Review: iHome iH51 Mini System with Alarm Clock Radio
Last year, iPod speaker innovation appeared to have all but come to an end. The few companies who weren't aping Bose's SoundDock had settled into a predictable rut, releasing either iterative improvements to their own prior models, or trying minor spins on those released by others. Then, for whatever reason, the middle of 2008 caught us by surprise: three companies recently delivered four audio systems that took different, interesting spins on earlier genres in an effort to appeal to new audiences. We're looking at all four of them in separate reviews today.
Two of the speakers are from iHome, which is best known for its alarm clock radios but has continued to expand into virtually every conceivable type of iPod audio system. Today’s designs are best understood as hybrid iPod and multimedia speakers—the sorts we would have expected to see from a company such as JBL, but so far have not. First is the iH70, a pair of silver and black computer speakers with an integrated iPod dock; next is the iH51 ($150), a pair of satellite speakers bundled with a standalone subwoofer and a separate iPod dock-slash-alarm clock radio charging base. Though they sell for the same price, these two systems are very different from one another in appeal; on balance, we think the iH51 delivers a markedly superior experience for the dollar.
iH51 answers a question that we’ve been mulling for the past year or so: “what would Griffin’s beautiful Evolve audio system be like at half the price?” Certainly Evolve’s wireless, battery-powered speakers would disappear, as would its RF remote control, and there would probably be a lot less metal, as well. But would the remaining product stink? Or would a bunch of parts connected by wires still deliver a good audio experience?
Despite their obvious aesthetic similarities, it might help to understand iH51 not as Evolve Junior, but rather as a streamlined version of the iH52 iHome released almost two years ago. Back then, iHome bundled similar parts—twin speakers, a subwoofer, an iPod clock base and remote control—into a $200 package that we liked. iH51 scales each of these parts back a little, dropping its twin-driver satellites into smaller 2.25” single-driver versions, a 7.5” subwoofer into a roughly 4” one, and the iPod dock from 18 buttons to a more useful 15.
There are also more conspicuous improvements. The front-mounted clock, previously somewhat of a challenge to read, has been upgraded into a superior white text-on-black version with a better eight-stage dimmer, and iHome has included the same dual alarms with all week, weekday, and weekend (7-5-2) settings found in its best all-in-one clocks. iHome has also added iPod menu navigation to the included remote control, as well as bolstering the system’s equalization settings from simple presets to two-band user-adjustability. And despite some of the performance downgrades, each of the components looks a lot nicer than before—like, well, Evolve instead of a bunch of forgettable white and silver computer parts. Though derivative of Griffin’s design, and not as impressive overall, this is still a handsome little component audio system.
Unfortunately, iH51 is loaded with lots of wires. Unlike Evolve, which either eliminated cables or seriously minimized them, iH51 runs them everywhere; there are two radio antennas sticking out of the iPod docking base, two audio cables for the satellites, a big one for the subwoofer, and a power cord running from the subwoofer to the wall. iHome has made each of the cables easier to connect and nicer to look at than the iH52’s, but you’ll have to decide whether you’re looking for something housed inside one shell, or one that instead gives you parts to spread out. it has also dropped features—iPod-to-computer synchronization and iPod video output—that were previously included in iH52. As a result, what you get is a mini system that looks better suited than the iH70 to connection and synchronization with a PC or Mac, but there aren’t any ports for iPod synchronization. An auxiliary audio cable lets you hook up your computer to iH51 for that purpose alone.
There are, however, clear benefits to picking iH51 over, say, JVC’s same-priced all-in-one NX-PX7. iHome gives you the ability to create a wider sound field by moving the satellites to whatever your desired position may be. The dedicated subwoofer offers deeper bass than the NX-PX7 and in fact most of the $150 iPod audio system’s we’ve tested, plus the ability to adjust the bass level manually through a knob on the subwoofer’s back. While you can combine this knob with the iH51’s digital equalizer controls to drive the system into bloated distortion—something that’s unfortunately easy, and could really have used some more adjustment on iHome’s end—you can also use both judiciously to get the iPod’s output to a more pleasantly warmer level than in most all-in-ones. As with the iH70, iH51 could use a little assistance in the treble and clarity departments, and if you blow out the bass you’ll obscure the midrange, but the sound that it generates when properly adjusted is good considering its features and price point.
Radio performance was also very good. Though iHome’s AM tuner is still susceptible to the same buzzing interference that we hear in many AM tuners, it sounded better than the NX-PX7, and the FM tuner was bolder and cleaner. It’s worth noting that this system is not shielded against iPhone audio interference, however, and even iHome’s iPhone radios have suffered a bit from TDMA interruptions when an iPhone is connected without activating Airplane Mode. Those with iPhones should, for obvious reason, look elsewhere.
In our view, the iH51 is a very nice component audio system when you consider all that’s inside for the $150 price; it offers better overall sound and features than the company’s $100 dual alarm clock radios at a reasonable premium. That said, it’s not for everyone, particularly people who hate the clutter that multiple component systems almost all involve. If you plan to use it in a place where you can hide away the cords, set the subwoofer once, and leave everything alone, you’ll find that iH51 delivers a solid listening experience for your iPod, plus good clock, radio and alarm features. However, those needing true iPhone compatibility, all-in-one convenience, or computer synchronization will need to consider other options.