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Got music? This gadget plays it all

As more and more tech toys evolve to include music-playing capabilities, gadget lovers face an increasingly common problem: How can you amplify them all without buying five different speaker docks?
The i199BLK multimedia system from iLUV docks a BluePin, left, with Bluetooth wireless technology, and an iPod. Mark Lennihan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As more and more tech toys evolve to include music-playing capabilities, gadget lovers face an increasingly common problem: How can you amplify them all without buying five different speaker docks?

Lately, this has been a problem for me, so when I first spotted iLuv's i199 multimedia system — promising to play music from all these sources while also letting you transmit and receive music — I was optimistic, though admittedly skeptical.

The $250 i199 is $50 cheaper and purports to do much more than Bose's excellent-sounding SoundDock for the iPod. And although some other systems offer multiple playback options, users are still hard-pressed to find one that promises the level of interoperability found in the i199.

The i199 does all that it claims — and much of it well enough to make it worth the price of a video iPod.

The iLuv dock comes in black or white and is about the size of a sleek desktop computer. Various controls on top let you toggle between functions, manipulate playback and volume and control features like the clock and alarm. A hinged panel opens to reveal an iPod dock, USB port and a port for iLuv's Bluetooth implementation.

The front of the iLuv is mostly speaker grill, obstructed by a slot-loading CD player and a central, adjustable LCD that glows bright blue.

When I started testing the iLuv, I wasn't sure where to start. With plenty of playback possibilities, I was briefly tempted to connect all my gadgets at once.

But I decided to ease my way in instead.

First, I docked my video iPod and found that it was typically easy to control with the iLuv's small, slightly awkward-feeling remote. The speakers also sounded good, though not incredible.

Soon, I moved on to CDs by popping in an old "No Doubt" disc. The CD slid smoothly into the unit, and, again, playback was steady and simple.

I began turning up the volume and found the sound good and clear until a little more than two-thirds of the way up. At full blast, the music began sounding a little distorted, but definitely loud enough to support a nice-sized party.

Of course, a good party demands a steady flow of solid tunes, and some of these are stored on stereo Bluetooth-enabled devices like cell phones.

As noted, the i199 has a port for Bluetooth devices. The gadget comes with a tiny "BluePin" audio transmitter and receiver, which you plug into the port. The i199 can now wirelessly play music from any stereo Bluetooth-enabled device and can send sounds for listening on similarly enabled headsets.

I did just that, but couldn't get music from my phone to play at first. Only then did I notice a tiny switch that had to be moved from "transmit" to "receive." Other than that, it was easy to set up. However, I found playback often noticeably choppy, especially when moving the phone.

I called a friend as music blared to see what would happen. As with a stereo Bluetooth headset, the music automatically paused once I hit the "call" button on my phone, resuming again after I hung up. The same thing happened when a friend called me.

I was more impressed with listening to music on a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Living with two roommates, all on different schedules, I like being able to rock out without annoying them.

It was fun to wander my two rooms in our apartment while tracks blasted into my ears alone. On a hot night, I took my headphones into my bedroom and chilled out (literally) to Stereo Total with the air conditioning on high and the stereo unit sweltering a room away.

Although being wireless is fun, the i199's USB port is also a good way to gain access to tunes. I plugged in an old USB memory stick I had lying around. The unit's LCD flashed song names and band titles as songs played.

With all the buttons and options on the i199's top, it's easy to forget about the back. There, you'd find an FM antenna wire, a jack for an AM antenna that is included, an input jack for attaching another audio source and an AV jack for watching videos and images stored on your iPod.

Using a cord that was included, I connected the i199 to my TV and played an episode of "Law & Order" stored on my docked iPod. Doing so allowed me to control the video's playback from the i199's remote, so I didn't have to keep the iPod nearby while watching on the (relatively) big screen.

I did notice, though, that hitting the rewind or fast-forward buttons on the remote quickly would cause the video to go out, thus requiring a trip to the iPod to restart the episode.

My last adventure with the i199 involved its alarm function. The unit has two alarms, and I set one to wake me up early for work by playing a tune from my iPod. The next day I was awoken by an Aimee Mann song and realized that although I wasn't thrilled to be up, for once I didn't want to break my alarm clock.

That's probably for the best with this stereo, because if I did I'd be out a kitchen sink's worth of playback functions, too.

The i199, of course, isn't perfect. It would be well-served by better-working and integrated Bluetooth capabilities, as well as slightly better sound quality. But given its current configuration and price tag, it's still a worthy do-it-all system.