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You could be forgiven for confusing one iHome iPod speaker product with another--at last count, there were nine current models, and that doesn't include the five that are just different colored housings or the sole Zune product. One of the latest models in the lineup is the iP99. It's the first iHome speaker dock to be iPhone certified; that means it's properly shielded from the GSM cell phone interference, so you can dock your iPhone without having to toggle it to airplane mode (and thus miss all your incoming calls). Aside from that--and some minor cosmetic differences--the iP99 is basically a reworking of the iHome iH9, which remains one of the better sub-$100 iPod clock radios on the market.
The iP99 is a bit more modern and less retro-futuristic-looking than its predecessors, with a speaker grille that frames the LCD readout instead of getting split by it. The LCD itself is the same sort of high-contrast white-on-black display as the iP99, though the numbers on the clock are slightly smaller. That said, the clock was more than easy enough to read. It's currently available only in black (iP99BR), but we wouldn't be surprised to see it in white or other colors at some point.
It's worth nothing the iP99's plastic finish is more matte rather than having a shiny and reflective finish as the iH9 does. While we liked the overall look and design better, we did have one gripe: the scroll wheels on top of the unit that control volume and tuning/settings (and complement the iPod's own scroll wheel) were a bit stiff compared with the scroll wheels on the iH9. We don't know if this issue was specific to just our review sample or to all iP99s, but we thought it worth pointing out. Of course, since the unit comes with a remote control--it's slightly bigger than previous iHome remotes, which makes it a bit more difficult to misplace--you don't have to touch the buttons on the iP99 if you don't want to. But given the likely placement on the nightstand, we suspect you'll end up using the unit's integrated controls even more than the remote.
As with all these types of products, the iP99 ships with "sleeves" or dock adapters that make all dockable iPods--as well as all iPhones--fit snugly and securely in the cradle. When your iPod or iPhone is in the dock and the iP99 is plugged in, your iPod/iPhone will draw power from the clock radio and recharge. If we had one issue with the design, it was the fact that the top-mounted iPod/iPhone could be easily swiped by a sleepyhead going for the nearby snooze bar.
You choose songs, playlists, or podcasts with the iPod's scroll wheel (or iPhone touch screen) as usual, but hear the audio through the iP99's speakers. And while the iPod and iPhone have yet to include built-in AM/FM radios, both bands are available on the iHome iP99 at the touch of a button. We also appreciated the line-in connection on the back of the unit, which lets you connect other audio devices, including iPod models that aren't dockable. The folks at SDI Technologies (the producers of the iHome brand) left off the line-out connection for hooking up larger audio systems, but that isn't a big deal since most people wouldn't bother with that feature. (If that's a dealbreaker for you, note that it's available on the iH9.)
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 capability to dim the LCD display (there are eight levels of brightness, including "off"), and a well-placed snooze bar.
You can 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 iP99 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 iP99 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 iP99 offers 12 radio presets--six each for AM and FM--but does so with only three buttons. Each of the preset keys applies to two presets, depending on 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 you don't go past the station you want (you can also use "scan" buttons on the remote).
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 a EQ), and hit the snooze/dimmer button remotely. As with the iH9, you can navigate menus on your iPod/iPhone 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 or touch screen when the device is docked, which can be a bit awkward.
Like the iH9, this model has a sound stage expanding mode in the equalizer settings (on the iH9 it's called "3D;" here it's the more common "SRS WOW"). We've seen similar modes on other iPod audio systems and they're designed through a bit of processing magic to widen 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 when activated, the SRS WOW mode has a significant impact on sound quality and we doubt you'll ever turn it off once you engage it.
The anti-interference technology worked as advertised. We connected an iPhone and didn't hear any audible hiss or buzzing. We called the phone while we were listening to music, and the music automatically turned off when the call came in. We answered the phone while it was still in the dock and hit the speakerphone button to talk. Alas, no sound came through the iP99's speakers, only through the iPhone's speaker. But we were able to talk just fine on the phone while standing at close range. Then, after we hung up the call, the song we were listening to resumed. (This is a feature of the iPhone, not the iP99).
As we said, the iP99 sounds very similar to the iH9, which sounded better than previous iHome clock radio models. That doesn't mean the iP99 is on a par with more expensive iPod clock radio systems such as the Tivoli Audio iYiYi, 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. We fired up Coldplay's new Viva La Vida album and the little iP99 delivered the title track ("Viva La Vida") with sufficient gusto, particularly for a clock radio. The piano solo at the intro to "42" didn't sound terribly detailed, but you can't expect too much from these systems. Like the iH9, the iP99 will do better with light-listening favorites such as Michael Buble's sentimental ballad "Home," but it won't completely embarrass itself when you feed it something that rocks a little more, like the Goo Goo Dolls' "Betters Days" and Prince's bass-heavy "3121." While the iP99 doesn't deliver a ton of bass, there's enough here to keep the music from sounding overly flat or tinny. You'll still run into problems at higher volumes, but all in all, the sound compares favorably with other small iPod speaker systems.
The one misgiving we have about the iP99 is that it costs significantly more than the iH9, which can be found on Amazon for close to $80. That said, it's also $50 cheaper than the similarly iPhone-friendly Atlec Lansing T612--and that unit lacks the clock/radio/alarm features found on the iHome. We did like the design of the iP99 better than its predecessor (aside from that sticky scroll wheel problem), but until the price comes down a bit, some question will remain whether it's worth the extra dough just to be able to keep your phone on while you listen to music. For some, of course, it will be. Just keep in mind that the market will soon be flooded with these sort of iPhone-shielded speaker systems, and the prices are sure to be coming down.