Review: iHome iH12 / iH12BR Clock Radio for iPod
As the most iconic members of the "Dream Machine" line of digital clock radios, Sony's iconic cube-shaped, LCD-screened mini speaker systems have became softer and less boxy as the years have passed, but they've never gained iPod docks. Unsurprisingly, iHome -- maker of more iPod clock radios than any other company -- saw this as an opportunity, and the result is iH12 ($80), a 5.25" cube dual alarm clock with an iPod dock on top. Like virtually all of the company's other products, iH12 is a good new offering at a reasonable price point, limited only by a few issues.
Worth noting up front is iH12’s name, which in iHome tradition is augmented in the product reviewed here by two additional letters: this is the iH12BR version, “B” for black in color, and “R” for packaged with a remote. iHome has historically released its products in multiple versions, including silver, white, and other colored cases, and sometimes in packages lacking the remote control, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see an iH12SR or iH12WR in the future.
With two exceptions, the black version of iH12 is entirely black, from its front fabric grille to its glossy plastic enclosure, which has been given distinctive curves on its top left and bottom right corners, as well as right angles on its top right and bottom left corners. The exceptions are a bright blue LCD screen that’s framed to match the system’s shape, and text that appears on iH12’s body, primarily on its top in front of the iPod dock. Most of the text is high-contrast white, with the iHome name in silver on the system’s bottom left corner. The screen can be toggled through four levels of brightness, two very bright and two extremely dim or off, for light-sensitive sleepers.
In addition to a color-matched 10-button Infrared remote control, iH12 includes four plastic iPod dock adapters, an external AM antenna, a wall power adapter, and two AA batteries that come pre-installed to keep the clock running even when there’s a power outage. Inside the cabinet are stereo speakers, a “passive subwoofer,” and a simplified dual-alarm AM/FM clock radio borrowed from other iHome systems.
Shape aside, what’s most interesting about iH12 from a design standpoint is that iHome is obviously learning a lot about streamlining its controls. Sixteen buttons on the system’s top are extremely easy to understand as alarm, preset, track, volume, input selection and snooze/dimmer controls, while the remote adds a “3D on/off” button and pares down the system’s four separate radio preset buttons into a single toggle. Similarly, the system’s screen is straightforward, with a top line for iPod and alarm icons, including information on what type of alarm—increasingly loud radio, iPod, or a progressively more annoying buzzer—you want to hear, a middle section for the clock, and a bottom line that alternates between the date, volume levels, and going blank. As with most low-end clock radios, the iPod or radio starts playing wherever you left off rather than offering programmability, and there aren’t separate weekday, weekend, or all-week settings for the two alarms. They’re either on or off, which is just fine for the price.
The only confusing part of iH12’s interface is something that you learn within the first half hour of use. Plug an iPod into the system’s top and it stays silent; try using the “radio/auxiliary input” toggle button and the iPod never comes up as a choice. You’ll need to hit the play or power button to start hearing your iPod’s sound, a trivial but initially confusing difference from most of the clock radios we’ve tested recently. iH12 ramps up softly in sound from silence, which is nice. The remote also performs just as expected, working reliably under normal lighting from 30-foot distances, assuming you’re on a direct line of sight from the system.
Sonically, iH12 performs as expected, which is to say that it sounds pretty good for a small $80 clock radio, but won’t blow anyone away. There are two different audio modes, “3D off” and “3D on,” and our system was pre-set to 3D on—generally a good thing given that the system sounds a bit flat and boring without it. “3D on” provides a welcome treble boost that counterbalances the system’s natural bass leanings, and makes the sound more dynamic, if not in any way more 3D. Oddly, though there is a hint of stereo separation when the system is in standard, non-3D audio mode, it actually disappeared in our traditional test song when 3D mode was turned on. This is the first time this has ever happened in our testing, and we suspect that it’s a bug in implementation, potentially correctable in later units.
In any case, it doesn’t matter much, as we don’t expect a full stereo soundstage from a small nightstand clock like this one; the overall balance is more important, and fine here. Detail and midrange aren’t phenomenal, and there’s a fair bit of amplifier hiss that’s evident during silences, but this is par for the course with small, inexpensive systems. For its price, we’d call iH12 above average overall in sound.
iH12’s radio performance is good, but not great. With the AM antenna attached, it doesn’t have a problem tuning in AM stations, and FM tuning is similar, albeit saddled with an low but audible base level of static. The single biggest issue is that the “3D on” speaker mode, which benefits iPod audio playback, encumbers FM radio playback by accentuating the static hiss and overboosting the treble; unfortunately, the 3D mode can’t be separately set to remain off when toggling between modes. If you’re a frequent radio user, you might find that keeping the 3D mode off is a better compromise, though there’s no way to produce optimal results in both iPod and radio modes without toggling the feature on and off manually.
On one hand, issues like this seem somewhat trivial given the big picture appeal of iH12, which strikes us as a nice-looking system with generally good sound and a very attractive price. Had everything worked perfectly, it would be worthy of a stronger general recommendation, but the collection of issues take it down a notch to our flat B level. Make no mistake: if you’re on a budget and like the modern update of the classic Sony cube clock style, you’ll find iH12 to be a very satisfactory speaker for the price, but if you desire better audio performance or more clock adjustability, and don’t mind sparing an extra $20 and more surface area, you’ll find options such as the company’s iH9 to be smarter buys for the dollar.