Totally Wireless: iHome's iW1 Portable AirPlay Speaker Page 3

Performance

Like a number of small speakers we've been hearing lately, the iW1 sounds good, within its limitations. At 13 watts/side its two 3" woofers and pair of 1" tweeters do a pretty good job, but you can't expect an iW1 to, say, provide the music for a large party (of the battery powered devices we've tried lately, really only the Arcam rCube falls into this category, though we're talking about a small party even then unless you invest in multiple units).

The iW1 does deliver what everybody likes to call "room-filling sound" these days, and Bongiovi's DPS is probably doing much of the work of fooling your ear into thinking it's hearing a larger speaker, via an EQ curve that bumps up the bass and adds a little sparkle on top. DPS provides a pretty significant level boost, if nothing else, so you'll probably want to leave it engaged; if you don't like the effect, don't lose that remote!

The overall sonic signature - especially with the DPS switched off - is very much table radio: perfectly enjoyable, effectively mono, a little boxy in the midrange, (as you'd expect from something that's a little over a foot wide and less than 4 inches deep), a bit synthetic and honky in the bass. It sounds much better placed in a corner, turned up loud, and heard from a few feet away - this is a casual listening device, not a microscope. That said, I threw a bunch of high-rez FLACs (downsampled via AirPlay, of course) at the little box to see what would stick.

The iW1's probably best suited for classic, big-studio '70s style rock - music that was intended for radio in the first place. On Harry Nilsson's 1973 barn burner "Jump Into the Fire" (from Nilsson Schmilsson), for instance, Herbie Flowers' bass on thumps like it should, without interfering with Jim Webb's piano and Klaus Voorman's rhythm guitar. The Rolling Stones Let it Bleed came through loud and clear; with instruments sitting well in the mix, though "Gimme Shelter" had me reaching for the remote to turn the bass down a bit.)

Solo acoustic instruments fare less well, though you'll be able to appreciate Keith Jarrett's emotional approach to getting the best out of a bad piano on the The Köln Concert - the atmospherics of the recording, however, don't quite make it through the little window that the iW1 provides. Female vocals (Diana Krall's take on "You're My Thrill" from Quiet Nights, for instance), sound a bit boxed-in. The "on-the-radio" tone the iW1 lends such tracks does give the music a certain intimacy - think of Joey Ramone's description of teenage listening "with the covers pulled up over your head" - that's what I'm talking about.

There are definite limits, though. The iW1 can't really handle program material that has much going on at the bottom end (and in a commendable instance of truth-telling iHome does give the frequency response of the unit as "72Hz–20 kHz"). The acoustic bass on Holly Cole's version of Tom Waits' "Temptation" is too much for this little box, as are the kicks that drive the drum breakdown of Fugazi's "Arpeggiator." But such material demands larger drivers, so take that criticism with a grain of salt.

At the top of the iW1's gain control things get squashed pretty quickly, but before you hit that point there's satisfying enough volume for most personal-listening situations. Modern, heavily mix-bus compressed heavy rock doesn't do so well; the lockstep cyborg assault of Meshuggah's "Electric Red" (from Obzen) is just too cluttered for the iW1 - but that's probably not the kind of stuff you're going to be blasting on this thing in any case.

Though the current demands of charging a battery that'll play for 7 hours at moderate volume (about 3 and change cranked up) may well have precluded this, I'd have preferred to see a more standard charging arrangement - a mini-USB port or even a plain old coax connector - rather than the little base station that's employed here. The unit is minimal and easy to store, but it seems as easy to misplace as it is to place, and the iW1 covers it up rather than "docking" with it while charging - it's a connection that doesn't feel "secure," and i found myself looking at the front-panel charging status LED to make sure I'd aligned the thing correctly.

Bottom Line

The iW1's modest power output and easy portability make it a perfectly appropriate companion for the home office, doing the dishes, or tinkering in the garage. Nice for yard or deck too, provided you can stay connected to your Wi-Fi network. (You might be tempted to take the iW1 to the beach, but make sure it has public wireless before you do, or be prepared to set up a mobile hotspot.)

It's a speaker to enjoy rather than analyze, for sure, but within it's limitations it does a great job - and if you're in the market for a battery-powered AirPlay speaker and you want one right now, this is the only choice, and even once it's competitors arrive on the scene it'll likely remain a good choice, so long as you don't expect miracles.

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