Review: iHome iD50 Bluetooth Audio System for iPod, iPhone + iPad
In late 2010, iHome released the iA100 -- a flagship clock radio for Apple's devices, featuring just about everything the company could load into a nightstand-ready speaker system. Originally designed for iPods and iPhones, the handsome black and silver iA100 was updated just before release to include a smart iPad dock, and featured wireless Bluetooth capabilities for both music and phone calling. Its combination of features and performance won it our 2010 Accessory of the Year Award, and to this day, it remains one of the best clock radios on the market. The only hitch was its $200 price, which was justified by its capabilities but still well above iHome's more mainstream offerings. If the expense was the only reason you held off on iA100, you now have options, and that pluralization is intentional.
iHome’s new iD50 ($170) has been deliberately engineered as a small step down from the iA100, with a streamlined chassis and fewer frills that probably won’t be missed by most users. The iA100 featured a matte black body with silver edges, fabric speaker grilles, and a big, bright clock face in the center. iD50 has all of that, too. FM radio, dual alarms, and Bluetooth support for stereo audio streaming and monaural speakerphone modes? Check, check, check for both units. And despite the confusing new “iD” prefix, the iD50 has the same iHome iOS app support as its predecessor. So what’s different? iD50 doesn’t have a Bongiovi Acoustics button. The top and sides have been redesigned. There are fewer buttons, and the remote’s simpler, too. iHome even added AM radio tuning to the iD50. Is any of this troubling you yet? No, right?
Despite the lower price, most of these changes actually turn out to be for the better. As just one example, iHome’s decision to simplify iD50’s controls makes the new model easier to use without iHome’s iOS applications—a good thing in that the iHome + Sleep app was recently and unnecessarily split into two less efficiently designed apps. Six buttons that used to be hidden on iA100’s back have been moved to the top, leaving the new model with nothing more than rear power, aux-in, and AM antenna connectors, plus the same bass ventilation ports from the earlier design. Menu navigation buttons on the remote have been pulled, and the Bongiovi button replaced with a similar toggle for SRS Wow. Just as before, this button’s sort of pointless because turning off the feature only makes music sound worse, but iHome continues to keep the toggle there for marketing reasons.
Two related changes are small matters of personal preference. While iA100 had a certain rounded boxiness, iD50 emphasizes gentler angles: the front edge now slopes to match the recline of a docked iPad, iPhone, or iPad. And though the systems are roughly the same height, the iA100’s silver sides elevated the rest of the chassis above a table, while iD50’s entire body rests on the surface below. iHome has also redesigned the top dock to remove the unnecessary rubber insert found on iA100, which was meant to increase case compatibility but wound up looking and feeling somewhat cheap. Unfortunately, it has replaced the prior roll bar with a large and equally cheap-looking rubber back support, and while there’s still a flexible Dock Connector plug that does work with all iOS devices, it remains challenging to line up with encased second- and third-generation iPads. Most iPhone and iPod users will dock their devices very easily regardless of the cases they choose, and the plug will work with iPad cases, too—the only problem is initially lining it up.
Another change will matter more to picky listeners than others. Without making a big deal of what’s arguably a major internal change, iHome chopped down the number of speakers inside from four to two. While the iA100 included side-firing full-range drivers and front-firing tweeters, the iD50 reverts to two front-firing full-range drivers, a common enough configuration in iHome’s lower-end clock radios. There’s no doubt that the iA100 sounds at least a little cleaner, a difference that’s noticeable from both systems’ similarly loud half-volume “20” levels up to their full-volume “40” levels, where the more expensive system has less distortion in its midrange, as well as superior treble reach. However, the differences aren’t as stark as one might imagine: iD50 is a little flatter, but performs enough of the sonic spectrum to do justice to mid-highs, mids, and mid-lows, with just enough bass, volume, and perceptible stereo separation to hold its own against other clock radios.
Radio and Bluetooth performance is roughly par for the course. FM and AM tuning sound good under optimal conditions, but are both extremely dependent on the positions of the external wired antennas, with a modest base level of static in the FM tuner and typical fuzziness in the sound of the AM tuner. Stereo Bluetooth streaming remains reliably strong from distances well beyond the unit’s stated 33-foot capacity, though it’s mitigated a little by a low-pitched amplifier buzz that’s evident only up close and during quiet points in songs.
Speakerphone functionality is in the same ballpark as the iA100: callers had no problem hearing us through iD50’s top-mounted microphone, and we had no issue hearing them—iD50’s speakers can get much louder than the iPhones they connect to, though a test caller said that we sounded a little more distant with the iD50 than with an iPhone 4S sitting in the same place. Performance between the iD50 and iA100 wasn’t identical in this regard, but they were similar enough to one another that we’d call them roughly equivalent.
Alarm functionality is largely the same between the units, as well. Both have two built-in alarms with “7-5-2” (every day/weekday/weekend-only) settings, plus the ability to add additional app-dependent alarms if you’re running the iHome + Sleep app. There are also wakeup, bedtime, and nap buttons—the latter now conveniently on the top rather than the back—with timers and device screen-dimming functionality, otherwise unchanged from model to model. Though that mightn’t sound exciting, there really isn’t much on the alarm clock front that needed updating from iA100 to iD50: iHome’s alarm clock features remain amongst the most functional and well-executed in the marketplace.
Overall, iD50 is pretty much what we’d expected from a less expensive follow-up to the iA100: most of the same features, along with small drops in sound quality, streamlined functionality, and a slightly less fancy chassis. The addition of an AM radio antenna will please some users, and the simplified buttons will be welcomed by others, while the omission of Bongiovi tuning and dedicated tweeter hardware will only be missed by audiophiles. Conceptually, iD50 is a winner. Our only real issue is the scope of iHome’s MSRP reduction: introduced at $170, it’s theoretically less expensive than the $200 iA100, but the older model actually can be had for as little as $130 these days—a typical price decline given its age, and one that gives users little reason to prefer the newer version. The iD50 is a very good speaker with convenient docking, wireless, alarm, and radio features, but it lives in the shadow of its flagship brother; consider it primarily if you prefer the way it looks, or really want AM tuning capabilities.