Sonic Impact i-F3
We've reviewed two versions of Sonic Impact's full-size, rugged-enclosure speaker system -- the original i-Fusion back in late 2005, and the follow-up i-F2 earlier this year. Both were recommended for offering good sound in a sturdy package that's great for travel; the i-F2 included a number of improvements over the original, such as a wireless remote control and an international AC adapter, for the same $150 price.
Sonic Impact recently released the i-F3, which further upgrades the line while also raising the price to $170. Like its predecessors, the i-F3 is a portable, iPod-docking speaker system in a somewhat-bulky, hardshell case. Rather than repeat the basics of the system, I recommend reading our original reviews of the i-Fusion (http://playlistmag.com/reviews/2005/12/ifusionipax/index.php) and i-F2 (http://playlistmag.com/products/complete/789-detail.php); I'll be focusing here on the improvements and differences the i-F3 brings.
The first change you'll notice if you've used either previous model is that the i-F3's nylon exterior is gray, rather than the black of the i-F2 or the silver/gray of the i-Fusion. But the bigger changes are revealed when you open the case to view the i-F3's now-white interior. The i-F3's iPod-docking cradle has been moved forward a bit compared to that of the i-F2 and -- finally -- uses Apple's Universal dock design. In addition, there's panel of 15 buttons in front of the dock cradle and a red-backlit LED display between the speakers on the i-F3's lid. Together, these last two attributes provide the i-F3's most significant feature additions, an FM radio and an alarm clock.
The LED screen is large enough that the main information (for example, the time, the FM frequency, or the volume level) is easy enough to read from halfway across an office or bedroom, but the red backlight makes the display less readable than it could be, and the other information shown on the screen (for example, source, battery level, and alarm status) is readable mainly up close. The display provides four brightness levels (off, low, medium, and high).
The FM radio can receive stations from 87.5 to 108.0 in increments of .05; the current station is displayed on the LED display when in FM Radio mode. Reception is good for strong, local stations, although weaker, distant stations exhibit a good deal of static, even when using the included wire antenna. You also get 20 station presets.
Although the radio generally works well, I found it to be frustrating in a couple ways. First, the fact that it tunes in increments of .05, rather than .2 or even .1, means that it takes longer than it should to tune to a specific frequency. Second, to set radio presets, you must use a procedure that's backwards compared to most radios: Instead of finding a station and then saving it to the preset of your choice, the i-F3 requires you to choose a preset first, then tune to a new station, and then press the Enter button on the keypad to save the station as the new frequency for that preset. This is especially frustrating the first time you use the i-F3, as all presets are set to 87.5, so to set your favorite stations, you have to tune -- which, as noted above, is a slow procedure -- from 87.5 to the desired frequency for each preset.
The i-F3's alarm clock is a fairly unique feature among portable iPod speakers, offering both a sleep function, which lets you play the current audio source for up to 120 minutes before the system turns off automatically, and two independent alarms, each of which lets you wake to the radio, your iPod, or a buzzer alarm. (The iPod- and radio-alarm volumes are adjustable.) A 9-minute snooze button sits across the bottom of the control-pad area.
Although the alarm and clock work well, I found the controls for setting the time and alarm to be a bit confusing. For example, sometimes you press the Forward button to change a setting and Enter to move to the next setting; other times you use Up and Down to change the setting and Forward to move to the next one. The i-F3's interface would be much easier to use if these procedures were more consistent. I'd also like to see a larger, more-tactile Snooze button.
The i-F3 actually has three power modes: Off, On, and Standby. If you press the power button on the remote control, the system goes into Standby mode, which lets you later turn the system on again using the remote. However, if you use the power button on the system itself, you turn the power off completely; the remote won't work until you turn the system on using the main power button. According to Sonic Impact, Standby mode reduces battery life slightly compared to turning the system off completely.
Like the i-F2, the i-F3 includes a storage area in the lid -- in this case, behind the LED display -- large enough to hold an iPod, as well as a smaller storage area in the base for storing your iPod's earbuds or Apple's dock-connector cable. This lower storage area also stores the system's remote control, which is similar to the one included with the i-F2 except that the new model also lets you control the i-F3's radio. The remote performs well for an infrared model, offering good range and off-angle control.
Like the i-F2, the i-F3 includes a replaceable, Lithium-Ion battery that provides up to 20 hours of playback, as well as an international AC adapter with three different plugs. Also included are the aforementioned audio cable and FM antenna, a carrying strap, and dock-cradle adapters for older iPods (newer models include their own Universal adapter). The system is compatible with all dock-connector iPods; other audio sources can be connected to the i-F3's audio-input jack using the included stereo-minijack cable. The i-F3 also works with the iPhone, although I experienced occasional audio interference if I didn't put the iPhone in Airplane Mode during use.
Apart from what I've covered here, the i-F3 has advantages and disadvantages similar to its predecessors.
If Sonic Impact had kept the i-F3's price tag at the same $150 as that of the i-Fusion and the i-F2, the i-F3 would be easy to recommend -- despite my complaints about its controls and screen -- thanks to its unique, travel-friendly design. But at $170, the i-F3 is getting closer in price to higher-end systems, while competitors such as the better-sounding Altec Lansing inMotion iM600, which includes an FM radio but not a clock radio, are available for $150 or less.
With that in mind, if you're looking for a rugged travel companion with an alarm clock and radio, the i-F3 is a solid choice, offering good sound quality in a package that can take abuse and even store your iPod and earbuds during transit. However, if you don't need the clock radio, the still-available i-F2 offers everything else for less money -- considerably less at street prices.
Sonic Impact i-F3