capsule review

Cambridge SoundWorks i525 AM/FM Table Radio with iPod Dock

At a Glance
  • Cambridge SoundWorks i525 AM/FM Table Radio with iPod Dock

    Macworld Rating

Like me, you’re probably not filled with joy when your alarm goes off in the morning—it's more likely you express a groggy, befuddled groan of resignation. But if I have to wake up—and I usually do—the $150 Cambridge SoundWorks i525 AM/FM Table Radio with iPod Dock, with its combination of great sound and excellent features, helps smooth the entry to the daily grind.

Measuring in at 3.4 inches high, 10 inches wide, and 6 inches deep, the i525 is shaped a bit like a pie wedge with the pointy end lopped off. The top of the unit features a handful of controls, including a scroll wheel reminiscent of the mechanical wheel on the original iPod, while the front features an amber LCD display and a pair of black speaker grilles, each covering a powerful 1.6-inch driver. Together, these speakers produce the best sound quality I’ve heard in an alarm-clock unit, whether listing to an iPod or iPhone, the FM radio, an external source (via the system's 3.5mm auxiliary-input jack), or even AM radio.

While much of i525's sound quality is due to the speakers themselves, Cambridge SoundWorks has added a few of its own audio technologies, as well, including a Multi-Speaker Surround Virtual mode that fakes multiple-speaker surround sound; a Smart Volume mode that keeps the volume constant between tracks of differing loudness levels; and the X-Fi Crystalizer, which supposedly improves playback quality. You can toggle each of these modes on or off via buttons on top of the unit or on the remote, though doing so is easier using the remote, which has a separate On/Off button for each feature. Personally, I found the i525's audio to be more pleasing with the Crystalizer enabled, but I couldn’t hear a whit of difference with the Surround feature—your mileage may vary. You can also adjust the bass and treble levels, independently, by using the Menu/Select button to cycle through the i525's settings menu and then using the scroll wheel to choose the desired level.

You cycle through audio sources, including radio bands, by repeatedly pressing the Source button—the Auxiliary option will appear only if a device is connected to the auxiliary-input jack.The i525's FM and AM antennas are both external, though the included AM loop antenna is detachable; and, as with most external antennas, you may need to choose their positions carefully to get the best reception for your location. I had little trouble (in the Boston area) picking up local radio stations on either band.

You choose a radio station using two Tune buttons—up and down—on the top of the unit. Pressing either changes the frequency by one increment, while holding down either button seeks out the next strong station above or below, respectively. You can also configure up to eight presets per band by holding down the Preset 1-8 button on top of the unit to enter Preset mode, and then pressing the same button again until the LCD display shows the right number. (Again, it’s a little faster to perform this action using the remote, which includes eight discrete preset buttons.)

Playing tracks from your iPod or iPhone is easy as well. You just place your device in the dock cradle on top and hit the Play/Pause button. (The i525's dock uses Apple’s Universal Dock design and includes several inserts for a variety of Apple iPod models. Unfortunately, the inserts aren't labeled, leaving you to figure out which one fits your device the best.) I did run into one issue where the i525 required me to place my iPod in the dock, hit the i525’s On button, and press Play on the clock radio—in that specific order—before audio would work, but most of the time it seemed to work when I just hit Play—the issue cropped up only a couple times.

During my testing, docking an iPhone 4 yielded a notice that the i525 wasn’t optimized for the iPhone and might result in interference—the system is certified as "Made for iPod" but not "Made for iPhone"—but the i525 still charged the phone and allowed me to play audio from the phone without any noticeable distortion. There was, however, a slight buzz when the iPhone was docked, the unit was fully powered on, and no music was playing. You can use the Play/Pause buttons on the top of the i525 to start and stop playback, as well as use the Tune buttons to go to the previous or next track. The i525's remote allows you to navigate an iPod's menus using four arrow keys, a Select button, and a Menu button. (These controls work with an iPhone, too, though unless the phone is unlocked and the iPod app is open, they aren't as useful.) During playback, you can also hit the prominent Snooze/Mute button on the top of the i525 to mute the audio.

As good as the i525’s sound is, the true test of a bedside unit is how effective and configurable its alarm clock features are. Fortunately, the i525 succeeds admirably in that regard. Woe is the alarm clock that doesn’t have multiple alarms these days, and the i525 delivers with two fully configurable alarms. Each can be set according to one of four schedules: one-time, weekdays, weekends, or every day. And you can choose the audio you wake up to: your iPod or iPhone's music, the radio, or a very effective buzzer. In music mode, you can also adjust the volume and enable or disable any of the i525’s audio features. This adjustment is handy if you’re a light sleeper, like me, and you don’t need a air-raid siren going off inches from your head.

A nice touch: After the i525 has sounded a tone for ten minutes or played music for an hour, it automatically silences and resets the alarm, meaning you won’t go away on vacation only to return to find your irate neighbors have broken in and smashed the incessantly beeping clock to bits.

Most of the i525’s features are adustable, including the Nap mode, which allows you to quickly set a timer for an intervals between 5 and 240 minutes; Sleep mode, for listening to music as you go to sleep, which offers settings for intervals between 15 and 120 minutes; and a Snooze alarm, which can be set for 5 to 30 minutes. My favorite, though, is the adjustable display brightness, which can be set to any of eight different levels, including off. In that mode, the display will briefly illuminate when you touch any control, and then turn itself off again.

One downside to the i525 is that sometimes adjusting the settings is cumbersome, requiring multiple taps of the Menu/Select or Alarm buttons. For example, you change the alarm time using the Alarm button; you set the alarm schedule using the Menu button; and you configure your alarm audio—volume level, radio station, audio options, and so on—using a separate process that stores those settings. To adjust audio settings later, you must go through the process again and re-store the new settings. Thankfully, once you have these settings configured to your liking, there’s rarely a need to make more changes.

Macworld’s buying advice

In a world where many "iPod alarm clocks" top out at $100, the i525 is on the pricey side, but it’s got bang for that buck. Between the excellent sound quality and the broad assortment of features, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better bedside unit. Once you've made your way through its long list of options, you can just lie back and drift off to sleep, confident you’ll be awake and alert on time.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    In a world where many "iPod alarm clocks" top out at $100, the i525 is on the pricey side, but it's got bang for that buck. Between the excellent sound quality and the broad assortment of features, you'll be hard pressed to find a better bedside unit.

    Pros

    • Great sound
    • Lots of audio options
    • Highly configurable clock and alarm settings

    Cons

    • Settings adjustment sometimes cumbersome
    • Pricey
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