Review: iHome iDL45 Dual Charging Stereo FM Clock Radio with Lightning Dock
Historically, Apple accessory developers have understood the need to modestly update their products to retain compatibility with the latest devices -- new Apple charging standards, connectors, and software features have incentivized hardware makers to release updated sequels. That partially explains the release of iHome's iDL45 ($100), a new clock radio that looks and feels a lot like early 2012's iD50, but turns out to be quite a bit different inside, as well as a lot less expensive. Viewed from their fronts, you'd have a hard time telling these two models apart, but IDL45 actually drops a few of iD50's key features, swaps another, and gains something else.
iHome had a mostly winning chassis with the iD50, so it hasn’t changed much for iDL45: the shape remains an extruded rounded rectangle modified with a slanted front face, such that a larger base tapers upwards to a modestly smaller top surface. Fabric still covers the front speakers, matte black plastic is used for almost all of the rest of the body, and metallic side accents give the design extra character. On iD50, the sides were bright silver with a faux aluminum sandblasted texture, but on iDL45, they’re a darker gunmetal color with a brushed metal texture. The new look is better, and helped by nicely tapered edges that make the accents look more substantial than before from the sides.
The other conspicuous changes are found around the top device dock. iHome has replaced the iD50’s odd reinforced rubber pad with a metal and rubber roll bar that achieves the same device-supporting purpose with superior aesthetics; this part debuted in an earlier, higher-end model called iA100 back in 2010 and still looks nice today. It has also added a pill-shaped rubber pad with enough support for a full-sized iPad, and swapped the prior 30-pin Dock Connector for a new Lightning plug. iHome bills the connector as compatible with any Lightning-equipped iPad, iPhone, or iPod, but doesn’t promise support for the latest 2.4-Amp recharging standard followed by the latest full-sized iPads.
As before, the connector is on a spring-loaded hinge that flexes to accommodate different Apple devices, but the plug and pill-shaped pad together guarantee close to zero compatibility with iPad, iPhone, or iPod cases—a real shame, and apparently the result of an Apple design mandate that has continued to undermine all of the Lightning speakers we’ve tested. The pad is attached to the top plastic surface with tape, and can be pulled off, but the plastic around the Lightning plug is wide enough that most iPhone and iPod cases we’ve seen in recent months won’t work with it, regardless. Fourth-generation iPad users may have better luck, and some iPad mini cases may work, but others definitely won’t.
iDL45 offers another physical connection option that wasn’t available with iD50—a rear-mounted USB port with up to 1-Amp of output power. If you supply your own cable, that’s enough to recharge iPhones or iPods at full speed, but not any iPad. iHome bills this port as a way to guarantee compatibility of legacy Apple devices, as well as to provide simultaneous charging for two devices at once. While the port itself isn’t exactly novel given that USB connectors have been included in numerous AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers, it does what it’s supposed to do here, and makes IDL45 a little more useful.
So what’s missing from iDL45 relative to iD50? A few big features, starting with the nixing of Bluetooth wireless support and related elimination of speakerphone functionality. The microphone on iD50’s top is gone, as are the telephone talk and end buttons that used to sit below it. iHome has also removed iD50’s AM radio tuner, and cut the prior Infrared remote control. This model continues to come with a hardwired rear FM radio antenna, but there’s no remote in the box, and no way to use the system wirelessly. iHome’s various apps still work with iDL45, but you’ll need to physically connect your iPad, iPhone, or iPod to the system to use them.
Beyond those big changes, there aren’t many other surprises in iDL45. The speakers remain solid, with obvious stereo separation and respectable range for a two-driver system, though with sonic clarity we’d describe as good only for the price. Placed next to one another, iDL45’s and iD50’s speakers sound nearly identical, reaching the same small room-filling volume level at iHome’s “40” marker. Prior functions such as EQ settings remain largely the same; iD50’s SRS WOW has become “3-D sound,” but its separate bass and treble controls are intact. We noticed tiny differences in the default treble and bass levels, but you can tune one system to sound basically like the other.
Other functions remain pretty much the same, as well. iDL45 is still a dual-alarm clock radio, with highly similar settings and a battery backup feature, plus a big, bright clock face that’s only slightly improved versus the iD50’s—the date is formatted a little better, but the fonts and numbers look basically the same as before. Buttons on the top have been tweaked to remove the iD50’s Bluetooth functionality, the aforementioned speakerphone features, and the “wakeup” timer. iDL45 instead has separate play/pause buttons for the Lightning dock and USB port, a toggle for six FM radio presets, and +/- buttons that take the place of iD50’s left and right arrow track controls. None of this is earth-shattering stuff; further details on the functionality can be found in our iD50 review.
From our perspective, iDL45 is a solid early Lightning system for iHome, though it’s hard to get excited about a product that’s substantially similar in design and performance to what we’ve seen before—only with a few missing features and a markedly lower price tag as compensation. While the market seems to be shifting further away from docking audio solutions and towards wireless ones, iDL45’s dual charging system and continued competence as both an audio and clock solution will win it a place on plenty of nightstands, particularly given the attractive and mainstream $100 asking price. Going forward, however, our hope is that iHome will bring more of the industrial design language from its iW series to units like this one. There’s definitely an opportunity for companies to move alarm clock docks forward from where they are today, or to leave them stuck in time; this one is just good enough for $100 to merit our B+ rating and strong general recommendation.