1-amp charging and docking solution. But what it did, with the exception of one little touch, is really excellent.
We’ve loved Apple’s Universal Dock design for the four or five years it dominated iPod and iPhone accessories, as the shallow well and slightly extended Dock Connector made it possible for these accessories to work with iPods and iPhones regardless of whether they were inside most cases. But the iPad’s release forced companies to completely reconsider the whole docking concept, as no iPad could conceivably squeeze into the traditional sub-3” Universal Dock well, and providing everything from multi-device support to case compatibility could easily have been a problem. iA100 meets this challenge efficiently, placing a rubber-tipped metal bar behind a modestly elevated, flexible Dock Connector that sits inside a groove large enough for almost every iPad case we’ve seen and tested. This new dock design isn’t small, but it should work with basically any iPod, iPhone, or iPad you might have, and looks completely inoffensive… except for a large black rubber insert iHome includes to fill the groove when it’s not needed. Though there mightn’t be a better inexpensive solution, this insert looks a little cheap when it’s not being shadowed by an encased iPad. Most people won’t care; only the ability to rotate the iPad would make it considerably better.
The final point worth mentioning regarding iA100’s performance is its sound quality. Back when it was announced in January at a $170 asking price, it was set to be one of the least expensive “Studio Series” speakers in the company’s lineup, only modestly more expensive than the pricing later announced for the portable iP49. These two systems, along with the iP1 and iP3, are all beneficiaries of a sound chip and speaker tuning partnership developed between iHome and Bongiovi Acoustics, which was pitched as a way for higher-end iHome audio systems to make the most of whatever drivers it selected. All of the Studio Series systems include a “B” button that turns off the Bongiovi tuning—something that no one would ever really want to do—and most of them have manually adjustable bass and treble controls, as well, the latter feature rare but not unheard of on iPod/iPhone speakers and clock radios. iP90 included these controls, but iA100 also adds a midrange adjustment slider, which is even harder to find in iPod and iPhone audio systems.
Though iP1 really made a strong sonic and visual statement that convinced us of iHome’s and Bongiovi’s ability to churn out seriously impressive audio in a beautiful enclosure, neither iP49 nor iP3 lived up to the same standards, so we were concerned that for all of its other features, iA100 might fall short in this regard, too. It’s therefore really good news that despite its enclosure, which is nice enough but surely not up to iP1 or iP3’s level of class, iA100 offers a major jump in sonic capabilities over the company’s lower-end clock radios. There are now four drivers inside, two full-rangers firing out to the sides and two high-frequency drivers in the front, together churning out clearer, wider frequency, and more detailed sound than other clocks in the company’s lineup—plus the ability to really change the audio signature if you want to play with the bass, mid, and treble settings. iA100 isn’t just being sold as a Studio Series system; most of the time, it lives up to the claim. On the other hand, the Bluetooth wireless mode has a little persistent amplifier noise that’s noticeable when no music’s playing, and iA100 packs only an FM radio with 6 presets, lacking the AM tuner found in most other iHome alarm clocks. So if you’re looking for that feature, you’re out of luck.
There’s not much about iA100 that inspires those words, though: in so many ways, this system represents a culmination of the best features and design decisions iHome has made over the last three years, with the sort of strong audio performance, app integration, Bluetooth streaming and speakerphone capabilities that we’ve been waiting to find in one iPhone-ready unit. Better yet, the addition of iPad support takes iA100 out of the “just another cool speaker” category, and directly to the top of a very small collection of audio systems designed to accommodate Apple’s largest iOS device. Small caveats and modest price premium aside, this is definitely the mid-range iPad, iPhone, and iPod speaker that companies will have to surpass going forwards. It’s as close to an essential bedside companion as we’ve yet seen for the tablet computer, and a truly great pick for iPhone and iPod touch users, as well.