iHome has a well-known penchant for annually updating its mainstream $100 alarm clock radios, and has released new and slightly improved versions virtually every year since the original iH5 debuted for iPods nearly six years ago. At first, the changes were modest, but as time went on, iHome became bolder in bringing industrial design innovations from its higher-priced units down to the $100 models. This month, iHome debuted the iA91 ($100), its mid-2011 sequel to last year’s iP90, and there’s a similar story: iA91 combines design elements and features from the same-priced iP90 and $200 iA100 to produce a well-balanced new option at the $100 price point. [Editor’s Note: The company is also introducing the $100 iA92, which is identical to the iA91 except for the front grille: iA91 has a fabric face, and iA92 has a metal one. We received only the iA91 for review.]
The core of the iA91 is very similar to $100 clock radios iHome has released before. You receive a nightstand- or desktop-friendly unit with two built-in alarms, an AM/FM radio tuner, and a large black-and-white numeric clock face with a smaller but still readable calendar date below. Like all other iHome docking alarm clocks, iA91 can operate entirely without an iPod or iPhone plugged in, using a series of buttons on its top and back for controls. It becomes an active two-channel speaker for Apple’s devices when they’re placed in a Universal Dock on top, behind the buttons. Five Universal Dock Adapters are included for various iPhone and iPod models, along with a wall power adapter, an external AM radio antenna, and a remote control.
Though it mightn’t be obvious from the pictures, iHome has made quite a few changes to the iA91 relative to the iP90, and they’re mostly positive. iA100 used two silver plastic legs to suspend its chassis above the surface of a table, and iA91 borrows the idea, with modifications. iP90’s front bezel has morphed into an oversized single leg that raises the iA91 speaker grille a half inch off the table, angling its top and back in the process. While this is actually a really handsome evolution of the iP90 and iA100 designs, it comes at a cost: iHome has dramatically reduced the size of the rest of the enclosure, which previously bulged in the front, ran roughly an inch deeper in the back, and was just a little taller, too. Smaller enclosures typically mean weaker speaker performance, and as we’ll discuss below, that’s an issue here, albeit a minor one.
Given how much else has changed inside, it wouldn’t be fair to focus narrowly on iA91’s sonic performance, so let’s consider what else has been tweaked here. In the “small but nice” department are changes to the clock, which now is closer to true black rather than a dark purplish blue, while retaining a multi-stage dimmer that reduces the white numbers’ brightness along with the illumination of the top buttons. iHome has changed the top buttons to reduce the size of the volume and tuning rockers while preserving their functionality, and added dedicated “bedtime” and “wakeup” dimmer features, shifting the prior dedicated radio preset buttons to a single “presets” button in the process.
The company has also reduced the footprint and scope of the remote control again, shifting from the candybar-sized Rz1 to the smaller Rz6—a unit that lacks iPod/iPhone screen navigation features. Counterintuitive though it may seem, Rz6 outperforms Rz1 just by working properly: it doesn’t let you move up and down through iPod/iPhone screens from a distance, but it’s not as line-of-sight dependent as Rz1 was with iP90, and worked from 30-foot distances. On-screen navigation has never been our top priority with speaker dock remotes, so the omission here isn’t huge.
A bigger change in iA91 is the addition of app compatibility. Unlike the iP90, this model works with the free iHome + Sleep and paid iHome + Radio applications, which last year were only available for considerably higher- and lower-performance iHome speakers. iHome + Sleep provides not only additional software alarms and a pretty clock interface, but also direct control over iA91’s two integrated hardware alarms, which continue to offer 7-5-2 repeat settings and the ability to wake you from a buzzer, the connected device, a specific playlist, or either of the radios. The app also provides easy access to a nap timer, treble and bass adjustments for the speakers, brightness and time/date settings for the clock, and other controls that are far easier to handle with the intuitive software than with multiple clicks of the unit’s buttons. iHome + Sleep is a great app, and assuming that you have an iPod touch or iPhone, it makes the iA91 even better.
All of that having been said, iA91’s aesthetic, remote, and app enhancements do come at the cost of some speaker performance. The gains iP9 and iP90 made over their predecessors have been reduced here, as iA91’s speakers have less power than iP90’s, making music sound a little less full-bodied and a little more treble-heavy, while modestly reducing the peak volume level. Average users will neither notice nor care about these differences, but when iP90 and iA91 are placed side by side and used with seemingly identical volume, bass, treble, and “3-D sound” settings, iP90 sounds better—a bit bigger and richer. To be clear, iA91 generally sounds quite good given all that it includes for the $100 asking price; the sound has noticeably more treble and bass detail than in some $100 (and less expensive) alarm clocks, and you can play with the bass and treble settings to achieve a more dynamic balance. However, we did notice that iA91’s otherwise similar FM radio sometimes sounded unduly harsh in the treble department when 3-D sound was turned on, something that a firmware update to the unit hopefully will correct soon.
Overall, iA91 is on the fine edge of “very good” and “great,” and that’s probably entirely iHome’s intention this year. It can’t fairly be described as an across-the-board improvement to last year’s iP90 due to the speaker and remote control changes, factors that might weigh in favor of a “very good” conclusion, yet these omissions are offset by tangible improvements to the unit’s aesthetics, footprint, and app compatibility. On balance, we think that iA91 is as highly recommendable as its predecessor was, though it has somewhat different strengths and weaknesses. If you’re interested in a unit with more raw speaker power and willing to lose app compatibility and accept a larger chassis, go with iP90. But if a smaller, cooler-looking body with app control appeals to you, iA91 is the better choice. If we had to pick just one, we’d go with the iA91, but it’s hard to go wrong with either unit for the asking price.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: iPod classic, mini, nano, touch, iPhone/3G/3GS/4