Review: iHome iP46 Portable Rechargeable Speaker for iPhone + iPod
Multi-layered speakers, new materials, and better audio processing chips will no doubt improve the sound of future portable audio systems, but for now, there are certain known -- or at least widely accepted -- physical limitations on how good speakers can sound with certain size and price compromises. Altec Lansing set the original price-to-performance floor with its early iPod inMotion speakers, Logitech subsequently shattered it, and now iHome is taking on Logitech with iP46 ($100), which clones the look and concept of Logitech's best-performing portable speakers while dropping the price to bargain basement levels. The result is an iPod- and iPhone-compatible speaker that establishes a new performance peak for $100, though not surprisingly cutting corners in both design and features in the process.
iP46 is iHome’s version of a nearly five-year-old series of extremely well-regarded Logitech portable speakers known alternately as mm50 and Pure-Fi Anywhere. At a time when Altec’s inMotions were using tiny speakers powered by AA batteries, Logitech took the iPod market by storm with a combination of four bigger speaker drivers, a universal iPod dock, and a rechargeable battery pack in a wider but still portable enclosure. The most recent version Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 was an iPhone-ready update of its predecessor, priced more aggressively—$130 rather than $150—and bundled with a soft carrying case and remote control. Though the remote had some issues, the system sounded great, and the audio performance for the dollar was impossible to beat.
iHome has taken so many cues from Logitech’s original mm50 design that there’s no doubt as to what iP46’s inspiration was. It mimics the curves, the combination of a metal speaker grille with a 13” wide, 3.4” tall, nearly 2” deep plastic chassis, and the use of slide-out metal feet to hold everything up; these speakers could have come from the same production line if it wasn’t for the fact that Logitech abandoned some of the aesthetic design touches several years ago. Just like mm50, the iP46 has four buttons on top—two for volume, one for power, and one for a 3-D spatializer, here SRS—and a battery level meter is borrowed from the newer Pure-Fi Anywheres, augmented with four bars rather than three. iHome’s only real innovation is the replacement of Logitech’s sunken mm50 dock with a pop-out one that accommodates most encased or bare iPods or iPhones; even then, iP46 consequently loses the ability to store its included power supply internally for travel, an innovation Logitech introduced with the Pure-Fi models.
There are a few other losses, too. Most notably, iHome doesn’t even try to include a remote control or a carrying case in the iP46 package—Pure-Fi Anywhere 2’s remote had battery issues, and its soft case wasn’t spectacular, but they were at least passible. Less obvious is the fact that iP46 has only a one-year warranty versus Pure-Fi Anywhere 2’s two-year warranty, which matters only in that the rechargeable battery inside iP46 is similarly not user-replaceable; iHome says only that it’s designed to last for as long as the iP46 itself, and though you can expect it to play for eight hours continuously, the company makes no promises as to its run time. On the other hand, iP46’s price is $50 lower—sort of. Logitech’s current MSRP for Pure-Fi Anywhere is $150, but it can be found at some online stores for only $100, and iP46 can be purchased for a little less than that if you hunt around.
Though iP46 and Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 are sonically comparable—and both take big steps beyond the vast majority of iPod and iPhone audio systems in the $100 price range—we’d give the edge to Logitech’s earlier design, which has stood up surprisingly well to competitors over four and a half years. Both systems pair two total small active treble and midrange drivers with two larger but passive bass drivers, the latter components enabling each unit to perform fuller sound than systems with narrower, shallower bodies. In our tests, iP46 sounded better overall than iHome’s more expensive “Studio Series” iP49, as our routine list of sample songs exhibited less distortion and noticeably richer bass—a difference that’s not surprising given iP46’s bigger drivers and deeper chassis. Few systems at the $100 price point will be able to rival the clarity or the overall range that iP46 offers.
But due either to differences in iHome’s sound processing technology or drivers, Pure-Fi Anywhere 2’s renditions of the same songs are just a little punchier and more engrossing: voices are more distinct from instruments, high notes pop and the low notes fill the air slightly more. iP46’s top volume level is a little higher than Pure-Fi Anywhere 2’s, but it sounds like Logitech cut its system off at just the point at which its drivers might sound distorted, while iHome lets iP46 go louder and only at that point start clipping the bass. Admittedly, few people will ever place the Logitech and iHome systems right next to one another to make the comparison, and the difference in MSRPs may mitigate the desire to do so, but the reality is that although iP46 is on the fine edge of greatness by $100 audio system standards, the complete Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 package is unquestionably great by $130 or $150 ones.
Ultimately, your choice of whether to buy iP46 or Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 will come down to several questions—where you’re shopping, how much you’re willing to pay, and whether you want the extra frills Logitech includes in its package. There’s no question that iP46 was designed to be a Pure-Fi Anywhere-killer, and that at some stores, the $30 to $50 price difference will more than offset the systems’ differences in sound and pack-ins. But if you’re shopping somewhere where Logitech’s street pricing is at or near the same price level as iP46, we’d go with the earlier and more impressively equipped model. Based on its aggressive price and overall performance, iP46 is worthy of our A- rating and high recommendation by $100 standards, but for a sequel, we’d hope that iHome will aim higher than just repackaging and cutting the price on a competitor’s well-established package.