Over the years, Cambridge SoundWorks has deservedly developed a reputation for creating audio systems with impossibly good sound given their small footprints, and the company’s new SoundWorks i525 ($200) continues the pattern: thanks to tapering and well above average audio components, this recently-released iPod alarm clock radio has a smaller footprint than the typical iHome clock system, and superior sound, too. But as an alarm clock, it’s behind the curve, and since that’s the way most users would expect to use it, i525 is harder to recommend than it could have been with a little extra engineering.
SoundWorks i525 benefits chiefly from three things: surprisingly strong bass given the size of its enclosure, the presence of Creative Labs’ X-Fi Crystalizer technology, and a deliberately simplified user interface. Most likely using iHome’s numerous past clock radios as a guide, Cambridge Soundworks built i525 to occupy a slightly narrower 10” width and shallower 5.75” depth than iHome’s typical 10.25” wide by 6.4” deep units, with its 3.4” height only slightly taller than the iHome iP9, and then only because of larger rubber feet on the bottom of the i525. On top are a single dial for volume and settings changes, 11 clearly labelled buttons, and an iPod dock as close to the system’s back as possible. A power cable attaches to a port next to auxiliary audio in and AM antenna ports at the rear, alongside a single large bass vent. There’s also a headphone port on the unit’s right side, away from the other ports, should you want to pull out audio from the integrated AM/FM radio or iPod dock.
A few things are conspicuously missing or not so impressive in SoundWorks i525 relative to clock radio competitors. iHome’s units always include battery backup features so that a loss of wall power doesn’t force a clock reset, and recent models have time sync buttons to pull the current time and date information from the connected device as another alternative to manually setting the clock. Cambridge SoundWorks doesn’t include either of these features, so if the unit loses power, you’ll need to manually adjust the clock and the day of the week.
Additionally, whereas iHome uses high-contrast white on black screens, i525 instead includes a lower-contrast, inexpensive amber screen with eight levels of dimming, but no calendar date, and smaller numbers. Straight out of the box, the i525’s screen looked like it was messed up as a result of the front plastic protective shield pressing against the clock during shipment, but the issue resolved itself shortly after being turned on; thereafter, it looked only like a comparatively cramped and underwhelming alternative to what iHome’s been including in sub-$100 clocks for years. i525 includes two alarms, but they’re not capable of being set for the week, weekday, or weekend settings offered in most iHomes, and the process of setting each alarm to wake you with a chime or music isn’t as intuitive as it should be. That said, the chime is frighteningly powerful, so if you’re in need of an alarm that will either wake you or lead your neighbors to call the police, i525 has it.
Cambridge SoundWorks’ FM radio performance is actually very impressive. Stations that come in with static on iHome’s units sound static-free on i525, and its seek feature—finding working stations automatically—is incredibly fast, toggling between strong stations three or four times faster than the plodding seek features of most of the iPod-ready radios we’ve tested. By comparison, i525’s AM radio performance is nothing to write home about, in equal parts dependent on both a large external antenna and proper placement close to a window; under the best conditions, it’s a rough tie with the typical iHome unit, albeit with less treble-heavy performance. There are also 16 total presets per band, accessible via a single preset button on the top of the unit or dedicated buttons on the remote control, which unfortunately has so many features that it looks dauntingly large and complex by comparison even with iHome’s most complex current models.
Where i525 completely wrecks lower-end alarm clock radios is in performance as an iPod stereo system. Most of iHome’s $100-$150 systems offer more than acceptable sound that we’d call better than clock radios of yesteryear but not up to snuff with top current iPod audio systems that lack for clocks, radios, and alarms. By comparison, plugging an iPod into i525 results immediately in the sort of impressively rich, clean audio that we’d normally expect from a $150 or $200 speaker without frills. Without screwing around at all with the settings, i525’s bass and clarity—the lack of warble—are discernibly superior to $100-$150 iHome speakers, and then, the system benefits further from some X-Fi features taken from the work of Cambridge’s parent company Creative Labs. Three types of sound optimizers and spatializers are capable of really making the most of your songs, and if you want to play around, separate -8 to +8 bass and treble settings actually work to bring up and down the lows and highs to your personal references.
Even before making personally satisfying adjustments, putting the i525 next to any iHome system at $150 or lower almost seemed like an unfair comparison to us; there was no evident distortion in tracks until we hit the 2/3 mark on i525’s volume slider, at which point the bass began to strain, continuing through the dangerously loud peak level 30. While iHome’s units roughly rival i525 in volume, they have comparatively little low-end presence, which is saying something given that iHome’s systems have generally done a pretty good job in the bass department for their low prices—they’re typically equivalent or superior to similarly-priced competing clock radios. Thus, if sound quality and overall richness were the only critical consideration in the purchase of an alarm clock radio, i525 would be a clear winner over most of its rivals.
But that’s the rub: i525 is only fine as an alarm clock, and though its sound quality is more impressive than most of the low-end competitors it faces, its $200 MSRP explains some of that difference—the fact that it’s now being sold for $150 through Cambridge SoundWorks and certain partners brings it into closer competition. There’s also the non-trivial fact that, unlike all of iHome’s recent units and most of the ones released by other companies, i525 lacks for any sort of iPhone compatibility, and though it sounds fine with iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4 models, it triggers a nag screen every time any iPhone is connected to the dock. Our general-level recommendation recognizes the strong sound quality, impressive Creative-aided audio adjustments, and impressively small footprint of this audio system, while noting that there are a few major caveats in the clock, radio, and compatibility department that may well steer you in another direction. Consider this if you’re looking for an iPod speaker first and a clock radio as a distant second feature. We would love to see Cambridge release an iPhone version of i525 with a more streamlined remote, superior clock, and better clock radio functionality for the same price; even better would be a more thoroughly redesigned take with the design cues from the beautiful Creative Labs ZiiSound D5. Such an item would be as impressive across the board as Cambridge SoundWorks and Creative are capable of delivering.
Company and Price
Company: Cambridge Soundworks/Creative
Compatible: All iPods