The iH9 offers 12 radio presets--6 each for AM and FM--but does so with only three buttons. Each of the preset keys applies to two presets, depending which band you're listening to (you have to hit the button twice to toggle between the two presets assigned to each button). On the remote, however, there's only a single "presets" button that you simply hit repeatedly to toggle through the stations.
To change stations manually, you have to turn one of the faux iPod scroll wheels on top of the unit--the other is for adjusting the volume--and make sure that you don't go past the station you want (you can also use "scan" buttons on the remote).
In earlier reviews, we complained that the dials were a little slippery because of their shiny finish. The good news is that the designers have given the dials a rougher, grippier finish, making us think that someone may actually read our reviews and use them to improve their products. That said, some users may prefer actual knobs rather than the flat wheels.
As noted, you can use the remote to toggle through radio presets, autoscan for radio stations, skip forward and backward through your songs, adjust bass and treble levels (yes, there's an EQ), and hit the snooze/dimmer button remotely. New to this model is the ability to navigate menus on your iPod remotely, though you'll need to be standing or sitting a few feet away from the system to see those menus. Still, using the remote for navigation is preferable to using the scroll wheel when the device is docked, which can be a bit awkward.
Another small but important addition to the iH9: a "3D" mode in the equalizer settings. We've seen similar modes on other iPod audio systems, and they're designed through a bit of processing magic to expand the sound stage (when you have two speakers spaced only a few inches apart, you get very little in the way of stereo separation). We're happy to report that the 3D mode on the iH9 has a significant impact on sound quality, and we doubt that you'll ever turn it off, once you engage it.
With the 3D mode active, the iH9 sounds better than previous iHome clock radio models in the series that we've tested. That doesn't mean that the iH9 is on a par with more expensive iPod clock radio systems, such as the Tivoli Audio iYiYi and the JBL On Time, but the gap has narrowed. The system still sounds best when you're sitting or lying about 4 or 5 feet away from it, but it can fill a small room or office with sound.
Not surprisingly, the iH9 shows its audio chops on light-listening favorites such as Mike BublÃ©'s sentimental ballad "Home," but it didn't embarrass itself when we fed it something that rocked a little more: the Goo Goo Dolls' "Better Days" and Prince's bass-heavy 3121 album didn't hurt the little system--or our ears--as bad as we thought it might. While the iH9 doesn't deliver a ton of bass, SDI's managed to squeeze a bit more out of this one than previous models. You'll still run into problems at higher volumes, but all in all, the sound compares favorably to other iPod speaker system in this modest price range.
What's missing from the iHome iH9? Not much, considering the price. A sensor that could automatically adjust the LCD brightness to the room's ambient light would be nice. And the top-mounted iPod could be a recipe for damage when sleepyheaded users are fumbling for the snooze bar in the morning. Logitech's forthcoming Pure-Fi Dream, for instance, has a lower iPod dock and even offers light and alarm controls via a nearby wave of the hand--but it costs more than twice as much as the iH9.
Alternately, while the Logitech Pure-Fi Elite offers notably better sound for just $20 more than the iHome, it won't be much help in getting you up in the morning--it only has a clock, no alarm.
In the final analysis, iHome continues to improve its popular iPod clock radio while keeping the price around $100. The new display, the design tweaks, and the ability to navigate your iPod menu system via the remote are notable upgrades. While some buyers may be turned off by the iH9's somewhat pedestrian looks, if you don't mind them--or even dig them--the iH9 is good buy at this price.