By Nate Adcock on Sat, 09/24/2011
The iW1 from iHome is a superb AirPlay compatible wireless speaker. I was the first person to get a review unit, so more or less the first guinea pig user. Consequently, I had some guinea pig type problems with it, but with help from the folks at iHome, was able to get it working quite well. It is arguably the best combination of features I have yet seen in a portable speaker system.
The iW1 is about the size of a thin breadbox. It came packaged in styrofoam with a quick start doc, a sync cable, remote, power supply and charger. The unit is wireless in every aspect, having an internal dual-cell 2600mA li-ion battery that will also charge your iOS device when connected. The FAQ says it will play for 10 hours on a single charge at normal listening volumes. The speaker has a streamlined, and minimalist look that will go well in an office or your living room.
The speaker has some heft to it, solid yet easy to transport from room to room (a recessed depression-like handle available in the back for this purpose). The bottom has a chrome finish strip running around the base, with the iHome logo emblazoned on the front and back. Dual 3" woofers and 1" silk domed tweeters on the front side push out stellar sound. Unlike many iHome speaker accessories, the iW1 is not a dock, and the top is unmarred by ports of any kind, having instead an illuminated touch panel for the various controls (play/pause, volume, etc.).
An accessory dock is sold separately, but the back has a 30-pin connector port that will serve as a connection point using the provided cable. Several other buttons and controls are positioned along the back, including a line-in Aux port, on/off switch, and a battery meter activation button (battery level is cleverly indicated via the indicator LEDs on the top control panel). The bottom has a depression that facilitates docking the iW1 on it's thin charging base. I really like the way this was designed. The power base is very small and therefore can be tucked out of the way easily.
Connecting and Configuring the iW1
In theory, you can set up the iW1 from an iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or your PC/Mac. You will need to download the free iHome+Connect app from the app store to do it on your iOS device. The configuration was troublesome, and based on my experience, iHome changed their packaged docs to make this better. First off, I couldn't add my wireless AP, because I keep it "hidden". Meaning I turn off my SSID broadcast so that my AP is not easily accessible to outside users. The iHome config utility (on either PC or iOS) could not manually add an AP that isn't auto-discovered via scan. Secondly, I use MAC authentication so that only computers on an allow list can connect to my router. I could not find the MAC of the iW1 (usually labeled somewhere on hardware) to do this easily, and eventually had to use my computer to ping and then "arp" the MAC address*.
*Note: When you ping an IP, the responding computer's MAC address is stored in your arp cache--typing "arp -a" at a cmd prompt after successful pings are returned will reveal the MAC.
My issues did not end there. After setting up and getting wireless working, was finally able to start playing from both my iPod touch, my iPad and my computer (using iTunes). I tested from various locations in my house, and noticed quite a bit of stream dropping during playback from the farther locations. This surprised me, because my Sonos wireless system does not have this issue. According to iHome, this is mostly due to wireless security (WEP). WEP is an older security algorithm that can be problematic for AirPlay capable devices. A design tailored for more current WPA security (WPA is a newer standard). Unfortunately, I still use devices that require WEP, otherwise I would have switched long ago (WEP is also not very secure). iHome also informed me they will be changing the product information to reflect this limitation.
When in closer range of the router though, the iHome speaker performed well. I tested playing music from my iPod and iPad internal libraries, and via external stream sources using apps like Pocket Tunes. The speaker has Bonjiovi DPS (see my review here of the free app), and the sound is markedly improved when toggling this on. You can also turn off wireless mode, connect your iOS device via the cable, and play tunes that way. The included remote will allow you to fully control the iW1 from across the room.
The quality of sound coming from the speaker is excellent, and the volume will crank high enough to make it slightly uncomfortable to be right in front (and I am used to screaming guitar amps). Good bass response and speaker separation ensures that you hear everything.
I also tested from my iTunes library on my computer. My computer is wirelessly connected to my router, a desktop PC located on the top floor of my house (the AP is in the basement). Streaming is usually pretty solid to this computer, but AirPlay had noticeable problems. Music paused or stopped completely at regular intervals. Again, this was likely due to the AirPlay WEP compatibility issues mentioned earlier. In any app including iTunes that supports AirPlay, an icon will be displayed (see above) that allows you to select the enabled accessory.
iHome responded with a comprehensive list of things to tweak to deal with the issues, several of which I could not implement. My AP is provided by Verizon, and unfortunately did not include the ability to change many of the options. Instead, I used a backup Linksys router that I keep handy for similar testing. Since this router is not directly connected to my home network in any fashion, I turned off encryption completely. Once this was done, I was able to stream wirelessly (using AirPlay) from anywhere in my house using my iPod or iPad. There were no dropped streams or other issues as noted above. My advice is to research your wireless router's capabilities first. Make sure it will support WPA (very important if you are concerned about protecting your wireless connections). Another option is to do what I did. Use a separate AP and simply disable encryption altogether. If the only thing you are using this network for is to stream music, probably not that critical and you can still keep unwanted connections out by using MAC authentication.
So, what is the verdict on the iW1? Mostly awesomeness, in my opinion--make sure to consider carefully whether it will work well on your WiFi network, as you may need to upgrade your AP. The speaker is portable, rechargeable, offers a line-in for playing from external systems like your existing home stereo or other non-IOS devices (with a 3.5mm cable). It offers great playback flexibility using AirPlay or even a local direct connection. In terms of overall design considerations, I think it's an iHomerun! Compared to my Sonos Play:5 system--with it's own incredible sound--the iW1 is very close. In fact, it's probably too close to call which speaker is better, but I definitely give the iW1 a big iphonelife stamp of approval. You can get more info, or get the iW1 here at the iHome website.
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