Generally, the speakers you put in or on your ears aren’t speakers you’d want to mount on a desk and use for tabletop listening, but there’s potential for overlap between these two different types of audio options. iHome has created iHMP5 ($70) as the accessory to bridge this gap, placing a pair of 50mm drivers inside a largely plastic headphone-shaped housing that can be folded up for storage, unfolded to wear on the head, or unfolded and rotated to become a set of stereo speakers. While iHMP5 handles all of these tasks with significant ease and one smart trick, its audio quality as a desktop speaker isn’t especially impressive for the price, and we’d sooner recommend putting the same dollars towards a better-sounding audio system.
The iHMP5 package is simple: you get the headset—silver and black, with either gray, red, or blue metallic earcups—plus an integrated in-line volume control box, and two AAA batteries. There’s no carrying case or other frill, and though iHMP5’s parts don’t feel expensive, they don’t feel cheap or poorly selected, either. On the interior top of the headband is a plasticy foam pad, matched by similarly leather-like pads for your ears. These parts work to make iHMP5 feel fairly comfortable, so though we’ve never been fans of on-ear earphone designs, we can say with some confidence that these are soft and flexible enough not to hurt your head or ears; we’ve also felt even more comfortable ones, albeit at higher prices.
From a design standpoint, the single real innovation here is the way that the headphones rotate around and join together to become speakers. One earcup has a male connector, the other a female connector, and when they’re joined, the system flips into speaker mode, engaging the AAA batteries and an integrated amplifier. This amplifier instantly boosts the volume to a level that’s far easier to hear than the speakers in current-generation iPod touch or iPhone devices, and can be turned up to a peak level that’s audible even over significant ambient noise, such as a lawnmower outside a nearby window. Because such sound would destroy your ears up close, iHMP5’s amplifier remains inaccessible unless the speakers are off your head and properly pivoted; the lack of a separate power button is fine, but does demand that the speakers be disconnected from each other in order to avoid sapping the batteries. We’d imagine that this will be the single biggest issue facing those who decide to take the plunge and give this system a try.
Whether you’ll be amongst them will depend on what you’re looking for and whether you’re willing to spend $70. As a pair of on-ear headphones, iHMP5 produces audio that’s roughly equivalent to Apple’s iPod and iPhone pack-ins in fidelity, only with considerably better bass and equally diminished treble and mid-treble. Songs are performed with deeper beats but modest apparent detail, thanks to the high-end omissions. Our impression is that these speakers were selected first and foremost to be good for headphone listening, and they do a fair job.
In speaker mode, they’re not so impressive, akin to the quality one might expect from a low-end radio rather than a true stereo speaker system. Here, the drivers sound flat, and appear to be straining just to keep up with the midrange, performing voices and some midrange sounds with a sizzle with minimal bass. Turning up the volume past the 80% point on an iPod’s volume meter begins to create unpleasant distortion, at a point at which the amplitude compares to a typical pair of desktop speakers on low to mid volume, albeit with much lower fidelity. It should also be mentioned that they generally work with iPhones, including physical compatibility with the original iPhone’s recessed headphone port, except when an iPhone, iPhone 3G, or iPhone 3GS is in EDGE mode. At that point, it’s obvious that iHMP5 has inadequate against TDMA interference, which can be heard in speaker mode whenever the phone communicates with a cell tower. In 3G and Wi-Fi modes, this isn’t an issue, but original iPhone users probably won’t be thrilled with the speakers’ performance.
One final note on the iHMP5 concerns its pricing. Certainly, there’s a price point at which a pair of speakers that double as headphones begins to make sense, even if they’re not spectacular in either usage scenario. iHMP5 was originally supposed to be a $50-$60 offering, but somehow actually hit shelves at a higher MSRP of $70. While it would have been on the edge of our recommendation level ratings at $50, the current price point strikes us as just too high for so-so speakers, even when they serve dual purposes. That said, if you’re willing to accept merely passable desktop audio, and are looking for a pair of fine on-ear headphones, iHMP5’s ability to do both things may appeal to you, regardless.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: All iPods and iPhones* except iPod shuffle 3G