One of the first iPod-ready clock radios to hit the market was the iHome iH5. The no-nonsense design and affordable price tag helped that model make a big splash in the then-nascent market for iPod docks. The company (a brand of SDI Technologies, which also markets similar products under the Timex and Soundesign labels) continued to tweak the design in subsequent years, releasing the all-but-identical iH7 and iH8 models. With the iHome iH9, however, iHome is finally delivering a new look and feel to its iPod clock radio. The new model is available in black (the iH9BR) or white (iH9WR) and costs $100. (The older models remain on the market, and can be found for as little as $80.)
The biggest change you'll notice in the iH9 is that instead of sticking with the black-on-light-blue displays of previous models, SDI has equipped this model with a high-contrast white-on-black LCD readout, which we found slightly easier to read. The rest of the iH9 design retains the core elements of the original iH5--but with just enough of a refresh to make it look more 21st century and less 1960s retrofuturistic.
The buttons on the top of the unit have been streamlined, and--while it's still a small "credit card" model--the included remote has enough buttons to actually be useful. It's worth noting that the iH9's plastic finish is shiny and reflective rather than having a brushed finish like that of the iH8. Overall, the iH9 appears a tad cleaner-looking and sleeker than earlier models, though it's hard to pinpoint why--perhaps its the symmetry of all the circular buttons on top of the unit that complement the iPod's own scroll wheel on its face.
The product ships with "sleeves," or dock adapters, that make all dockable iPods fit snugly and securely in the cradle. When your iPod is in the dock, and the iH9 is plugged in, your iPod will draw power from the clock radio and recharge. You choose songs, playlists, or podcasts with the iPod's scroll wheel, as usual, but hear the audio through the iH9's speakers.
Apple stubbornly continues to omit a radio from the iPod, but the iHome offers AM and FM bands at the touch of a button. We also appreciate the line-in connection on the back of the unit, which allows you to connect other audio devices, including iPod models that aren't dockable. (A 3.5-millimeter patch cord is even included.). A line-out connection also is available for hooking up larger audio systems.
We found setting the dual alarms easy enough (you can choose to wake up to your iPod, the radio, or a buzzer), and--as mentioned above--the display is amply sized and even easier to read than past models. Nice touches include backlight buttons on the radio, the ability to dim the LCD display (there are eight levels of brightness, including "off"), and a well-placed snooze bar.
You can now choose to set an alarm to go off only on weekdays, weekends, or every day, and even wake to a custom playlist. If you're someone who doesn't like the idea of a viciously loud alarm jolting you awake, the iH9 has what SDI calls a "Gradual Wake and Gradual Sleep increase/decrease Alarm/Sleep volume," which offers the potential for a gentler beginning and end to your day. This gradual volume increase also applies to when you turn on the radio--the music starts out faint then gradually builds to the volume you have the iH9 set to. A pair of AA batteries keeps the alarm and radio presets intact during power outages.
Other alarm clock niceties: the sleep setting offers a wide range of times (120, 90, 60, 30, or 15 minutes), and, while active, has a volume control that's independent of the main volume. That means that you can drift off to sleep, listening to the radio (or iPod-based music, podcast, whatever) at a very modest volume, but still have the alarm be loud enough to wake you in the morning. Also, the snooze length can be set to any time between 1 and 29 minutes.
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.