Looking for a new clock radio… unit
Dec 2010 05

We went looking for a new clock radio a couple of weeks ago.

Now, normally I wouldn’t feel this warrants a post but I have to rave about the product we ended up with and throw darts at at least one that we ended up returning. And if this will help anyone from making the same mistake we did, then it’s worth it.

What warranted this search was that my four-year-old iHome iH5 was starting to show its age. A lot of the top buttons were a bit win-gey – probably from years of bashing them to hit the snoozebar – it stopped charging my devices cause the dock/cradle got wonky, and frankly the, as iHome calls it ‘gradual volume’ alarm never worked at all. Instead of the alarm (to music) coming on at a low volume and increasing slowly to ease you out of sleep, it would just come on full blast and it was a terrible way to wake up. But a clock radio was pretty low on the priority list so I lived with it for the last couple of years. Until a few weeks ago when we had houseguests – the perfect excuse to get something new.

Anyhow, while doing research I quickly fell in love with Geneva Soundlabs S model. Great design and the reports were that it sounded amazing. But the pricetag was really hefty, so it was deemed a non-contender.

Enter the Eton Sound100 with iPod dock. I really liked the design but initially I was turned off because the specs said it only charged recent model iPods and not iPhones. But I was willing to take the chance because I know some iHome products say the same thing but they work just fine with both. At the register at The Bay, the 50% off was a nice surprise. Took it home for just $74.99.

Great styling – clean, simple looking. Nice digital AM/FM tuner. I like Eton’s products as I have an ‘End of the World’ radio with a crank, solar panels and emergency bands that works great for camping and cottages. The Sound100 has good sound quality with decent full warm basses and crisp highs. Even at high volumes with no distortion. One speaker, so no stereo sound though. The alarm was easy to set up and the digits were easy to read – backlit LCD. The iPod dock is connected by a cable so the unit (Yes, I said ‘unit’) looks a bit awkward if you like a clean nighttable. Anyhow, it had to be returned because, as was feared, it did not charge late model iPods or iPhones. They are playable but not charge-supported.

Enter the next contender, the new iHome iA100. Billed as the flagship of the iHome lineup, it boasts iPad and full iPod/iPhone support going back many generations of models.

Now, initially I swore that I would never, ever give iHome another cent of my money after my first iHome wore out after just a few years – I had clock radios that lasted eons and were unbreakable, so that’s what I was used to. I’m still fond of a Sony Dream Machine I once owned. But this product really enticed me…

Nice styling. Big backlit LCD. 4 speaker stereo system that boasted something called ‘BonGiovi’ (Bon Jovi — ?) acoustics. Bluetooth support so you could actually stream music without your iDevice being physically in the dock. This latter feature also lets you answer and make phone calls through the radio too – just like a car phone hookup for hands-free calling. Neat-o. No AM radio (I like it for news and weather), but the BT once again comes to rescue with streamable internet radio from your iDevice. It was a bit pricey at $199 but after looking at a few dozen radios and already returning one, I was ready to go that high. Besides, it had just come out and I like having something current with all the bells and whistles. What can I say? I’m a gadget guy.

Took it home, unpacked it. Looked great. The sound was decent. Maybe the Eton had better bass, but this sounded fuller at high volumes and was stereo. Then the problems started…

iHome asks you to upload two apps to make the iA100 work to its full capability. The first one is free and controls everything remotely. Everything. Which is pretty cool. You can be in another room and turn the radio on, adjust volume, scan the dial and set the alarm. The other one is $1.99 and is a cash grab. It’s basically a RadioTime app that was already available and is the approved iHome way of tuning in internet radio. You also need to create a RadioTime account. So I didn’t bother cause I already have an app that lets me stream internet radio without signing up for anything. But it took me $1.99 to find that out.

The biggest problem turned out to be setting the alarm. You can set the alarm through the aforementioned app that controls EVERYTHING, but if you haven’t got your iPhone handy, you’re in for a headache. The button to set the alarm on the actual unit (yes, snicker snicker) is on the back and very hard to reach. So if you’re like us, and the time you wake up might vary day-to-day so you have set the alarm a few times a week, it’s a pain in the ass to always reach around the back and push this tiny button that’s the size of most ‘reset’ buttons on digital devices. Real fail there. Why iHome won’t put this button on the top where it’s reachable and instead favours putting junk like ‘BonGiovi’ acoustics ON/OFF or the confusing ‘BEDTIME’/’WAKEUP’ buttons up there. No, the ‘WAKEUP’ button is not for setting the alarm. And you’ll always want that ‘BonGiovi’ acoustics thing on anyhow. The sound is kind of thin and tinny without it.

Too hard to set the alarm. A big strike one.

Then, the iA100 decided that despite setting the alarm to come on to 94.1FM, it was going to arbitrarily decide that 92.1FM was a much better frequency to wake up to – which in Toronto is actually static. So for a few mornings, we were expecting to wake up to CBC and got… static. I did my best to reset this for three straight days and although the clock always said it was set properly, it always came on to 92.1FM.

Strike two. Big strike two.

What was strike three? I think realizing that since I was in for $199, I’d rather just spend a little more and get the coveted Geneva Soundlab S. Why settle for something that ‘kind of’ fits your needs? So that’s what we did. The iHome iA100 went back to Future Shop and we picked up a spanky red Geneva S from Bay Bloor Radio.

Incidentally, the return process at The Bay was much easier and friendlier than Future Shop. I guess there’s no commissions in actually being friendly.

The Geneva Soundlab S is the smallest in a line of rectangular box-shaped hi-fi pieces that Geneva makes. They range from this clock radio one all the way up to ones that can act as a full stereo system for a huge room. A bit north of $300 CDN but as I said, we were already in for $200 for something that sucked royally so it didn’t seem that big a jump.

The styling is top-notch. But the real draw is the sound – it’s killer. Kill-er. Deep, booming bass (even on the pedestal included so you know it’s not the table that’s providing it) and really crisp highs. Very clear, ‘true’ sounds. Adjustable separate bass and treble. And the grille hides a four-speaker system back there. I’m not sure I believe it, but it apparently works like reverse-engineered microphone and projects separated stereo sound out from the unit (hahahah). It comes with the mentioned pedestal so it actually has a smaller footprint than any clock radio I’ve ever owned. The iPod dock (which charges EVERYTHING we’ve put in it so far) rotates open when you select iPod mode. Otherwise, the cabinet looks flush. The best part is the remote has a ‘SET ALARM’ button on it and you just adjust the time with simple up and down buttons on the remote after that. FM radio (no AM, guess that’s a trend). Very visible red LED digital readout. Snooze is activated by hitting any button on the top of the unit (snicker, snicker). Oh, by the way, those buttons are all just like an iPod – touch sensitive and with a clicker/scroll wheel. Very neat.

So, the only reason I’m posting this is for anyone that’s thinking of investing in the new iHome iA100. I would say stay away. Yes, it’s got a tonne of bells and whistles but it really failed when it came to basic functionality of being a clock radio – which is the whole point, isn’t it? If you want to make phone calls while lying in bed or really need a radio that will charge your iPad, I’m sure this is the unit (It NEVER gets old!) for you.
But personally, I really don’t want to have to set my clock radio alarm using my iPhone App. If I wanted to do that, I’d just use the alarm on my iPhone every night before going to bed. It works great too.

Anyhow, I’ll say it again – iHome will never get another cent from me. They kind of wrote the book on the clock radio/iPod dock but I think they’re getting by-passed by other manufacturers now. My humble advice is they should just focus on what the thing is for – make it a great clock radio with killer sound. Then add the other stuff. But sacrificing the latter for the former sucks, at least for me.

For the three people reading this, you have been warned.