Review: iHome iH7 Dual Alarm Clock for Your iPod
Pros: A second-generation evolution of the iPod’s most popular clock radio, still including a charging iPod dock, two base speakers, and AM/FM clock radio. Available in white and black versions. Now includes dual alarms, a detached third “bedside” speaker, an RF remote control capable of working from a room away, and a more user-adjustable LCD screen. Works with all Dock Connector-equipped iPods and the iPod shuffle, includes aux-in and line-out ports, and is easy to use.
Cons: Third speaker only substitutes for right integrated speaker, rather than augmenting it with additional sound power. Still bright LCD screen lacks automatic dimming feature, though its lowest setting will be inoffensive to most users. Dual alarms provide limited individual access to different sounds (radio/iPod/buzzer).
If you have a clock radio with an iPod dock, chances are that it’s iHome’s iH5 Docking Stereo Clock Radio (iLounge rating: A-); thanks to a very attractive $100 price tag and an easy-to-use interface, iHome has sold over 3 million of them, an incredible number by iPod speaker standards. This month, iHome released the first true sequel to iH5, the iH7 Dual Alarm Clock ($150), an enhanced version of last year’s model with a few obvious changes and a host of improvements under the hood. In short, iH7 offers essentially everything readers have been asking for in an iPod clock radio - and more - resulting in another iLounge high recommendation*.
Since iH5 was released, we’ve tried a number of other iPod clock radios, and none has fully matched up to the original iHome design for its intended purpose. Our favorite competitor of the bunch was JBL’s beautiful “Time Machine” On Time (iLounge rating: B+), which sold for a much higher price, included more sophisticated clock and radio technology, and sounded really good. The only problem was a significant one: it wasn’t a great clock radio for the bedroom; its screen was small and on a bad angle, while the rest of the unit was large and somewhat hard to place on an otherwise crowded nightstand. We replaced On Time with the iH7 this week, and haven’t regretted the decision.
Using the right-sized iH5 (9.2” x 2.7” x 5.5”) as a base, iH7 makes some noticeable updates to the prior unit’s design. Available in white and black versions - silver is apparently shown inaccurately as a pre-order on some web sites - each iH7 houses a LCD screen and two ported speaker drivers on its front, an iPod dock, two dials (volume/radio tuning), and four lines of buttons on its top, and a back-up battery compartment on its bottom. The iPod dock has been updated to comply with Apple’s Universal Dock standard, allowing you to use the inserts that come with any Dock Connecting iPod, and a first-generation iPod shuffle dock has been placed to the main dock’s right side. Additionally, four new buttons have been added to the prior set of nine on iH5’s top, with some feature tweaks to the old buttons. With its factory-set clock and these fairly simple controls, iH7 remains every bit as easy to use as the iH5.
iHome’s package includes three dock adapters - the standard two full-sized iPod inserts and an increasingly unnecessary iPod mini insert, each color-matched to the unit’s base - plus a power supply, audio input cable for 1G/2G full-sized iPods, 2G iPod shuffles, and other Dock Connector-less devices, a large AM antenna with pedestal, and an 11-button remote control. Unlike the iH5, which only was bundled with its $20 remote as a promotional item when you bought it from certain stores, the iH7 always comes with one - a nice guaranteed addition to the box.
Lest we forget to mention it, iHome now actually includes a third speaker in the box, which you can link via a 10-foot cable to a “bedside speaker” port on the main unit’s back. On a positive note, this third speaker enables you to run the wire behind your bed and allow a second person to hear iH7’s alarms or music. If the second person doesn’t want to hear the music, you can detach the speaker or press an on/off button on its top. It’s a smart compromise design.
Somewhat less impressive is the way the speaker works. Pictures might suggest that iH7 provides an enhanced 2- or 2.1-channel listening experience, with one of the drivers doing part-time duty as a subwoofer or perhaps just parroting the output from one of the base’s two speakers - possibly the left one, as iHome’s photos show it to the unit’s left. Unfortunately, it does neither of these things. Plugging the third speaker in and turning it on cuts audio from the base’s right speaker, switching its right-channel output to the detached one. This means that the iH7 basically gives you a choice: limited stereo separation via audio from the base, or wider separation via the additional speaker - assuming you want the clock on the left side of your bed, and the satellite speaker on your right. The third speaker doesn’t boost the prior iH5’s volume level, or improve on its resonance, and you can’t plug it into the unit’s Line-Out port for any added benefit. We had expected more from iH7 given the pictures.
But in our view, that is one of the unit’s only two significant disappointments. Despite the iH5’s generally strong performance, it has had its critics - some louder than others. Many people have wanted its front LCD screen to be dimmer, while others wished for dual alarms, and still others have voiced concerns over its long-term reliability. We can’t say that we’ve been as put off - our iH5’s brightness level didn’t bother us, and continues to work without any problems - but iH7 attempts to improve on its predecessor’s perceived shortcomings.
First, iHome has made a substantial adjustment to the unit’s LCD screen brightness control, now allowing the dimmer button to circle through 8 levels of graduated luminosity, including “off” at one end and a virtual spotlight at the other. Despite this change, the screen will unfortunately continue to be the subject of some debate - as contrasted with clocks that use black backgrounds with illuminated numbers, bothering few users, iH7’s background is illuminated blue with near-black numbers, which can create enough light to bother some light-sensitive sleepers. Given its experience with iH5 brightness complaints, iHome had three options with iH7 - replace the screen, provide an automatic, ambient light-sensitive dimmer option like the one on JBL’s On Time, or provide a way to let users calibrate the light to as dark as they desired.
It tried the third route, with only some success. Every setting save “off” renders the screen viewable in a dark room, and in our testing, the second to lowest setting was still “too bright” for one of our users, though it was not enough to keep her from falling asleep or actually sleeping. It’s our impression that users who found iH5’s similar screen to be too bright will only grudgingly concede that the iH7’s lowest setting is tolerable; changing the screen or adding the ambient light sensor would probably have been better alternatives to increase iH7’s appeal. That aside, iH7’s revised screen is better than its predecessor’s - iHome now uses the screen’s real estate more wisely than before, keeping the month and day listed on the screen rather than the large word “OFF” that previously appeared.
Another major feature change is that you can now set two separate alarms, each with its own time and button on iH7’s top panel. There’s good and bad news about these alarms: apparently for sake of simplification, alarm one has only two settings - it always says “iPod,” but if an iPod’s not plugged in, a buzzer goes off at a very gentle level, doubling the number of its tones after an initial array. If an iPod’s docked, it plays the iPod’s music (from wherever the iPod was turned off) at a low but increasing level. Alarm 2 is radio-based, with your preferred station playing back in the same general way. These milder wake-up volumes will soothe those who found iH5’s volume to be too harsh, but the lack of ability to pick buzzer, iPod, or radio sound for each alarm will force users to do a little juggling to get their preferred type of alarm in the morning. The dimmer button doubles as a snooze bar while the alarm’s working; you can reset each alarm or turn it off entirely with separate buttons.
Clock radio functionality aside, iH7 lets you access AM and FM radio stations in U.S.-standard tuning increments. This time, iH7 includes dual FM bands with 8 total presets, and one AM band with 4 presets - you hold the button to save stations in memory, and press the button to tune the radio to a preset. As before, the radio performs well by clock radio standards, but doesn’t achieve miracle tuning a la Tivoli Audio’s iPAL; we picked up FM stations pretty clearly and without problems, but found the AM reception spotty from station to station, sometimes great, other times less so, a fairly common problem with clock radios we’ve tested.
iHome has also added another, more impressive button to iH7’s top: EQ (equalization). This feature was our favorite addition to the updated design, given that the original iH5 skewed midbass and bass-heavy. iH7’s bass and treble settings can be independently tweaked, as can the left/right speaker balance, creating audio that comes much closer to our ideal. The EQs aren’t just for show, either; adding bass actually improves the unit’s resonance, while adding treble improves its apparent level of detail by a bit. In the grand scheme of things, iH7 is not an audiophile-quality speaker, especially for its newly higher price, but these settings make it highly likely that you will become comfortable with how it sounds regardless of your audio preferences.
The last major addition to the iH5’s package is the aforementioned 11-button remote control, which like the one in iHome’s more expensive iH52 Home System uses radio waves rather than Infrared light to communicate with your iPod - generally a way to extend the remote’s broadcasting distance to 50 or 100 feet from the base, and enable you to control your music without pointing directly at the front of the speaker. iHome’s packaging promises only that the remote will work “up to 30 feet away (good aim not required),” and “even from another room.” In our testing, it generally worked from 30-foot distances and from one room away, including partially down a staircase from the room where iH7 was sitting, but we noticed that the remote was inconsistent at almost any distance - the buttons generally worked, but sometimes didn’t, requiring a second press. That said, iH7’s remote is better than the $20 original one that sometimes came with iH5 - a small but still good step up from last year’s model.
As a final note, and the one that resulted in our asterisk (*) above, we’ve been testing the iH7 for more than a week, and have experienced no problems with the unit’s performance during that time. Similarly, our old iH5 continues to work without issues. However, we have continued to monitor reader comments and e-mails regarding the long-term reliability of their iH5 units, and reserve the right to modify or retract our recommendation if serious problems are reported and not resolved in the iH7.
Overall, we have strong positive feelings about the iH7 Dual Alarm Clock - it offers a number of welcome improvements over its lower-priced predecessor, including bass and treble equalization, added stereo separation and balance controls, dual alarms, an improved LCD screen, and a RF remote control. These features make it a solid incremental update to the iH5, rather than a radical rethinking of an already popular feature set. If the prices were the same or close, there’s no doubt in our minds that we’d pick the iH7 over the iH5, but at a price of $150 - neither an aggressive or an offensively high price - the two options are roughly on par. In our view, the iH7’s added internal features, extra speaker and remote control are reasonable justifications for the added cost, and to the extent that it will be available for $130 or less from many online retailers, the premium may be even easier to swallow.
That said, several of the new features have been implemented in ways that won’t fully satisfy every conceivable user. Light-sensitive sleepers may want to look elsewhere, and those seeking the combined power of three separate speakers will do better looking at options without integrated clock radio functionality - there are some at lower prices with even better sound. But as iPod clock radios go, there’s no doubt that iH7 is amongst the very best yet released, several steps over what came before, and still highly recommendable overall.