iHome iW1 AirPlay audio system looks, but doesn't sound, great
At a Glance
iHome's $300 iW1 AirPlay wireless audio system looks sharper than it sounds, but despite a few design oddities and audio quality that’s disappointing given the system's price, the iW1 may deserve your consideration.
The iW1's body is mostly black, with chrome trim wrapping around the base. Much of the exterior is clad in black fabric. The compact-for-an-AirPlay-system unit measures 12.5 inches wide, 7.3 inches tall, and 3.7 inches deep—it’s tall and slim—and weighs six pounds. The iW1 can be powered off AC or a built-in rechargeable battery, making it the first transportable AirPlay system we've tested.
Along the top of the unit sit seven touch-sensitive controls: On/Off; two buttons for choosing whether to use AirPlay or a USB-connected iPod or iPhone; a volume slider; Previous; Pause; and Next. I’m not thrilled by the current trend in speaker design to employ touch-sensitive buttons—the iW1’s are usable, but they still take more effort to manipulate just right with the pad of the finger than traditional buttons normally require. The volume control is especially odd to use, as you can’t see the full spectrum of volume levels—only the current volume-level dot is illuminated.
On the rear of the unit, across its base, are a Battery Status button, a power switch, a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) line-in jack, a USB port for iPod and iOS-device connections; a firmware-status LED, a Wi-Fi status LED, and a Wi-Fi Network Setup button. Press the Battery Status button and that status briefly takes over the volume LEDs on the top of the unit to indicate the iW1's current battery level. The power switch on the rear of the unit truly toggles the system between on and off; turning the iW1 off using the power button on top leaves just enough juice to allow the system to listen for AirPlay connections—a convenient feature that means you don't have to physically power up the iW1 when you want to send AirPlay audio to it.
You can play audio through the iW1 in one of three ways: by streaming audio via AirPlay from an iOS device or from iTunes on a computer; by connecting an iPod or iOS device using a USB-to-dock-connector cable; or by connecting any analog-audio device using the iW1's auxiliary input (line-in jack). The iW1 is built, however, with a focus on AirPlay.
Of course, before you can take advantage of the iW1’s AirPlay feature, you need to get the system connected to your wireless network. iHome offers two ways to make that happen. The easier way is to use the company’s free iHome Connect iOS app. You connect your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to the USB port on the back of the iW1, launch the app, and then use the app to choose your Wi-Fi network and enter its password. The process is quick and painless.
If you lack an iOS device, you can instead press the aforementioned Network Setup button; this tells the iW1 to create its own (temporary) wireless network. You then connect your Mac to the iW1’s network, open a Web browser on your Mac to the iW1's built-in Web server (using a specific IP address provided in the iW1's manual), and then use the resulting webpages to configure the iW1 to connect to your normal Wi-Fi network. Although this works, you should opt for the iOS approach if you can—it’s much simpler.
iHome says that iW1's built-in rechargeable battery can last for six or more hours of AirPlay playback at normal listening volumes, or 4.5 hours of listening at maximum volume. Playback time decreases when you’re listening to a connected iPod or iOS device, since the iW1 will use some of its battery power to charge that device. Note that while the iW1 can charge an iPod or iPhone, the system's USB port doesn't provide enough power to charge an iPad.
Charging the iW1 itself is a bit awkward. The system includes a charging base which connects to the AC adapter. But seating the iW1 in the base takes patience: Since the body of the iW1 merely rests atop the base's conductive charging element—it doesn't lock into place—you must ensure that you place the unit properly. You also need to avoid letting the base’s power cable get in the way, which is trickier than it ought to be. The one advantage to this setup is that it’s easy to grab your fully-charged iW1 off the base and move it to whatever room you’d like—provided that room is covered by your Wi-Fi network.
The included wireless remote control provides all the functionality of the unit’s touch-sensitive buttons, along with Mute, Shuffle, Repeat, Bass, and Treble controls; a Reset button to put those Bass and Treble levels back to their defaults; and a toggle for the Bongiovi DPS audio plugin mode. I preferred listening to the system with the Bongiovi plugin enabled, as I found that it provides louder and more-balanced audio.
On the whole, the iW1’s sound quality is good but not great. The unit employs left and right 1-inch tweeters and 3-inch woofers, and while they’re fine, they don’t impress. I found that the system sounded best with the bass and treble settings untouched; dialing the bass up even slightly resulted in bass distortion when streaming 256-kbps AAC files. The iW1 can fill a small room with sound, but nothing larger, and with several types of music, the audio sounded a bit muddier than I prefer.
Macworld’s buying advice
The iW1 is a trade-off. If you value transportability, and you're OK giving up the audio quality of the better-sounding AirPlay systems out there, the iW1 is unique in being the first battery-powered AirPlay system on the market. However, if great wireless sound is your primary goal, you'll want to check out some of the other AirPlay options on the market.