Review: iHome iP1 Studio Series Speakers for iPod + iPhone
It's obvious, but worth mentioning at the very start of our review of iHome's just-released iP1 ($300): Apple fans are biased towards beautiful, elegant things, and willing to pay a premium for them -- a bias that some accessory manufacturers have capitalized on with greater success than others. Take Apple itself, for instance, which has released a number of neutral and good but not great peripherals at exorbitant prices, Bose, which has developed expensive but solid, neutral-looking speakers, and JBL, which has paired excellent components with a variety of radical and conservative designs. All three companies have sold audio systems at price points of $300 or more, and have had mixed results for different reasons.
iHome, by comparison, has never released a $300 iPod or iPhone sound system before, and we had frankly been very concerned that the company might be out of its depth. It has done extremely well with sub-$150 clock radios, but struggled with both the look and sound of its few more expensive products, which never seemed to catch on. iP1—also known as iHome Studio Series and formerly called iHome One—is very clearly a complete break with that past, sonically and aesthetically. In a laudable move, iHome went outside of its own engineering labs to procure audio assistance from Bongiovi Acoustics, a company with considerable experience in studio session recording and in-car speaker systems. It also threw away basically every visual convention from its past audio system designs and started fresh.
Consequently, iP1 is as aesthetically close to the ideal iPod and iPhone audio system as anyone has yet come, a design that mightn’t be the very first of its kind in the speaker world, but is the first made specifically for iPod and iPhone users. Like Altec Lansing’s Expressionist Classic and Lars & Ivan’s BoBo, iP1 uses a flat sheet of transparent plastic to suspend speaker drivers above the surface of a table or desk, here mounting a total of four drivers inside black cans, along with a matching black platform that houses both electronics and an iPod/iPhone dock that protrudes through the unit’s face. Though iP1 is similar to both of the other speakers in concept, it bests them in execution: iHome’s nearly 1/2”-thick plastic is beautifully rounded at the edges, matching the speakers mounted inside, and solves the problem of how to cleanly incorporate the iPod or iPhone into a system of this sort—something neither Lars & Ivan nor Altec Lansing really did. The resulting all-in-one unit is larger than the Bose SoundDock Series II and JBL On Stage 400P, but packs more audio and video hardware than both; it also comes with two types of detachable front speaker grilles so that you can either shield its larger cones with metal mesh, or leave them exposed.
If iP1 has any aesthetic flaws, they’re small and admittedly picky ones. The iPod and iPhone dock is adorned with four buttons—two more than the SoundDock, one more than On Stage—that provide an white glowing power control, intermittently white illuminated volume controls, and a blue “B” button that is designed to activate and deactivate the Bongiovi Acoustics audio processing feature. Quizzed about why anyone would ever want to deactivate the feature given that iP1’s audio sounds completely flat without it, iHome told us that it provided a clear sense of the benefits offered by Bongiovi’s tuning. We view it as a blemish and a “bad sound” button; the quality of Bongiovi’s work speaks for itself, and neither Bose nor JBL wastes space or electronics on a button that takes the wind out of their speakers’ sails. On a related note, iP1 comes with a slate-like black remote control that is almost identical to the ones it ships with its $150 clock systems—arguably worthy of an upgrade here—and finally, the system’s transparent plastic has been smoke-tinted rather than left completely clear, a color choice that some users might like; we’d have preferred no tint, a la the Lars & Ivans and similar Celestion free-standing speakers we’ve loved for years.
To iHome’s substantial credit, almost everything else in iP1 was obviously well thought-out. Though the power and volume buttons mightn’t be necessary on the face of the dock, and Bose has eliminated power buttons entirely from the bodies of its SoundDocks, iP1’s front-mounted position is smarter than JBL’s inconvenient rear power buttons. Additionally, iHome uses lights behind the volume buttons to indicate when the system is receiving bass and treble boost commands from the remote control—functionality and signaling that are completely missing from both the Bose and JBL systems. And the back of the system packs a few surprises. There’s a dial behind the iPod and iPhone dock to provide a little extra adjustable padding for the device’s back, a set of component video out ports, and a line-in port—you supply the cables. Neither Bose nor JBL nor virtually any of iHome’s other competitors in this space offers any form of video-out, let alone higher-quality component-out, a nice little bonus feature for this system. The only other port is for wall power, provided by a large but physically nice-looking external power supply. iHome has kept iP1 simple, but made it more than competitive with its peers.
That’s also true of its sonic capabilities. Though we’ll get into additional detail in the paragraphs that follow, an easy summary of iP1’s capabilities is this: it sounds good to great with virtually anything that’s played through it, and you don’t need to do any work to achieve this. The system features a 100-Watt, four-channel amplifier and digital signal processing system that’s been tuned by Bongiovi Acoustics to outperform similar DSP-based auto-equalizers found in Bose and JBL products. iP1 analyzes the music that’s about to play through the amplifier and speakers, and makes dynamic adjustments to maximize the quality of the sound, and minimize distortion from the speakers. It does this for different volume levels, so that the speaker output is as close to optimal when it’s quiet as it is when it’s loud. And importantly, iHome hasn’t used crappy speakers in iP1: it has paired two 1” tweeters with two 4” midrange and bass woofers that sound as clean as they look.
We were skeptical going into our first listening session with iP1: it’s easy to make a system sound “pretty good,” particularly in isolation from competitors, but far more difficult to build and tune a system so well that it rivals or outperforms top players placed in direct side-by-side comparison. With iP1, that’s what iHome and Bongiovi Acoustics have achieved, though the fact that it has done so in a chassis that’s deeper than these competitors may concern some users. With grilles on, iP1 measures roughly 7.5” in depth due to the chambers for its 4” drivers, which is around 2” deeper than a Bose SoundDock Series II, and .5” deeper than JBL’s On Stage 400P at the thickest part of its bulging frame. It’s also significantly wider than both systems, measuring roughly 16” across to Bose’s 12” and JBL’s 14”. Essentially, iP1’s approach seems to have been “pick the right components, give them a nice enclosure, and worry less about the size than the sound.”
As noted above, the results speak for themselves. Our first sets of tests with iP1 were in isolation, without the benefit of competing products for reference. We played tracks on iPhones and iPods at low and medium levels, switching from rock to rap to techno to acoustic folk-like tracks, trying to see what iP1’s weakness was—what would it distort, where would it sound a little off?—and it didn’t really have one; everything sounded really very good. If anything, the bass appeared to be a little more reined in than we’d expected, and the true treble was similarly a bit restrained, such that songs always sounded smooth and lifelike rather than overly punchy in either extreme, or in the mids. Quiet or louder, bass didn’t thud, and highs didn’t sizzle or crack. The system is also well-shielded against iPhone audio interference and didn’t produce distortion when we flipped EDGE mode on, an improvement on most of the iPhone-ready speakers we’ve tested, including earlier ones from iHome.
Then we whipped out the aforementioned big boys: Bose’s SoundDock Series II, a continuation of what is most likely the top-selling $300 iPod audio system, and JBL’s On Stage 400P, which sells for $50 less yet offers somewhat superior clarity, treble, and bass performance, albeit at a lower peak volume. We weren’t totally surprised that iP1 bested SoundDock’s performance, but it was interesting to see how it did so: at low volume levels, iP1 made far better better use of its speakers to create treble and midrange detail, enabling songs to sound clearer even when they were near a whisper in amplitude. At moderate levels and at their equivalently dangerously loud peak volume levels, iP1 sounded better, too—actually, much, much cleaner when they were both cranked up high. The SoundDock wasn’t built to produce low-distortion sound at high volumes; iP1’s drivers and amplifier handle power with considerably more grace.
Compared against On Stage, iP1 surprised us a little by doing something that we typically don’t hear in JBL systems: it made On Stage seem just a little too sharp in the treble department. Though On Stage did a slightly better job at separating instruments from vocals in some of our test songs—“pop” that we can appreciate—there was a certain over-crispness to that separation that we found too clinical next to the iP1’s default presentation. We were able to bring iP1’s treble level up a bit to nearly match the effect, but actually preferred the treble pretty close to where iHome and Bongiovi had set it; moreover, iP1’s bass was a little deeper than JBL’s even without tuning, and could be made even heavier with the bass controls on the remote. True, iP1 is more expensive than On Stage 400P, but unlike the disappointingly odd JBL design, iHome has come up with a showpiece audio system.
There is, however, one notable and unexpected hiccup in the system’s electronic performance—the primary reason this system rated less than a flat A: its video-out. After all of our audio tests had been completed, and we were suitably impressed by iP1’s sound, we connected it to our test HDTV and checked out the component video output; unfortunately, it wasn’t totally clear. With both a test iPod nano and an iPhone 3GS, video exhibited a little fuzziness and miscalibration, such that reds weren’t perfectly aligned with other colors; Apple’s and similar cables provided a comparatively better picture. If you’re planning to use iP1 with a TV, expect less than great video performance.
That aside, what iHome has achieved with iP1 is something extremely special: despite our initial skepticism and concern, and because of its willingness to embrace major changes for both its prior audio engineering and industrial designs, the company has managed to turn out a truly superb all-in-one speaker system—one that more than stands its ground against rival products from major players in the consumer audio space, aesthetically and sonically. Whether it’s used as a low-volume bedroom or office speaker, or a high-volume party speaker, it does a legitimately great job with virtually any music you can throw at it; its only real weakness is in its video output, with comparatively minor aesthetic concerns. But not for the video-out, it would have rated a flat A; we otherwise consider it to be the best overall iPod and iPhone audio system currently available at its price point.