Review: Microlab iH11 + iM200 Hi-Fi Speakers with iDock System
Over the years, we've learned a lot about the way that iPod and iPhone accessory developers can shave dollars off of their prices -- and though it's always exciting to see a breakthrough technology or process that lowers the cost of a new product to a level that might have been unthinkable years before, there are certain all but inescapable realities that govern new product releases. One: it's extremely difficult for a major manufacturer to sell a quality iPod-docking speaker system for $60, and challenging enough below $150 that only a few companies these days are making efforts at that price level. Yet Microlab Technology has released three speakers that all sell for less than $150; we've already reviewed the all-in-one MD332, and today, we're looking at two others, the low-end 2.1-channel system iM200 ($70) and the higher-end 2-channel system iH11 ($140).
A couple of things need to be mentioned up front about all three of these speaker offerings. First, Microlab upped their prices after we originally received them for testing in late February, bumping the iM200 by $10, and the other two systems by $20 each, moving “what’s going on?” prices into the “low but less insane” range. As of today, there are few if any brand new iPod dockable speakers like these at the same price points. Second, we reviewed MD332 first because—despite some of its engineering issues—we were actually pretty impressed by its looks and sound quality for the dollar. iM200 and iH11 were placed on the back burner because they didn’t do as much for us in concept or execution.
Unlike MD332, an all-in-one housing with three speakers and an iPod dock inside, iM200 and iH11 are multi-piece speaker systems with a remote-controlled iPod dock tossed into each package. The dock is called the “iDock 100,” and Microlab actually sells it separately for $50 without speakers, giving the user a silver and black Universal Dock-equipped audio center with a volume knob, RCA-style audio, video, and S-Video outputs, plus a minijack-style audio input for auxiliary audio devices. When connected to power with its own wall adapter, the iDock illuminates its plastic volume knob with a blue ring to let you know that the system’s turned on; you can only turn it off with the included remote control. Flipping a power switch on the back of the connected speakers only turns off the speakers, not the dock. As long as a power supply’s connected to the dock, it will charge a connected iPod’s battery regardless of whether the blue light’s on or off. Video output from the iDock is clean, and even works with iPhones.
Microlab’s iDock remote is a much nicer looking design than the one included with MD332. Square with 12 buttons for power, volume, input selection, track control and iPod menu navigation, it matches the black colors of all of Microlab’s speakers, provides solid tactility with elevated rubber buttons, and feels nice enough in the hand to be unobjectionable. By comparison, MD332’s remote was visually mismatched to the system and oversized, but also included radio, clock, treble and bass features that are missing from both the iM200 and the iH11. We’d prefer to have the bass and treble controls on these systems, but there are engineering reasons that they’re not included.
The key reason: these are just generic multimedia speakers with audio connector inputs for the iDock, with no communication, power line, or other connectivity enabling the remote or dock to control the speakers. In the case of iM200, you get two lightweight, single-driver satellite speakers with smoke-clear plastic edging, plus a wood-cabineted subwoofer that is actually pretty oddly designed: its name and bass port hole are found on its right side, with its bass level control knob and various connector ports on the back, such that if you turn it to make the face visible, you see all the cables sticking out of the side. On a positive note, Microlab’s satellite speakers have RCA-style connectors for easy attachment to the subwoofer, making setup only a little more challenging—though a lot more wire-intensive—than with the MD332. Plug the dock in, connect the satellites, flip a switch on the subwoofer’s back, and the system’s ready to play.
Mostly. When we plugged an iPod into the iM200 for the first time, the volume level was at or near the system’s peak, and due to some electronic mismatches between the remote and integrated volume knob controls, we struggled a little to turn the volume down quickly. Once it was adjusted, it was fine thereafter, and the system thankfully remembered the previous settings even when the power was pulled. It almost goes without saying given that iM200 sells for only $20 more than the iDock alone, but we felt that the sound quality was good for the price—robust in the bass department at any volume, with decent midrange and treble performance at regular volumes, the latter two becoming flatter and less impressive as the volume climbs upwards from there. The bass comes from a 5” dedicated woofer, and the rest of the sound from 2.5” tweeters. Calling the iM200 a “boom and tizz” box that’s heavy on the boom would be fair but for the fact that it sells for only $70; most systems at that price have way less bass, and roughly equivalent midrange, though somewhat stronger treble.
By comparison, iH11 is an upscale model that generally merits its higher price, though it also has little issues of its own. This model has the faux leather-wrapped wooden cabinet design of the MD332—something we really liked—and unlike the other systems actually houses four total speakers rather than three, here a pair of 1” tweeters and 4” full-range drivers behind a fabric and plastic mesh face. A brushed gunmetal plate at the bottom of each speaker face adds additional class that glossy plastic bezels only modestly detract from. Overall, these are nicer-looking and -feeling speaker cabinets than the price would suggest, just like the MD332.
Surprisingly, connecting the speakers and dock to one another winds up taking even more work than the iM200, as Microlab’s left-right speaker wire is a raw strand cable that you need to prime on your own; iM200’s RCA-style connectors made everything simpler. Once again, the dock and remote stand on their own relative to the speakers, such that iH11 requires two wall sockets and has too many cables running from piece to piece.
Though iH11 and iM200 are both in the same general sound category—good for the price, rather than great by any absolute standard—the iH11 is a somewhat better pick for more discerning listeners. As is to be expected from the unit’s dedicated, smaller tweeters and similarly smaller full-range drivers, it offers superior sound fidelity all throughout its slightly higher volume range, with clearer treble and midrange performance, though noticeably less bass, as well.
The iM200’s 5” subwoofer has more of a room-filling warmth relative to the iH11’s tighter but not anemic twin 4” drivers, and the result is sound that most users will like right out of the box without any need for EQing or tweaking. iH11 sounds better when it’s turned up loud than the iM200, with fairly consistent bass performance as it ramps up in volume, suffering a little in the mid and treble department.
As should be clear from both our comments and their prices, neither of these options is going to win any awards based on design, simplicity or overall sound quality; to the contrary, each system’s overly numerous cables, twin power supplies, and little engineering issues should and will preclude them from being top choices for most people. That said, iH11 is a nice enough system to serve as a good budget choice for users who value pricing over simplicity, and iM200 is one of the most aggressively priced iPod docking speaker sets we’ve yet seen with 2.1-channel sound, excelling in bass relative to virtually every other option in its price range. Both are on the edge of our limited and general recommendations, pushed over the edge to flat B ratings based on their prices. Should those prices go up at all, we’d be far less inclined to suggest them as worthy of attention.