Review: iHome iH9 Dual Alarm Clock Radio
iHome is, in one word, back. After what seemed to be endless repackagings of and minor tweaks to its two-year-old, category-defining iH5 clock radio, the company has just released the iH9 Dual Alarm Clock Radio ($100), a true successor to the iH5 with user-requested performance and usability tweaks. The result is an affordable, feature-laden bedside clock that looks, sounds, and feels better than before -- not enough to displace XtremeMac's more expensive and more deluxe Luna, but certainly redefining expectations at the $100 price point.
As with past iH-series units, iH9 comes bundled with a collection of items: two pre-installed AA batteries to keep the clock backed up, a newly massive wall power adapter, three dock adapters, an auxiliary audio cable, AM and FM antennas, and an Infrared remote control. The 18-button remote now has more buttons than the top of iH9, including full iPod track, repeat, shuffle, and navigation controls, access to all of iH9’s features save for alarm setting, and a snooze button. Though the snooze button is smaller and more non-descript than on prior iHome remotes, it’s augmented by a new feature: a fully programmable snooze feature with 1-60 minute intervals. These are only a couple of the many little, positive changes iHome has included in the iH9 package.
iH9’s new cabinet is perhaps the most similar component to prior iH-series releases. Dimensionally identical to the iH5 in all but its twin metal speaker grilles, which now jut out a quarter inch more, iH9 is still built to sit on a nightstand and deliver solid quality stereo sound in a horizontal enclosure, rather than mounting one or more speakers vertically. There are still volume and setting dials on the top, as well as a collection of buttons, but iHome has streamlined them significantly from prior versions: the dials and buttons are made from a matte plastic that contrasts with iH9’s glossy body, and they’re all illuminated in a light blue color rather than the orange-red of prior versions. They’re now fewer in number than on iH9’s recent predecessors, too: 11 buttons, mostly circular for easier use, are on top alongside the Universal iPod Dock. That’s down from 13 on prior models, and the iconography and placement have both been improved. Rear switches and buttons for time adjustment, and antenna/line-in ports, are all the same as before. Black and white versions of the cabinet are available.
The single biggest change for most users is iH9’s face. For the first time, iHome has replaced the arguably objectionable black on light blue displays found in prior models with a high-contrast white on black display, which we’ve been testing with highly positive results for the past three weeks. The new screen’s numbers are bigger than before, its calendar date is now word- and numeral-based rather than just numeric, and most importantly, the combination of a black background and a multi-level dimmer bring the brightness level down to nil in a dark bedroom, while still permitting you to see the time. Any prior critic of the prior iHome screens will be satisfied with the new one, though it’s again not as versatile as the programmable screens in higher-priced clocks such as Luna or JBL’s On Time.
Audio quality has also taken a step up in the iH9. iHome has preserved the equalizer settings found in past models such as iH7, enabling independent bass, treble, and balance adjustments, along with a new mode called 3D that introduces faux spatialization into the family for the first time. This mode bumps the treble a bit and does in fact add additional apparent stereo separation into songs, widening the unit’s sound stage, but as with all such features in speakers, your results will vary based on the song. We liked what we heard during our testing, but the treble bump may be too sharp for some listeners.
Even if the 3D mode isn’t engaged, iH9’s audio is a little better than the best we heard in iHome’s prior clock radios. Small treble and clarity enhancements provide more balanced sound than the iH7; depending on the song, these improvements are instantly or subtly evident, and though we wouldn’t call the two-driver system a masterpiece of sound, it does a lot better than most standalone sub-$100 iPod speakers, especially those without the clock and radio features iHome brings to the table. As is typical of such systems, distortion, particularly in the bass, is still an issue at peak volume levels with certain songs.
On that front, iHome’s AM and FM radio tuners haven’t changed much if at all from the most recent prior versions: iH9 still tunes both types of stations with a low static level that will increase more based on antenna placement and location in your home than anything else, and sound a little better because of improvements to iH9’s speakers. You now get 6 presets per AM/FM dial, programmed through double-featured buttons (1-2, 3-4, 5-6) rather than using more real estate on iH9’s top for separate buttons.
Alarm functionality has seen more dramatic improvements. Taking a lead from higher-end competitors, iHome has introduced new “everyday, weekdays, or weekends” alarm settings, enabling you to have either or both of the two alarms recur automatically on your preferred schedule. If you want a weekday wake-up time and a separate weekend one, set them; otherwise, you can have two weekday, weekend, or everyday alarms, or one if you need it. The only wrinkle here is that iHome’s clock screen represents these options as “7 days, 5 days, or 2 days,” so you’ll have to know what they mean.
It’s also obvious that iHome has been working to make subtle “quality of experience” improvements under iH9’s hood. The unit now gradually but appropriately increases the volume level when the unit’s turned on, rather than abruptly starting at your prior volume setting. Button presses feel more responsive. Each alarm has the option to wake from the alarm, a progressively more annoying and loud buzzer, the iPod, or a custom playlist, rather than forcing you to pick iPod or radio. There is a lot more to like about iH9 than the older, more expensive iH7, except for the omission of the third speaker, and the dropping of the RF remote control in favor of Infrared.
Is there anything not to like about the iH9? Our only concern is one that’s a carryover from prior models: presently invisible defects that might manifest down the line. As much as we like or love particular iHome models when they’re fresh out of the box, we and our readers have seen a variety of issues develop with them—the top surface of our iH7’s volume control knob, for instance, stopped turning, so the only way we could compare it against iH9 was use a remote control, or remove the knob and use the dialing surface underneath. Little things like this detract from our overall rating, and if they continue to be issues going forward, we may adjust what is presently a high recommendation downward to reflect our experiences. That said, the iH9 is the best iHome product we’ve tested since the company entered the iPod accessory market, and we’re looking forward to seeing continued improvements like the ones made here.