Review: iLuv i399 2.1-Channel Hi-Fi Audio System with Bluetooth
Liking iLuv's new Bluetooth-enabled boombox i399 ($230) is easy. Loving it is more of a challenge. Despite several interesting twists on the boombox theme, including clean styling, a streamlined remote control, and a better than average FM radio, i399's potentially strong features -- wireless iPhone or other Bluetooth device connectivity, and iPod audio docking -- are undone through so-so speakerphone functionality and an unadjustable, bass-heavy sound signature. While a good stab at two under-served accessory genres, i399 could easily have been great with slightly better engineering and full iPhone compatibility.
If we had to take an informed guess as to the basic story behind i399, it would be as follows: several months before the iPhone was released, iLuv had one or two dozen iPod speaker systems under development at the same time, and also was exploring portable Bluetooth accessories. In one of those “lightbulb moments,” someone decided to try connecting the Bluetooth accessories to the speakers, recognizing that there might be “synergies” between the parts. And, rather than integrating the Bluetooth components directly inside the speakers, the company chose to make them separate so that they could be sold separately or together. Thus, there is now i399—an iPod speaker with a detachable but not externally useful Bluetooth accessory—and i398, the same speaker without the Bluetooth plug-in.
The core of both i399 and i398 is a roughly 19.25” by 7.75” by 7.25” black plastic cabinet with two ported 2.75” full-range drivers on the front, and a 4” down-firing subwoofer on the bottom; you can see the front drivers only if you pull off a fabric grille on the system’s face, and the bottom one only if you flip the system over to see a notched plastic compartment underneath. These fabric and open plastic speaker areas make the system less than ideally suited for “take it to the beach” boombox applications, but then, most of the iPod boomboxes we have tested have had some limitation or another—that’s this one’s. iLuv includes a power supply with i399, as well as dual rear-mounted battery compartments, one for six D cells to power the speakers on the go, and another for a single AA to provide battery backup for the unit’s integrated clock. You also get four Dock Adapters for various iPods, a 17-button Infrared remote control, and the Bluetooth adapter, which iLuv calls “BluePin.”
Without the BluePin piece, i399 is just another iPod boombox, differing mostly cosmetically from others we’ve seen. As with some but not all of the boomboxes previously released, i399’s top-mounted dock doesn’t provide any sort of protection for the iPod you connect, and though it does have half-handles on its top and sides, as well as a nook to store the remote when it’s being transported, you wouldn’t be advised to carry the system around with an iPod attached. Additionally, the speakers are in no way shielded from cell phone noise, and are hugely impacted by the interference put out by the iPhone, such that you wouldn’t want to consider having the iPhone anywhere near the system unless it’s in Airplane Mode.
Excluding its Bluetooth functionality from the equation, i399 is roughly on par with smaller boombox designs we saw two years ago from companies such as MTX Audio and iHome (iH30, iH31), with a similar bass-heavy audio presentation that will please some listeners more than others. Our out-of-the-box impression was that i399’s sound was a little deficient in treble and mid-treble, but acceptable in clarity, mid-bass, and bass performance for the price. After some comparison testing with other speakers, we felt that the system sounded above-average in midrange, bass and higher-volume performance for its price—a little better on the low-end than a good all-in-one $200 speaker such as Altec’s T612, but then, substantially larger as well.
i399’s radio performance was also pretty good. We had no trouble tuning FM stations in our semi-challenging testing location, finding both the manual and seek tuners to be capable of locating stations quickly and presenting them clearly. iLuv includes a telescoping rear antenna for improved reception, rather than a dangling cabled antenna, and extending it northward actually did decrease static in our testing. We were generally impressed by the remote control, which does permit access to the system’s various input modes, as well as straightforward iPod menu navigation, and more—all without using too many buttons, or in too confusing of a pattern. All that’s missing are bass and treble controls, which we typically prefer to see on systems at this price level.
Apart from the lack of treble or adjustability in i399’s speaker design, the system’s only glaring audio issue was interference that appeared to be traceable to the iPod dock and AC power cable. When we docked an iPod touch in the dock, for instance, a high-pitched noise could be heard through the otherwise quiet speakers no matter what else we were doing. Turning touch’s Wi-Fi off didn’t seem to help, though the noise disappeared when we connected an iPod classic.
Similar issues impacted our use of i399 as a speakerphone with the iPhone. There are two panels on the system’s top, one for connection of headphones or an auxiliary audio input cable, and the other for the BluePin Bluetooth connector. On a positive note, connecting the BluePin to a port in the second compartment was easy, though initial pairing wasn’t as simple as it might have been: the system appeared to be ready to pair, and broadcast its availability to our iPhone, but then wouldn’t accept the four-digit pairing code until we held down a button for several sections. Once paired, i399 was ready to seamlessly interrupt whatever it was doing whenever a phone call came in to the iPhone, or went out from it.
To be clear, this feature—the same as what we’ve seen in Bluetooth headsets and car kits—worked largely as expected. If a call came in, i399’s music shut off and its integrated LCD screen told us that the Bluetooth module was receiving a call. Similarly, no effort was needed to tell the i399 to stop playing when we made a call using the iPhone’s screen as a dialer; it acted as the speakerphone by default. The only problem was the audio quality. Callers told us that audio echoes and lag were making our conversations sound like we were using old-fashioned military satellite phones. Wherever i399’s microphone is hidden, it’s not given adequate echo cancellation with the system’s integrated speakers, and so a feature that could have been pretty cool turned out to be one we wouldn’t really ever use. One of our more discerning callers also noticed a hum in the speakerphone audio that he attributed to a lack of shielding from the AC power cord.
Before i399 is totally written off as a Bluetooth-capable unit, however, a couple of positives should be pointed out. First, the system does use an unusually powerful Bluetooth 2.0 module relative to most of the portable accessories we’ve seen, with a Class 1 transmitter that can work at distances of “up to 100 meters” away from the connected device. Practically speaking, our iPhone wasn’t able to achieve anywhere close to a 300-foot distance, but it could communicate with i399 from two rooms away—roughly 60 feet—including partial obstructions. Even if it’s not up the system’s theoretical maximum, this is better by a factor of 2 or 3 than what we’ve seen in most other wireless Bluetooth accessories with the iPhone.
Second, the system does have the ability to pair with other Bluetooth devices, such as headphones, as well. Doing so requires you to press a button on the BluePin to toggle the device into “send” mode, then pair the receiving device. Once we figured these steps out—the manual was required, as the send button is hidden on BluePin’s side rather than obvious on i399’s body—audio from the radio or the iPod dock flowed immediately, and in proper stereo, to a pair of Bluetooth stereo headphones we had on hand. The left channel went to the left earpiece and the right channel to the right, and we saw similar 60-foot-plus-obstruction distances with the headset. We weren’t able to use the headset’s integrated controls to change the iPod’s tracks, as i399 is apparently able to do with certain headsets, but the reason for this issue wasn’t clear. You’ll have to decide whether the ability to use the system with separately-sold wireless headsets is a selling point; in our view, it’s a nice bonus but not extremely compelling.
Ultimately, i399 falls into the “interesting but not awesome” iPod speaker category—one that we see a lot around here, and bemoan mostly because it’s so obvious that a little additional engineering time and talent could have made a big difference here. Had i399 been shielded properly, for instance, it might have served as a cool iPhone speakerphone and docking station; had it included a couple of tweeters, it might have been a really stellar iPod speaker system; and had it been designed with more practical outdoors-ready protection, it would have been a boombox we might have more strongly recommended for use anywhere. As-is, it’s a good speaker, a so-so speakerphone, and a good boombox if used in the right places. This qualified praise makes i399 generally recommendable, but if you’re looking for an accessory that really gets one thing right rather than a few things close enough, you’ll probably want to continue searching.