Review: iHome iP3 Studio Series Audio System
It's only natural that hit products spawn similar sequels, so when iHome released last year's beautiful and subsequently popular iP1, we knew intuitively that something else -- possibly more expensive, more likely less expensive -- would follow. So after releasing the impressive-looking iP49 as a portable model with supposedly similar but disappointing acoustics, iHome has finally started selling the iP1's true followup: iP3 ($200). In short, iP3 has two-thirds of iP1's style and half of its sonic performance at two-thirds the price, a combination that puts it into the "good but not great" category, but its looks alone make it stand out from the vast majority of cheap, glossy-looking speakers out there today.
Like iP1, iP3 uses a combination of smoke-tinted clear plastic, matte black plastic, and fabric to make a very positive visual impression, with its 14.5” wide x 5.75 tall x 6” deep frame dropping an inch or more in every dimension from the large and heavy first model—as well as the strong masculine overtones of the initial design. iP3 is smaller, softer-curved, and less powerful inside, losing the four separately enclosed speakers in the first model in favor of two high-quality speakers that are hidden behind iP3’s front grille. An iPod and iPhone dock is still found at dead center, with four buttons off to its sides; iHome has upgraded them to classier swirled metal, with power and Bongiovi buttons on the left, and volume buttons on the right, all illuminated when the power’s on. iP3 includes an almost identical remote control with the same buttons, just rearranged a little, and a wall power adapter that’s smaller than the first version’s and just as easy to plug in anywhere.
One of the most daunting challenges speaker designers face is to find a look and feel that appeals to both men and women, and iP3 is less polarizing than its predecessor—whether it will win more women over is still sort of a question mark in our minds. The thin fabric front makes it look comparatively less deluxe and expensive than the iP1, both of which it is, while bringing it more into the inoffensive category Bose has dominated for years. As fans of bold design who can appreciate the value of more mainstream options, we liked it, but not to the extent of the attention-grabbing iP1. Our biggest issue with iP3 from a design standpoint was its flat-bottomed dock, which just barely accommodates iPods and iPhones inside certain protective cases, and will annoy some users for that reason; really simple changes could have avoided this problem.
There are two ways to fairly assess iP3’s sonic performance, and neither involve direct comparisons to the larger and considerably more expensive iP1. Given the $100 price difference and major changes to the new version’s size and speakers, it’s no surprise that iP3 isn’t iP1’s audio rival—its frequency range is obviously more limited, with highs that aren’t as high and lows that don’t go as low. iP1 wasn’t a bass machine, and iP3 isn’t, either: it puts out sound that we found to be nicely balanced and easy to enjoy straight out of the box, but not particularly strong in any way. Bongiovi Acoustics’ tuning is designed to make the most out of whatever speakers it’s been given, and to the company’s credit, it has done as much with two speakers as could have been hoped for.
The issue is that even great two-speaker audio systems are at a natural disadvantage relative to good four, six, or eight-driver ones when it comes to reproducing sound. One big speaker can’t simultaneously perform highs, mids, and lows in the way that a few separately dedicated drivers can, so if you put iP3 next to a really aggressively priced, well-tuned $150 speaker such as Logitech’s S715i, what you’ll hear is a system that uses eight different speakers to create rich bass, sharper highs, and clearer midrange, and another that is pushing only two to come as close as possible to doing the same thing. Because iP3 has a larger, deeper enclosure, and because iHome has optimized the system for small room-filling volumes, it does a little better in the distortion department when turned up to its peak amplitude, but at normal listening levels, S715i provides a noticeably superior range.
On the other hand, S715i is a really extreme example of impressive sound engineering—an outlier by portable standards, let alone desktop ones—so when iP3 is compared against peer-priced alternatives such as Yamaha’s similarly-sized and -priced PDX-30, it achieves a draw or possibly a win, depending on your aesthetic, feature, and sonic preferences. Despite having four drivers inside, PDX-30 has a somewhat overly bassy signature, and Bongiovi’s tuning of iP3 provides a more balanced, easier listening experience to enjoy. iHome also includes component video out ports on iP3’s back, a cleanly executed, TV-ready feature that most iPhone and iPod speakers don’t have, and an audio line-in, which most do include but both the Yamaha and Logitech designs completely leave out.
There’s one other thing about the iP3 that we liked, and that’s the unit’s continued inclusion of remote control-based treble and bass controls. While the system provides too little feedback on your current settings, it does enable you to push both the highs and the lows up from the default Bongiovi tuning to levels that some users may prefer; we felt that iP3 sounded as good as it could as-was and didn’t benefit considerably from adjustment, though differences were noticeable, and may improve its value for some people. Systems that include such user adjustments in a meaningful way score an extra point or two from us, as they increase the chances that a user can achieve a personally satisfying sound balance.
Overall, while iP3 isn’t a home run of iP1’s caliber, it is the second system from iHome to make considerably better use of audio drivers than we had previously expected from the company, and further proof that it’s capable of competing effectively in the crowded iPod and iPhone speaker market at price points above its prior $50-$150 safe zones. You can decide for yourself whether the new design appeals to your visual sensibilities, and whether it’s worthy of $200 in light of the disruptive influence of speakers such as Logitech’s S715i; our feeling is that it’s close enough to the mark to be worthy of your consideration, and will be a bigger success the moment it goes on sale. In any case, we hope that iHome and Bongiovi Acoustics will team up again for a higher-end system that lets the companies show off what their designers and audio engineers are capable of with fewer pricing constraints, as they clearly do their best work when aiming upwards.