Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM5 Portable Speakers
Pros: A portable speaker system with acceptable audio quality for typical users, a pop-out dock for iPod syncing and charging, international power adapters, a nice carrying case, and audio input to let it work with all iPods. Nice industrial design and very simple controls; runs for between 20-24 hours on four AAs.
Cons: Lacks rechargeable battery pack found in comparably priced modern competitors, no remote control (or ability to use one for iPod 5G and nano). As with its similarly priced predecessors, overall sound balance is not great for the price unless you strongly prefer heavier bass and less treble in your speakers, lack of user-adjustable bass and treble controls hurts, stereo separation isn’t impressive.
As far as portable iPod speakers are concerned, a lot has changed over the past two years. At the beginning of 2004, we reviewed Altec Lansing’s original inMotion speaker system for the iPod (iLounge rating: B), which was then an innovative portable combination of small speakers and an iPod dock, capable of fitting in any briefcase for on-the-go iPod listening. Back then, inMotion’s portability and convenience largely justified its $150 price tag, and though its audio quality wasn’t phenomenal, it served a need. But in the time that’s passed, many portable iPod speakers have been released and reviewed here, and two things have happened: the quality and features expected of $150 speaker systems have gone up, while less impressive ones have fallen in price. To keep up with its competition, Altec has released many iterations of inMotion, eventually repackaging the first model with a pair of headphones as “inMotion Plus” for the same $150 price.
Now the company has released inMotion iM5 ($150), a visually retooled version of the original inMotion speakers. Rather than a flip-open design, Altec now uses a solid 8.5” x 3.75” x 2” silver, white, and gray enclosure with a silver button on its front and a white plastic dock on its bottom. Press the button and the iPod dock pops out; you can connect an Apple cable (not included) to the dock for data synchronization, and press the popped-out dock back in for travel or storage. All of the gray on the iM5 is rubber: the top surface has simple + and - rubber-coated buttons on its right for volume, and a blue light-ringed power button on its top left.
The back has a rubber-sealed set of ports, and rubber feet sit beneath two rear battery compartments, each for AA batteries. Like earlier inMotions, iM5 runs for around 24 hours on four AA batteries - we got upwards of 20 - or off of an included wall adapter. And also like other inMotions, five different international adapters are included for foreign travel purposes - something you don’t see in many competing products - plus there’s an audio input cable if you want to use non-docking audio devices, such as an iPod shuffle or 1G/2G iPod, with the iM5. Altec also includes a very nice fabric-lined carrying bag with the system, as well, a little extra that helps differentiate iM5 from some lower-end competitors.
There are a couple of small differences between iM5 and the original inMotion speakers other than the obvious aesthetic ones. You’ll now find a composite video output port on the unit’s back, permitting you to watch a docked iPod’s photo shows or video if the speakers are connected to a monitor with a standard (not included) RCA video cable, and a “sub out” port that allows you to use iM5 with an optional subwoofer. We first heard about the subwoofer back at Apple Expo Paris, but it hasn’t been actively promoted with iM5, and isn’t really mentioned by Altec, perhaps for obvious reasons. Would anyone want to connect a small portable system to a subwoofer, anyway?
But what’s obviously missing from iM5, and more important, in our view, are audio and other feature enhancements. The unit packs four speaker drivers like those found in the sub-$100 inMotion iM4s (iLounge rating: A-), as well as the $180 inMotion iM3s (iLounge rating: B+), both of which are equally portable and iPod-compatible. One change is obvious: the $50 difference from the iM4 scores you the iM5’s integrated iPod dock, while the additional $30 for the iM3s adds on the remote control. Changes to Apple’s official iPod accessories have re-weighted the value of these differences. The iM5’s dock is useful for charging and, like Altec’s other designs, has a data pass-through for computer synchronization, but you can now get the same features in a $40 Apple Universal Dock (iLounge rating: B+). Unlike the Universal Dock, which properly resizes to fit any iPod model, the iM5’s dock is not customizable in any way except for the little white spacer shown in the top photograph, used to slightly resize it for the iPod mini. Additionally, the iM5’s lack of an integrated remote control is limiting: you can’t add a remote to the top of any current model iPod, so if it’s not built into the speakers, you’re stuck.
Additionally, none of the lower-end inMotion units is super-impressive on audio quality for the dollar, and none offers any form of sound adjustability save volume. On an absolute scale, the iM5 has the same bass-accentuated but compressed, modest stereo separation sound of its iM, iM3 and iM4 predecessors, which we’ve previously noted is best-suited to the sub-$100 price point of the iM4, but the iM5’s a little off the iM3 on both bass and treble performance. Many listeners will be fine with the iM5’s sound, but discerning ones will want more, especially if they’re looking for high-quality sound at louder volumes. Altec makes you step up to the excellent, but larger and more expensive inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) in order to get bass and treble controls, and really good, low-distortion sound at higher volumes. Other companies don’t.
At the same time as the iM5 is hitting shelves, Logitech is already selling its mm50 Portable Speakers (iLounge rating: A-) for the same price, packing a zippered carrying case, integrated rechargeable battery pack, and remote control - plus better sound quality, to boot. The apparent sound field and balance sound better even without use of mm50’s enhanced stereo button, which only improves the quality further. And other speakers, such as Sonic Impact’s i-Fusion (iLounge rating: B+), offer dockable, case-laden portable audio with roughly equivalent sound quality and a rechargeable battery for the same price as iM5.
When Altec released iM7, we noted that it had leapfrogged competitors by offering a great speaker system with better value and design for the dollar than Bose’s SoundDock; by comparison, iM5 has stood almost still with an old package and price point while competitors have surged ahead. If you’re looking for a portable $150 speaker system, we’d point to mm50 as the best option for the dollar, with features that beat out the more expensive iM3 and all of its competitors in the same price range. Though it looks nice, works well, and sounds fine, iM5 is only a modest improvement on the original inMotion design, and competition has come far enough since then that we can’t in good conscience give it our general recommendation - it’s a good option only for those people who prefer its aesthetic design, and video output ability, to other options we’ve reviewed. Also consider an Apple Universal Dock and iM4, with or without remote, instead.