Last year, iPod speaker innovation appeared to have all but come to an end. The few companies who weren’t aping Bose’s SoundDock had settled into a predictable rut, releasing either iterative improvements to their own prior models, or trying minor spins on those released by others. Then, for whatever reason, the middle of 2008 caught us by surprise: three companies recently delivered four audio systems that took different, interesting spins on earlier genres in an effort to appeal to new audiences. We’re looking at all four of them in separate reviews today.
Two of the speakers are from iHome, which is best known for its alarm clock radios but has continued to expand into virtually every conceivable type of iPod audio system. Today’s designs are best understood as hybrid iPod and multimedia speakers—the sorts we would have expected to see from a company such as JBL, but so far have not. First is the iH70 ($150), a pair of silver and black computer speakers with an integrated iPod dock; next is the iH51, a pair of satellite speakers bundled with a standalone subwoofer and a separate iPod dock-slash-alarm clock radio charging base. Though they sell for the same price, these two systems are very different from one another in appeal; on balance, we think the iH51 delivers a markedly superior experience for the dollar.
Though they can conceivably be set up anywhere in your home or office, the iH70 speakers were designed to stand off to the left and right of a computer monitor, augmenting whatever integrated audio hardware your PC or Mac might have.
iHome includes cables to connect the speakers to each other—even a few feet away—plus your computer’s audio port and USB port, the latter constituting iH70’s most interesting feature. Lots of companies sell iPod speakers and computer speakers, but iHome here blends both into a single package, integrating an iPod dock that can be used for audio, synchronization, or just charging.
The dock is on the left side, sitting in front of the black fabric speaker grille, but not in front of the 2.25” driver itself. iHome’s right speaker replaces the dock with only three large buttons, one for power, and the others for volume. There’s also a “Sync Button” on the left speaker’s back, which triggers the iPod-to-computer synchronization feature, simultaneously disabling the iPod’s audio.
Unusually, iHome offloads almost all of the system’s other features onto an “optional” 19-button Infrared remote control, which offers iPod menu navigation, bass, treble, and 3D spatialization features, and one-touch mute, shuffle, and repeat buttons for times when you’re not sitting by your computer. Without this remote, which came with our review unit and should be included with most of the iH70s sold in stores, you can’t access any of the system’s integrated audio features save for the ones with buttons on the speakers.
For the price, we wouldn’t consider buying the iH70 if it didn’t include the remote.
Since there isn’t anything exactly like it on the market, we don’t have a lot to say about the iH70’s audio performance relative to similar iPod speakers. From a functional standpoint, users may find that certain JBL On Stage units—including the recent 200ID and the earlier Micro—provide substantially the same sort of audio experience, only in different and possibly less monitor-friendly form factors. In testing against the same-priced 200ID, we felt that the iH70 had a modest advantage in the bass department, while the 200ID offered cleaner sound and slightly superior treble; it also made the iH70’s otherwise interesting 3-D spatialization feature sound rough. By comparison, the iH70’s drivers are larger than the mini two- and four-driver arrays found in On Stage Micro-like systems that are smaller than the 200ID, and strain less to produce fuller-bodied sound.
We may have preferred the 200ID’s sound to the iH70’s overall, but as noted, judging these systems purely on audio quality misses a part of the value equation. USB synchronization has quietly disappeared from many iPod audio systems, including JBL’s On Stage systems, sometimes in the middle of their production runs. Unlike them, the iH70 guarantees that you’ll be able to hear and synchronize your iPod while at your computer, a benefit offset only by the question of whether you need to hear your iPod when your PC or Mac’s iTunes library is already connected to the speakers.
It’s worth a brief note that the iH70 isn’t iHome’s only offering in the hybrid multimedia-iPod speaker category: the company will soon also offer the similar, black and gray iH69 for $100, or $50 less than the iH70.