Review: iHome iBN26 Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
As demand has waned for Apple-specific docking speakers, Bluetooth wireless has taken off as a viable and somewhat more convenient alternative. Originally shown in 2013 as a black plastic circular speaker with a wraparound metal grille, iHome's iBN26 ($80/$100) has been reissued with a fancier blonde oak wood top, white metal center, and silver plastic bottom — materials that collectively transform an otherwise commonplace design into something fashion-forward. If you're looking for something fancier and more capable than Soundfreaq's similarly-balanced Sound Spot, iBN26 is an equally good option, though also a little more expensive.
Like many of iHome’s Bluetooth systems, iBN26 is a pretty simple speaker. For the most part, there are only four buttons to use - power, volume down, volume up, and play/pause in a silver bar across the top - notably, with mirroring of the volume controls to iOS’s volume slider. Unlike Sound Spot, which is roughly the same size but boxy, it actually has stereo speakers inside, so you’ll actually hear left and right channel separation when you’re playing music.
iBN26’s circular shape might suggest that you’ll get true 360-degree sound, firing out of the back as well as the sides, but the rear is solely for connectivity: a power port for the included wall charger, an audio input, a USB port for iPhone and iPod charging, and a button to activate initial Bluetooth pairing. A rubber ring on the bottom keeps the system from sliding around on a flat surface, and a single blue light on the front indicates that power’s on. You can rest your device on the top surface, connecting it for charging with a self-supplied cable, or stream music wirelessly from considerable distances. We noted that iBN26 exceeded the standard 33-foot receiving range of Bluetooth speakers by a factor of roughly three, which was great.
The key feature that sets iBN26 apart from lower-end speakers such as Sound Spot is speakerphone functionality. While this isn’t the least expensive stereo Bluetooth speaker with integrated microphone functionality, it’s the rare speakerphone that callers described as sounding better than the iPhone 5s at identical distances. When making phone calls, we noted that while the volume level wasn’t as loud as iBN26 gets when playing music, but it was markedly higher than the iPhone’s speakerphone output, and richer-sounding. Callers told us that we sounded smoother on iBN26 — less robotic, with nice ambient noise cancellation — which is a rarity, as the mic system on any top-of-line iPhone is rarely outperformed by accessories.
By inexpensive Bluetooth speaker standards, iBN26’s musical performance is respectable rather than amazing. The drivers inside are around 1” in diameter, and iHome’s tuning enables them to nearly fill a small room with midrange- and mid-bass-focused audio, exhibiting only modest distortion at the peak volume level. At lower volumes, however, the bass all but disappears from music, leaving the highs and mids to stand alone with a somewhat radio-like signature. Equipped only with a single but larger driver, Sound Spot performs audio only in monaural mode, reaching the same peak volume as iBN26, but with richer sound regardless of the volume level.
Overall, iBN26 is a good speaker — handsome and nicely designed for desk use, particularly solid in speakerphone mode, and capable of performing stereo music reasonably well at great distances. While Sound Spot delivers most of the same benefits for a lower price point, iBN26 is worth considering at a $10 premium if you prefer its shape or are looking for calling functionality. At $80, it’s equally worthy of our B+ rating and strong general recommendation. At $100, it’s worthy of a B rating and general recommendation.
[* Editor’s Note: iHome has apparently had some pricing issues with the iBN26, flipping between $80 and $100. Our dual rating reflects the pricing ambiguity.]