Thanks as much to me-too designs as unrealistic pricing, most of the speakers we test these days are hard to get excited about — and conversely, new accessories that are both distinctive and properly-priced are particularly appreciated. iHome’s tower-shaped iP76 ($200) is an example of a unique, affordable audio system that will command attention: at a time when tiny portable speakers are flooding the market at the same price, iP76 stands three feet tall with a 10″ diameter base and a 5″ diameter column, large enough to function as a standalone piece of interior decor. At first, it appears to possess only two colors — black and white — but as soon as the power’s switched on, its translucent white sides glow with 16 LED light clusters that gently fade through seven bright tones. Think of it as the love child of a lava lamp and iOS audio system, only better.
In branding and core functionality, iP76 is a sequel to the ColorTunes/GlowTunes speakers iHome has released in years past, but it’s so different from its siblings that it’s not really in the same genre. Prior designs such as 2009’s cube-shaped iH15, 2011’s iA17 and 2012’s iP18 were small and designed to sit on a nightstand, providing a little colorful light alongside a bed. iP76 is five or six times the size, and a lot more powerful. Yes, there’s still an iPhone and iPod dock on top, but you might never use it: iP76 has Bluetooth hardware inside for completely wireless operation. And of course, it still puts on a neat light show, but there are now additional modes and considerably more sophisticated lights inside. Prior GlowTunes speakers were ideal for kids’ bedrooms. iP76 could as easily fit in an art museum or modern living room.
Like many of iHome’s speakers, iP76 comes packaged with three Dock Adapters, a wall power adapter, an Infrared remote control, and instruction booklets—ones you’ll actually want to glance at, because of the unit’s advanced lighting features. Five separate buttons on iP76’s top let you choose from “Slow Color Change,” “Solid Color,” “Pulse to Music,” “Strobe,” and “Dimmable Lamp” lighting modes, each with multiple options.
Slow Color Change cycles two-color gradients upwards, downwards, outwards or inwards from its center, fade from color to color, or swap colors with a random pattern. Each of these modes is classic mood lighting—gentle and organic—but always moving. By contrast, Solid Color keeps the whole tower illuminated in one of seven colors: pink, blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, or red. Pulse to Music can use four different effects such as Knight Rider-like bars to move with music. The not particularly useful Strobe mode cycles through nine speeds of flashing blue lights, and finally, the Dimmable Lamp mode offers seven steps of brightness for an amber color. To switch between each mode’s options, steps, or colors, you just keep hitting the mode’s button on iP76 to cycle through them, or use arrow buttons on the included remote control to move left or right through different effects.
Judged purely as a lamp, iP76 comes pretty close to the concept’s potential. The numerous lighting options are welcome, work well, and represent major steps up from past iHome GlowTunes models—they’re collectively impressive alternatives, and many users will enjoy just leaving iP76 in one mode without adjustments. However, the lights aren’t as bright as they could be—the color is obvious but not radiant in a room that’s already decently lit—and the lack of white interior lighting for something as large as this unit feels, though not fatal, like a noteworthy omission. Should iHome release a sequel, additional white lighting could enhance the power of the existing colors and serve as a good independent color for the Dimmable Lamp mode.
Sonically, iP76 is in the “very good” category, though its proximity to greatness will depend on your expectations and frame of reference. Tower-shaped speakers always struggle to offer stereo separation—they are just not wide enough to create large soundstages, even when their drivers have been placed on their sides rather than on the front. iP76 is additionally challenged by having to house twin lighting systems, which left less room inside for left- and right-mounted speakers. So it’s not a huge surprise that iHome placed iP76’s drivers in a line down the center and made no effort to deliver proper left or right channel audio. That issue aside, iP76 actually sounds quite good considering its price. While the speakers are midrange-focused, they have just enough clarity, treble and bass to sound properly balanced and pleasant. They’re also capable of reaching medium-sized room-filling volumes, exhibiting some bass distortion only near the unit’s loud peak amplitudes. We could easily imagine a more expensive sequel to iP76 with more dynamic range, and perhaps the ability to pair wirelessly with a second unit for proper stereo separation, but at this price point, the speakers are hard to fault.
Bluetooth performance is almost entirely within expectations, as well: we had no issues with pairing or reliably streaming to iP76 within the standard Bluetooth 30-foot distance, and in fact were able to achieve distances of 40 to 50 feet before experiencing intermittent signal drops. While we would have liked to see iP76 offer volume mirroring with the paired iOS device, the simple fact that Bluetooth is here at all expands the unit’s compatibility beyond iPods and iPhones to iPads, another nice benefit of this model over earlier dock-only GlowTunes designs. We experienced only one small and not particularly important hiccup with iP76: it reasonably expects that a docked device will only play music through the Dock Connector, and won’t let you wirelessly stream unless you pull the device from the dock. No one is likely to care about this. It’s also worth a small footnote that there are component video out ports on iP76’s back behind the dock, along with a line-in port, should you want to use them. The component ports do send iPod or iPhone video out to an HDTV, but we noticed a little wavy interference in the video; it works, but isn’t pristine.
Because iP76 is more likely than the average tabletop or nightstand speaker to sit at a fair distance from its users, the remote control is a particularly important component here, and classed up a little by a storage compartment on iP76’s back. Rather than working solely when pointed directly at iP76’s fabric front speaker grille, it can sometimes be used to control the system within a fairly wide arc that extends around parts of the glowing sides—a plus. However, the membrane-style buttons and Infrared light aren’t the strongest we’ve seen, sometimes requiring a few button presses once you move out beyond a 10-foot distance or the cone implied by the unit’s black front. We also would have preferred that the remote directly mimic the five-button light control system on the iP76’s top, rather than using a three-button design that’s less intuitive. iHome’s use of somewhat underwhelming remotes helps to keep the prices of its systems down, but iP76 would benefit from a more deluxe solution—even an app might have helped.
Judged from a big picture perspective, iP76 is a rare example of an Apple accessory that’s better than one might expect from the raw sum of its parts, and certainly worth the $200 asking price. Unconventionally shaped and packed with features, this tower combines very good looks, sound, and wireless performance with a unique lighting system. The fact that it achieves so much within a relatively small footprint means that it can be usefully placed in the corner of virtually any room, serving as an accent light and/or audio system as your needs dictate, and its combination of Bluetooth and remote control functionality guarantees that you can enjoy it no matter where you are sitting or standing. This isn’t your conventional mood light or Apple speaker system—it’s very different—but it works well for either purpose should you want to restrict it to one or the other. iP76 merits our high recommendation as much for its novelty as its overall value for the dollar.
Company and Price
Company: SDI Technologies/iHome
Compatible: All iPads*, iPhones, Dock Connecting iPods