Review: iLuv i7500 2.1-Channel Mini Audio System
Pros: A 2.1-channel component speaker system with integrated iPod dock, CD player, memory card and USB ports, digital AM/FM radio, and simple clock. Plays MP3 files from numerous non-iPod devices, plus all Dock Connecting iPod music, and tunes radio stations well. Included Infrared remote is acceptable for iPod and non-iPod use.
Cons: iPod dock problems range from unexpected pausing to near-muted volume, the main reasons for this low rating; USB port for iPod shuffle connection only recognizes MP3 files on shuffle and not iTunes Music Store AAC files. Subwoofer performance is weak and not tied to main system’s power or volume controls, requiring separate adjustments, two power cables, and three power buttons. Overall sound quality isn’t great given price or size. No auxiliary audio input for other devices.
Though iPod accessory maker iLuv has developed a number of entirely original add-ons for various iPod models, it has also opted to adapt some visually appealing non-iPod devices for iPod use. Yesterday, we looked at the i1055, a portable widescreen DVD player with a hastily added iPod dock, and today, we review the i7500 ($200), a 2.1-channel “mini audio system” with… a hastily added iPod dock.
We say “hastily added” because both of these systems show tell-tale signs that iPod integration was an afterthought rather than a primary design goal. i1055 had a iPod dock on its back, with iPod screen and controls facing away from the user, and a remote control that didn’t work at all with the iPod; i7500 has a similarly odd iPod dock position, odd iPod-related interface glitches, and a weird component structure. iLuv tends to re-do products after their initial releases (see our info box on Revving at the bottom of this review), and it’s clear that additional engineering is needed here to hammer out some of i7500’s issues.
To be fair, the i7500 has a number of impressive features for its price. It’s available in glossy white and black versions, each with four main components and a 20-button Infrared remote control, making a strong collective visual statement when unpacked. In addition to the necessary connecting cables, there are two 10” by 5” by 6” freestanding speakers, a box containing a 4” subwoofer, and a second box with an illuminated volume knob, LCD screen, control buttons, and most of the unit’s other selling points. There’s an MP3-CD player, AM/FM radio with digital PLL tuner and 40 presets, one USB port, and a SD/Memory Stick/MMC card reader. Despite all these input options, this second box doesn’t look cluttered: the CD player is a top-loading design with a pop-up lid, while a panel underneath the box’s main set of 14 buttons (four black, 10 silver) hides the USB port and memory card reader until they’re needed.
All of these features are for audio playback, allowing you to spool music from your choice of device. If you have MP3 files on an iPod shuffle, memory card, CD, or non-iPod USB device, i7500 finds them and lets you access them by three digit number (001, 058, et cetera), without ID3 tag frills, despite the presence of a blue LCD screen that could be used for text. Instead, the screen provides mostly numbers - elapsed time, track number, card number - and doubles as a clock (with timer) when not in music mode. Though i7500 starts to look for music at the “root” directory of any inserted non-iPod media device, you can use a panel-hidden folder search button to hunt for separate MP3 folders.
To be clear, i7500 wouldn’t have had any huge problems if it consisted of just the two satellite speakers, the remote, and the multipurpose MP3/radio box. These parts generally work properly if not elegantly or wonderfully, permitting you to listen to MP3-format music off of your choice of non-iPod device with the aforementioned simple interface, and without other serious problems. iLuv’s remote works fine from 15 foot distances, and its buttons give you control over all of the integrated devices, including the iPod dock. The AM and FM radio tuning also works well, with a predictable level of static - low, but unobjectionable - in both bands’ signals. A lack of auxiliary ports prevents you from connecting analog audio devices, and there are no video or other output ports save for a headphone port in the front. This is a closed system, designed to be used only with its internal components.
Unfortunately for iPod users and serious listeners, the iPod dock and subwoofer functionality are where i7500 has most of its issues. To iLuv’s credit, the dock is of the Apple-created Universal Dock variety and backed with three included, color-matched Dock Adapters, one for thick iPods, one for thin iPods, and one for iPod minis. The good news is that the adapters all physically fit the dock. But in one of the more unusual design decisions we’ve seen, the dock has been placed on top of the subwoofer rather than integrated into the radio, CD, and memory card box, which means that you’ll probably not want to leave the subwoofer on a floor - the traditional resting place for such a component. Instead, you’ll probably need to leave the system’s four big pieces next to each other on an elevated surface, which will require around 23” of horizontal space.
Location aside, we had some serious issues with the dock during testing. Virtually every time we connected an iPod to listen to music, there was a problem of some sort: the dock frequently paused the iPod for no apparent reason, and often lost the ability to play iPod music at more than a whisper volume, requiring us to play with the unit’s “function” and other buttons until something reset the dock’s output level. We tested multiple iPods, having the same weird audio experiences with each. On a somewhat related note, though the unit’s integrated USB port let us connect an iPod shuffle and play back its MP3 music, the i7500 wouldn’t recognize or play protected AAC audio files, so its iPod shuffle compatibility is only partially realized.
There are other oddities here, too. In a first for dedicated iPod speakers we’ve tested. iLuv requires you to connect two separate power cables to the wall: one for the subwoofer, and one for the rest of the system. And it also requires you to turn on three separate power buttons to use the system - a switch on the subwoofer’s rear, and illuminated buttons on the fronts of the sub and main box. Moreover, the remote can’t activate the subwoofer at all - you always need to do this by hand. Our impression is that, like the iPod dock, the subwoofer was basically grafted on to the rest of an existing 2-channel MP3 speaker system as an afterthought.
iLuv calls this subwoofer a Super Woofer - you’ll see this phrase in big letters on its metallic front - but the name doesn’t really fit: it’s surprisingly underpowered, adding very little to the system’s low-end performance. Besides the power button on its front right side, there’s a “volume” knob on the left, which indicates “min” and “max” levels of subwoofer volume. Aside from the fact that the subwoofer’s output is in no way tied to the digitally controlled volume of the main unit, which precludes you from turning everything up or down at once, iLuv doesn’t appear to have otherwise taken audio crossover design too seriously. The Super Woofer only adds noticeable bass when turned up near its peak, and even then doesn’t deliver anything especially impressive. Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7, now available at a lower price, does much better with similarly-sized drivers.
In fact, the system’s aggregate audio quality really isn’t that impressive. Despite the 2.1-channel arrangement, and your ability to position the left and right speakers as you desire, the i7500’s audio doesn’t sound full and balanced - the satellites project narrowly and instruments sound a little bit off. That might be attributable to a bit of echo - possibly a less than perfectly synchronized subwoofer and satellite combination - or to the default equalizer setting, which doesn’t do the system any favors. Using the EQs enhances the treble and sparkle of the system a bit, but it’s not quite the rival of other $200 (and some less expensive) systems we’ve tested on overall sound quality. We’d much sooner recommend either better-tuned inexpensive JBL speakers, or spending a little bit more for Monitor Audio’s i-Deck, instead.
Overall, i7500 is a disappointment: a system that looks much better than it works and sounds, at least for iPod users, and really could have used a lot more fine-tuning before it left iLuv’s labs. Our unusually low rating is largely attributable to its bizarre iPod dock electronic behavior, which we consider borderline defective, and are at a loss to explain in any other way. As the idea, feature set, and pricing are all intriguing, however, we hope that iLuv significantly retools this system in the near future, or releases something with a superior, iPod-centric design.