Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM11 Mobile Speaker System for iPod
Pros: Altec’s most affordable iPod docking inMotion speaker system ever, including rear audio, USB and power ports and cables, with international power adapters, a soft padded carrying case, and simple-as-can-be controls. Runs for roughly 18 hours on four AA batteries. Acceptable (but not breakthrough) audio quality for the price, with enough bass to satisfy typical listeners.
Cons: Similarly priced speakers - typically lacking the iPod dock - do noticeably better on audio quality, offering superior stereo separation, treble and/or bass detail. Not a high volume device; unlike iPods connected to the dock, devices connected to unit’s auxiliary input at high volumes can drive the speakers to high levels of distortion, and therefore require proper volume adjustment.
There are certain magic prices that are known to motivate consumer electronics purchases, and “under $100” is one of them. As evidenced by its earlier release of inMotion iM4 portable speakers (iLounge rating: A-) at the $99.95 mark, Altec Lansing has understood the magic of this number for some time. Now it has released inMotion iM11, an identically-priced speaker system with different and more iPod-targeted features than its predecessor.
Like all of the other inMotions we’ve reviewed, iM11 is a portable, battery- or wall-powered speaker system that’s intended to look nice and sound good wherever you take it. This particular model boasts an especially small, traveler-friendly size - 8.5” wide x 4.3” high and 1.4” deep - and super-simple controls, namely a blue-lit top left power switch and a top right analog volume slider. It matches the look and styling of iPods - especially full-sized white ones - very well. Two plastic elements pop out at the push of a front-mounted white button to provide a flat surface for iM11 to recline on, exposing power, audio-in and USB ports on the unit’s back. Left and right rear battery compartments hold four total AA batteries, which power the unit for roughly 18 hours. As with most other inMotions - and bettering the iM4 - Altec includes a nice soft padded black carrying case with iM11, as well as audio and USB cables, and an international travel adapter, which includes four types of outlet blades so that you can easily use it (and charge your iPod) when traveling, even overseas.
So what’s different between iM11 and Altec’s two earlier “low-end” inMotion models? Previously, the company released the MP3 player-agnostic iM2 and iM4, the former with two large speaker drivers, and its iM4 replacement with four smaller drivers. Neither iM2 nor iM4 included an iPod dock. iM11 is a compromise. It switches back to a larger, two-driver configuration, but adds an iPod charging, data and audio output dock to the package, making it the least expensive Altec system to include an iPod dock. Consequently, you can pop your iPod into iM11 for file-transfer purposes, connecting to your computer via the included USB cable, and charge your iPod whenever connected to wall power or the computer - the AAs only keep the speakers going, not the iPod.
The dock offers one additional benefit. When using the dock, your iPod’s audio level is more properly matched to the stereo’s amplifier and speakers, resulting in much lower distortion at iM11’s apparent top volumes than you’d hear when both the iPod and iM2 or iM4 are cranked up. But this is somewhat of an illusion. iM11’s peak volume level with a docked iPod is lower than when the iPod is connected to its rear auxiliary audio port; enough to fill a small room with a docked iPod, but not more. In other words, you can drive the system to a higher volume level - and tremendous distortion - by connecting the iPod to its back rather than its dock. Other than using old (1G/2G) iPods or the shuffle, the real question is why you’d want to.
If your answer is that you’re looking for an audio system with tremendous horsepower and audio fidelity, the sub-$100 iM11 isn’t for you. Its peak volume level without distortion is very close but not equal to that of Altec’s more expensive systems, such as the $180 iM3 and iM3c (iLounge rating: B+). Volume aside, it provides a level of audio quality that we found entirely acceptable for the price, but not stunning; by comparison with iM4 and other four-driver Altec systems like the iM3s, it isn’t as strong on treble or apparent detail, and though its bass is significant enough to make the vast majority of users happy, picky ones will find the low-end “boomy” rather than well-defined. Stereo separation is there, but not strong, even by comparison with other low-end inMotions.
More trivially, the iM11 also doesn’t take as aggressive an approach to iPod docking as the company’s more deluxe models; five simple rear spacers are used rather than either the iM3/c or Apple Universal Dock well-and-insert systems. These spacers still work adequately to mount all of the Dock Connecting iPods, but don’t surround them, leaving their bottom fronts and sides exposed. Neither we nor most people will care, especially considering that the iM4 and most sub-$100 options lack a dock entirely.
In sum, Altec now provides you with a choice: its dockless iM4 is physically longer and taller, and occupies more space when unfolded, but sounds better; not enough better for younger users and most average listeners to care, but better nonetheless. iM11 is narrower and shorter, includes a dock, better carrying case, and USB cable, and sounds a little less impressive. Since we tend to prefer audio quality to iM11’s advantages, we’d lean towards iM4 (or spend more money to get a better-sounding and -equipped system, like Logitech’s mm50 (iLounge rating: A-)), but price-conscious readers will find this package difficult to beat for the dollar.