Review: iHome iDM12 Portable Rechargeable Bluetooth Stereo Speaker
Depending on whether you're looking at them in person or on paper, iHome's latest speaker systems iDM12 ($70) and iD9 ($100) will either seem very similar or extremely different from one another. On paper, their specifications are a lot alike: both are twin-driver, rechargeable battery-powered audio systems geared towards budget-conscious iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad users, made from silver and glossy black plastics. They're also both being pitched primarily at iPad owners, as each includes some sort of stand for Apple's first-generation tablet, and their styling complements the iPad's aluminum and glass body as well as anything we've seen in this price range. But as it turns out, the iDM12 and iD9 diverge from one another at that point, and whether either or both would meet your needs depends on what exactly you're looking for.
As the less expensive option, iDM12 benefits both from lower expectations and one extra feature—an integrated Bluetooth 2.1 wireless stereo streaming capability—that takes it out of the league of most $50-$100 speakers we’ve seen for Apple’s devices. iHome has given the 7.17” wide by 2.27” deep by 2.27” high pill-shaped unit both A2DP support and a limited AVRCP capability, enabling it to connect with most iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad devices to stream music and pause audio playback using one of the four buttons on its top. Two others control iDM12’s volume, rather than the wirelessly connected device’s, and the last turns the speaker’s power on and off. In our testing, wireless audio was completely reliable at standard 30-foot Bluetooth broadcasting distances, experiencing similarly standard brief drop-outs at greater distances, and a complete fall-off at roughly 60 feet.
Nestled next to a pop-out plastic stand on the back is a switch that toggles between Bluetooth and auxiliary audio inputs, the latter relying upon a special V-shaped cable iHome includes in the package. This cable has a micro-USB connector on one end, a cord manager in the middle, and separate full-sized USB and 3.5mm audio connectors at the other end. Unlike some speakers, the USB connector can’t be used for computer audio; it’s solely for charging, and since no power adapter is supplied, you’ll need to use a computer or other USB port to recharge iDM12. Only the 3.5mm plug provides a wired path for music to travel on, and flipping between an iPad’s headphone and Bluetooth outputs sounded pretty much the same.
The other interesting part of iDM12 is a novel magnetic faceplate that protects the unit’s plastic front grille and two speakers during travel, popping off to serve as a fixed-position iPad stand. While you can mount an iPad in either horizontal or vertical orientation in the plastic stand’s groove, relying upon two swivel-out metal feet for support, it has no space to accommodate iPad cases or a Dock Connector cable if the tablet is in portrait orientation with its Home Button at the bottom. iHome has tailored the groove solely for the iPad, and though iPod touches can sort of fit, iPhones can’t. It’s obvious that the stand was really designed for only one Apple product, and then, only when it’s bare; a little extra design work could have made it better.
As similar as its features may be on paper, iD9 is actually a substantially different animal. Made mostly from a slightly less shiny silver plastic that could pass for anodized aluminum from a distance, it measures 12.9” wide by 4.06” deep by 2.06” high—almost twice as long and twice as deep as iDM12, though virtually identical in height. Off to its sides are two total diagonally-firing speaker drivers, while its back has a line-in port, a power input port, and a switch that toggles a “remote” feature between auto and on. iD9 notably doesn’t ship with a remote, but it does come with a wall adapter, as well as a larger rechargeable battery than iDM12—2600mAh versus 1800mAh—though both are rated for up to 4.5 hours of playback time. It’s considerably heavier, too: 3.25 pounds to iDM12’s 0.35 pounds.
These numbers underscore the fundamental differences between iD9 and iDM12: the smaller unit can be taken anywhere, and the larger unit is—despite the battery inside—meant to be moved only around a house or office, though it’s capable of working anywhere you can carry it. Moreover, while the smaller iDM12 is solely for music playback, iD9 has a full iPad-sized glossy black charging dock in the center, complete with a flexible Dock Connector plug and three rubber pads—two left for you to install yourself if you need them. While we’re not huge fans of the DIY rubber pad approach, we love the fact that iD9 is designed to work with iPads regardless of whether they’re encased or not, and actually does so with only one caveat: the default angle of the flexible Dock Connector is just a little off for iPads, so you may need to wiggle the tablet (or an iPod touch) into place, an inconvenience that should really be addressed in a subsequent production run. We had no such problem with the iPhone 4. All Apple devices charge off of the 2.1-Amp dock at full speed. iD9 also features a clear, four-light battery power indicator, which the iDM12 doesn’t have.
Two other significant differences between the models are also worth mentioning. First, iD9’s speakers sound considerably better: even at their peak volume level, they exhibit relatively little distortion and very low amplifier hiss, putting out enough treble- and midrange-focused sound to feel appropriate for the $100 price tag. Though iD9 isn’t as well-equipped in the bass department as some of the other speakers—even iHome clock radios—that we’ve seen in its price range, it’s the best sounding $100 speaker yet released for the iPad, and less quirky than Jensen’s ambitious but ultimately unsteady JiPS-250i.
By contrast, iDM12 offers a slightly lower maximum volume, less treble, and a little more bass, but it’s similarly midrange-focused, and exhibits an audible static hiss regardless of the volume level it’s playing at, or whether your device is connected with a wire or Bluetooth. At higher volume levels, the music sounds moderately distorted in a way the iD9’s audio avoids; unlike the iD9, volume levels have to be separately set on the iOS device and the iDM12, which can contribute to the distortion issues. While these issues might sound discouraging, it needs to be said that none of them is a huge problem for a $70 speaker, particularly one with integrated Bluetooth streaming capabilities. A little extra tuning—particularly in the AVRCP remote volume control department—might have made iDM12 even better.
That brings us to the second difference: iD9 loses the iDM12’s Bluetooth wireless streaming capability in favor of making purely wired connections to your iPod, iPhone, or iPad, either through the integrated Dock Connector or the rear auxiliary audio input port. From our perspective, the sound quality improvements iD9 offers over the wireless iDM12 make this omission a wash, but if you’re looking for a way to stream audio to a speaker, only one of these units is capable of doing that.
For all of their similarities, properly rating these two systems requires an understanding of their separate assets, issues, and usage models that can be summed up in this way. Though it’s not the fanciest $100 audio system we’ve seen for iPods or iPhones, or the most versatile $100 unit available for iPads, iD9 is the best budget speaker dock yet released for Apple’s tablet—a sharp-looking and nice-sounding all-in-one system that can charge even the power-hungry iPad at full speed. Imperfections in its Dock Connector and padding implementation detract from what’s otherwise a highly case-compatible and convenient design that can be used anywhere in a house. If device charging and sonic fidelity aren’t as critical for your needs, but wireless streaming and a more compact size are appealing, iDM12 offers a more aggressively priced alternative. Limited control and stand design issues aside, it’s a more than respectable step up from iHome’s iHM79 and similar $50 wired-only portable options, though with similar limitations on audio quality. Both of these speakers are worthy of our general level recommendation.