iLuv’s i399 BluePin 2.1-Channel Hi-Fi Audio System distinguishes itself from other iPod docks with a built-in FM radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and an LCD for a surprisingly affordable $229 (we found it for $199 at some e-tailers). The speaker is powerful and juggles an iPod dock, a speakerphone, and wireless speakers well. While the i399’s versatility is impressive, we were disappointed with the audio quality.
The i399’s arc-shaped, matte-black body has the look of a modern boombox, measuring 19.1 inches wide by 8.1 inches tall and weighing 8.6 pounds. It has handles on either side, a compartment for eight D batteries (rated for up to 10 hours), and an AC power jack for the included adapter. Along the top is a telescoping FM antenna, a blue LCD, a nearly universal iPod dock (though it’s not compatible with the iPhone), and an array of 12 buttons with clear text and icon labels.
Two hinged plastic doors cover the headphone and line-in jacks and a socket for the included BluePin module. Two main 3-inch speakers are in front, and a 5-inch subwoofer is on the bottom, ornamented with a blue LED that flashes in time with music. A slot on the back holds the wireless infrared remote.
The Mode button on top of the speakers cycles through FM radio, iPod, and line-input (Aux), and you can see the speaker’s status on the bright LCD, which also displays the time, radio station, and volume level. We got about 30 feet of range with the infrared remote, which replicates most of the speaker’s onboard functions and lets you browse your iPod’s contents wirelessly.
Nifty Bluetooth Connectivity
The BluePin module is a Bluetooth transceiver that plugs into the top of the speaker and lets you transform other products, such as the i199 alarm clock, into a remote speaker by plugging the module into it. Alternatively, you can use the i399 as a speakerphone by plugging the BluePin module into it and pairing it with your cell phone. Or you can pair it with Bluetooth headphones for wireless listening while your iPod charges. You can even send Bluetooth audio to it from a music phone.
We easily connected our iPhone and Nokia N95 smart phone to the i399 via Bluetooth. We made speakerphone calls on the iPhone via Bluetooth (the iPhone currently doesn’t do speakerphone via the dock connector), and the call quality was clear throughout our 700-square-foot apartment. Call quality with other phones, including the N95 and Samsung Alias, however, was noticeably worse: The sound broke up (crackling, garbling, dropouts) at closer ranges from the speaker with those phones than with the iPhone. Streaming music from the N95 to the speaker or from the speaker to our Etymotic ety8 Bluetooth earbuds gave us about 25 feet of range, less with walls in the way. Managing calls is easy and convenient using the i399’s onboard buttons for Speakerphone, Send/Answer, and End.
Despite everything the i399 lets you do, its sound quality disappointed. The subwoofer doesn’t produce deep bass, and its muddiness made it difficult to distinguish bass lines on tunes such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” clearly. Even Bob Marley’s bass-heavy “Exodus” sounded half-hearted. Highs are also weak, making legendary drummers Philly Joe Jones and John Bonham sound like they’re performing behind a concrete wall. Although the speaker’s sound didn’t break up too much at top volume, and it easily gets loud enough for mid-size rooms, it lacks any tone controls. Occasionally our review unit picked up RF interference, which squealed audibly in iPod mode, though iLuv says that’s because it was a preproduction model.
The digital FM tuner had trouble picking up low-power stations like 99.5 (WBAI) in New York City, though stronger channels like Hot 97 came through reasonably clear. We wish the LCD showed iPod track information like the $499 Cambridge SoundWorks i765 does. And although the clock has a backup battery compartment (2 AAAs), it has no alarm function.
When a device’s bells and whistles perform better than its main function, that’s a problem. While the BluePin technology is a nice enhancement to the iLuv i399, that doesn’t compensate for the poor audio quality. If a Bluetooth speakerphone is your primary need, this device can handle it, though your mileage may vary depending on what phone you use. For $229, the iLuv i399 needs to have much better sound quality and more volume for us to recommend it.