Review: iHome Audio iH5
At a Glance
Despite the hundreds (thousands?) of iPod accessories that have been released over the past few years, one particular type of product hasn’t been done: an iPod-focused clock radio. When you think about it, it’s a no-brainer: People like to wake up to music, so why shouldn’t it be to their favorite music? (The iPod’s own alarm function is no match for a good alarm clock, not to mention that it requires external speakers.) Why not combine the things most likely to be on an iPod owner’s nightstand, desk, or kitchen counter—a clock, a radio, and iPod speaker system—into a single product? For whatever reason, we haven’t seen one until now. Thankfully, iHome Audio got it just about right with their $100 iH5 clock radio .
It’s an iPod dock and speakers!
The iH5 is surprisingly small given its varied functionality: At 10" wide x 6" deep x 3" tall, it’s not much larger than many standard clock radios. The front face includes a 3.5" by 1" backlit LCD (described in more detail below) and left and right speakers. Each speaker driver is approximately 2" in diameter and seated in a ported enclosure that extends to the rear of the iH5.
The top of the iH5 is where the action is. In addition to nearly all of the system’s control buttons (more on these later), you’ll find the iH5’s iPod dock slot. Like the dock slot on other speaker systems, this one provides a high-quality, line-level audio signal from your iPod’s dock connector to the speakers; the iH5 returns the favor by charging your iPod while it’s docked. (To use non-dockable iPods, such as older models and the iPod shuffle, you connect the iPod to the iH5’s rear-mounted line-in jack via an included mini-to-mini cable.) The system includes four plastic/rubber dock slot adapters to accommodate different-sized iPods: A “thick iPods” adapter for all 40GB and 60GB models, as well as 30GB 3rd-generation iPods; a “thin iPods” insert for dockable iPods of 20GB or less, as well as 30GB color and photo iPods; a “mini” insert for iPod minis; and a “shuffle rest” that holds an iPod shuffle. (The latter, of course, isn’t charged while sitting on the iH5 and must be connected via the cable mentioned above in order to play through the iH5’s speakers.) Unlike some other “docking” iPod speakers, the iH5 doesn’t connect to your computer, so it doesn’t let you sync your iPod with iTunes; however, considering that an alarm clock is as likely to be used on a nightstand or on a kitchen counter as next to a computer—perhaps more so—I don’t consider that to be a major drawback.
Without the optional remote (discussed below), the iH5 provides only a single Play/Pause button—located in the main button area—for controlling your iPod; in order to skip tracks or navigate your iPod’s menus, you need to use your iPod’s own controls. On each side of your docked iPod is a large dial; the one on the left controls the system’s volume, whereas the one on the right (called the “Set” dial) is used for making changes—choosing the radio station, setting the time, setting the alarm, and so on. Although I like the look of these dials, and their purposes are fairly intuitive, each has the same significant flaw: Because they’re made of smooth plastic and recessed into the top of the iH5, it can be difficult to rotate them. They each need a small indentation, like those found on jog-wheel controllers, to give you a better grip.
Finally, the back of the iH5 includes a few other features. A line-out minijack lets you listen to the iH5’s audio through a set of powered speakers or a home stereo. A line-in minijack allows you to listen to another source, such as an iPod shuffle, through the iH5. (Unfortunately, this feature works only if you first remove your iPod from the iH5’s dock.) There’s also a captive wire FM antenna, a jack for the included AM antenna, and buttons for adjusting various clock settings.
The iH5’s sound quality is actually quite good—much better than I expected. In fact, compared to a couple of our favorite portable systems, the Altec Lansing inMotion iM3 ($180) and its non-iPod sibling inMotion iM4 ($100), the iH5 has slightly less treble detail, but is also less “tinny,” has better bass, and has a slightly richer overall sound. (To be clear, there’s no real bass here, but the system’s relatively large ported enclosures help the speakers produce decent upper bass and lower midrange. These attributes provide an impression of full-range sound not found on most speaker systems of this size.) The iH5 is also able to play significantly louder than the Altec Lansing systems without distortion. Overall, I found the iH5 to be quite enjoyable to listen to, even over extended periods, which isn’t something that can be said for many $100 speaker systems. (The iH5’s most obvious audio flaw is a lack of stereo separation, which is to be expected for a system with speakers just 6 inches apart.)
It’s also useful to put the iH5’s audio performance in context of other desktop radios and speaker systems. The iH5’s sound quality isn’t as good as that of the best clock radios on the market (such as Boston Acoustic’s $149 Recepter, Cambridge SoundWorks’ $200 Radio 730, or Tivoli’s $200 Model Three ) or the best “desktop” iPod speakers (Bose’s $300 SoundDock ); however, these systems all cost significantly more than the iH5. In the $100 range, the only real “dock/speakers” competitor is Logic 3’s i-Station; the i-Station has the advantage of being portable and letting you sync your iPod with your computer, but the iH5 sounds quite a bit better—and gives you the additional features of a radio and alarm clock.
(I also connected the iH5’s line-out jack to the line-in jack on the Klipsch iFi, the best-sounding iPod-dockable home speaker system we’ve heard. iPod sound quality wasn’t quite as good as if the iPod was actually sitting in the iFi’s dock base—understandable, since you’re adding a couple layers of electronics and wiring in between—but it was still very good, plus I gained the ability to use the iFi to listen to radio.)
It’s a radio!
If you need a break from the music on your iPod—or if you’re a fan of NPR, talk radio, or sports broadcasts—you’ll appreciate the iH5’s AM/FM digital radio. The radio’s FM band stretches from 87.5 to 107.9 (in .2 jumps), with the AM band ranging from 520 to 1710 (in jumps of 10). After switching to radio mode and choosing a band via the buttons in the control area, you use the Set dial to choose the station. (Frequency information is displayed on the iH5’s LCD.) With the included AM antenna connected, and using the permanently attached FM antenna, I found reception to be quite good; not as good as that of the more expensive Boston Acoustics and Tivoli radios—kings of the radio reception hill—but better than many clock radios I’ve used. In fact, I found the tuner to be fairly impressive considering the iH5’s $100 price and the fact that the tuner likely accounts for just a fraction of that. (As a side note, although iHome warns that “you may get interference while listening to the radio while the iPod is charging,” I didn’t experience this problem during my testing.)
On the other hand, the iH5 is missing a few features found on better radios, such as the ability to save station presents. And without the optional remote control (below), there is no “seek” function to automatically tune to the next strong station on the dial.
It’s an alarm clock!
Although the iH5 isn’t the first radio/speaker system for the iPod—DLO’s iBoom earned that label last year—it’s certainly the first iPod speaker system with a capable alarm clock. The digital clock’s large numbers are easy to read both at night and during the day thanks to the backlit LCD. (At full brightness, the display’s backlight can double as a nightlight. Thankfully, you can choose between three brightness levels—the dimmest should be acceptable to all but the most light-sensitive people.)
Configuring the iH5’s clock is easy enough: First you set the time zone by pressing the Time Zone button on the back of the unit until the Time Zone indicator on the LCD blinks, then turning the Set dial to the appropriate time zone, then pressing the Time Zone Button again. (The only drawback here is that instead of using time zone abbreviations such as “ET” or “CT,” the iH5’s display uses numbers 1 through 7; you have to use the table in the manual to match the number up with the actual time zone.) You follow the same procedure to set the time and to set the alarm, except that you use the Clock Adjust and Alarm Set buttons, respectively.
Enabling the alarm is as simple as pressing the Alarm On/Off button. However, you can also choose the type of alarm via the Wake To button: a buzzer (actually, a non-offensive beep), the radio, or your iPod. (To use your iPod’s music as your alarm, your iPod must be docked in the iH5 and turned off. If your iPod is turned on and playing, the alarm won’t sound; on the other hand, if you’ve chosen iPod mode and your iPod is not connected at all, the iH5 will automatically switch to buzzer mode.) A nice touch is that the iH5’s alarm feature doesn’t just blare out a deafening din at your chosen time; rather, it gradually increases the volume of the alarm until you turn it off.
Finally, like any good clock radio, the iH5 includes a snooze button that gives you an extra 9 minutes of sleep in the morning, and a sleep feature that lets you listen to the radio or your iPod for 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes as you go to sleep at night. Unlike many sleep modes, which simply play for the designated amount of time and then shut off, the iH5 gradually lowers the volume over time until the shutoff time. There’s also a sleep volume button on the back of the iH5 that lets you adjust the starting sleep volume without affecting the alarm/system volume.
The iH5 runs off AC power via the included AC adapter, but two AA batteries (included) keep the clock and alarm working in the event of a power failure. During battery operation, the alarm automatically switches to buzzer mode.
I have two complaints about the iH5’s alarm clock functionality. The first is that it has only a single alarm. If you’ve done any serious alarm clock shopping, you know that many alarm clocks now include two alarms—one for you, one for your spouse/partner/roommate. The second is a pretty major faux pas, in my opinion: The process of setting and turning on the alarm produces very loud beeps. (Rule #1 in alarm clocks: They’ll be used in rooms where people sleep, and people don’t always go to sleep at the same time, so alarm clocks should operate in silence unless you tell them otherwise.)
Remote control: optional but recommended
Although the iH5 doesn’t include a remote control, one is available as a $20 option. This handy accessory allows you to turn the iH5 on and off; switch between radio and iPod modes; control iPod playback (play/pause, skip forward/back); and change radio stations. You can also use it to adjust the brightness of the LCD and to snooze the alarm. (Yes, that’s right—you can hit the snooze button without having to get out of bed or even reach for your nightstand.) One of my colleagues at our sister publication Macworld has been testing the remote and finds that it works as advertised.
Based on his reports, I highly recommend purchasing the iH5 remote, for a few reasons. The first is simply the convenience of being able to control your iPod and radio from across the room. But beyond that, as I mentioned above, the iH5 itself doesn’t offer any buttons for controlling your iPod beyond Play/Pause; trying to press your iPod’s own buttons while it’s docked in the iH5 is awkward. In addition, you need the remote to be able to “seek” tune with the iH5’s radio. Finally, I found the layout of the buttons on the iH5’s control area to be fairly poor—even after an extensive review period, I still have to stop and search to find the desired button. The remote’s button layout is much more straightforward.
In fact, given that these rather basic features (iPod control and radio “seek” tuning) aren’t available without the remote, and how much easier the iH5 is to use with the remote, it’s really a shame that all iH5 systems don’t include the remote as a standard accessory. My Macworld colleague considers it a must-have, and I have to agree—so much so that I dinged the iH5 on its rating because of this omission.
Despite a few minor flaws and the lack of an included remote, the iHome iH5 is a unique and compelling product. Although none of its individual parts—iPod dock, speaker system, radio, or alarm clock—stands out when compared to more expensive standalone products, each provides surprisingly good performance, especially considering the eminently reasonable price of the system as a whole. Consider this: Apple charges $40 for a charging/syncing dock for full-size and mini iPods. For $60 more, you lose the ability to sync, but you gain a desktop speaker system that offers better sound quality than many similar-size (but more expensive) speakers; a good AM/FM radio; and an alarm clock with most of the features a typical person will need—all wrapped up in a compact and attractive package. Highly recommended.
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