Editors' Note: As of December 2007, this product has been replaced by the iHome iH9, which offers an updated design and some feature upgrades for roughly the same price. It does not, however, include the extra speaker.
In 2005, SDI Technologies had a surprise hit with its iPod-compatible clock radio, the $99 iHome iH5. SDI has followed up on that success by expanding its line of iPod-dockable audio systems. One of its latest models is the iH7BR, which is essentially an enhanced iH5 that carries a more expensive price tag ($150 list).
When we described the iHome iH5 in our earlier review, we couldn't decide whether its look is truly modern or retro-futuristic in a 1960s Space Odyssey sort of way. The same holds true for the iH7, because its design is virtually identical, except for an expansion speaker that can sit on an opposite bedside table and some added buttons (for preset radio stations) on top of the main unit, where you'll also find a USB port for the iPod Shuffle. The iH7 currently comes only in black.
The product ships with several inserts that make earlier dockable iPods fit snugly and securely in the cradle. When your iPod is in the dock and the iH7 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 iH7's speakers. Of course, you can't get today's news and weather on the iPod--yet--but you can toggle to the iHome's AM or FM bands at the touch of a button. We also appreciate the line-in connection on the back of the unit, which would allow you to connect other audio devices, including iPod models that aren't dockable. A line-out connection also is available for hooking up to larger audio systems.
We found setting the alarm easy enough (you can choose to wake up to your iPod, the radio, or a buzzer), and the display is amply sized and easy to read. Nice touches include backlight buttons on the radio, the ability to dim the LCD, and a well-placed snooze bar. Some buyers of the iH5 complain that the dimmer didn't really get the LCD dim enough, but you can turn it all the way off if you want. Others took issue with the viciously loud volume of the iH5's alarm (the volume was nonadjustable) that made folks literally jump out of bed. SDI has thankfully corrected that problem (to quote the company's Web site) with a "Gradual Wake and Gradual Sleep increase/decrease Alarm/Sleep volume," which offers the potential for a far gentler beginning and end to your day.
The folks at SDI also listened to complaints that the iH5 was missing a preset (favorites) option for radio stations. This model has four presets for AM and eight total for FM (because there are two FM bands, FM1 and FM2). 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. We have mixed feelings about the slippery dials, but it now helps that the iH7 ships with a remote. Using that remote allows you to toggle through radio presets, autoscan for radio stations, skip forward and backward through your songs, adjust base and treble levels (yes, there's a EQ in this model), and hit the snooze/dimmer button remotely. Even with the remote, you'll still have to use the controls on your docked iPod to navigate through menus and playlists. As with all dock-based iPod accessories, using the scroll wheel when the device is docked is a bit awkward, but at least the remote gives you some rudimentary control if you want turn the iH7 into a mini home-stereo system.
Without the expansion speaker connected, the iH7 sounds about the same as the iH5--which is to say, not bad. Attach the speaker and you get a slightly richer sound, largely due to the better stereo separation (powering on the extra speaker actually turns off one of the unit's internal speakers, so the sound isn't truly augmented). However, that doesn't mean the iH7 is on par with more expensive clock radio/mini stereo systems such as the Bose Wave Music System or Boston Acoustics' MicroSystem CD, nor is it in the same league as higher-end iPod docks such as the Logitech AudioStaiton or even SDI's own mini separates system, the iHome iH52. We also should note that the expansion speaker looks a bit weird and cheap sitting off on its own, with its low profile and shiny plastic housing. And it would have been nice if they had added another snooze bar to the top of it, so the alarm could be silenced from the other side of a large bed (which is where you'd expect the speaker to be located). Moreover, the iH7's main unit doesn't exactly look like an expensive piece of gear either, but the silver speaker grilles and attractive button design give it just enough of an edge that it wouldn't seem out of place in a Sharper Image catalog.
The system actually sounds best when you're sitting or lying just a few feet away from it, but it can fill a small room or office with sound. Not surprisingly, the iH7 shows its audio chops on light-listening favorites such as Mike Buble's sentimental ballad, "Home." However, as with most tiny speaker systems, the iH7 doesn't deliver much in the way of bass, so anything more demanding, such as rock or hip-hop, and the clock radio starts to sound less like a boom box and more like a clock radio. But as long as you don't crank the volume too high, tunes hold together well, and the sound compares favorably to other entry-level iPod speaker systems.
In the final analysis, SDI has done a good job of updating its iPod clock radio and correcting most of the flaws in the iH5. The extra speaker helps a bit from a sound standpoint and the addition of presets for radio stations is obviously a key addition. Do all those improvements mean the iH7 should cost $50 more than the iH5? No, but hopefully the price will come down closer to the $100 mark (or at least $120) as retailers realize there's only so much consumers are willing to pay for an iPod clock radio.