Every few years, an accessory category reaches saturation due to the number of similar options already in the marketplace — right now, that category is Bluetooth wireless speakers. Unknown developers are releasing new speakers every week, and established companies are already on their third, tenth, or twentieth iterations on the genre. Today, we’re looking at three new portable options with somewhat different features: iHome’s iBN6 ($100), Soundfreaq’s Double Spot ($120/$150), and Cambridge Audio’s GO V2 ($180). Each speaker connects to your iPhone, iPad, or Bluetooth-ready iPod.
Originally shown at CES back in January, iBN6 has three major and interrelated things going for it: an edgy new body and a IPX7 waterproof certification at a very affordable price. iHome is arguably the king of $100 speakers — it has had more very good and great options at this price point than any other Apple accessory maker — and iBN6 has been designed to deliver a compelling waterproof experience despite selling for $50 less than Grace Digital’s Ecostone and $130 less than Braven’s BRV-X. Measuring roughly 6” wide by 4.5” tall by 2.7” thick, iBN6 has two 1.25” front-facing drivers and what appears to be a 2.5” circular bass driver on the back.
Below an airtight, flip-open left compartment with power, USB-out, and aux-in ports, plus an “Eco” power-managing switch and reset button, iBN6 has a metal carabiner hook with an integrated bottle opener, and a unique top control panel. iHome’s designers used ruggedized rubber to form a grid of volume, track, power, and play/pause/Bluetooth buttons, situated between an otherwise hard plastic frame, continuing rubber stripes down iBN6’s sides and a matching grid on the bottom.
Though the unit’s brick-like shape and large size are unusual for a $100 three-driver speaker, iHome did a really nice job with the industrial design, and everything feels pretty sturdy. Metal front and rear speaker grilles don’t feel rigid enough to withstand tank treads, but they’re firm enough to protect the drivers again pretty much anything else. Hard rubber edging around the grilles should absorb the shock from most drops, as well. Unlike some inexpensive rivals, a full wall adapter is included in the package.
Sonically, iBN6 is a good rather than great performer. We were initially impressed that iHome appeared to include a three-speaker array in a $100 unit, as a combination of smaller and larger drivers can do a better job of reproducing the sonic spectrum than more common two-speaker solutions. But we were a little surprised to discover that iBN6’s bass was anemic, and testing suggests that there’s no third driver inside at all. The rear circle is at most a bass port, and not a particularly effective one until iBN6 reaches peak, not-quite-small-room-filling volumes. Audio is treble- and midrange-focused, with a bit of mid-bass and no deep bass to speak of. Music is better than radio-like, but not by much.
We also found the unit’s speaker hiss to be highly noticeable and somewhat distracting, particularly during speakerphone calls. Microphone testing similarly showed iBN6 to be a step or so below the clarity of integrated iPhone microphone hardware in clarity and gain control. Callers said that we sounded a little distant and fuzzy, but intelligible enough to understand during calls.
Apart from the bottle-opening carabiner clip — a cute little feature we haven’t seen on any other Bluetooth speaker — one other feature iBN6 has over rivals is an integrated 4400mAh battery, capable of powering either itself for 14 hours or helping to refuel an iPhone at 1-Amp speeds on the road. This puts iBN6 into a similar category to Braven’s BRV-1, which is notably much smaller and has recently dropped to a comparable $100 price point.
iBN6’s waterproof bona fides are somewhat unclear. iHome claims iPX7 certification on its packaging, saying that the housing keeps water and dirt out “no matter where you go.” But its website makes no reference to that certification, and there’s a conspicuous absence of promised submersibility or the ability to withstand specific types of water exposure. We tested iBN6 with splashes and also an extended flow of overhead water from a shower, and it continued to perform without any issues apart from the expected brief reduction in volume. Bluetooth performance was very solid at and beyond the expected 33-foot distance, though there were very brief and very occasional hiccups in streaming that did not appear to be distance-related.
Overall, iBN6 merits our B+ rating, albeit for somewhat different reasons than might have been expected. Its strongest selling points are the industrial design and cumulative functionality for the $100 price: between the waterproof speaker, the big battery, the neat carabiner clip and the included wall adapter, there’s enough in the box to make this a very good choice. That said, the sonic and speakerphone performance aren’t as compelling as we would have hoped for; the speaker hiss and limited frequency reproduction detract from what otherwise would have been our high recommendation. Consider iBN6 if you want a waterproof Bluetooth speaker at a budget price, appreciate side features, and don’t mind making some compromises on sound quality.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Equipped iPads, iPhones, iPods