Review: iHome iW2 Wireless Audio System With AirPlay
When iHome debuted its first AirPlay-compatible speaker iW1, all of our editors lit up with excitement -- following up on its impressive iP1, the alarm clock developer reconfirmed its ability to design a beautiful $300 speaker system, outfitting the new unit with a novel recharging base, built-in battery, and illuminated capacitive controls. But despite its great looks and compelling features, iW1's sonic performance was underwhelming for the price, and Apple's AirPlay wireless streaming was fraught with audio drop-out bugs. So as much as we wanted to love iW1, it wound up just barely meriting a general-level recommendation, though subsequent software updates and sharp price discounts have improved its performance and appeal.
iHome’s new AirPlay speaker iW2 ($200) thus faces two serious challengers directly out of the gate: its older brother, and Philips’ Fidelio SoundAvia, another good model that recently saw its own MSRP drop from $230 to $200. But iW2 is a worthy competitor in its own right. Cosmetically almost identical to the iW1 and possessing most of the same features at a lower price point, iW2 reminds us a lot of the iPod mini’s once-controversial debut as a modestly less expensive alternative to the third-generation iPod: it starts with solid DNA, drops some features, and then adds distinguishing characteristics to justify its independent existence.
Start with the fact that iW2 is a considerably smaller system, measuring roughly 10.5” wide by 5.8” tall by 3” deep versus iW1’s 12.5” wide by 7.3” tall by 3.7” deep—an inch or two less here and there, plus a commensurate weight reduction of nearly two pounds, falling to 4.6 from 6.5. Despite these changes, iHome has kept all of iW1’s great looks for the iW2, down to the black chrome bottom ring and wraparound fabric speaker grille, while merely shrinking the extruded pill-shaped enclosure proportionately. It has also retained the rear USB port and included Dock Connector cable that enable you to attach an iOS device for initial setup or wired audio playback, plus the Ethernet port for a wired connection to a router.
Another parallel to the iPod mini is iW2’s improved control scheme. The iW1’s capacitive top controls looked nice but were somewhat confusing to use, and have been replaced by a thin pill-shaped set of eight buttons with more visible labels. There’s no need to fiddle with a dot-based volume slider or go to the back of this unit to activate a second power switch. Oddly, iHome requires you to hold iW2’s power button down for three seconds to turn the unit on—something it thankfully explains in a removable sticker—but apart from that, the new buttons are quite intuitive and function exactly as expected. An updated Infrared remote control drops the Bongiovi DPS button found on the iW1 in favor of an SRS Wow toggle, but otherwise looks pretty much the same. So far, if you’re not seeing much that sounds like a downgrade from the iW1 to iW2, you’re right on track with our impressions.
iHome did make some big changes, though, and the only question is whether they’ll matter given your personal needs. The most obvious and arguably important difference is the iW2’s loss of the rechargeable battery pack and charging base that enabled iW1 to run for between 4 and 15 hours on its own, depending on the volume level. By comparison, iW2 is easier to lift but less truly portable, as it needs to be connected to an included wall adapter. Some users, including a couple of iLounge’s editors, may consider this to be a fundamental reason to prefer the iW1 over the iW2. Others—namely those who have little interest in using a speaker outdoors or otherwise away from a power outlet—won’t care at all.
Less obvious thanks to the wraparound fabric speaker grille is iHome’s shift from four speaker drivers inside iW1 to only two inside iW2. More specifically, iW1 shipped with twin 1” tweeters plus two 3” woofers, which should have given it a natural advantage over the two 2.5” full-range drivers inside iW2. Factor in the reduction in size and the loss of Bongiovi Acoustics audio tuning in iW2, and there would have been every reason for iW2 to sonically underwhelm by comparison with its predecessor. But that’s not the case.
As it turns out, iW2’s speakers were either built or tuned more impressively than iW1’s. Whereas iW1 presents music with a focus on the lower midrange, sometimes surprisingly flat and lacking in sparkle given its dedicated tweeters, iW2 leads with an instantly appealing crispness and treble detail, while delivering just enough bass not to sound deficient when considered in isolation—the same assets that we praised in Philips’ SoundAvia. Rather than sounding decidedly worse when placed next to iW1, iW2 actually is in the same league, reaching nearly as high of a peak volume level as the portable unit, and compensating in high-end detail for what iW1 delivers in lower-end warmth. iW2 has enough volume to fill a small room, with only slight distortion apparent at its peak amplitude. Whereas iW1 sounded like a $300 underachiever, iW2 comes much closer to the sort of sound we’d hope for from a $200 wireless speaker, while sporting some of the best industrial design in its price range. And unlike the SoundAvia, it includes the aforementioned Infrared remote—including bass and treble controls—plus a larger suite of on-board buttons, in case you need to make track adjustments directly on the speaker.
Another advantage iW2 has over SoundAvia is iHome’s free iOS setup application, which makes the initial process of adding iW2 to your Wi-Fi network relatively easy—almost as simple as with the considerably more expensive Logitech UE Air Speaker. Whereas Philips and many other AirPlay speaker vendors force users to consult manuals to set up their wireless speakers, complete with plenty of steps to follow, iHome’s iHome Connect app brings iW2 onto a network with only a handful of taps and Wi-Fi password entry. iHome even supplies a Dock Connector cable to let you connect your iOS device during setup, and you can keep it around for charging and wired audio purposes.
The only remaining hitch with iW2 is one that’s common to all third-party AirPlay speakers, and that’s AirPlay itself. While Apple’s wireless streaming technology has become more reliable after a troubled first year, AirPlay still suffers from occasional streaming hiccups, as well as guaranteed control responsiveness delays that aren’t found in any of the Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested. If you’re expecting to use iW2 on a congested wireless network, you may experience issues making connections from wireless streaming sources, just as with other AirPlay speakers. On the other hand, AirPlay enables iW2 to stream music directly from iTunes, and to form part of a multi-room music system with simultaneous multi-speaker streaming. When AirPlay works, it works pretty well, but Bluetooth speakers remain more reliable, and continue to deliver more bang for the buck.
After considerable discussion between our editors, we decided that iHome’s iW2 was worthy of our strong general recommendation: it combines virtually all of iW1’s impressive industrial design and features with improved controls, plus speaker performance that will satisfy all but the most bass-focused and high-volume-dependent listeners. That said, the lower price is a significant factor in the higher rating: iW2 currently offers the best overall combination of features we’ve seen in a $200 AirPlay speaker, though the rapid pace of new AirPlay speaker releases and constantly shifting street prices confound easy comparisons. In recent days, the $300 iW1 has sold for as little as $200 but more commonly for $240, while iW2 has ranged from $170 to $200. If you’re really interested in the original model’s portability and rechargeable battery, we wouldn’t discourage you from picking iW1 over iW2 at a nearly comparable price, but the official $100 MSRP gap weighs decidedly in favor of the less expensive model.