Company: Altec Lansing
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone
Altec Lansing Orbit-MP3 iM207 Portable Audio System
Pros: A simple and highly portable, large pocket-sized speaker that works with both iPods and iPhones, using three AAA batteries for 24 hours of run time. Provides relatively rich sound that continues to sound very good at higher volumes. Neutral black, silver and chrome body works visually with most current iPod and iPhone models.
Cons: Single driver design has no stereo separation; system is device-agnostic and doesn’t provide any type of iPod or iPhone dock. Full-range speaker inside is good across entire range but a little weaker in treble than competitors. No power port or adapter for wall power.
The pocket speaker market for iPods and iPhones has traditionally been dominated by a single type of listening device: a pair of small speaker drivers, mounted in an iPod-width tube or box, and designed to sit on the iPod’s top or bottom. We’ve liked these sorts of speakers in the past because the best of them enabled iPods to stand upright while performing audio, but their manufacturers have recently been challenged when dealing with ever-thinner iPods, rotating widescreen displays, and power considerations. Good, small, low-priced iPod speakers have become harder to find.
Altec Lansing’s approach is different from the one used by all of its competitors: Orbit-MP3 makes no attempt to hold or dock the iPod or iPhone. It doesn’t try to fit two drivers into a box or tube. And it’s not attempting to make the very most of two tiny batteries. Instead, Altec created it in the shape of a small black and silver bowl with a metal speaker grille covering the entire top. The unit measures 3.5” wide and 1.5” tall, and doesn’t expand or contract in any way, unlike certain other options. Inside is a single, full-range speaker that projects monaural sound upwards and outwards in what Altec describes as a 360-degree sound field. There are no volume controls—that’s handled on the iPod or iPhone—and no port for connecting an external power source.
A compartment on the bottom swivels open to reveal places for three AA batteries, which run for up to 24 hours of continuous play time. You have to supply these batteries yourself; none are included in the box. Most interestingly, there’s no power button or switch. You turn the chrome top surface a little to the right to turn Orbit-MP3 on, and to the left to turn it off; lines on the side show you which position you’re in. Audio connections are made with a device-agnostic headphone cable that wraps around its base, and is easily removed for connection to any iPod or iPhone headphone port. Altec’s only packed-in accessory is a small adapter to let the 3.5mm connector shrink to a cell phone-compatible 2.5mm plug, assuming you’re interested in playing audio through a non-iPhone mobile device.
Normally, we wouldn’t be especially excited by a design like this one relative to similar options such as the iPod-holding Logic3 i-Station Traveller, a $40 speaker that sells for as little as $20, or the JBL On Tour, a $100 speaker that can be had for under $50, but Orbit-MP3’s performance is actually pretty impressive. It’s in the same maximum volume league as these other options—louder and clearer than the tube-sized Macally iP-A111/PodWave and Gear4 PocketParty units, and enough to let several people hear the audio in a small room even with moderate background noise. The difference is in the driver.
Companies using twin-speaker arrays in pocket-sized enclosures generally come up against two physical limitations: it’s hard to get real stereo separation out of something so small, and the two speakers can’t be large enough for really rich bass, typically distorting a lot—especially in the low-end—as volume goes up. Altec’s single driver offers no stereo separation, but it also has a richer, more full sound than most of the aforementioned competitors. Turn the various options up and Orbit-MP3 tends to sound cleaner and more lifelike, while the competitors—even the more expensive On Tour—squeal a little more in places you’re likely to hear.
There’s also another nice feature: Orbit-MP3 has been shielded well enough that it avoids the TDMA and other types of noises generated by a connected iPhone. For iPod users, these noises aren’t an issue, but other speakers we’ve tested, including the ones above, tend to blare these noises rather than suppressing them. They also require an adapter cable for iPhone’s headphone port; Orbit-MP3’s integrated cable just works.
This isn’t to say that Orbit-MP3 is perfect. We really liked the way Altec blended the power switch with the speaker grille, but found that it rarely shifts perfectly into either the “on” or “off” position on your first try. In addition to its lack of a wall power option, which Logic3 and JBL’s products usefully offer, we’d prefer it to have a dock—even a simple, passive one—to hold an iPod or iPhone. On the audio front, beyond its lack of stereo separation, which renders its renditions of songs a little flat, it’s not as strong of a treble performer as the other systems we’ve mentioned; On Tour for instance tends to do a little better on the high end, which makes it sound crisper. Turn up the volume and Orbit, like the others, does have some distortion, even in the low end, but it sounds comparatively good in this regard. The benefit of its larger, single full-range driver is that it tends to preserve its ability to perform most of its range as the volume goes up, whereas smaller drivers tend to break up more at higher volumes.
Given Altec’s $40 MSRP and $30 street pricing, Orbit-MP3 strikes us as a very good portable speaker option—it’s one of the strongest small performers we’ve tested on richness and lifelike frequency response at higher volumes, and its 3.5” by 1.5” size makes it easier to toss into a large pocket or small bag than Logic3’s and JBL’s alternatives. Though you give up a little relative to these options—high-frequency and stereo performance, plus the ability to run off of wall power—it’s a very viable alternative, especially for iPhone users. We consider it worthy of our strong general recommendation; a simple plastic dock would have bumped it up to an even higher rating.