Review: iHome iP71 Computer Speakers for iPhone & iPod
It was obvious last year that iHome had a good idea on its hands with iH69 and iH70, two audio systems designed to do double-duty as computer speakers and iPod docks, but there was also a problem: they arrived right in the middle of iPhone mania, and didn't have any interference shielding. Given how much screeching noise the iPhone and other cellular phones created in computer speakers, and that shielded versions were just around the corner, our advice back then was to wait. So if you've been holding off, you'll hopefully be glad to learn that iHome's newest iteration of the iH69 and iH70 concept, the iPhone-compatible iP71 ($130), is a superior alternative -- though not without its own issues.
First, a few notes on where things stand with iHome’s computer speakers. iH70, originally sold for $150, now has an MSRP of $100. iH69, originally sold for $100, is gone. And iP71 takes the better aesthetic design elements from both of these speakers, pairs them with the audio drivers found in iH70, adds some iPhone shielding, and sells for a lower price than last year’s top model. You save $20 over last year’s top model and gain iPhone compatibility, or still have the option to get iH70 for a discount. It’s basically win-win.
We say “basically” because iP71 is a winner on features, but still essentially an entry-level multimedia, iPod, and iPhone audio system in terms of its sonic performance and—surprisingly—its iPhone shielding. While the features are the same as those in iH70 and don’t need exhaustive discussion, they’re still compelling: iP71’s twin silver and black speakers include cables to connect to your computer for both audio and USB-based iPod/iPhone synchronization, the latter triggered with a sync/audio toggle button now found on the top of the left speaker top above the dock. Power and volume controls are on the right speaker’s base, and more significant controls are integrated into an Infrared remote with track, menu navigation, volume, bass, treble, and spatialization buttons. This remote is nice looking, works well to control the system when pointed at the left speaker, and can power off the speakers while leaving its dock capable of charging the connected iPod or iPhone. All good.
Sonically, the system isn’t stunning, but it’s good given iP71’s overall package of features and pricing. To get one concern out of the way up front, placing your iPod or iPhone in the dock doesn’t block the system’s audio drivers: for better or worse, each speaker has only one of them, and it’s near the top of a metal mesh grille in a location where the device won’t block its output. In the absence of the dock, remote, and computer integration features, we’d normally expect much more from the audio of a system like this for $130; using two full-range drivers, even fairly large ones like these, almost invariably results in clipping of both the highs and lows, and a focus on the midrange that is either a little or a lot on the flat side. At normal volumes, iP71 sounds good enough for a pair of add-on speakers, but with added volume comes added distortion; users of similarly priced 2.1-channel multimedia audio systems will also note that the bass here is fine but not deep. As with all things, iP71 reflects a compromise of which parts to include for its price, and in our view, the results are generally reasonable.
There is an exception. Thanks to some less than optimal volume management engineering, users will notice that iP71 performs best when used as a computer audio system, and nearly as well when used as an iPod/iPhone audio system without any connection to a computer, but less impressively when trying to do both things at once. Most likely to eliminate your need to hit an input selection button, iP71 mixes both the docked device and computer into the same input channel, performing the iPod or iPhone’s sound at a somewhat lower volume than the line-out level of the attached computer. Consequently, you’ll need to either adjust your computer’s volume downwards from its maximum, or play with the volume controls whenever the iPod or iPhone is playing to achieve the “ideal volume” for the system; what we found was that the apparent frequency response of the iPod/iPhone audio dipped a bit when the computer was connected. Some might say that this isn’t priced as an audiophile audio system and needn’t guarantee source fidelity, but our view is that those who use the system with a computer as it’s marketed may notice that their iPhone or iPod isn’t quite as dynamic as it could be; that said, the difference is small and some users won’t care, particularly when they activate the system’s faux 3-D spatializer, which widens the soundstage of most music beyond the edges of the speakers, or the bass and treble buttons, which can tweak the audio levels to improve the system’s range.
Cellular interference is the final issue that may impact some users. iHome’s box is the first we’ve seen to bear the “Works With iPhone” label alongside a badge that only shows the iPhone 3G, making no other reference to the original iPhone. That is, except for on the bottom of the package, which carries Apple’s now confusing boilerplate assurance that “Works With iPhone means that an electronic accessory has been designed to connect specifically to iPhone and has been certified by the developer to meet Apple performance standards.” Thus, you might be surprised to find that iP71—like too many other “Works With iPhone” accessories we’ve tested—still is subject to audio interference, either with an original iPhone or an iPhone 3G operating in EDGE mode. Place the EDGE iPhone near the speakers, on a table, or even in the dock and the interference will vary in volume from mildly audible to definitely apparent. But use iP71 with the iPhone 3G or your iPods and interference shouldn’t be an issue, assuming of course that you don’t have another GSM/EDGE cell phone in the immediate vicinity. We’d describe iP71 as a system that’s shielded well enough for most users of the iPhone 3G and iPods, but if you’re relying on the EDGE network for any of your phones, you may hear sounds.
For the price, iP71 is a good iPod, iPhone, and computer speaker system, though its appeal will definitely vary from person to person. It will most satisfy budget-conscious users who want a nice-looking, clutter-free way to add both speakers and an iPod or iPhone 3G synchronization and charging dock to their computers, but will be less thrilling for audiophiles or users of EDGE-dependent phones such as the original iPhone. Relative to last year’s iH70, iP71 is an improved model at a lower price, but a few little issues hold it back from being spectacular. We like the idea, and hope to see an even more sonically capable version in the future.