Rechargeable battery; elegant industrial design; and solid sound.
Pay to Play
Ties you to iTunes; AirPlay inferior to Sonos network; lacks hard-wired Ethernet.
iHome manufactures dozens of Apple-oriented audio devices, ranging from headphones to speaker docks. The AirPlay-capable iW1 wireless speaker is by far the company’s most advanced product, but its $300 price tag pits it against some tough competition, including the Sonos Play:3 .
Most people will stream music to the iW1 over their Wi-Fi network using Apple’s AirPlay technology, or by docking an iOS device using the provided USB cable. But you can connect any audio source to the speaker using a 1/8-inch cable. AirPlay is a very good media-streaming solution—as long as you don’t mind being tied to iTunes to manage your music library—but we think the Sonos Wireless Hi-Fi System is considerably more sophisticated. And Sonos players can work with AirPlay, too, if you really want that (although the work-around is a bit of a kludge).
The iHome iW1 is as attractive as B&W's iconic Zeppelin--albeit in a much more understated fashion.
But iHome provides one feature in its iW1 that Sonos doesn’t include in any of its players: A Li-Ion battery that enables you to move the speaker from room to room—or even outside. The battery charger sits beneath the unit and is completely hidden while charging. The balance of the iW1’s industrial design is equally elegant. Touch-sensitive controls for volume and iPod/iTunes control (track forward/back and pause/play) are located on the top of the device, along with a collection of status LEDs. The iW1’s power switch, USB port, Aux input, and a few other status LEDs are located in a recessed bay on the back panel. The front and sides of the unit are wrapped in stretchy black nylon, with a chrome band along the bottom of the device providing attractive contrast. In fact, the iW1 very much reminds us of the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air, although it doesn’t sound anywhere as sweet. Nor does it cost anywhere as much as that iconic device.
A 13-watt-per-channel Class D amplifier drives two, three-inch, long-excursion polypropylene woofers and two, one-inch silk dome tweeters. The amp is strong enough to fill an average bedroom with sound, and it’s fine for providing background music in larger rooms, but we wouldn’t rely on it for a lively party. We’ve said the same about the Sonos Play:3, but the Sonos produces just slightly better fidelity. If you want AirPlay support, crave boom in your room, and are blessed with plenty o’ coin, the $600 Zeppelin Air is the way to go.
Like the Zeppelin Air, the iW1 takes the digital output of a docked iOS device, bypassing the digital-to-analog converter on the device. But where B&W uses a dedicated, high-end DAC for this task (an Analog Devices AD1936 that delivers a signal-to-noise ratio of 106dB), and first upsamples the bit stream to 24-bit resolution and a 96kHz sampling rate (using an Analog Devices ADAU1445 sample-rate converter), iHome uses a lower-precision multi-function codec (an Analog Devices ADAU1761 that delivers a signal-to-noise ratio of 98dB). The ADAU1761 combines a DSP, DAC, ADC, mic input, and more—it’s the type of chip you might find on a smartphone or digital camera as readily as a bookshelf audio device like the iW1.
Although there's a remote control, most of the buttons you'll need are on the iW1's touch-sensitive top panel.
As with other AirPlay devices we’ve tested, iHome uses BridgeCo’s DM870 networked media processor to handle wireless media streaming. The DM870 also runs the Bongiovi Acoustics Digital Power Station software, which is intended to restore life to music that’s been encoded using lossy codecs such as MP3 and AAC. The Bongiovi DPS (sorry, but we can’t help but pronounce this “bong-jovee”) does make compressed tracks sound better; but if you’re going to use iTunes and an iOS device, a far better approach is to encode your music using Apple Lossless and preserve fidelity in the first place. You can disable Bongiovi DPS by pushing a button on the included infrared remote control. The remote has a number of other functions that aren’t included on the unit, including level adjustments for bass and treble, shuffle mode, and repeat.
We used a number of tracks encoded in Apple Lossless to evaluate the iW1’s audio chops, including Cara Dillon’s rendition of the Irish folk song “The Parting Glass,” from her album Live at the Grand Opera House . This track consists of nothing more than Dillon’s delicate voice accompanied by grand piano, and it gave us a good opportunity to evaluate the speaker’s performance with both streaming and hard-wired audio. The Zeppelin Air, as expected, wiped the floor with the iW1; but the comparably priced Sonos Play:3 delivered a very slightly better performance, too. Dillon’s voice sounded crisper, and the piano notes decayed just a little more naturally.
iHome's engineers were smart to render the iW1 battery operated and portable.
In the final analysis, we wouldn’t recommend buying a Sonos Play:3 over an iW1 solely for higher audio quality—you must listen very closely to hear the difference—but we do think Sonos has a far superior networking solution. That goes double if you’re looking to put a multi-room audio system together, because iHome recommends limiting an AirPlay network to just three iW1s. The iW1 is, on the other hand, a more natural companion for iOS devices, and the option to run the speaker without any wires—thanks to its battery—is mighty attractive.