Editors' note: As of August 2008, iHome has released the iP47, an updated version of the iHC5S that includes an iPod/iPhone dock and addresses many of the other criticisms listed in this review.
SDI Technologies' iHome iHC5S is one of those products that isn't easy to describe in a sentence. Sure, we could tell you that it's a clock radio that also doubles as a tabletop speaker--and enhanced speakerphone--for your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. But some people aren't going to know what we're talking about. So, we'll put it this way: The iHome iHC5S is a fancy alarm clock that will allow you to play back music wirelessly from certain Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, as well as place calls from said cell phones without you having to touch the phone. As such, it combines the most notable functionality of Bluetooth home phone systems (GE Cell Fusion, Vtech LS5145) and Bluetooth speaker systems.
Pretty good, right? Well, in theory, yes--and the iHome iHC5S ($150) has some appealing aspects to it. First, it looks fairly polished (at least, from a distance). For some, it may have a little too much of a corporate office look to it, but its overall design is attractive enough and reasonably compact. That said, some of its design elements do call out the fact that iHome is a value brand. For instance, the spring-loaded retractable dialpad at the bottom of the unit that allows you to make calls on a cell phone sitting across the room (the cell phone must be within about 30 feet of the iHC5S), feels a tad flimsy. The buttons seem to quickly develop a worn look with just a couple of weeks of use. And the entire housing doesn't look like it would survive being knocked off the table.
We could probably come up with a few more small quibbles with the design but our bigger concerns involved the overall implementation of Bluetooth in the iHC5S. The technology itself is pretty finicky, and it doesn't help that you don't know from looking at the buttons on the unit which ones you use to pair your phone or playback music and make calls. You can kind of guess from the labels, but we ended up having to dig into the instruction manual to figure out just how everything should work--and we still had some trouble. Again, some of this is the fault of Bluetooth, but the iHC5S could have been simpler to use.
Put the iHome into discovery mode, and any Bluetooth phone should be able to pair with the unit (just search for a new device from the phone and enter "123" as the pass code). The iHC5S supports two levels of Bluetooth compatibility: speakerphone and audio streaming. The first works with pretty much any Bluetooth phone, with the iHome taking the place of a headset; the second will work only with phones that offer A2DP--that's the "Advanced Audio Distribution Profile," the flavor of Bluetooth that supports wireless streaming high-quality stereo music. For example, the Sprint Mogul, the Nokia 5300, and Nokia N95 were all able to handle speakerphone and music streaming, but the Apple iPhone--which currently lacks A2DP support--could only offer speakerphone functionality to the iHome.
As noted, Bluetooth can be finicky, and we often had to go to the trouble of repairing the iHome with our test cell phone, even though we'd set up the cell phone to automatically recognize the iHome once Bluetooth was enabled on the cell phone. We're not sure whether the problem was with the cell phone or the iHome, but we experienced our share of Bluetooth hiccups with all the phones we tested, including times when the connection simply dropped out. Likewise, because the audio source is the one that initiates the pairing, it also needs the ability to verify the iHome's passcode. As such, we were unable to pair a Belkin Bluetooth dongle that we'd attached to an iPod, even though the same unit had no trouble linking to Parrot's Bluetooth-friendly (and more expensive) Boombox and Wireless Hi-Fi speaker systems.
The system includes a vertical stand that can hold (albeit loosely) most cell phones. The stand--just a hunk of delicate plastic--leaves room for the phone's charging cable to be attached. It can stand on any flat surface, or slide onto the rear of the iHC5S itself.
We haven't really said anything yet about the clock radio aspects of the iHC5S, but suffice to say the standard stuff is here: dual alarms, snooze bar, dimmer, along with four preset buttons (the FM1/FM2 toggle yields eight total FM presets, plus four for AM). In terms of connectivity, you get a line input for other audio devices and an external mic input (if you want to upgrade from the built-in speakerphone mic). The unit's powered by an AC adapter, but three AA batteries provide alarm clock backup in the event of a power outage. A small remote is also included; it can control basic functions (play/pause, track up/down) on paired devices that support AVCTP (audio/video control transport protocol).
Considering its size, we didn't expect the iHC5S to sound great--and it doesn't. But it doesn't sound terrible, either, though the radio reception on our review unit was poor, even with the wire antenna fully extended. Not surprisingly, the iHC5S is lacking in the bass department and just can't deliver a rich, full sound. Still, for a little bedside music system, it acquits itself well enough, especially if your musical taste tends to favor lighter listening as opposed to hard rock or rap and hip-hop.
While the speakerphone performance may not have been stellar, it was decent enough--we could hear callers fine and they said they could hear us well so long as we didn't stray too far away from the mic. Using the slide-out dialpad, we were able to dial numbers directly from the iHome without ever touching our test cell phone. We also had no trouble answer calls with a touch of the Talk button (on the front of the unit) and end them by tapping the Power button. No complaints there.
Summing up, the iHC5S incorporates some nice features that make it an intriguing choice for owners of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones with A2DP support. That said, the Bluetooth experience wasn't as straightforward or reliable as it should be, which makes the iHC5S hard to recommend at its $150 list price. Find it for closer to $100 and it's worth a closer look. But if not, wait till SDI Technologies works the glitches out and releases its next Bluetooth clock radio. The company has the right idea, it just needs to take it to the next level.