Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM7 Portable Speakers
Pros: A great-sounding, high- or low-volume semi-portable speaker system that runs off of wall or D-battery power, permits full user adjustment of bass and treble, includes remote control and international power adapter. Exceptional bass for a unit in its class, reasonable price for its performance, acceptable stereo spatialization.
Cons: Unacceptable remote control; doesn’t include carrying case or rear Dock Connector for synchronization; no indicators of relative bass or treble levels, so you’ll need to judge for yourself by ear.
Since its release last year, Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+) has proved astonishingly popular, winning a rare place in the display windows of certain Apple Stores. The reason: despite its $299 price tag, SoundDock’s use of a single enclosure to create room-filling, rich sound was a winning formula - especially given its inclusion of a good remote control. While you couldn’t carry SoundDock in a bag or away from a power outlet, it worked quite well as an anywhere-around-the-house speaker system for iPods.
It also inspired competition from other iPod accessory makers. DLO quickly rushed its iBoom (iLounge rating: D) to market as a “big sound, lower price” alternative, and Klipsch took aim with an even more expensive, higher performance option in the just-released iFi (iLounge rating: B+). Now Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 Portable Speaker System ($249.00) has emerged as the most serious competitor yet - and the best compromise overall of this particular crop of options. It would have rated even higher on our scale but for a single major factor that unnecessarily cripples its functionality.
Despite its characterization as a “portable speaker system,” iM7 isn’t portable in the way we typically use the word here: you’re not going to take it anywhere you go in a small bag or briefcase, because it just won’t fit. Unlike its previous rectangular inMotion designs, Altec went with a new shape - a tube - that’s both visually unique and highly attractive, but large. At 16.75” long and 6.5” in diameter, it’s the size of battle tank ammunition, and weighs around 10 pounds without anything inside.
The tube’s front, back, and sides are almost exclusively made from the gray metal mesh that has appeared in the SoundDock and Altec’s earlier iM3s and iMminis, while the remaining parts use glossy white plastic or gray rubber. Altec’s mesh is heavy duty and resilient, while the plastic is as susceptible to damage as most iPod accessories. No carrying bag is included, so if you’re really carrying the iM7 around a lot, you’ll have to protect it yourself or live with some plastic scratches. Altec plans to release protective options separately.
iM7’s front half includes a power button, volume controls, and blue LED power light at the top, with an Altec Lansing inMotion tag immediately beside. Underneath is a unique pop-open iPod docking chamber that resembles the cassette decks found in later-model boom boxes, only customized to the iPod family: there’s a rotating wheel in the back that moves forward in nine steps to fit the thicknesses of all current and potentially new iPods - assuming they’re the shape of an iPod, mini, or smaller - and accommodates a 60GB iPod photo at its minimum thickness. No glass or clear plastic protection is used in the front; this leaves the iPod’s controls entirely exposed so that you can use them while the system’s on. A second white cradle piece is inserted when you use the iPod mini, and while it isn’t a perfect color match, it’s close enough.
The unit’s rear half includes a rubberized gray carrying handle, a nook to store the included remote control, and a collection of five ports: one for S-Video output, one for composite video output, one for wall power input, one for headphones, and one auxiliary. For iPod photo owners, the two video ports may prove exceedingly significant, as iM7 is the first accessory other than Apple’s own iPod photo Dock to permit direct S-Video out for iPod slideshows. As the iPod photo’s video-friendly headphone jack is also sealed inside the iM7, composite video output is also a welcome addition to the iM7’s back panel.
The audio ports are a bit more of a mixed bag - the auxiliary input (and included white audio cable) is a wise addition to let iM7 be used with any other headphone jack-equipped audio device, but putting a headphone output jack on the rear may test the cords of average listeners. Similarly, the unit’s included power cable is a bit of a challenge. On a positive note, it includes four interchangeable international power face plates so that you can use iM7 around the globe. But less ambitious travelers may find its cord wanting, as it’s on the short side - right-sized for the smaller inMotion systems, but not as long as one might want for a large system that can be brought to a patio, front porch, or garage.
Altec might say, “no matter.” Two compartments on the iM7’s bottom open up to reveal places for eight D cell batteries - yes, eight - with four on each of the tube’s sides. If the compartments are filled, you’ll be able to put the system wherever you can carry it, and get around 10 hours of battery life for the unit - not an iPod. While fairly heavy by iPod accessory standards, iM7 isn’t too hard to move around, and is helped by the fairly soft rear rubber grip. Despite the fact that it’s heavier than DLO’s iBoom, Altec’s grip makes iM7 equally comfortable to carry.
Overall, we really like iM7’s design - simple, elegant, and appropriate to its price level. On a purely physical level, it looks and feels like enough of an improvement over the earlier inMotions to merit the difference in price, and perhaps more importantly, it’s as much of a match for the SoundDock on class as is necessary to win over potential Bose customers.
Remote Control as Achilles Heel
Remote controls have come a long way since the iPod’s early days, and over time, we’ve come to strongly appreciate the differences between great, good, and bad iPod remote controls. Great ones work from a considerable distance and through walls, or offer a great deal of control over iPod functionality. Good ones compromise a bit on distance or offer simple controls, while bad ones compromise way too much on one or both of those things.
By today’s standards, Bose’s infrared (light-based) remote in the SoundDock is good. It works better than many of its infrared competitors, such as DLO’s iDirect, but not as well as the least powerful RF (radio-based) remote. Klipsch’s RF remote for the iFi is close to great. It works from great distances and offers a reasonable amount of control, but is laid out in a weird way.
In simple terms, the iM7’s remote sucks, though it could have been great. It has problems operating beyond 10 feet - 5 feet shy of its unimpressive stated maximum distance, because it uses weak infrared and hides its receiver somewhere behind the unit’s large metal face grille. We would call it the worst remote control we had ever seen tethered to a speaker system, but for the fact that the iM3’s remote control is even worse, working unpredictably at a distance of 7 feet or less.
We didn’t mind the iM3’s remote a year ago because it was the first of its kind for an iPod speaker system, and because the iM3’s speakers aren’t designed for the sort of super-powered volume that the iM7s can deliver - you’ll put the iM3s on a desk or bookshelf nearby and listen, but the iM7s can go anywhere you want them and still be heard. The only problem is that you’ll go deaf trying to crank the volume up from the remote’s functional distance.
And this is a major, major shame. The iM7 remote not only includes volume, track, and play/pause features, but also independent up and down level adjustments for both treble and bass. We cannot begin to underscore how much we appreciate the inclusion of both bass and treble controls, even though Altec omits any sort of visual reference on the remote or the iM7 system to either parameter’s current level. As such, you tune the levels to whatever sounds good to your ears, and leave them there, which we can live with. You’ll just need to do it from a distance of around 10 feet.
From an audio standpoint, iM7’s most significant design difference from its inMotion predecessors is the inclusion of a subwoofer - in this case, a 4” speaker in the core of the iM7 tube that outputs sonic and sub-sonic bass through matching metal grilles on its left and right sides. (The subwoofer faces right, but some sound and air also come off the unit’s left.) Many subwoofers fire down at the ground to shake the floor; others fire forward, so that you can “feel the sound.” Since hearing bass doesn’t require that a speaker point in any specific direction, a side firing subwoofer isn’t a bad thing in any way except that you can’t really feel it. Left on a table, the iM7 will cause only a little rattling.
That aside, the iM7’s bass is awesome by portable audio standards - even though the unit truly stretches the definition of “portable” to achieve that feat. Low-end output can be bumped considerably above the SoundDock’s more than acceptably rich, unadjustable output at the same volume level - a fact that bassheads will appreciate - so if you’re looking for some booty-shaking thump, you’ll find it. True, you’ll find lots more of it in Klipsch’s iFi, but you won’t need a friend to help you carry the iM7 around - or the extra $150 to buy it.
iM7 also uses four other speakers to create high, mid, and mid-bass sounds: two dedicated small (1”) speakers called tweeters for the treble, and two dedicated 3” standard drivers for everything else. The previous generations of inMotion speakers haven’t been known for their sound fidelity - they’ve all lacked in clarity by comparison with similarly priced options, and adequate treble response has been a problem for all but the company’s iMminis, which we preferred on sound balance. Because of Altec’s tendency to focus on bass output and use portable speakers that are very close together, prior inMotion sound has been right for some, but not for all.
But despite comments from naysayers who suggest that all of Altec’s speakers are bass-muddy or distorted, that’s truly not the case; the inexpensive iMminis are very good for their size, and the company’s FX6021 multimedia speakers, as a higher-end example, are great by almost any standard. So it’s good news that the iM7s share far more in common with the FX6021s than any earlier iM offering in terms of overall balance, clarity, and potential for high-volume, low distortion sound.
In direct comparisons between the iM7s and Altec’s earlier iM3s, enhanced clarity is immediately apparent at even normal listening levels, as is a significantly bolder overall sound, thanks in equal parts to the iM7’s treble and bass controls and its superior stereo separation. Similar differences exist between the iM7s and DLO’s iBoom, which not only suffered from unimpressively scratchy sound quality but also switches its left and right speakers, screwing up intended stereo separation. The iM7s can be heard at whisper-level volume levels, as well, which iBoom cannot because of a volume control issue that just turns off the speakers at low levels. All iM7 lacks by comparison with iBoom is the latter product’s FM radio, but we’re quite content without it.
At louder listening levels, the iM7s exhibit less distortion at higher volumes than even the SoundDock, and as noted before is capable of providing even more substantial bass. (We won’t directly compare it against the iFi, save to note that they’re in different categories of speakers, and the very pricey iFi’s still at the top of the class in sound.) Unlike all of these other options, however, the iM7s can be tweaked in both bass and treble to reach a sound that makes you comfortable, and though we tend to prefer the analog adjustability of JBL’s non-portable speaker solutions, Altec has as good an implementation of combined bass and treble control as we’ve seen in a semi-portable system for the iPod.
We were also glad to see that the unit’s auxiliary audio input port worked without an issue - it’s a feature missing from the SoundDock, and permits you to plug iPod shuffles, 1G/2G iPods, or other audio devices in and still hear their audio. Because of the iM7’s design, you can actually hear audio from both the auxiliary port and iPod dock at the same time, and the mixed audio sounds great.
Video and Computer Synchronization Performance
As previously noted, two video output ports on the iM7’s rear enable the device to be used as an accompanying audio piece for iPod photo slideshows - a first-of-kind feature. Cables aren’t included, but composite video cables are common enough that you’ll likely find one of them already connected between the DVD player or VCR of any television where you take the iM7.
Altec’s engineering for these ports appears to have largely duplicated Apple’s own iPod photo Dock, turning the iM7’s Dock Connector into a direct video passthrough to the ports without any interference. Consequently, the video ports work regardless of whether the iM7’s power switch is turned on, so you can connect a composite or S-Video cable (not included) to watch photo slideshows with or without accompanying iPod audio.
One missing port from the iM7’s back is a female Dock Connector passthrough to let you sync your docked iPod with a computer - hence, unlike the iM3s and other inMotions, you can’t sync while in the iM7. While we always prefer to see this on iPod accessories, we’re getting a sense from certain companies that they are looking to find easy ways to eliminate audio noises attributable to simultaneous connections between an iPod, speakers, and a computer - the easiest way is to pull the Dock Connector port from the rear. It’s not a great solution or explanation - turning off the speakers whenever a cable’s plugged into the Dock Connector port would be better - but given that it’s absent from the SoundDock and iFi, we can live without it here, too.
With the exception of a single major issue, the iM7 is perhaps the most significant new iPod audio accessory we’ve seen so far this year. We had hoped for a fairly compact, more affordable competitor to the SoundDock with equal or better sound, and Altec has unquestionably delivered that with iM7: it sounds great, looks great, and costs $50 less than Bose’s design. The iM7 also offers superior user control over bass and treble, as well as a collection of interesting innovations in its pop-open dock. From industrial design to internal engineering, it hits every note just right.
Except for the remote control. While we could not in good conscience award the iM7 a B+ based solely on the limited range of its remote, we strongly emphasize that it is a major conceptual let down for a speaker system that’s capable of high-volume performance. The short length of its power supply cable is less mystifying, but also a bit disappointing. It seems almost inconceivable that a product would come bundled with a 10-foot long auxiliary audio cord, yet have both a remote and a power supply that have problems reaching that far.
All in all, iM7 is a highly recommendable offering, and one of the best semi-portable speaker systems we’ve seen and heard. After trying this, we’re really looking forward to seeing what comes next from Altec - say nothing of Bose.