Review: IK Multimedia iLoud Bluetooth speaker

Combination Bluetooth streaming speaker and guitar amp impresses (January 7th, 2014)

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Product Manufacturer: IK Multimedia

Price: $299

The Good

  • Huge sound presence
    - iRig circuit for guitar amplifier use
    - Speaker design uses true woofers and tweeters

The Bad

  • Cannot be used as an amplifier without the use of software
    - Sound at most volume levels is distorted
    - Static/beeping when no sound is output

There is something fitting whenever the name of a device perfectly matches what it actually does. Take, for example, the iLoud from IK Multimedia. It is a Bluetooth speaker that can double as a guitar amplifier. You would think that, because it can crank out some tunes or help a musician churn out some chords, that the name fits. That isn't its defining attribute, though -- instead, it is the sheer ear-ruining volume it pushes out, making the iLoud literal in its naming.

The iLoud doesn't look out of the ordinary when observed on a shelf. In fact, it looks plain in its exterior. A flat back plastic shell wraps most of the speaker, only starting to differentiate itself when it comes to the metal mesh on the front covering two 76.2mm drivers and two 9mm tweeters. The speaker sits at an angle, with its bottom-mounted kickstand out to support its weight. The back offers a power switch, auxiliary port, 1/4 inch jack port, gain control, an LED indicator, and a spot to plug in the AC power adapter. The only other thing to break up the design is the port for the air to escape when the speaker is running.

Use of the speaker is a standard affair, offering no difference from any other Bluetooth streamer. Instead of a beeping or blinking LED on the side facing the user, or a chime when paired like other devices, the red ring around the volume knob flashes after a few moments of the pairing button being held down. The volume knob was a good addition over a button press, giving a rotary feedback when cranking it up. The range of the volume really starts to kick in when doing this, as there are 72 'clicks' from 0 to 100 percent. Bluetooth range sits at the standard 30 feet until signal breakup becomes an issue.

When the speaker is running, the real beauty of the iLoud is unleashed. Presence and volume is something that the iLoud abounds in. Even though decibel readings don't reflect as any higher than other Bluetooth speakers, it is the presence the output has that brings it to life. It isn't that surprising, given that the speaker boasts 40 watts of power (2x16 for lows, 2x4 for highs). Even at 25 percent of the capable volume levels of the speaker, vibrations can be felt from several feet away from the speaker. In the testing environment, setting the iLoud at 100 percent, volume at the speaker and the source would yield vibrations from its perch, down to the floor, then back up into a desk where hands resting the top would tingle with the vibration from bass hits.

The iLoud also has another use outside of being a standard Bluetooth speaker. Since this is a product of IK Multimedia, it is no surprise that the iLoud has something to do with musical instruments. The speaker has the iRig circuit built into it, making it able to use guitar and bass amplifier modeling software through an iPhone or iPad. Where the iRig is usually sold as a cable adapter that plugs directly into a device, the iLoud makes use of a 3.5 mm cable to plug the signal into its auxiliary port from the quarter-inch jack to be processed by the device with the Amplitube software.

There is a lot of give or take as to why this is necessarily a good thing, depending on the use of the owner. IK Multimedia has been successful with the iRig software because it is a cheap, versatile tool that could be considered a substitution for a standard amplifier or amp/cabinet setup. Different amp setups, effects, and sound signatures can be used (many with in-app purchases) for those that don't want or need a large setup. Given the size and power output, the iLoud can easily outmatch a practice amp or even some low end amplifiers that may only have 15 watts of power in the same $300 price range, plus the potential use of the Amplitube software.

There is, however, something missing from it. Amplifiers and speaker cabinets have always had different signatures, and adding tube amps into the mix only makes those differences greater. Even though the iLoud can model some of those same sounds, it ends up sounding flat -- in the process, losing much of the character a traditional amp setup would have. If that wasn't enough to sway a consumer away from it, then perhaps the fact that the Amplitube software is not included with the speaker would. Having to spend $300 on a speaker with amplifier capabilities -- only to be faced with having to shell out another $20 for the full software to use that feature -- seems somewhat silly. There are free versions modeling Fender Reverb and Marshall-like amplifiers with the "light" edition of Amplitube, but they lack many of the bells and whistles of the full version.

IK Multimedia claims that the iLoud is a "studio-quality" speaker, but given some of the distortion and sounds it makes when idle, one must be skeptical of the claim. It is a full-fledged speaker setup rather than having to use fancy chambers or small reflexive speakers for bass, so it certainly has the ideal of a studio speaker. It even has four power amps, one pair behind each speaker type. During testing, though, we noticed that the speaker made a series of beeping and loud hissing noises when no sound was being played through it. The sounds were enough to register higher than the ambient sound of the room (36.9 dB vs. 40.0 dB).

At the higher portions of the volume range, the sound is also incredibly distorted. Maximum volume levels make listening to music intolerable at best, heightening the idea that it might actually be causing harm if listened to for extended periods of time. It is hard to imagine that a speaker with such problems would be used in a studio environment, let alone for mixing. This may be in part due to the use of a DSP (digital signal processor) to control the signal of the sound coming from the iLoud. The sound is balanced, but it may not be the best for reference.

During testing, it was clear that the volume level of the speaker may be a hinderance to the average person. The issue wasn't that it was merely too much, but that it might not come down from a level that felt much higher than it was on paper -- until, that is, it was discovered that it was better to control the volume through the speaker than the device it was connected to. At 100 percent speaker volume on both of our devices at a distance of three feet, decibel levels for "Welcome Home" came in at 88.8 to 85.4 dBs across tested increments (100 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent, and 25 percent) of device volume. That may not seem like much, but as stated before the sound was heavily distorted and felt much louder.

When changing the device volume to 25 percent, and using the speaker to alter the volume output rather than a paired device, the iLoud became manageable. For the same song, the range dropped to 85.4 to 54.2 dBs using increments of 18 'clicks' to measure the drops of 25 percent volume increments. The behavior was more of what was expected. Testing at different device levels after this yielded the same truth; as the volume levels dropped, so did the distortion in each tested song. At the 25 percent device level, distortion was gone in the full volume range of the speaker, leaving nothing but a exquisitely balanced sound no matter the genre or recording platform. Highs were the brightest of any speaker our reviewer had tested to date. Music playback is clearly where the speaker shines, provided volume is managed correctly.

The iLoud is certainly an impressive Bluetooth speaker with an amazing sound quality and enough sound presence to fill an entire house -- and, to be blunt, it is almost too loud. IK Multimedia said it best: "You will be impressed by how loud iLoud can be when fully cranked." We couldn't agree with that statement more. However, there is more to a speaker than volume. Using it to play music can be a great experience when the optimal volume balance can be found. Meanwhile, using it as a guitar amplifier can be something of a disappointment. It does the job adequately, but the iLoud simply isn't a direct replacement for a amplifier/cabinet setup. For purely guitar use, the $300 would be better spent on an Orange Micro Terror and PPC108 speaker with cash to spare. For the consumer looking for great Bluetooth speaker in conjunction with a lightweight solution to an amplifier, the dual-purpose iLoud should be a fantastic fit.

by Jordan Anderson


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