IK Multimedia iLoud review

The IK Multimedia iLoud is the ideal portable Bluetooth speaker if you're a musician on the go, thanks to its direct guitar input and studio monitor-like sound, but it doesn't fare quite as well for standard music listeners on the wireless front.

There are hundreds of Bluetooth speakers on the market, but up until this point, none have been designed for musicians. The IK Multimedia iLoud ($299.99 direct) is meant for listening to music like other wireless speakers, but it’s also got special features. If you’re a musician looking for a small keyboard amp or software-driven guitar amp, or if you need to check mixes on the go to make sure they’ll translate well to other systems, the iLoud has you covered. It’s practically a shoo-in purchase if you use a laptop, iPhone, or iPad to make music, although it’s overkill for regular music listeners.

Design and Controls
Aside from a prominent volume knob in the center, the iLoud looks a lot like other non-descript Bluetooth wireless speakers. That may be good or bad, depending on what you expect style-wise from your electronics. It measures just 6.3 by 9.84 by 2.36 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.9 pounds; the first two measurements are roughly equivalent to an iPad, for comparison purposes. As a result, the iLoud is pretty small in hand. It feels solidly built, if entirely made of black plastic, including the perforated speaker grille. The vented bass reflex enclosure is damped internally to minimize resonances. The volume knob clicks smoothly as you turn it, and there’s a bright, cool-looking LED halo around it that changes color to indicate playback, battery, and pairing status.

The back panel contains a 3.5mm input, a direct 1/4-inch guitar and dynamic microphone input, a small gain knob, a Bluetooth pairing button, a power/charge LED, a small plastic power switch, and an AC adapter input. The dual inputs mean you can plug in a phone or tablet, and then still connect a guitar or microphone separately for accompanying backing tracks from a mobile app. The one omission is an XLR input, so you can easily connect a microphone. Even if there’s no phantom power for condenser mics, an XLR input would mean you can plug in any microphone cable; with the 1/4-inch jack, you’ll need a bulky TRS microphone adapter.

Along the bottom edge are two rubber pads that help prevent the iLoud from jumping around, as well as a plastic stand that swivels on a hinge; you can position it 90 degrees behind the speaker to further anchor it from falling over, which is helpful. The package includes the iLoud speaker, an AC adapter and power cord, a quick start guide, and a 3.5mm stereo TRS cable for connecting a phone, tablet, or music player.

Charging, Pairing, and Setup
Charging the iLoud is as simple as plugging it in; a full charge takes about two hours with the iLoud off, and somewhat longer if you’re using it at the same time. During charging, the rear-facing LED will glow orange, and then turn green once the charge is completed. When the battery runs down, the LED will change to red, while the red halo around the oversized volume knob on the front panel will flash every eight seconds to indicate the battery is dying—helpful if you’re performing publicly and need to know at a glance if you need to plug in soon. There’s also an auto standby mode that reduces power consumption when the iLoud isn’t receiving any audio signal. Battery life is rated at three hours of playing at maximum volume, or up to 10 hours of playing at more moderate levels.

The iLoud supports Bluetooth for wireless A2DP streaming, meaning that it works with iPhones, Android devices, and any laptop with Bluetooth. Pairing is as simple as powering it up, pressing the Bluetooth pairing button, waiting for the red LED to flash on the front, and then completing pairing from your mobile device. You can pair up to two devices simultaneously, but only one can play at a time wirelessly. IK Multimedia doesn’t recommend performing or monitoring audio wirelessly, thanks to the inherent latency in the Bluetooth A2DP protocol; it’s meant strictly for passive music listening.

Note that you can’t use the iLoud as a hands-free speakerphone. You also can’t use it as a portable guitar or vocal amp, despite the 1/4-inch input on the back. That’s because the input doesn’t send audio directly to the speaker; instead, it only sends it to your iOS device, functioning as a built-in iRig interface. To actually hear all of the audio, you’ll need to hook the iOS device up via the 3.5mm TRS input, and the iOS device needs to be running AmpliTube or VocalLive, at which point the iLoud will join the two internally and play the resulting output.

Performance
The speaker contains four small Class-D amplifiers: two 16-watt amps that drive two 3-inch neodymium woofers, and two 4-watt amps that drive a pair of 0.75-inch tweeters, along with custom digital signal processing (DSP). The full system is rated at 50Hz to 20kHz, but with no plus or minus dB figures, it’s tough to get a sense of just what that means.

Thanks to the rear-facing bass port, IK Multimedia recommends you position the iLoud away from a wall in a free-standing configuration. That’s actually great; I much prefer this, than to have to position it near a wall just to hear some reasonable bass response. On our standard bass test track, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the iLoud displayed impressive control and plenty of punchy extension right up to maximum volume, without any audible distortion. Thievery Corporation’s “Habanos Days” sounded impressively weighty, with serious low end extension and a clean electronic kick drum that were well separated and distinct.

The iLoud doesn’t let you down in the crucial midrange and lower treble region, either. Queens of the Stone Age’s “Little Sister” and Rage Against The Machine’s “Fistful of Steel” both delivered punchy, prominent electric guitars and an overall energetic sound. The iLoud is clearly tuned as a studio monitor speaker, so you hear more of the midrange than you’ll hear on a typical consumer speaker with a smiley-curve EQ, like the same-price Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II.

The iLoud doesn’t deliver quite enough detail to stand in for a proper pair of studio monitors. While you can get a nice sense of Ani DiFranco’s acoustic guitar pick work in “Knuckle Down” here, you lose some of the warmth and fullness of the wooden guitar body. That said, the iLoud delivers an impressively accurate balance of frequencies that is good enough for balancing a mix, at least on the go, if not quite from start to finish—and besides, it’s a single speaker with a small stereo image, so you’ll want to use real monitors at some point anyway, just for imaging and panning purposes alone.

One downside is stereo Bluetooth performance. IK Multimedia doesn’t publish the exact spec, but it doesn’t sound like Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX (or even without aptX) to my ear. You can hear significantly degraded sound, with a more unnatural treble response, when playing the same song back to back through the iLoud with a wired 3.5mm aux connection. This is a bit of a disappointment, considering the vast strides Bluetooth audio has made in the past couple of years.

Conclusions
What’s especially interesting about the iLoud is that it’s kind of a do-it-all speaker. Normally, a small PA speaker would be ill-suited for monitoring mixes, while a pair of studio monitors would be awkward to carry to a gig and are usually tuned for near-field listening, rather than for a small crowd to hear. So in a way, IK Multimedia is trying to pull off the impossible with the iLoud. For the most part, it does pretty well. Even though there are dozens of good Bluetooth wireless speakers out there, none of them do what the iLoud does—and, considering how useful the iLoud is if you’re a musician, that’s a good spot in the market for IK Multimedia to be in.

If you’re not a musician, though, you’ll probably be somewhat less thrilled with the iLoud. Its flat response sound signature is great for monitoring mixes, but maybe not quite as pleasant or detailed as, say, the sound you’d get from our Editors’ Choice, the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II, and it’s definitely not as strong on the wireless side in terms of sound quality. If you don’t need to perform or tote your speakers around much, the same money will buy you a decent set of studio monitors with 5-inch woofers, such as the M-Audio BX5 D2.

All told, the iLoud is already a solid buy for musicians on the go. Next time around, if IK Multimedia adds Bluetooth 4.0 + aptX and a way to pass audio from a guitar or mic directly to the speaker to the next version, it’ll be a can’t-miss product.

Specifications
Channels 2
Connections 3.5mm
Wireless Remote Control No
Separate subwoofer No
Power Rating (Left and Right, Each) 20 watts RMS per channel
AirPlay No
RF No
Type iPod, Wireless, Portable, iPad, iPhone, Android
Physical Dock No
Bluetooth Yes

Verdict
The IK Multimedia iLoud is the ideal portable Bluetooth speaker if you're a musician on the go, thanks to its direct guitar input and studio monitor-like sound, but it doesn't fare quite as well for standard music listeners on the wireless front.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc