By Nate Adcock on Fri, 01/04/2013
Back in 2011, I reviewed the iW1 when it first came out; an awesomely portable/rechargeable wireless speaker from iHome--portable, as in literally no wires--with an internal 2600 mAh Li-ion battery. The Wi-Fi setup was a bit sketchy, but I finally figured out a compromise by setting up a second Wi-Fi access point. Been looking forward to trying out one of the new iW3 models and got my hands on a review unit. The iW3 is like the iW1, but taller, lighter and easier to haul around the house. The sound quality is pretty close to what I remember from the iW1, and though it won't blow out a window, it will let you easily push quality music to any room in your home.
I have a Sonos system, so am pretty spoiled when it comes to a superior Wi-Fi speaker experience. I also have a 100 watt Line 6 guitar amp, so have an idea about loud too, having played live music in one form or another since I was a teenager. The problem with small speaker systems is not the volume they produce (which is usually pretty hot these days), but that they fail to create clear separation of tones, depth and subtlety in all ranges. The speakers are all located in such a tight space that the sounds run together, especially at high volume. The iW3 similarly suffers from this problem, but still produces a quality listening experience. For the majority of use cases, the iW3 will fill the small-space stereo niche well, and the shape makes it perfect for a desktop corner or shelf.
In the box...includes iW3 speaker, charging base, A 30-pin connector, and user docs...
My biggest issue with Wi-Fi speaker systems (Sonos, iHome, etc.) is that they can be buggy to set up and troubleshoot. Bluetooth is a much simpler option, though of course has limited range, so if that isn't important to you also check out the $149 Big Blue from Brookstone, which produces amazingly deep sound in a small package. I have had similar weirdness testing other Wi-Fi capable audio accessories, so was ready for it (so I thought).
I didn't even bother trying the iW3 on my off-brand Verizon-provided AP, and opted to simply fire up the trusty old Linksys (802.11a/b standard compatible) I keep for testing. I run it without any encryption, so there's low overhead for streaming, and nothing I might be doing on my home network will interfere. Wi-Fi might be a bit more complicated, but there is something to be said for being able to pump music out to every device all over your house.
The iW3 setup routine for the owners of iPads/iPhones/iPods (with the latest version of iOS) could not be simpler. You attach the charge/sync cable provided with the unit (or any standard 30 pin or applicable lightning connector), and simply share your device Wi-Fi settings.
Optionally, you can set up the iW3 using a standard web browser. When you first initialize the iW3, it will automatically broadcast itself as an ad-hoc AP, which you can connect to from a computer web browser for setup. You can also download the free iHome Set app, and connect/configure it that way.
I tested all these methods from my iPod touch, my iPad mini, and my PC. I had issues using Chrome to do some of the setup tasks on my PC. The USB firmware update did not work for some reason, which is too bad, as this is a handy feature--basically allows you to dump the firmware on a USB storage device and load it through the port on the iW3. I was able to update the firmware using Internet Explorer from my PC, though.
In terms of using the player with Wi-Fi, I was able to get the iW3 working perfectly with every Apple device I own, but not with my PC running iTunes. I have the latest iTunes, and even upgraded the iW3 firmware as mentioned above. I tried resetting everything (several times). I used a wired connection from the computer, and disabled my firewall. It would detect the speaker, and would queue up (noted by a brief tone emitted from the speaker), but would throw a strange -15000 unknown error and not play.
I finally gave up and simply plugged audio from my computer to the Aux-in, and tested that... Not very wireless, I know, but I needed to check out Aux input anyway (which sounded great, by the way). Better documentation always helps, so if you do have similar issues, go check out the online manual here, which was much more complete than the included dead-tree docs in the package. Connected wirelessly to my iPod touch I was able to carry the unit around my townhouse and down three floors to the basement without any stream drops. The iW3 performed flawlessly once connected.
A couple of changes over the iW1 are apparent. Though I tested a unit covered mostly in dark mesh, red is also available. The touch sensitive controls that I thought were cool on the iW1 are actual buttons on the iW3 though like the older unit they also light up. The major functions allow you to increase/decrease volume, switch tracks and flip between wireless and wired audio modes, and there is no handy remote included (not sure if any are optionally available). The speaker is lighter and shaped like a rectangular block. I can't really tell how the speakers are mounted, but sound seems to emit from all sides, though I could not really pinpoint any particular range coming out in one direction.
The Bonjiovi DSP that boosted the iW1 is absent in the iW3 (though SRS processing is an option on by default), and EQ of treble or bass is handled through the iHome Set app. I found the speaker output performed best when decreasing treble a couple of ticks below zero, while boosting bass the other direction. This speaker does not pump much bass to be honest.
iHome Set is as basic a config app, as I remember the previous versions being, though I am happy to note that iHome added full network information to the panel (i.e. MAC address, etc.), something I had heartburn over in the previous review. The app is universal, but the menu is obviously designed for the smaller display of iPhone or iPod. When connected directly to the USB port, you can control the unit from the app, and the iW3 charges your unit, which included iPad mini.
All-in-all I had a positive experience with the iW3, though I am a bit frustrated about the problems with iTunes on my PC. I could not find any related help for the strange error I experienced. It was isolated to my PC though, so I blame it on my configuration, and not the speaker. The speaker itself worked well in all cases where sound actually could get to it, and I tested it for hours at a stretch from all over the house without any noticeable issues. My verdict is that the iW3 (like the iW1) is a good-looking, full-featured and portable wireless speaker system. It produces decent sound quality with minimal distortion at full volume, and will work well for a small office space. You can learn more at the links provided in the teaser above.
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