Review: iHome iH5 Docking Stereo Clock Radio
Pros: An attractively designed combination of charging iPod dock, speaker system, and AM/FM clock radio. Works with multiple iPods, includes aux-in port for other audio devices, and is generally easy to use. Great price.
Cons: Not as strong in audio quality as our top-ranked $100 speaker alternative, optional remote control has limited range, and while well-implemented, clock radio is not laden with deluxe clock or radio features.
A great idea, well executed. Rarely - too rarely - do we find ourselves saying those words about an iPod accessory, but the new iH5 docking stereo clock radio ($99.99) earns them. Just released by the iHome division of SDI Technologies, it’s the first product to combine several features we’ve hoped to see in one accessory, and it’s priced at a level virtually any iPod owner can afford.
What’s in the Box
The iH5 is a 9.2” x 2.7” x 5.5” block of iPod-matching glossy white plastic with several familiar, but attractive characteristics: a unified silver mesh metal grille on the front covers two speakers, with space inbetween for a large LED clock screen. iH5’s top center is recessed, including a total of nine buttons and a resizeable iPod dock, while its left and right top feature flat dials for volume and radio tuning, respectively. The dials adjust the iH5’s internal amplifier and tuning, and do not affect the iPod in any way.
iH5’s back features speaker vent holes on its left and right sides, four ports, three buttons, and a switch. The first port is for power, the second for line output from the iPod dock to separate speakers, and the third for line input from any audio device that can’t dock - including iPod shuffles and early generation iPods. A fourth port lets you plug in an included, matching external AM radio antenna, while a thin, wound-up external FM antenna juts out of the unit’s back right side.
Since the iH5’s clock comes pre-set from the factory - powered by a set of two AA batteries in an underbelly compartment - the rear three buttons are ones you won’t need to use often: change the time zone, adjust the clock manually, and adjust the “sleep volume,” which operates the iH5 at your preferred volume level until shutting down with a timer. The single switch adjusts for daylight savings time.
In addition to the iH5 unit and its external AM antenna, iHome also includes a matching wall power adapter, a short white auxiliary audio cord that connects to the rear line-in port, and a collection of four total sizer plates to adjust the dock for your iPod. One is sized for iPod minis, one for iPod shuffles, and one each for “thick” and “thin” iPods. The iH5 doesn’t charge iPod shuffles, but it does charge minis and full-sized docking iPods. No sizer is included for 1G or 2G iPods, so don’t expect to dock them; they’ll have to lay on their backs on top of the iH5.
What’s Not in the Box
The only other thing missing from the iH5 package is the package’s only significant omission: a remote control. iHome’s early advertisements for the iH5 implied that there would be one in the box, but it turns out to be an optional purchase.
iHome’s manual refers to both iH5R and iH5RC remotes, but the company’s web site sells only the $19.99 iH5R, a white remote with gray buttons to control iH5 power, iPod playback, tracks, and volume, plus toggle between the radio, AM/FM, and snooze/dimmer functionality of the iH5 base. According to the company, the IH5R works within a 10 foot distance, and requires line of sight contact - not great by any standards - but we haven’t been able to test one ourselves.
Functionality and Buttons
When the iH5 isn’t plugged in to wall power, it’s basically nothing more than an attractive, totally locked down digital clock. The AA batteries keep it running, but don’t power any of its special features: none of its buttons have any affect on the clock, only the rear daylight savings time switch works, and no iPod, auxiliary, or radio can be heard through the speakers. If you have an alarm set, the unit will beep at a moderate volume level at the appointed time, but won’t play the iPod or radio.
But when you plug the unit in, the clock screen and top buttons glow - the clock an attractive, 4G iPod-like light blue, and the buttons a familiar 3G iPod-like orange-red. The left and center of the clock’s screen show the time, while the right side uses icons and words to indicate status: an alarm clock icon shows the alarm’s on, while an iPod icon or the words “radio” or” buzzer” show which audio source the iH5 will play to wake you up.
A box in the bottom right corner reads “OFF” when the speakers are off, a station number (such as 97.1) when the radio’s on, iPod when the iPod’s on, or AU when auxiliary input is coming through. You can’t hear auxiliary input while the iPod’s plugged in, and there’s no way to toggle over to that port unless your iPod’s undocked.
Three rows of buttons sit in front of the iPod: four buttons for each of the first two rows, and one in the third. The first button is labelled iPod (play/pause), and turns a docked iPod on regardless of whether the iH5 is off, or in the middle of radio playback. If an iPod isn’t docked in the system, this switches to the auxiliary input port. It’s worth mentioning that the iH5 can’t control the play/pause status of an auxiliary device, and that includes the iPod shuffle, so the unit’s highest value will be to iPod mini and full-sized iPod owners.
The next two buttons select the radio, and switch to FM or AM tuning. You can tune in .2 increments with the top right “set +/-” dial, and reception is good, but not outstanding. iHome’s inclusion of external AM and FM antennas will help you if you’ve been using a weak clock radio in the past, but don’t expect miracles. Additionally, there’s no seek functionality or memory, so you’ll need to tune manually from station to station - a bummer for real radiophiles.
If you’re listening to your iPod or the radio, the next button activates sleep mode, a timer that counts down in minutes from your choice of several starting points: 120, 90, 60, 30 or 15. In sleep mode, you’ll hear music at the sleep volume you’ve selected using the button on iH5’s back - most likely, quieter than normal - and then the unit will turn itself and your iPod off at the end of the countdown. This worked exactly as expected in our testing.
The next four buttons all deal with the alarm. First is the alarm on/off button, which brings up or removes the aforementioned clock icon on the screen. Next is alarm set, which if pressed shows the current alarm time, and if held down lets you adjust that time with the Set +/- dial. Wake-to lets you toggle between iPod, radio and clock for waking up, while the Alarm Reset/Power Off button works as expecte, turning the alarm off when it’s ringing, and the iPod off when it’s on.
Finally, there’s the snooze/dimmer. Hit it when the alarm sounds to have a 9 minute return to slumber; at any other time, it will cycle through three levels of brightness for the LCD screen’s blue backlight. A couple of readers have opined that the screen is too bright even at its dimmest setting, but we didn’t mind it - it’s not exactly room illuminating, but your mileage may vary depending on where you place it in the room.
Given both our experiences with clock radios and with most sub-$100 iPod speaker systems, the biggest surprise about the iH5 is that it actually sounds pretty good. And by that, we mean that it’s comparable in overall quality to Altec’s inMotion series of portable speakers, which start at the same price as iH5 (inMotion iM4, iLounge rating: A-) and go up to $180 (inMotion iM3, iLounge rating: B+).
Neither Altec’s nor iHome’s speaker systems will win awards for dynamic range or fidelity; both are heavy in bass, a characteristic that tends to appeal to some listeners more than others, and both exhibit some audible distortion at normal listening levels. In these regards, both companies’ offerings are less impressive in our view than JBL’s inexpensive, cleaner On Tour (iLounge rating: A-), say nothing of JBL’s affordable and user-adjustable stationary Creature speakers (iLounge rating: A), but for those who just want bass, the iH5 delivers it.
But from there, Altec and iHome’s offerings differ - Altec’s iM3/iM4 speakers have a hint of additional treble detail, and also slightly more distortion at normal volume levels, while audio from iHome’s iH5 system sounds a bit smoother, but has a hint less pop. However, when the volume levels go up, the difference becomes profound: distortion in the Altecs becomes intense and distracting, while the iH5 remains smooth. Whatever slight edge the Altecs might have initiallly had disappears entirely the first time you turn them up next to the iH5.
Are these fair comparison speakers? On price, yes, but in truth, there’s no perfect comparison product for the iH5. Technically, it fits in the “semi-portable” iPod speaker category with Bose’s SoundDock (lLounge rating: B+), JBL’s On Stage (iLounge rating: B+), and MacAlly’s IceTune (iLounge rating: B+), each of which similarly requires wall power to operate despite a convenient tabletop size. The SoundDock outshines iH5 on bass detail and power, but not by enough to justify the $200 price difference for most people; that aside, Bose’s biggest advantage is its included remote control, and you can add one to iH5 for only $20.
There’s only one other iPod radio speaker system out there right now - Tivoli Audio’s iPAL, a product that’s only modestly comparable to iH5. iPAL has a single, large speaker with resonant bass, but provides no means to achieve even modest stereo separation, which the iH5 accomplishes nicely given its physical limitations. iPAL also includes a rather spectacular radio tuner, and a telescoping external antenna. But it’s not a clock radio, doesn’t dock or charge any iPod, and has no support for an optional remote control. All of its limitations are apparently going to be addressed by Tivoli in iSongBook, a $329 stereo clock radio product planned for release later this year, but for now, iH5 remains one of a kind.
iHome’s iH5 came out of nowhere and surprised us: for a company with no iPod track record, it nailed virtually all of the key features people would expect from both a standard clock radio and a dockable iPod speaker system. For under $100, you get good sound quality for the dollar, AM/FM tuning, compatibility with all current model iPods, and the ability to work with a remote control. Everything we tested worked well, and we very much liked the unit’s physical design, too. These are all good features, and all contributed to our high recommendation.
There are a few caveats, though. You won’t get the bass and treble controls of a comparably priced speaker system such as JBL’s Creatures, and are limited to a comparatively narrow field of stereo separation. Additionally, we don’t mind that iHome left the $20 remote control out of the box as much as we do that it’s infrared-based rather than RF-based, a decision that limits the iH5’s accessibility from far distances. That’s a shame, because it does better at higher volumes than the remote-laden, $180 inMotion iM3, and is a capable alternative to Bose’s SoundDock, too. And finally, if you’re looking for a super-powered clock radio with lots of frills, such as multiple alarms or station memory, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
But if you’re planning looking for a better iPod-specific clock radio alternative today, you won’t find it. iH5 is the first of its breed, and quite close to the best implementation we could imagine for the price. There’s room for improvement, but not much - the mark of our highly recommended, A- rating.