The design challenges inherent in small speakers have been established for decades: regardless of the audio drivers and amplifier an engineer selects, there’s only so much space inside a little speaker cabinet — generally too little room for the sort of resonance or wooden walls that help with rich bass, and similarly tight quarters to pack in multiple speakers for both left and right audio channels. Consequently, developers wisely tend to make small speakers inexpensive and simple, recognizing that consumer disappointment would be inevitable at higher prices. That philosophy explains the appeal of three new wireless speakers we review today: iHome’s iDM8 ($60) and iDM11 ($70), as well as iFrogz’ Boost. All three of these speakers are only a little bigger than pocketable, occupying several times the total physical volume of an iPhone, and designed to occupy a small corner of a desk. They’re all designed for convenience, and Boost uses an extremely novel technology to achieve its wireless connection with your iOS device. Both of iHome’s units use traditional Bluetooth.
Though iDM8 and iDM11 look considerably different from one another and vary a little bit in performance and features, they have a lot more in common than not. The less expensive iDM8 is shaped like a 3.47”-diameter red or black globe with a flat bottom, measuring 3.07” tall. A glossy silver ring holds volume buttons on the right, and power/Bluetooth pairing-play/pause buttons on the left. Despite housing a similar single speaker inside, iDM11 is instead shaped like a box that reclines in a diamond position. This model measures 3.9” wide by 3.94” tall by 4.49” deep, looking very nearly square except for a pyramidal slice that’s been taken from its bottom, leaving a triangular base accented by a light that glows blue or red when the power’s on. iDM11’s front speaker grille is interestingly concave, with a centered iHome logo; separate power, Bluetooth/play/pause, and volume buttons are located somewhat awkwardly on its rear, with a microphone hole on its upper right side.
Unlike Boost, which hits a considerably lower $40 price point, iDM8 and iDM11 don’t skimp on the frills. iHome packages each speaker with a Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery and a single cable that has 3.5mm audio and micro-USB plugs, enabling the generally wireless units to operate in wired mode or charge whenever you need. Roughly ten hours of play time can be expected from each speaker; a locking switch on iDM8’s bottom and iDM11’s back enables you to switch to aux-in or fully button-locked modes if you don’t want to intentionally or accidentally trigger the wireless features. While neither unit comes with a carrying case, and both feel as if they’re really meant to be set on a desk and left there, they’re both lightweight and small enough to be tossed into a bag for on-the-go use; neither will fit into typical pants pockets.
Sonically, there aren’t any major surprises with either iDM8 or iDM11. They both put out audio that’s noticeably louder and a little clearer than what even the iPhone 4S is capable of on its own—roughly twice the volume level of the iPad and iPad 2. iDM8 is a very slightly superior bass performer than iDM11, which has a similarly modest advantage in treble performance. Both are limited to monaural playback, combining the stereo output from iOS devices into a single channel. And both can work from greater than 30-foot distances with iPod touches, iPhones, and iPads; we experienced signal drop only when the broadcasting device was obstructed at a roughly 60-foot distance, far greater than Bluetooth’s typical 33-foot transmission limit.
iDM11 is the only one with an integrated microphone, enabling it to serve as a speakerphone for iPhone calls: again, it’s louder than even the iPhone family’s loudest 4S speaker, though the microphone performance isn’t quite as impressive: it’s more positionally dependent than the noise-canceling mic in the latest iPhones, and though slightly more treble-accented isn’t quite as good at filtering out ambient noise. Assuming that you place it in the right spot on your desk—say, a little off to the left of wherever you’re sitting—its speakerphone performance will be close enough to the iPhone 4S’s that you’ll get the benefits of louder volume without much compromise in mic performance, but otherwise, the iPhone 4/4S mics will sound a step or so better to your callers.
iDM8 has a small edge in the usability department, at least until you get used to iDM11’s back-mounted controls. As a general rule, it’s not a great idea to position buttons on the back of a device such that users need to spin the unit around every time they want to use it, and iHome clearly knew that iDM11’s design wasn’t optimal in this regard: it even has labels on the upper right side panel to indicate what the same-labeled buttons do on the back. But neither of the labels is particularly visible when you’re using iDM11 from the front, so you’re best off memorizing the order of the buttons and distinguishing them by size and location. Both of the speakers could have benefitted in usability from having front-facing controls, even though they mightn’t have looked as cool as a result.
Overall, iDM8 and iDM11 are both good small speakers—attractively designed, respectably equipped in features, and sonically good enough to justify their reasonable asking prices. Like most small speaker makers, iHome has focused here on maximizing performance for the dollar, and you’ll get considerably more bang for the buck with either of these speakers than higher-priced systems such as the Jawbone Jambox, while lower-priced speakers such as iFrogz’ Boost don’t include the battery or cables found in these packages. That said, you’ll give up stereo separation and a little dynamic range when going with either of these monaural solutions—not real losses given their sizes and price tags—while the less than optimally-located controls could use some rethinking. These are relatively small issues given how much iDM8 and iDM11 do right for $60-$70; both are worthy of our general recommendation and B rating.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S, All iPads