Review: iHome iW1 Airplay Wireless Audio System
During its first year of availability, Apple's AirPlay wireless technology has made its way into computers, iOS devices, and Apple TVs, but as of today, there are only a handful of AirPlay speakers on the market. Bowers & Wilkins was the first to ship a dedicated AirPlay speaker in the $600 Zeppelin Air, and was followed by JBL with the $350 On Air Wireless; others are on the way from Philips and Altec Lansing. The one that has intrigued us the most, however, was iHome's iW1 ($300), which was first teased in September 2010 and then formally unveiled in January 2011. Though it took much longer than expected to come to market, it arrives this month as the least expensive AirPlay speaker currently available. It's also the first AirPlay system to pack a rechargeable battery, and one of the nicest all-in-one designs yet released by iHome. While it's not perfect, it delivers an overall sonic and user experience that we'd describe as good -- an easier pick on price alone than either B&W's or JBL's more expensive systems -- though its sonic and wireless performance leave room for improvement.
A brief primer on AirPlay: as a replacement for AirTunes, the wireless audio streaming technology Apple developed for its AirPort Express routers and first-generation Apple TVs, AirPlay uses Wi-Fi to send lossless audio, video, and photos from iOS devices and computers directly to second-generation Apple TVs and various types of accessories. Connect a speaker with AirPlay support to the same Wi-Fi network as your computer, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, and you can stream music directly to the speaker merely by pressing a box-and-arrow icon during audio playback. Only a brief pause is necessary before the speaker starts to play the wireless music stream, and either the streaming device or the speaker can change tracks, play/pause status, and volume as needed. Adding AirPlay compatibility comes at a $50 to $100 premium over what an AirPlay-free accessory would cost—compared with around $25 for adding lower-fidelity, shorter-range Bluetooth—meaning that one should expect to find $200-$250 worth of speakers and other goodies inside of a $300 AirPlay accessory.
That should help set expectations for what iW1 is and is not—think of it as a $150 speaker with $150 worth of wireless and battery frills, packed into a minimalist enclosure. Despite some seeming similarities, this isn’t a smaller, portable version of 2009’s award-winning iP1, but rather closer to 2010’s iP3, except with a very different shape, industrial design, and mission. At roughly 7.3” in height, iW1 is a relatively tall system, and measures 12.5” wide at its edges, but it’s very shallow, with only 3.6” of depth. Unlike iP3, which sits on a desk or bookshelf, iW1 is designed to be grabbed by a single hand and carried around by a scoop-shaped handle in its black plastic and fabric back, a feat that you wouldn’t attempt with its AirPlay-equipped rivals.
iW1’s shape is there to accommodate the built-in rechargeable battery and included charging base. The unit can be lifted off of a table, placed anywhere, and enjoyed for between 4-15 hours depending on volume—4 hours at full volume, 15 hours at 50%. As a general rule, since the Wi-Fi connection continues to draw power, you’ll want to keep it on the charging base except for the periods when you actually need the portability. Refueling the cell is as easy as bringing iW1 back over to the charging base and setting it down, a design innovation that was awesome when first revealed and even now feels really smart. The charging base is matte black plastic, matching a rear panel on iW1, which is otherwise comprised entirely of wraparound black fabric with a glossy black plastic top and a mirrored black chrome bottom. Apart from their tendency to attract fingerprints, the top and bottom surfaces scream class, and do a great job of turning what otherwise could have been a plain shape into a premium-looking product.
There are some issues, however, that we’d attribute to iHome’s conflicting desires to simplify iW1 as a design object, and pack it with features. The glossy top surface completely hides controls that illuminate with white lights when the unit’s power is turned on—a step you take by flipping a switch on the back, and then again with a button on the top. Volume control is handled through a huge strip of tiny white dots on top that are only illuminated one at a time, so you have no visual idea of where you are on the scale, while other indicators—track and play/pause controls, Wi-Fi versus wired connections, and so on—are all kept completely dark most of the time, so the user doesn’t have the ability to develop a sense memory of their locations or purposes until they’re illuminated. Then there’s the set of the controls on the back panel: a battery button that only displays battery life if you look up at the top of the unit, the aforementioned power switch, separate buttons for settings and network status, and a Wi-Fi status light that flashes in various ways while a separate Wi-Fi status light on the top of the unit is also flashing—sometimes joined by a third flashing status light that peeks out from behind the front fabric.
This point needs to be made clearly: something’s really wrong when you have two power buttons and three different Wi-Fi status indicators on one device. Something’s also wrong when you need to look on the top of the unit to see the battery indicator from a button on the back. iHome clearly aspired to Apple-style minimalism in iW1’s controls and indicators, but it didn’t quite hit the mark here. You’ll be better off interacting with iW1 using your iOS device, computer, or an included remote control, which adds even more buttons, including bass and treble controls, the “Bongiovi button,” and shuffle/repeat features.
Sonically, iW1 is an average to good performer. Over the course of nearly three weeks of testing, we played a wide variety of different tracks through the system, and while the unit performed considerably better than the earliest working demonstration model we heard, it’s not going to blow any minds. Inside of iW1’s housing are twin 1” tweeters and 3” woofers, which Bongiovi Acoustics is supposed to help iHome to tune as well as might be hoped given the shallow enclosure—a pitch we first heard and took seriously with the 2009 iP1, but have found to be less impressive in subsequent iHome speakers.
Rather than the sort of bass-heavy performance we’re accustomed to hearing from the company’s clock radios, iW1 produces midrange-focused sound with just enough treble to have a little sparkle, but there’s not much bass, and the system’s maximum volume level is capped at “small room filling.” Playing with the bass and treble controls on the remote, it’s possible to make very small improvements to the low- and high-end, but the speakers just don’t have the clarity or power that we’ve heard from peer-priced or even less expensive speakers, wireless or otherwise. As just one example, we were considerably more impressed by the dynamic range and power of Logitech’s S715i, which is considerably thinner and shorter than iW1, though a little wider. Given that S715i sells for half the price—and that a new $150 Bluetooth wireless version was just announced, as well—it’s obvious that it’s possible to pick and tune speakers in a small enclosure better than iHome did here.
The last points worth mentioning relate to iW1’s wireless performance, which we’d also call good rather than great. iHome went out of its way to develop an iOS application called iHome Connect, which manages the process of setting the unit up on your wireless network, renaming the iW1 to your chosen name, and providing basic instructions on using AirPlay. iHome Connect is a welcome tool for iOS users. As with all of iHome’s iOS apps so far, it’s beautifully designed and very easy to figure out—we were able to get the unit set up rapidly after doing nothing more than connecting an included short Dock Connector cable to a port on iW1’s back. (Note that the same cable can also be used to play music directly from a connected iPod, iPhone, or iPad, providing charging current even when iW1 isn’t plugged into its own charging dock. Auxiliary audio input via a 3.5mm port is also supported.)
While the app legitimately makes setup and subsequent tweaking of iW1’s settings simpler than with other AirPlay systems we’ve tested, iW1 wasn’t immune from random audio drop-outs and, on occasion, complete disconnects from our Wi-Fi networks—even when it was only a room away from an Apple router. At one point, we went so far as to reconfigure the entire wireless network just to see if iW1 would become more stable; it didn’t change. On balance, iW1 performed reasonably well under most circumstances, but we wouldn’t call it completely trouble-free. Hopefully future firmware updates will improve its performance.
Our flat B rating of iW1 is a compromise, and one reached after somewhat animated discussions between our editors: this is truly a prime example of a speaker that could have been great—even the Speaker of the Year—but instead falls short in a variety of ways. We offer iHome high praise for its industrial design, AirPlay support, recharging station concept, and efforts at control elegance, all of which could have led to a higher rating if iW1 had been sonically stellar. But between its flat sound, Wi-Fi issues, and less than wonderful controls, iW1 was on the fine edge of B and B- ratings. We determined that it merited the higher grade because of the broad appeal of the “pick up and use anywhere” design and feature set, which are a nice step forward for the nascent AirPlay speaker category. Users who are willing to pay a premium for beauty and portable AirPlay wireless functionality will be pleased with iW1; those who are willing to give up on either of those things will find plenty of comparatively excellent sounding speakers for half the price.