Review: iHome iP49 Studio Series Portable Rechargeable Speaker for iPhone + iPod
When iHome released iP1 -- its first "Studio Series" speaker -- the company's ambitions were obvious: iP1 was the nicest-looking system the company had ever released, and audio tuning by Bongiovi Acoustics finally gave iHome the sonic chops to stand toe-to-toe with $300 competitors. Now there's a portable iPod- and iPhone-compatible Studio Series offering called iP49 ($160), and though it has some design novelties on its side, it's not as impressive sonically or aesthetically as we'd come to expect from iHome's premium lineup.
There are two things that make iP49 stand out from the pack: its enclosure and integrated alarm clock radio functionality. Whereas iHome’s less expensive iP46 was a straight-out clone of Logitech’s old but impressive mm50 audio system, iP49 is something different: a 10” wide, 5.75” deep and 2.25” thick package that looks sort of like a plump MacBook, using a hinge to open into two halves. iHome says that iP49 has “four neodymium compression drivers” in the top half, and we spotted what appear to be twin 1.75” drivers with a 2.5” speaker in their center as the key sonic components, plus a simple backlit clock in the upper right corner.
The bottom half houses a rechargeable battery, a collection of buttons, and an iPod/iPhone dock. Unlike iP46, you can open a panel on iP49’s bottom to swap the rechargeable battery if necessary—a second panel is there for the clock’s backup battery. A remote control, wall power adapter, and optional wired antenna for an integrated radio are also included in the package, along with three plastic Dock Adapters.
Even though iHome’s clock radio is on the basic side, it’s nowhere near as threadbare as it could have been. iP49 has a single alarm that can wake you from an increasingly insistent beeping buzzer, the radio, or the docked iPod/iPhone—either wherever it last left off, or from a specific playlist. You can set the alarm to go off every day of the week, only on weekdays, or only on weekends. And the FM-only radio works with or without the wired antenna, competently enough without it that only a little additional static clouds the signal; many stations come in strong and relatively clear indoors even when the antenna’s detached. It’s very easy to set the clock, alarm, and radio station using five of iP49’s 14 total buttons, and a switch on the unit’s back lets you toggle the clock off of daylight savings time when necessary. Preset, sleep, and snooze buttons are also found in pill-like shapes alongside the dock.
iP49 is hardly the first or least expensive portable system to include an alarm, a clock, or a radio, but the fact that it has these features in addition to the speakers, rechargeable battery, and nice enclosure make it feel novel relative to most of its competitors at this price point: JBL’s On Stage IIIP doesn’t have the battery, clock, or radio, Logitech’s Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 doesn’t have the clock or radio, and Altec Lansing’s iM600 and other inMotion systems lack the clock. On the flip side, though iP49 does a better job of protecting itself than its rivals, it doesn’t include a case to hold its spare parts, a la Pure-Fi Anywhere. Once you charge iP49, you probably won’t need to carry the large wall adapter everywhere, but iHome doesn’t offer any way to carry the large, candy bar-shaped Infrared remote control around.
That remote deserves a little attention, too. For some reason, iHome’s basic model Rx1 remote control is shown on the iP49 box we received, but the superior Rz1 with iPod/iPhone navigation buttons was actually inside. Unlike iHome’s iP90 in-home clock radio, which also saw a last-minute swap of the Rx1 for Rz1, iP49’s performance with this new remote is pretty good: it works from roughly 20-foot straight-line distances thanks to an IR sensor that’s on the unit’s front bottom surface, off to the left of the dock. Less than intuitive is a Remote switch on iP49’s back labelled “Auto/On.” Auto turns off the IR sensor when the unit’s running off of battery power to conserve energy, and On keeps the sensor on at all times so that the remote’s guaranteed to work at the cost of battery longevity.
iHome provides no guidance as to what iP49’s run time is, apart from indicating the battery’s current charge level on a five-stage meter off the far right of the clock screen. Our belief is that the battery runs for roughly eight hours per full charge, dependent on the volume level the system’s performing at. We’ll update this review with further details on battery performance soon.
Where iP49 suffers by comparison to peer-priced rivals is in the audio department, and though that isn’t really surprising given the shallow depth of the system’s top half, it’s a disappointment given the “Studio Series” and Bongiovi Acoustics branding, as well as the $160 price tag. Logitech’s, JBL’s, and Altec Lansing’s aforementioned offerings are all in the same general sonic neighborhood, with Pure-Fi Anywhere representing the gold standard of dynamic range, Altec Lansing’s iM600 falling a little short on clarity and range while adding an FM radio, and On Stage IIIP offering noticeably better clarity with less bass and staging. iP49 is at least a step below these offerings, and frankly, below iHome’s less expensive iP46, as well. Even on iP49’s Bongiovi-tuned default setting—don’t think of turning the glowing “B” button off—music is on the flat side, riding on the fine edge of obvious distortion, and playing with the system’s treble and bass settings only seems to boost the sibilance and bass clipping. Popping the exact same iPhone into Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 seems to bring the same songs to life, and though the difference isn’t night and day, it leans markedly in favor of the less expensive, thicker Logitech design.
iP49’s value, then, is in the overall value and convenience of its package rather than in its raw sonic performance. iHome has combined a good single alarm, good FM radio, good remote control, and very good housing with speakers that fall short of Studio Series expectations. On balance and due to the value of its other features, iP49 is just—underscore just—worthy of our general recommendation, but it’s hard to help but feel let down by the promise of “studio quality sound,” even if the very concept seems implausible from something as small as this system. Going forward, iHome should save Bongiovi technology and branding for products that are capable of more in the audio department, lest it diminish the positive reputation it developed with the impressive iP1.