What would the Apple accessory world be like if developers stopped producing speakers with Lightning docks, switching instead to device-agnostic Bluetooth? The answer can be found in iHome’s iBN97 ($100), a new universal Bluetooth wireless clock radio from the maker of ubiquitous Apple speakers. Coming in at the same midrange price point as most of the company’s best-known docking classics, iBN97 demonstrates what iHome can — and can’t — do when it removes all traces of Apple-specific device support from a product.
It should be noted up front that iBN97 is a slightly modified version of the iBT97—a functionally similar model that was introduced at CES earlier this year. iBN97 adds an NFC pairing option, which has no benefit for iOS device users, while preserving the same basic industrial design and functionality as its predecessor. Both are 10.75” wide at their fronts, tapering to roughly 9.5” in the back, with a 6.25” maximum depth and 3.4” peak height. As of the date of publication of this review, there is very little information about iBN97 online—no iHome web page, for instance—but quite a bit about iBT97.
One of the advantages of omitting Apple’s costly connectors is the ability to use the same dollars towards other components, which is exactly what the value-conscious iHome has done with iBN97. For the first time in memory, the company has given a $100 speaker a fully metal and seriously handsome front grille—a perforated set of six horizontal ribs that’s interrupted by a large LCD screen with an edgy, futuristic font. While the rest of the unit is decidedly plastic, iHome has chosen a nice combination of metallic silver and gray materials that help to make iBN97 feel like a step up from many of the company’s past $100 offerings; most of the 15 silver buttons (and one gunmetal button) are internally illuminated with white lights, which change in brightness to match the eight dimmer settings for the screen. iHome even props iBN97 up using two metallic plastic front feet, which help bring the audio drivers upwards a bit from a flat surface. Aesthetically, there is a lot here to like.
Under the hood, iBN97 is a lot like a dozen other iHome clock radios we’ve reviewed, only reliant on Bluetooth for audio rather than an Apple dock. In addition to front-firing speakers, it includes two integrated alarms, sleep, nap, and wakeup timers, plus a strong but slightly staticky FM radio with permanently integrated rear antenna. The alarms work as expected, automatically playing FM radio, a progressively louder and more repetitive beep, or audio from your Bluetooth device at the appointed minute every day, weekday, or weekend day; iHome also helpfully includes four synthesized tones that range from a jackhammer-like bell to a sonar-like ping if you prefer them, letting each ratchet up in volume until small children would be scared by the noises.
Sonically, iBN97 sounds like iHome’s better $100 clock offerings. While the frequency response offered by the drivers isn’t up to snuff with the best-designed standalone speakers we’ve heard at this price point, iBN97 does a good job of delivering respectable highs, solid midrange, and just enough bass that most users won’t complain. The major differentiator with smaller $100 speakers is the peak volume performance, which at level 40 is very close to small room filling and relatively low on distortion. Bluetooth streaming worked reliably from up to 50-foot unobstructed distances before audio drop-outs began, which is better than the basic Bluetooth 33-foot standard.
Beyond that, iBN97’s feature list will be somewhat hit-or-miss for iOS device users. On the plus side, the system not only uses Bluetooth for a wireless connection to any iOS device and the current iPod nano, but also includes speakerphone functionality for iPhones. Dedicated call answer and end buttons are found on the top, along with a microphone hole. Callers told us that we sounded fine, but we noted that they sounded overly filtered on our side—almost as if the edges of their voices were being smoothed out. There’s also a USB port on the back with 2.1-Amp output, and an included, unpadded dock-esque insert that slips onto the top to hold your choice of iPad, iPhone, or iPod—typically on their sides, unless you’re not planning to charge them while using the speaker.
iBN97 has some atypical pain points for Apple device users. Beyond having to supply your own USB cable for charging, you’ll find that the USB cable is solely for power—not audio—so you’ll have to either make a Bluetooth connection or connect the packed-in 3.5mm audio cable for that purpose. Once you’ve paired with a device, the wireless connection remains on even when the speaker isn’t officially on and in Bluetooth mode, which is a mixed blessing: it lets iBN97 automatically start playing music whenever your device is streaming it, and intercepts speakerphone calls automatically, but it also means greater battery drain on the docked or undocked device.
Moreover, neither Bluetooth nor the USB cable enables an Apple device to “time sync,” a convenient feature of numerous iHome clock radios that eliminates your need to set the time and date by bringing settings over from the connected device. You’ll actually need to set the clock yourself using a hard-to-read labelled secondary feature of the “nap” button, a small inconvenience that iHome mitigates by including a battery for clock backup purposes. Unless the battery’s dead and the clock loses power, you won’t have to set the clock again apart from Daylight Saving Time changes, but we wished that wasn’t necessary. Other little touches that are sometimes found in other $100 iHome speakers, including app support/control, a second device charger, or a remote control aren’t included here.
After testing iBN97, the big question isn’t whether this is a recommendable speaker for the media player/smartphone/tablet market as a whole, but whether we’d actively recommend it to Apple device users. On balance, the answer is yes, but it’s a close call—the $100 price strikes us as reasonable for a Bluetooth speaker and speakerphone with this model’s solid sonic and handsome industrial design traits, offset by a handful of issues that iOS device and iPod nano users aren’t accustomed to dealing with. If you’re willing to give up the conveniences of traditional docking, iBN97 does a good job, but if you’re using an older Apple device with a Dock Connector, you may find that iHome’s earlier iD50, a comparably equipped speaker that adds an old-style Apple dock, AM radio tuner, and remote control to the mix, delivers a better mix of features for only $30 more.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Equipped iPads, iPhones, iPods