Review: Rain Design iWoofer
Pros: An alien dog-shaped, whimsical, fun take on the all-in-one iPod sound system theme, packing three speaker drivers into an enclosure that runs off wall or AA battery power. Charges, PC/Mac synchronizes, and performs audio from an iPod, with nice audio balance. Includes FM radio tuning feature, bottom glowing light, bass controls.
Cons: FM radio tuning is difficult and unimpressive thanks to lack of tuning screen; you’ll almost have to set to one channel and leave it. Peak volume level is relatively low. Size and shape of system, especially exposed Dock Connector, antenna and legs, make system less than fully portable without optional protective case.
In our view, your interest in Rain Design’s new iWoofer ($129) will most likely hinge on one factor: whether you’re willing to pay a premium for an interesting and unusual design. Billed as a “designer iPod speaker system” and shaped like a little (4.5” diameter) four-legged alien dog with chrome feet and eyes, iWoofer has a better chance of hooking you visually than on the power or value of its key components: three speakers and a FM radio.
Rain Design deserves lot of credit for thinking outside the box: by contrast with, say, mStation’s Orb, which is the same globe-like shape as iWoofer, only larger, Rain manages to make its three speaker drivers - two 1.25” full-range drivers and one 2.5” subwoofer - look fun. The small drivers are chrome-ringed, black mesh-covered eyes above a small open white mouth, and the larger driver is found on the dog’s belly, surrounded by a circle of blue light. You can turn the light on or off, and watch it flash as you change stations on the radio.
On top of the system are two prominent features: a chrome, adjustable antenna, and a resizeable iPod dock. Clear plastic cradles are included to hold full-sized iPods, iPod minis, or the iPod shuffle; any iPod with a Dock Connector port will recharge while it’s connected. Unusually, Rain is selling a separate version of iWoofer specifically designed for the iPod nano, and doesn’t include a nano cradle with the full-sized iWoofer. Thankfully, it still fits without a problem.
Two gray circles reminiscent of Apple’s Click Wheels are found on the system’s sides, each with five functions. The left one switches between FM radio and iPod modes, changing FM stations or the tracks of any Dock Connector-equipped iPod. There’s also a button in the center that turns off the bottom light. The right one has bass up/down and volume up/down controls, plus a power button.
There are three ports on the back, one providing audio input - required for use with an iPod shuffle - power input, and USB connectivity so that iWoofer can be used as a computer syncing and docking station. Finally, a battery compartment above the ports opens to allow four AA batteries (not included) to power the system. It goes without saying that we appreciate the option to use this speaker without the included power supply, but because of its size and shape - particularly its exposed Dock Connector plug, legs and antenna - we consider it only semi-portable, and don’t think it’s likely that people will be carrying it outside too much. Rain has developed a custom carrying case for the system, which people will need to buy separately to really take advantage of iWoofer’s portability.
So here’s the good news: iWoofer’s sound quality is at least fine, and perhaps a bit better than that, depending on your expectations. If you’re not expecting the horsepower or presence of a less expensive, non-portable system like JBL’s Creature II (iLounge rating: A), and want something that’s good enough to keep next to your bed or on a desk, you’ll be pleased: unlike iHome’s iPod docking radio speaker system iH5 (iLounge rating: A-), iWoofer doesn’t lack for treble, and its adjustable bass response is tight rather than warm. It’s an undeniably cute, conversation-starting little speaker.
The bad news, however, isn’t trivial. Channel scanning using the radio is the worst we’ve seen on any iPod radio attachment to date: there’s no way to see what channel you’re on, as iWoofer’s tuner neither interfaces with the iPod’s screen nor includes one of its own. As a consequence, you literally have to surf blind and hope to find something audible. We wouldn’t call the radio the peer of Tivoli’s equally-priced iPAL (iLounge rating: B+) radio on reception, tuning, or sound; iPAL does a much better job of minimizing static. That said, we heard a little less static at some points on iWoofer than we did when tuning the iHome iH5 - assuming we could find the station we were looking for. The best we can say is that iWoofer’s radio will be fine for people who only like one radio station, and don’t mind keeping the system tuned to that station at all times.
Rain also apparently made a conscious choice to limit audio distortion by capping iWoofer’s volume, a decision which some users will appreciate more than others. We’d roughly estimate iWoofer’s peak amplitude at about half that of the iH5, and roughly equivalent to Tivoli’s iPAL. The volume cap doesn’t completely preclude audio problems, though: it’s possible to drive the system into distortion if you raise the bass level to or near its peak, so you won’t want to crank the bass up too much.
Overall, rating iWoofer was a real challenge, and one that in our minds came down to four major factors: the innovation of its aesthetic design and overall quality of its sound, offset by the mediocrity of the FM radio’s implementation, and the $129 price tag. On one hand, picky speaker fans will point to iWoofer’s price and performance as unimpressive by contrast with other options we’ve noted above, and undoubtably view it as a C-level, passable option, but on the other hand, younger users and others enamored with the unique-looking enclosure will be generally happy with the sound balance and quality of radio reception, and put off only by the limited tuning and volume. We’re also pretty sure that those who like iWoofer won’t be too put off by the price, though it could stand to be cheaper, especially given the relative value one gets from less expensive options such as iHome’s iH5.
iWoofer clearly isn’t a speaker designed to appeal to everyone, and though it’s not ideal even for its target audience, it’s a good enough option to merit our base-level general recommendation. Going forward, we think that lower pricing, superior FM tuning, or different enclosure styles will win over more people, and frankly, we’re hoping to see Rain Design do all three - the company clearly knows how to make a fun and different iPod accessory, and this sort of creativity is sorely needed right now.