Review: Jensen JiMS-525i Docking Digital HD Radio System for iPod and iPhone
Pros: A fully-featured, aggressively-priced speaker system with HD Radio, FM and AM tuning, iPod and iPhone compatibility, and video-out functionality. Conservatively designed from an aesthetic standpoint, the unit’s integrated and remote control buttons are easy to figure out, and tuning of the HD radio is easier than on an earlier, much more expensive competitor. Includes dual alarms and AV cables. An extremely good value for the price.
Cons: Small radio, video, and iPhone interference issues detract a little from otherwise impressive experience. Audio quality is more than acceptable given the price but not outstanding by contrast with HD Radio-less competitors.
It isn’t often that a comparatively inexpensive speaker system thoroughly embarrasses a more expensive one, but Jensen’s new radio, alarm clock, and iPod speaker system JiMS-525i ($150) does exactly that with Polk’s earlier, similar i-Sonic ES2. Like i-Sonic ES2, the JiMS-525i offers support for both HD Radio tuning and iTunes Tagging, but Jensen’s design delivers on almost all of Polk’s promise—for $350 less. Better yet, JiMS-525i is both iPod and iPhone-compatible, bucking the recent trend of overpriced iPhone-ready audio systems by delivering a very strong feature set at a price anyone can afford.
As a brief recap of topics covered in our Complete Guide to iTunes Tagging, HD Radio is a technology that enables old FM and AM stations to perform cleaner, better audio and offer multiple channels on new HD Radio tuning devices. It’s a subscription-free alternative to satellite radio, and limited primarily by the lack of HD Radio hardware out there, as well as challenges in getting its antennas to pick up participating stations. iTunes Tagging is an Apple-developed feature that lets certain HD Radios save “tag” information for currently playing songs onto a docked iPod, which then carries the tags back to an iTunes-compatible computer and lets you find the songs at the iTunes Store for purchase.
In essence, JiMS-525i is a glorified HD Radio with a Universal Dock on top and a simple dual alarm clock inside. Entirely black in color, the unit is 13.5” wide by 6.5” deep by 5.75” tall, and without question Jensen’s most conservative and balanced design to date: the styling is mature, with metal grilles for the two integrated speakers, plus buttons and a backlit LCD screen all centralized under the iPod dock. The package includes a matching Infrared remote control, five iPod- and iPhone-ready Dock Adapters, two external radio antennas, a power cord, an audio cord, and an S-Video cord. There really isn’t anything missing from this box; Jensen actually includes more than Polk did, for a lower price.
That isn’t to say that JiMS-525i is perfect: without question, Polk used part of its price premium on a cabinet and LCD screen that looked even nicer, as well as better-quality speakers. The i-Sonic ES2 sounded roughly equivalent to a good $200-$300 iPod system; JiMS-525i is, more appropriately to its price, on par with good $100 systems. What’s remarkable here is that with only one exception, Jensen has made much better use of its parts. As one example, it uses two 2.5” drivers, rather than the four in ES2, and doesn’t have any dedicated bass hardware. Yet the two drivers do a very good job for the price of performing room-filling audio, and aren’t subject to distortion even at the system’s peak volume level. We’d characterize the sound as being strongest in the mids and mid-highs, enabling you to hear the difference in clarity between CD- and radio-quality audio, but not presenting sound with the warmth of systems that possess dedicated subwoofer hardware.
The LCD screen is another example. Polk picked a high-end dot matrix display with a bright blue backlight and white text, while Jensen uses a high-contrast light blue-on-black LCD with more limited display capabilities and only one dimmer setting. On paper, Polk’s screen should be radically better, but Jensen’s screen displays a comparable amount of information using scrolling text; its only weakness is that it’s not as readable from afar. Similarly, JiMS-525i’s body has 14 control buttons to Polk’s 16, but they’re arranged in a more intuitive layout, and the remote control provides direct access to presets rather than forcing you to step through them in sequence. And Jensen provides two alarms, each of which can be set to activate the iPod, radio, or buzzer at your chosen volume, versus Polk’s single no-frills alarm. While JiMS-525i’s larger-than-iHome body and lack of more sophisticated alarm settings may keep it from serving as a typical nightstand alarm clock, it could be used in this way if you want to. There are other examples of Jensen’s more-thoughtful-than-Polk approaches to design, such as easier access to the unit’s and remote’s iTunes Tagging buttons, but we’ll leave it at this: JiMS-525i was designed with usability in mind, while i-Sonic ES2 prioritized style.
In our testing, JiMS-525i had a handful of noteworthy but relatively small weaknesses. The first is in its HD Radio tuning functionality, which we would describe as certainly better than the i-Sonic ES2’s, but still short of ideal. We were thrilled to see that Jensen’s tuner and antenna combination were both more useful and intuitive than Polk’s, enabling a user to automatically find HD Radio stations on the standard radio dials without pressing a special tuning button, and doing a better job of maintaining HD signals when placed in the same physical location as i-Sonic ES2. We were able to lock onto multiple local HD Radio channels, tune them through the unit’s FM dial, and get iTunes Tag information without any issue whatsoever. As always, the tags varied in quality based on the stations we tuned, but JiMS-525i properly plucked the tags, and iTunes found our sampled songs quickly and accurately. Assuming you can get a good antenna location, which we found easier than with ES2, JiMS-525i does a very good job of showing off what HD Radio can do.
The tuner’s only issues were similar to Polk’s. We had no luck pulling in what was supposed to be a local AM HD Radio station, and properly situating the antenna did take a little bit of initial setup time. Standard FM stations came in without a hitch, then the HD stations followed with better antenna placement; AM stations didn’t sound great and the antenna’s cord wasn’t long enough to reach easily to a window from our challenging testing location. As a small additional caveat, though JiMS-525i pulls in additional tag data from RDS signals sent by non-HD radio channels, and claims to be attempting to save the data, we invariably found that it wouldn’t transfer those “ambiguous” tags to the iPod for an attempt at locating the songs in iTunes. HD Radio tags worked—except for the unsupported iPod touch and classic—but FM radio tags did not.
Another issue is the unit’s video output. To its credit, Jensen does include two cables that can be used to connect JiMS-525i to a television set to serve as a video dock for even authenticated 2007 iPods and the iPhone. Unfortunately, the S-Video output isn’t perfectly clean—there were light streaks running through videos on our iPhones and iPods, for instance—but it’s watchable, and not bad enough to earn a major demerit. On a related note, the otherwise good 28-button remote control works fine and looks good, but omits iPod menu navigation features. These little issues aside, JiMS-525i would have been a very good “do it all” TV companion for an iPod; as-is, it does well enough to satisfy less than discerning users.
One other small issue is the unit’s default behavior with connected iPods: when JiMS-525i is turned on and in iPod mode, it starts playing whatever the iPod was previously playing as soon as the connection is made. Little glitches made this “feature” unpredictable and a little undesirable—we occasionally saw the iPod start playing, albeit inaudibly, when the radio was on, or we didn’t want to start a song immediately on connection. These issues weren’t constant, and there are workarounds, but it would be nice to see them fixed. Similarly, though the system is Works With iPhone-certified, we noticed a little TDMA noise in its iPhone audio when calls came in or the data features were being used—similar to what we’ve heard in iHome’s iPhone-ready alarm clock systems—but the noise didn’t hurt radio reception as it did in the iHome units. We’d characterize the iPhone sonic issues as very minor compared with systems that haven’t been shielded against interference in any way.
Overall, though we were on the edge of B+ and A- ratings for JiMS-525i because of the aforementioned issues, we ultimately felt that the system deserved our high recommendation because of the great value it offers to iPod and iPhone users: if you’re looking to test the waters of HD Radio, it’s presently impossible to find anything iPod- or iPhone-ready that compares to its feature set for the $150 price tag, and it proves that tuning and tagging needn’t be as frustrating nor expensive as in the i-Sonic ES2. Similarly, though the implementation is a little short of ideal, the included iPod and iPhone compatibility and video-out features are welcome at this price level, given that other companies have charged too-steep premiums for these features. Unless something substantially better comes along at a reasonable price, consider JiMS-525i a top pick if you’re looking for an affordable clock radio and speaker dock.