Give SDI credit: the company has managed to hire some fairly decent designers. The only cosmetic choices we really don't like are the shiny plastic on the front of the subwoofer, which cheapens its look, and the size of the iHome logo that's plastered on the front of the sub, again, cheapening its appearance. The sub isn't ugly, but chances are you're going to end up wanting to hide it, whether you opt for the white or black versions. Luckily, that's not all that hard to do because it's pretty small. However, the cable that connects the sub to the compact dock/control unit is only about four feet long, so your placement choices are constricted. The included speaker wire for the connecting the satellites isn't of the thick, high-grade variety, but it should serve most people just fine, and because it plugs into standard spring clips, not proprietary connectors, you can upgrade it if you want.
The system's amplifier is housed in the subwoofer, which leaves the two satellite speakers and the dock/head unit free to sport small, sleek enclosures; it's just too bad that SDI didn't match the front of the sub to that of the satellites' finish. We also like how you can adjust the speaker stands to orient the speakers vertically or horizontally. Like other iPod systems, this one comes with several inserts to make sure your specific iPod model fits snugly in the dock.
We're also happy to report that the iPod Shuffle isn't excluded from the party--there's a USB port on top of the iH52 that accepts the it (including, presumably, the newer second-generation Shuffle as well). 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 iH52 will not control your Shuffle. To play songs, you have to use the buttons on the Shuffle.
You can choose from three different modes of operation: FM, AM, iPod, and Aux (line-in). The system offers six preset stations each for FM and AM. There's also a clock, but for some reason no alarm is included. That's disappointing, particularly coming from the company that essentially invented the iPod clock radio.
When your iPod is in the dock, it will draw power from the iH52 and be recharged. One intriguing aspect of the unit is that with a press of the Display button on the smallish remote, you can have iPod song information appear on the iH52's display. However, once the system is in this mode, you can't control your iPod anymore (with either the buttons on the iH52 or the remote), which is too bad. Another gripe, this one bigger: you can't navigate your iPod's menus using the remote. Instead, the remote offers only some basic controls, like skipping forward and back through songs (it doesn't work that well), but that's about it. On a more positive note, you do get a few EQ settings (flat, rock, jazz, pop, and R&B) that allow you to tweak base and treble levels. You can also adjust the bass level on the subwoofer and dim the display if its default setting is too bright for your tastes.
The iH52 has just about everything you'd want in terms of connectivity. Around back you'll find composite and S-Video outputs for displaying iPod video and still photos on your TV, a sync cable port (for USB syncing with your PC or Mac), a line input for other audio devices (cable included), and slots for external AM and FM antennas (also included). The line-in port means the iH52 can double as speakers for just about any audio source, including a computer. It's also worth nothing that SDI's designers didn't make the mistake of recessing the S-Video port, as Logitech's engineers did with the AudioStation--it's flush along the back of the unit, making it easy to attach any S-Video cable.
As for sound quality, the iH52 didn't disappoint. Having just reviewed Logitech's highly rated--and more expensive--AudioStation, we were able to pit the two system against one other in a side-by-side listening test. While the Logitech offered slightly better clarity, the iHome, as one might expect from a system that includes a subwoofer, delivered more bass. It could also play louder than the AudioStation. For example, the iH52 delivered Snoop Dogg's "Drop it Like it's Hot" and the Chemical Brothers' "Galvanize" with requisite vigor without distorting. But we did detect a touch of harshness now and then. The "Surface to Air" track from the same Chemical Brothers album, for example, had a little too much edge to it in certain sections. That quality might grate some ears more than others.
All that said, if we had to make a choice based on what we'd prefer to listen to on a day-to-day basis, we'd choose the iH52 over the Logitech AudioStation. However, the AudioStation is more compact, and you don't have to hook up any wires or find a spot for a subwoofer. That kind of elegant minimalism has its share of appeal, too. Whether it's worth an extra $100 is another matter. But if you don't mind the separate speakers, the iHome iH52 is one of the better deals in the iPod speaker arena, which tends to be littered with overpriced products, thanks, in part, to Apple taking a cut on each one as part of its licensing arrangement.