Review: mStation Orb 2.1 Stereo
Pros: A good and fairly compact all-in-one iPod docking speaker system that can also serve as a computer synchronizing dock and auxiliary audio performer, thanks to included USB and audio cables. Also includes functional 10-button remote control with independent bass and treble controls. Shiny globe-like design is unique in looks.
Cons: Audio quality is good, but not great for the asking price; bass distorts fairly quickly when turned up, and treble needs to be adjusted from the default level to make sound compare well with competing options. At higher levels, treble adjustment enhances an otherwise unnoticeable amplifier noise. Infrared remote system has issues under challenging lighting conditions.
iPod speaker manufacturers tend to agree that there is incredible demand for options in the $150 price range, and we’ve seen many new options over the course of the last several weeks. Today, we look briefly at three $150 speakers - Emerson’s iTone iE600BK Home Audio System, mStation’s Orb 2.1 Stereo, and Speck Products’ SpeckTone Retro, each a single-piece stereo designed solely to run off of wall power. Though each one includes an iPod dock and three speakers, they’re hardly equivalent to one another in any other way save price: they differ substantially in design, sound quality and other features. We’re giving them only short individual reviews because we weren’t impressed enough by any of them to call them standouts.
From a features and performance standpoint, mStation’s Orb 2.1 Stereo is the most balanced option of the bunch. As its name suggests, the Orb is a globe, only slightly wider (7.8 inches) than tall (7.4 inches), and packs two 2” midrange drivers and a 3” forward- and backward-firing subwoofer into its frame. The look is clean and minimalist - evocative of the Discovery spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey - and predictably places an iPod dock directly on top. Our review unit and those currently in the marketplace come in white plastic with a gauze-like fabric speaker grille; mStation will sell the unit in black starting in July, while a company called Intempo is distributing the Orb at a higher price to customers in the United Kingdom as the iDS-02.
Besides the Orb unit, each box contains six dock resizers for all key iPod models, a power supply, both audio and USB cables, and a manageable 10-button Infrared remote control. You’ll find four ports underneath the rear subwoofer grille: one for power, one for USB synchronization and docking, one for FireWire synchronization and docking, and one for auxiliary audio input. If you’re not using USB, you’ll need to supply your own FireWire-to-FireWire cable to use that port with older iPods - a less than necessary feature, these days - but both ports worked fine in our synchronization testing. Worth a brief note is the fact that the auxiliary input automatically disables audio output from the Orb’s iPod dock if two devices are playing at the same time. Besides the integrated power, volume, play/pause and track buttons found below the dock, a button to toggle between the two inputs would have been a nice addition.
That omission aside, we were generally fine with the buttons we found on the included remote control, which connects with the base station’s front-mounted Infrared sensor for iPod access from a distance. We were glad to see that besides the standards - power, volume, play/pause, and track backwards and forwards - the remote includes independent bass and treble controls for the speakers, and they actually do have an effect on your music. But we were somewhat displeased by two things with the remote: first, and most likely because of the position of the sensor, it fared poorly under challenging lighting conditions, responding to commands at a distance of only 5 feet away despite the fact that it worked reliably from a 30-foot distance without fluorescent lighting on. Second, the remote’s membrane-style buttons are the same cheap and sticky ones we disliked in mStation’s Tower system (iLounge rating: B), which detract from the otherwise nice package.
Compared against Emerson’s iE600BK and Speck’s SpeckTone Retro, the Orb sounded good, but like the others, it was certainly not the rival of the sub-$100 JBL Creature II (iLounge rating: A) when connected to an iPod dock. To put this in some perspective, Emerson spent its component dollars on all sorts of different parts - CD player, clock, radio, iPod dock, iPod shuffle dock, huge remote control, and most notably, cheap-sounding speakers. mStation and Speck put more into the speakers and body design, with mStation including iPod PC/Mac synchronization functionality and a remote.
mStation’s result is a speaker that doesn’t look or sound as big as a Bose Sounddock (iLounge rating: B+) - say nothing of the cheaper, better, and bigger Altec Lansing iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) - but does an acceptable job given its size and price. As noted earlier, the remote’s integrated bass and treble controls allow you to tune the high- and low-end response to your liking, a feature that worked better for the treble than the bass in our testing. Despite the presence of an integrated 3” subwoofer, we found the bass to be boomy and less smooth than we would have preferred when turned up, though the remote’s button was able to bring it down to a level that sounded less distorted than the SpeckTone Retro on its only setting. mStation’s default level of treble wasn’t anything special, but button tweaks brought it up to a better level of crispness than some of the other $100-$150 speakers we’ve heard. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost: treble enhancement amplifies a barely audible amplifier noise to a level that’s noticeable during silences, so you’ll need to be careful - or less picky - when using the treble up button. Midrange detail was acceptable for an inexpensive all-in-one, but again, not up to the standards of the best such devices we’ve heard.
While a comparison between the Orb and a lower-end system like the Creature II or the higher-end iM7 might seem misplaced, the reality is that they’re all options in this price range if you shop around. The Orb can’t be had for less than $150 as of the date of this review, but the iM7’s street price has fallen so significantly in recent days that it can be had for $165 shipped through Amazon.com, and the differences in sound quality, amplitude, and stereo separation are far more pronounced than the $15 difference would suggest. Similarly, the Creatures can be had from Amazon for $65 shipped - in black or white - and $75 or less in red or silver, then paired with your choice of iPod remote control docks, all for the same price or less than the Orb.
What that means is that the Orb is a good but not stellar option for the dollar, and though we were on the edge of general and limited recommendations, the remote and overall sound quality for the size - when properly bass- and treble-adjusted - pushed us over the edge to a solid B rating here. As with most iPod docking speakers these days, it will appeal most to people who are seeking something that looks rather than sounds unique, and if you’re in that camp, it won’t disappoint any of your senses.