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The iHome iP3 iPod/iPhone speaker system -- smart and simple

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

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iHome iP3There are lots of iPod® speaker systems out there. So what makes the iHome iP3 powered speaker system for iPod/iPhone® so special? That was the question I hoped to answer when I took one home for review. And it didn't take me long to discover the answer. The iP3 does just one thing — but it does it extremely well. And that thing is playing the music from your iPod or iPhone (OK, it's got component video output so you can play video, too — but bear with me).

Right out of the box, the system sounded great. Most of the tracks loaded on my iPod are in a lossless format, so there's plenty of musical detail for the speakers to work with — and they delivered. Now keep in mind that the iP3 isn't meant to replace your multi-component A/V system by any means. But for a single-unit powered speaker system, it did an outstanding job.

In addition to the front-firing speakers, there are ports in the rear to passively reinforce the bass. I initially had the iP3 set on our island counter top that separates our kitchen from our open family room. From that location, I thought the iP3's sound was a little thin. I moved it to a counter with a backstop, and that made all the difference. With a wall behind it, the low tones were reflected towards the front, and the music sounded a lot fuller as a result.

Bongiovi DPS — Livin' on a processor

The iP3 features a built-in Bongiovi Digital Power Station, which fills in missing harmonics and extends the signals bandwidth without increasing volume. This real-time processing made a big difference in the sound. There's a button on the system (as well as the remote) to turn the Bongiovi DPS on or off.

Overall, the DPS gave my music more presence. It was great for purely electronic tracks, like the Lords of the New Church's version of "Like a Virgin." The keyboards seemed to crackle with energy, and the song had a steely edge to it very much in keeping with its New Wave aesthetic. Similarly, "Can't Tell Me Nothing" by Kanye West hit with plenty of power — especially in the low end. It also worked well with other songs mixed for Top 40 consumption. Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" sounded appropriately crunchy. Even more acoustic-oriented pop such as Jamie Cullum's "Wheels." seemed to sound better with the DPS activated.

Pure acoustic tracks, however, seemed to work better without it — although there was a trade-off. Since I was reviewing this in late December, I had some seasonal music on my player, including Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols." The performance I had loaded was for traditional male and boys choirs, with harp accompaniment. With all that music in the upper register (and little to counter it in the low), the music sounded a little too harsh with the DPS on. Without, it had a warmer and more natural sound.

The same was true with DeDannan's "Rambling Irishman." DeDannan uses traditional Irish instruments, all of them acoustic. Without the DPS, the track sounded more authentic, especially the vocals. But if I wanted to hear a little more detail — especially in the accompanying background instruments — then I needed to use the DPS.This turned out to be the case with older source recordings, too. I had 1960's recording of "My Kind of Town (Chicago is)" by Buddy Rich's Big Band. Without DPS, the extreme highs and lows were missing, giving the track a rounded sound (not unusual for a track of this vintage). With DPS, thought, the track seemed brighter and I could hear a little bit deeper into the mix.

On the whole, I found that I used the Bongiovi DPS when I wanted to do more active listening and pay attention to the music. If I wanted to soften the sound to provide background music, I turned the DPS off.

How loud is allowed?

According to iHome, the system had 50 watts of power. All I know is that the iP3 could get pretty loud. At one point, I cranked the speakers all the way up and cycled through a variety of tracks to see what they'd do. Whether I had the Bongiovi DPS on or off, the speakers were never overdriven, regardless of what type of music I played. Although tracks like the Britten sounded harsher at higher volumes with the DPS on, I never heard any clipping or loss of detail. Once I placed the iP3 against a wall, the system had no trouble filling our large, open family room with sound.

Navigating by remote

I had mixed feelings about the provided remote.What I did like was the amount of control it provided over my docked player. In addition to the basic commands, such as play, pause, skip, etc., I could also navigate up and down the entire menu of the player. So, for example, while my iPod was playing a song I could go into the menu and select another playlist, then dig further into that playlist and pick a new song, then hit play and switch to the new track. The remote also had a random command button, so I could mix up a playlist on the fly. I could also adjust the iPod's settings using the remote.

On the minus side, sometimes navigation took a while to implement. Getting the iPod to play, pause, or skip a track via the remote was easy — those commands happened immediately. If I wanted to go to the main menu, however, I had to be patient. There was a little lag between the time I pressed the menu button and when the menu screen appeared on the player.

Looks aren't everything — but they're something

Although the iP3 is a pretty basic system, iHome didn't skimp on the styling. There's a slightly tinted accent ring around the front of the unit, which served the double purpose of framing the speakers and providing a base to slightly elevate the system (see picture at right).

A black cloth covers the speakers. Although you might not notice it unless you've very close to the iP3, from a distance, the texture of the fabric softens the hard plastic finish of the speaker cabinet. Rather than just providing a utilitarian design, iHome's mad the iP3 powered speaker system something that would actually look good in an office or home without calling too much attention to itself.

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