The idea of an iPhone dock is becoming less and less appealing to owners of the humble Apple gadget. Maybe it’s the thought of being parted from all those lovely apps, but there’s a reason why California’s finest released AirPlay last year.
Not that GEAR4’s latest gadget deals in the lossless wireless music Apple AirPlay offers, but it does do a decent impression. It’s armed with Internet radio, DAB and FM radio tuners, and a built-in iPhone dock; the real drawcard on the rather trumped-up sounding HouseParty AirWave is an app-based remote control.
A free download from Apple, this 1.8MB app runs on iOS 3.1.3 and above and is mostly a joy to use. Developed in conjunction with Frontier Silicon, the company that makes the receiver inside the HouseParty AirWave that enables it to find internet radio stations (a platform that’s fast spreading to most other internet radios), using the app is a simply matter of swapping a 4-digit PIN, though that’s hidden away in the main menu under “NetRemote PIN set-up”. The in-app experience is pretty good; there’s a list of web radio stations that so much easier to scroll through than on the main unit, shortcuts to the six separate sources (web radio, music player - streaming from a PC or Mac - DAB, FM, iPod and AUX in), 10 slots for station presets, 9 sound modes (jazz, rock and even “movie”), and a settings tab that includes a power-off mode. The loading of web radio stations takes at least 5 seconds, but the “now playing” page helpfully includes programme details and a volume bar.
If the idea of yet another app doesn't interest you, the unit generously ships with a tiny IR remote control, and even that’s a huge improvement on the actual unit’s confusing array of buttons.
The iPod dock comes with the adaptors (numbers 15, 18 and 19, for iPhone 3G/3GS, iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4 gen, respectively) and, of course, charges its carriage, though given the opportunity for app control we don’t suppose it will be used much; at least its nicely hidden away behind a curved lip on the top of the product.
With so many sources of audio possible and the unit destined to tune-in to your wireless home network, that app makes good sense, though we can't help thinking that there’s some unnecessary duplication going on here. Owners of an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad are already well capable of receiving internet radio stations as well as storing music on their Apple gadget, so what’s the need for their repetition on the GEAR4?
One feature that’s not talked-up by GEAR4 actually proves its saviour; the ability to stream audio from a PC, Mac or NAS drive. For a wired experience, there’s a line input on the rear of the HouseParty AirWave that brings virtually any audio device you can think of into play.
Streaming music over Wi-Fi is relatively easily done straight from the dedicated app on a phone or iPad, with some nice touches such as album artwork visible on the app.
If some serious speakers graced the HouseParty AirWave, we might be tempted to laud GEAR4 for including both an FM and a DAB radio tuner, though since virtually all radio stations also broadcast online, we can’t really see the point. At least the modules themselves work well, with an A-Z list presented after the DAB tuner performs a quick search.
And it’s audio quality that takes the shine from this otherwise fully featured conduit. Its two grill-less 10W stereo speakers provide a very limited sound that lacks bass and treble highs, though it’s fine for speech-based audio. FM provides noticeably better quality than DAB broadcasts, especially for music.
The yellow-on-blue display is not only exceptionally pixelated (it manages just a 128 x 64 pixel resolution), but far too bright to use on a bedside table; it lights-up an entire room. Scrolling text is also rather blurry and difficult to read.
Armed with a decent app and an iPhone dock for easy recharging, GEAR4’s flimsy HouseParty AirWave is probably best used by those in multi-Apple gadget households - the remote control app works best on a second iPhone, or better still, iPad. This gadget’s myriad audio sources are often duplication and neither is this the ideal bedside radio, though it’s the average sound quality that is our biggest bugbear.