Review: iHome iH80 OutLoud Portable Speaker System for iPod
Several years ago, Bose managed to accomplish what then seemed like an impossible task: it released the then-pricey $299 SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+), then subsequently managed to convince millions of people to buy them. The secrets: austere, inoffensive design, competent sound, and strong marketing. Since then, many companies have been trying to create SoundDock killers, first at similar price points, and later at much lower ones.
Today, we review one speaker that’s decidedly in the SoundDock-alike camp—Klipsch’s iGroove SXT ($170)—and one that’s not, iHome’s iH80 OutLoud ($100). As different as they may be from one another, these speakers both draw obvious inspiration from the simplicity of the SoundDock, relying on limited on-unit controls, slightly more complex Infrared remotes, and easy-to-carry all-in-one designs to appeal to different users. iGroove SXT is, in essence, Klipsch’s best attempt yet to offer a lower-priced, different-looking, and similar-sounding alternative to SoundDock, and iH80 is iHome’s best-looking semi-portable speaker to date, with a cool rounded cube design similar to Griffin’s wireless Evolve system.
As with iHome’s noteworthy release of the iPod’s first alarm clock radio, iH5, two years ago, the iH80 is somewhat of a genre-defying speaker design: it’s not a stereo all-in-one speaker, it’s not small enough to toss into a backpack, and yet it’s an ultra-simple portable speaker that runs off of eight C-cell batteries and can be carried indoors or outdoors with ease. Measuring roughly 6.5” by 6.5” by 7.5”, iH80 is at least an inch larger in each dimension than the 5.5” cubed Evolve speakers, but each has a metal front grille, a single full-range speaker driver inside, a prominent power button on top, and a carrying handle hole in the back. iH80’s power button is huge, set alongside volume buttons in front of a Universal iPod dock that’s centered at the speaker’s front. You can choose from black (iH80B) or white (iH80W) versions; each comes with three matching iPod dock adapters, a power supply, and an auxiliary audio cable.
Several rear features are unique to the iH80 design. In order, there’s a power port, a microphone-in port with a mic level dial, input line-in and A/V out ports, an external speaker out port with on-off switch, and a remote on-off switch. Though iHome hasn’t said much about the microphone port, noting basically that it’s “for karaoke jams” and “sing along fun,” the unit’s external speaker port is interesting in that one iH80 can be chained to a second unit iHome will sell you for $40 (iSP80B), transforming the monaural base unit into a stereo system. We haven’t been able to test this feature and can’t tell you how well it works, but like Evolve, we think the rounded cube design would look great in pairs spread out in a room.
Why not just include two speakers in the iH80 package to begin with? Our best guess is that the answer has as much to do with pricing as the quality of iHome’s audio components. Though the company touts iH80 as possessing a 20-watt T-class amplifier and a large full-range driver with rich, powerful bass, the unit’s sound can best be described in one word: flat. As with many single-driver speaker designs, iH80 has almost no treble on its default sound setting, and presents sound with more of a grimy muddle than we’d expected.
A potential saving grace—an included Infrared remote control that’s pretty deluxe by iHome standards, with bass and treble controls, iPod menu navigation buttons, shuffle and repeat features, and the standard volume, track, and power buttons—doesn’t do much to help the sound. Tweaks do bring the bass and treble levels up or down if you prefer, but they also emphasize distortion present in the default audio, adding a little bit of fuzz to the edges of certain sounds. On a positive note, iH80’s sound remains pretty consistent as you turn the volume up to the system’s loudest—and loud—levels, exhibiting additional distortion only at its peak. Owing to the size and type of driver iHome selected, iH80 was clearly designed as a high-volume performer, with weaker than normal overall sound quality at typical listening levels.
Our big picture impression of iH80 is mixed: it’s a distinctive-looking, somewhat novel speaker given its $100 price point, offering users the option of toting around a large but otherwise conveniently portable monaural loudspeaker that can be expanded with additional mic and speaker add-ons if you desire. Because of its single-speaker sound quality, and despite its nice styling, we wouldn’t be inclined to spend the extra cash to transform it into a double-speaker array, but iH80 will appeal to less sound quality-conscious users who are looking for a relatively cheap, loud speaker option with good remote control features. If you take its OutLoud name literally, rather than expecting it to be something it’s not, you’ll understand why we found it a good enough value for the dollar to just qualify for our standard-level recommendation.