Apple’s AirPlay (s aapl) technology allows you to beam music and video wirelessly to devices like the Apple TV, from Macs and iOS devices. iHome was among the first to announce a third-party speaker with AirPlay built-in, but it took a while to get here; the iW1 was first announced (though not named) around the same time as AirPlay, in fall 2010, but it didn’t ship until a year later. So after a such a lengthy development period, how does it perform?
Hardware and design
The iHome iW1 looks very good. The wraparound speaker fabric covers nearly every surface except for the top, a rim around the bottom and a panel on the back with some controls, connection points and indicator lights. It’s good-looking enough that it even passes muster with the interior decorator around these parts, and believe me, my girlfriend has banished many a gadget for unsatisfactory aesthetics.
The design choices made by iHome are bold, and they won’t sit well with everyone, since the minimalism achieved with the iW1 means that controls and status lights may not be where you expect to find them. There’s a touch panel on the top for controlling power, volume and playback, and for seeing if you have a Wi-Fi connection, but you have to be above the iW1 to see it really, and there’s no readout for track or artist information.
A forward-looking device
For those reasons, the iW1 may feel weird to a buyer coming at it as if it’s just another iPod-compatible mini-stereo, but the design decisions make sense if you consider that with AirPlay, playback control changes from your stereo to your iOS device. After all, the speaker itself will remain relatively stationary, while your iPhone or iPad can be carried with you throughout the house. In that sense, the iW1 is perfectly designed; it gets out of the way and leaves the heavy lifting to your AirPlay source. Sure, a remote allows you to control playback too, but it’s not something you’ll likely find yourself using a lot. Even the volume buttons on the side of your iPhone control the volume of the iW1 when you’re streaming to it, so a remote is more or less an afterthought.
AirPlay isn’t perfect
There are problems with Apple’s AirPlay that make using it with the iW1 a bit challenging at times. For instance, resuming playback from the speaker-side of things doesn’t always work after you’ve paused. Also, I did experience at least two or three temporary dropouts (during about 12 or more hours of playback), but it’s hard to fault the iW1 for that; using AirPlay with speakers connected to Apple’s own AirPort Express devices, I’ve had that happen on a far more frequent basis. AirPlay also depends on your Wi-Fi network, so its quality could affect performance. On the whole, my AirPlay experience was better than I’ve found on most Apple devices, with the exception of maybe the latest Apple TV running the most recent software update.
Sound is obviously a key factor, and iHome did a good job with the iW1. It isn’t going to compete with top-of-the-line systems, but that’s not the point of this $300 device. For what it is, it sounds good; I wasn’t a fan of the artificially enhanced Bongiovi DPS, but it’s easy enough to turn off.
I listened to a wide range of music, from quiet, voice-focused folk to noisy metal and dainty classical. It sounded best with classical, and sound did tend to muddy a bit when there were lots of different things going on at once, but it fared much better than other portable systems I’ve come across.
The sound will fill a small room, and thanks to its design, works well when placed in the middle of one. I was expecting volume to be a little louder at the top end, but with Bongiovi DPS enabled, it gets quite a bit louder if you need to rock a party.
One of the greatest things about the iW1 is that you can pick it up and go, thanks to a built-in rechargeable battery. It’s rated for up to 10 hours depending on how you use it, and lasted a good six during my testing, with much of that at higher than average volume. Charging simply requires placing it back on its convenient plug-in base.
You set up the iW1 with a free app by connecting your device to the speaker with an included dock connector cable, and then you forget about it. That’s the beauty of this system: It isn’t so much a mini stereo that happens to work with iPhones or iPads, but a true dedicated iOS device accessory. Yes, you can use it with your Mac, too (that’s the only way to get multi-speaker sound, thanks to AirPlay’s limitations on iOS), but it feels most at home as a natural extension of your iDevice.
Bottom line: When you consider that you’d have to pay $100 for an AirPort Express plus at least $150 for a decent standalone speaker, and still not have as tightly integrated an experience, the iHome iW1 is a great value proposition for people looking to keep their small-space sound needs wire and worry free.