Review: iHome iDL100 Triple Charging Alarm Clock with Lightning
After a decade of growth to near-ubiquity, have Apple device-docking speakers reached the end of the line? Despite obvious demand for new models, there's been such a slowdown in supply -- thanks in part to developer discomfort with Apple's new Lightning standard -- that the future's becoming hard to predict. Even major speaker developers have taken a wait and see approach with Lightning models, re-releasing old Dock Connector products with minor tweaks for the new connector. That explains iHome's release this year of iDL100 ($150), a modestly tweaked version of the 2012 model iD99. The pitch with iDL100 is a user's ability to connect two Lightning devices to top-mounted docks, plus a rear USB port that can play and charge a third device with a self-provided cable. Regrettably, iDL100 has the same limitation as all other Lightning speakers released so far: due to Apple design mandates, the integrated connectors work almost exclusively with bare devices.
Just like iD99, iDL100 is a typical midrange iHome clock radio distinguished more by its multiple charging capabilities than any other feature. Attractively made mostly from gray metallic-finished plastic with a black core, iDL100 places two front-facing speakers behind a wraparound cloth grille, flanking a bright white-on-black clock face with an eight-level dimmer. The clock includes two integrated alarms, a self-setting time and date feature, and a watch battery-based backup, as well as an FM radio tuner with six presets. None of these details will come as a surprise to long-time iHome users, particularly those familiar with the iD99, but this is an attractive design—the product of many years of iHome engineering polish, and a chassis worth repurposing.
Part of iDL100’s appeal is its appealingly symmetrical mix of circular and pill-shaped top elements for both controls and docks. In addition to simple button-style volume and radio tuning controls, iDL100 places all of its gently-illuminated alarm, clock, and dock controls up top rather than on the back, with one recessed dock clearly sized solely for an iPhone or iPod, and a larger rear dock offering broad compatibility with an iPad, iPhone, or iPod. The smaller dock has a tiny rubber nub to provide back support, while the larger one has a fancier metal and rubber roll bar familiar from earlier iHome iPad speakers. Three rear port provide access for a large wall power adapter, your self-supplied USB cable, and a self-supplied aux-in cable; an FM antenna coil is permanently attached off to the rear right side.
Functionally, iDL100 does pretty much what you’d expect it to do. Plug in three devices and they’ll all charge at the same time, though not necessarily at peak iPad speeds: iHome makes no promises regarding support for 2.4-Amp charging on any port, and our recharging tests suggested that iDL100 outputs at a maximum of 2.1-Amp speeds, with the recessed iPhone/iPod dock predictably capped at 1-Amp. Apart from a little oddity—music and power stop and then restart on each dock when something is plugged into the other, with similar interruptions when using the rear USB port—iDL100 works reliably. Pressing the unit’s separate Dock 1/Dock 2/USB play/pause buttons properly switches inputs and triggers music playback on each device while stopping the others. Even the FM radio performs properly, which is no easy feat with multiple wireless devices in such close proximity.
Sonically, iDL100 is a middle-of-the-road performer, roughly equivalent to $100 single-dock iHome systems such as the iDL45. iHome’s twin drivers are midrange- and bass-focused with just enough treble to not sound completely flat; integrated equalizers let you boost the treble and bass by a bit, and a “3-D sound” feature toggles spatialization on and off. The peak volume level of “40” is just high enough to fill a small room without obvious distortion—assuming you haven’t played with the equalization. iDL100’s volume is mirrored by the volume controls on your iOS device, assuming you can reach them. No one’s going to be blown away by its sound for a $150 asking price, but there’s more here than just the speakers, and it’s entirely competent when used as a loud alarm clock or music player.
The chief problem with iDL100 is the same one we’ve noted in other Lightning speaker reviews: case incompatibility. Despite the fact that an estimated 80% of iPhone owners use cases—a fact that iHome is well aware of and has supported with past speaker designs—iDL100’s docks won’t work with iPhone cases unless they have completely open bottoms. The same is true with iPods and iPads; due to some misguided Apple mandates for Lightning connector accessories, iDL100’s plugs are flush with the docking surfaces and surrounding rubber pads. Consequently, encased devices can’t make enough of a connection for charging or audio, unless you supply a cable for the rear USB port, which basically defeats the point of buying something with dual docks.
In sum, iDL100 is yet another good iHome alarm clock dock, unfortunately weighed down by Apple’s impractical Lightning connector mandates. If you’re among the 1/5 of iPhone users who don’t use cases, and similarly don’t use a case on the iPad, iPod, or second iPhone you’re planning to dock alongside it, there’s every reason—except pricing—to consider this model, as it combines a solid-sounding and nice-looking clock radio with otherwise nice charging options. That said, between the case incompatibility and the $50 premium iDL100 sells for relative to the iDL45, it’s not as easy to recommend as it could have been with small tweaks. The key problem is Apple’s to fix, rather than iHome’s, but until and unless that happens, Lightning speakers will continue to be far less convenient than the Dock Connector versions they’re supposed to replace.