For better or worse, the first thing you have to be willing to do is drill four holes in a cabinet to mount the iH36. A template makes it easy to drill holes in the right place, and while we didn't go to the trouble of mounting the system, the process seems straightforward enough if you have the requisite tools. The obvious advantage is that it saves you precious counter space.
Overall, the iH36 is a pretty well designed product. It's attractively styled, and both color schemes--it's available in all white (iH36W) or silver and white (iH36S)--should match up well enough with most modern kitchens. One nice aspect of the design is the retractable iPod dock, which slides out and tilts down at the press of a button on the iH36. To make sure that your particular iPod fits snugly in the drawer, you get three different inserts and a rubber pad; it should work with any dockable iPod.
We're also happy to report that iPod Shuffle isn't excluded from the party--there's a USB port on the iH36's underside that accepts the iPod Shuffle. However--and unfortunately--you can't attach any old USB thumbdrive filled with MP3s; the system recognizes only the Shuffle. It's also worth pointing out that the iH36 will not control your Shuffle. To play songs, you have to use the buttons on the Shuffle. (The iH36 may very well work with the just-announced "money clip" second-generation Shuffle, but because that model's USB jack is at the end of its docking/recharge cord, it'll be a less elegant solution than that offered by the all-in-one form factor of the original first-generation Shuffle.)
You can choose from five different modes of operation: FM1, FM2, TV (to tune into audio-only broadcasts of local stations), the weather band, and, of course, the iPod. AM is a no-show, which could certainly frustrate sports- and talk-radio fans. While the system offers only four preset stations per mode, having FM1 and FM2 means you really have a total of eight FM presets at your disposal, plus four each for TV and weather. We also appreciated the built-in cooking timer that can be set to one-minute intervals ranging from 1 to 120 minutes. A buzzer sounds once the timer has counted down.
When your iPod is in the drawer, it'll draw power from the iH36 and recharge itself. One intriguing aspect of the unit is that you can retract the drawer with your iPod inside, and it will completely disappear into the iH36 while continuing to play. However, once it's hidden, you can't control it with either the buttons on the iH36 or the remote, which is too bad. Another gripe, this one bigger: you can't navigate your iPod's menus using the remote. It offers some basic control, such as skipping forward and back through songs, but that's about it. Finally, on a more minor level, there's no way to adjust the bass and treble, as well as the brightness/contrast of the LCD (that said, we were able to read the time from a good 10 to 12 feet away with minimal eyestrain.
As for sound quality, the iH36 acquitted itself well enough, though it suffers from some of the same shortcomings that other moderately priced iPod speakers do. Most noticeably, it's bass-challenged--any music with a modest level of bass just sounds thin. At higher volumes, some vibration in the speakers essentially reaches the level of distortion; it was quite evident when we cranked the Counting Crows' tune "Colorblind," for example. Acoustic-guitar and vocal-heavy songs such as Johnny Cash's rendition of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," the iH36 came through better.
What's lacking on the iHome iH36? While it's clearly designed for iPods--and the Shuffle port is a nice touch--we would've liked to see an auxiliary line-in function. That would essentially guarantee compatibility with any audio device with a headphone jack, not just iPods. Also, for a product designed to mount above a counter, a light on the underside would've been a welcome and practical addition.
Those quibbles aside, the iH36 sounds fine and should fill small to moderate-size kitchens with decent sound. We haven't done much testing of kitchen audio systems in the past, but from the limited we've time we've spent with Sony's $100 offering, the ICF-CD553RM , which doesn't have an iPod slot but does play CDs, the SDI iHome iH36 more than holds its own. It may not be a bargain at its list price of $150, but if you can find it discounted slightly, it's an attractive option for anyone wants an out-of-the way iPod audio system for the kitchen.