Portable Bluetooth speakerphones have suddenly become all the rage with accessory developers — over the last two weeks, we’ve reviewed Uniden’s BTS200 and Strax’s Xqisit XqBeats, while iHome has debuted iDM15 ($100). All three of these systems look pretty similar to one another on paper, pairing two speakers and a microphone with a Bluetooth 2.1 wireless chipset and a portable battery, but in practice, each has its advantages. iDM15 is the largest of the bunch and has been maximized for iPad users; BTS200 is right in the middle, and XqBeats is the smallest and also the weakest of the bunch.
The story with iDM15 is fairly classic iHome, offering thoughtful design and good value for the dollar, plus respectable rather than mindblowing audio quality. For the price, you get two silver battery-powered speakers, as well as a hard plastic carrying box that converts into an iPad/iPad 2 stand. Volumetrically, the compacted-down speakers and box occupy approximately 50% more space as the BTS200, but when they’re expanded out with the included cabling—one wire to connect the speakers, and a dual wire for charging and auxiliary audio input—you have what looks like a much larger audio platform, complete with the benefit of wider stereo separation.
Given that BTS200 uniquely includes full iPhone recharging capability via a special detachable battery, it bears mention that iDM15’s stand is just a plastic frame without charging functionality for iPhones, iPods, or iPads; iHome’s rechargeable battery serves solely to power the speakers. The carrying box separates into two sides, one of which becomes the iPad stand, while the other gets added behind it to provide stability and support that the stand definitely needs. When you’re done using the stand, the box snaps back together to hold the speakers and cables in two compartments, an efficient and practical design.
Some companies might have developed iDM15 to optionally operate fully in single speaker mode, but iHome went in a different direction. The right speaker contains most of the unit’s electronics, including iDM15’s battery and Bluetooth hardware, and you’ll need to use the white wire to connect the left speaker for stereo listening—a reason that this system can’t truly be called “wireless,” though it works flawlessly with multiple devices for Bluetooth audio streaming from 30-foot distances. It’s a little surprising that the microphone for iPhone speakerphone use is inside the powered right speaker, yet the microphone can only be used when both speakers are physically connected to one another.
There’s good and bad news to report on iDM15’s audio performance. Let’s start with the good news: iDM15 uses SRS TruBass to make the most of its small drivers, which sound markedly better in stereo streaming mode than BTS200—fuller, cleaner, and with less distortion, plus much more obviously stereophonic thanks to the ease of separating the speakers. While you’re not going to be blown away by how iDM15 sounds overall due to the limitations of small single-driver-per-channel audio solutions, it’s respectable given iDM15’s size and price: music doesn’t sound huge or rich enough to fill a small room, but there’s more than enough volume to be heard on a desktop, plus a little more detail and depth than in smaller units we’ve tested.
On the other hand, iDM15 is modestly outclassed as a speakerphone by BTS200. iHome touts iDM15 as having SoundClear Voice echo cancellation to improve its sound quality with monaural iPhone calls, and callers didn’t have a problem hearing us in speakerphone mode. But iHome actually disables the right speaker during phone calls, which leaves the microphone inside that housing to operate without competition—or the benefit of extra volume. Consequently, the left speaker still operates, but iDM15 winds up sounding weaker than the BTS200, which has the edge on fullness and amplitude in speakerphone mode, offering both better speaker and microphone performance than iDM15. Callers could immediately tell the difference when hearing us talk through the microphones, and preferred the way we sounded with BTS200, though not by a wide margin.
While its performance in stereo and monaural modes was mixed, our overall impression of iDM15 is positive: this is a good compact Bluetooth speaker option, particularly for stereo streaming purposes, where it excels over even more expensive wireless rivals. iPad users in particular will appreciate the stand design and overall portability strategy chosen by iHome, which delivers superior sound quality for music—at a lower price—while only requiring a little additional space in a bag. On the other hand, iPhone users will need to consider whether Uniden’s superior speakerphone performance, smaller size, and included detachable battery/charging feature justify a slightly higher price. Both of these are good options, and worthy of our general recommendation; we’d give BTS200 a modest edge due to the extra value it includes for the price, but it’s hard to go wrong with either one.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPhone 3G/3GS/4, All iPads, Other iPods*