iHome iW1 AirPlay wireless audio system review


Believe it or not, it was way back at CES that we first caught an in-person glimpse of iHome's flagship AirPlay-enabled audio system -- a guy dubbed iW1. We've seen a steady trickle of AirPlay devices announced in the time since, but the iW1's been one of the earliest to splash down for the fall season. Priced at a moderate $300, it's a potential option for A) those who aren't keen on smacking down at least double the Benjamins for systems like the B&W Zeppelin Air or Libratone's Live or B) an alternative to other wireless systems like the similarly priced Sonos Play:3.

Despite the iW1's low(ish) cost of adoption, though, it's packed with a bevy of tantalizing features (including app support, capacitive controls and a rechargeable battery), and a classy appearance, to boot. We put this modern-age boom box through its sound-reproducing paces for the past few weeks (much to our neighbors dismay). So, if you want to find out whether or not the iHome iW1 will pack a bang for your buck, hit that "read more" link below for our full review. %Gallery-134652%


Out of the box, there's a fair amount of stuff to sort through. We were welcomed by the iW1 itself, a charging platform with a detachable wall-wart, a three-foot USB to 30-pin cable, iHome's Rz10 remote and lastly, an Apple-esque manuals box. As we mentioned while introducing the iW1, it's an elegant looking number. The majority of the unit is wrapped in black mesh, while nearer the bottom, there's a chrome strip to give it a pinch of pizazz. It really could do equally as well as a spotlight piece or an incognito sound source -- aside from the iHome logo, the unit's almost nondescript. Hidden behind the front cloth, there's also a multi-colored LED, which indicates whether the unit is out of battery or charging, and when a button on the remote is tapped.

While some AirPlay-endowed audio units leave it mostly to pumping out music, the iW1 serves up a healthy amount of extras and tricks -- starting with a massive touch-control panel on its top. From the left, you'll find capacitive buttons for standby, wireless and direct-input modes, a strip of 16 dots in the center for displaying volume and battery levels and basic play / pause and forward / back controls. The touch panel is extremely responsive and always registered finger taps or slides -- too bad that it's a magnet for scratches and fingerprints. Notably, the panel was readable in direct sunlight, and while the unit is in sleep mode the standby light pulsates à la most modern Macs.

Flipping the unit around back reveals many of its auxiliary controls and inputs. You'll notice a battery indicator button, main power slider, a 3.5mm jack (no cable included), a USB connector for docking and iDevice charging (no power for iPads, though), a firmware LED-button and lastly, a WiFi status LED next to its network setup tab. We wish the battery button was within easier reach, but it makes sense that rest of the controls are on the back -- you'll rarely use them after initial setups to new WiFi networks. The buttons and doodads don't stop there, though!

See, that included remote isn't something to misplace if you AirPlay with iTunes; you can't access some potentially fundamental controls using a computer. The Rz10 remote mimics the iW1's top, but it adds other functions like mute, shuffle and repeat buttons. Here's the real kicker, though: it's got a button to enable Bon Jovi Bongiovi Acoustics DPS for "improving" sound, and simpler than that, there are also the bass and treble controls.

If we did misplace the remote, iHome's free Set app allows for controlling the equalization functions from iThings -- but only while docked via USB. To put it briefly, the geek in us welcomes all of the tweaking options and input methods -- it's just a shame that the current implementation feels a bit fragmented. Hopefully, iHome will eventually make the Set app wire-free, at the least.

Moving onto greener pastures, if you check the iW1's rear side again you'll notice there's a carrying handle. This allows the six-pound system to be carried boombox-style to another room (we promise, it's not that bad), and thanks to an internal 2,600 mAh Li-ion battery it can go cord-free for a few hours. Doing so was quite simple as it merely sits on the charging base ready to be lifted at a moments notice. Streaming wirelessly from iTunes with Bongiovi enabled and the volume just past 50 percent, the iW1 managed five and a half hours of playback before it needed a re-juice. It's certainly not shabby, but we're told that it should last up to ten hours at "moderate" volumes.

During our time with the iW1, it was always ready to play from standby within seconds, but annoyingly its cold bootup times took up to 45 seconds. Considering many of the devices we used (MacBook Air and iPad 2, for instance) are usually up and crunching within a shorter amount of time, it's hard to be okay with a speaker rig that takes its sweet time to power on. That being the case, it's obviously meant to stay in a standby like, say, a cable box or PS3. So, while the slow boot times are notable, it wasn't something we suffered more than a handful of times.

Installation, setup and AirPlay

Sure, we could've just plugged into the iW1 over USB like any 'ol dock, but of course you're ideally ditching the audio cord by investing in an AirPlay-enabled system. The iW1 supports 802.11b/g WiFi networks but of course, before it can rock there's some setup involved. Thankfully (for iOS users, at least), iHome's got another free app, called Connect, to help get the rig hooked up to local WiFi networks. After opening the app and plugging in an iDevice, it was a cinch to connect it to a network and rename the iW1, all within a few painless seconds. Better yet, the app will even pull up the instruction guide if needed (pssst: If you're on an iPad you'll be stuck with an iPhone view, but iHome says an optimized variant is due out soon).

While the iOS hookup was smooth, we had no such luck with our MacBooks. Using a computer for hook up requires an ad-hoc wireless connection to the iW1 -- or the AirPlay IP setup shuffle, as we like to call it -- similar to what we experienced with the Zeppelin Air. That said, no matter how many times we tried, getting the setup screen to pop up in a browser was troublesome. It took numerous attempts -- and bouts of teeth gritting -- until the iW1 was able to sync up with our network. The good news is that (as with any AirPlay-equipped system) once the iW1 is connected it can receive audio streams from anything that can support the standard. Basically, getting things going was a breeze using an AirPlay-compatible iDevice and a hair-pulling session with computers. By the way, it'll still work with computers hooked up via Ethernet into a wireless router / modem (that's how we do it), but WiFi is required for setup.

If you're not familiar with the audio side of AirPlay, it's fairly simple. Using iTunes or the iPod and supported apps on an iGadgets, a drop down menu becomes accessible for connecting to AirPlay-enabled speakers in the area. Selecting the iW1 usually put us in business after a few seconds, although there were instances were it took multiple tries before any sound waves made it out of the drivers.

We've said this before with other AirPlay rigs and we'll say it again: there's totally some noticeable -- and slightly annoying -- latency between commands (excluding pauses for some reason). Whether we hit play or just changed the volume, it took a second or two for the actions to happen. That gripe aside, the signal cut out only occasionally, and for only a handful of seconds at most -- our jams generally kept flowing so long as our devices were within our router's range. We should also note, if you'll recall, that iHome also has iW2 and iW3 extension speakers in the works and mix and match combos are possible for multi-room setups.


So, you've made it this far -- the part about how the iW1 performs on an auditory level! Maybe a question as such is lingering in your mind, "how does AirPlay perform in comparison to docking into the iW1?" You might be wondering what affect, if any, relying on AirPlay has on sound quality versus plugging in, the old-fashioned way.

As far as our ears were concerned, the sound was identical. After all, it's the same digital file being transferred over for playback. The only difference, which we touched upon earlier, is that the wireless signal does have the tendency to occasionally cut out for a few seconds. That aside, let's talk about how our tunes fared through this rig.

Upon initially firing up the system, Bongiovi DPS will be enabled by default, while the bass and treble levels will be flat. Putting it simply (according to iHome), B DPS continuously analyzes the music playing in real time, and aims to have the levels better match up to where the vocals are in the mix. To our ears, it translated into an overall volume boost along with a bigger and fuller kick than the iW1 itself could pull off. Without it enabled, the iW1 sounds lifeless really; thin like a small, drab AM / FM bedside radio. Suffice it to say, the Bongiovi DPS is a welcome -- and needed -- addition to the driver's natural voicing. We did notice, however, that in the last few clicks of volume there was distortion and crackling. From this point forward we'll be referring to the quality with B DPS enabled.

Running our usual playlists from rock to pop and more, we were generally happy with how the iW1 could fill our medium-sized living room with respectable audio quality. As we'd expect with something this size, though, any sense of spacial separation is lost unless you're pretty much right up against the thing. For the spec-heads, it's packing two three-inch woofers and a duo of one-inch tweeters rated for total of 13 x 2 watts of power. Surprisingly, this little rig managed to reproduce the extra-low bass in any dubstep thrown at it, whereas similarly sized docks tend to fall flat.

Still, those deep notes tended to be on the anemic side even with it near a wall. Putting it bluntly, this rig's low-end handling gets the job done, but bassheads need not apply. Kicking the bass up in the EQ a few notches gave a rounder sound with electric bass guitars, but not much in the way of that thumpy thump. To further elaborate using rock tunes, kick drum hits had clear initial attack, but seemed to lack fullness and decayed abruptly.

Set flat, the highs appeared slightly veiled, but thankfully, a boost of one or two clicks let cymbals and the like breathe some and feel much less trapped. The drivers do a great job in the mid-range -- vocals were full, guitar licks had discernible clarity and bass lines were pleasingly present in the mix. Overall, the iW1 performs adequately for this size of speaker dock, but it's obvious you're paying more of a premium for wire-free luxury than exceptional sound quality


As you've probably figured out by now, the iHome iW1 is a really nice AirPlay-enabled speaker system, but it's got some design jitters and AirPlay itself can be finicky. Setup for folks using a computer can be frustrating, some of the control methods are scattered and then, of course, there's that pestiferous latency issue. On more positive notes, this is a feature-loaded AirPlay rig at a relatively low starting price, that'll give you a wire-free music experience and keep your wallet on the chubby side (not to mention it can make multi-room audio more than a pipe dream). When the iW1's up and running, we can't deny that it operates soundly. Plus, iHome's Connect app should make setup a breeze for folks who may not be so techy-savvy. Of course, AirPlay isn't for everyone, but thankfully there are other viable options like the Sonos Play:3.

But let's say that your heart's set on adopting Apple's wireless streaming standard. If that's you, the iW1 should be worth a go -- just keep in mind that in the coming months more selections from iHome and others should be available. iHome's iW1 AirPlay wireless audio system blends a tempting balance of features, portability and audio quality -- just don't expect a totally seamless experience.