Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM500 Portable Audio System for iPod nano
Pros: A thin portable speaker system for the iPod nano with USB data, audio-in, and wall power ports on its rear, augmented by included audio and power cords, a thin carrying sleeve, and the ability to run off of AAA battery power. Delivers superior sound to the most comparable nano-specific alternative in its class, which is thicker.
Cons: Aggregate audio quality is a step down from company’s earlier iMmini, which boasted better treble thanks to dedicated tweeters, better battery life on fewer cells, and was narrower and shorter than this design. Available only in black.
Every time Apple releases a newer, smaller iPod, speaker developers rush to release a newer, smaller, matching speaker system. But in the speaker world, smaller isn’t always better - in fact, with rare exceptions, it generally means the opposite: fewer, shrunken drivers and tiny enclosures produce less impressive sound than larger and better-equipped sound systems.
Altec Lansing’s 2004 iPod mini-specific speaker system iMmini (iLounge rating: A-) did a more impressive job than most portable speakers we’ve seen at its size and price level, using a four-driver design to produce nicely balanced audio at reasonable volume levels. In certain Asian markets, the iMmini has recently been re-released in small quantities as the iM300, and marketed towards iPod nano owners. Other countries have received a brand new iPod nano-specific model, the iM500 ($130), which in keeping with Apple’s traditions is thinner than ever before.
How thin? The iM500 measures a mere 0.67” when folded up, as contrasted with the 1.0” thick iMmini/iM300. To put that in context, the iM500 is thinner than some of the older full-sized iPods, though it’s larger in both width (8.5”) and height (5”) than the iMmini, and comparable nano-specfic speakers such as XtremeMac’s MicroBlast (iLounge rating: B). In other words, if you’re planning to travel with the iM500, you can expect that it will take up roughly the same amount of space as these other options, but more in footprint than in depth.
Size aside, iM500 is roughly their equivalent in looks - more impressive on its thin side than from the front, where it’s a stark black panel with an iPod in the center, revealing no speaker drivers from a distance away. XtremeMac’s MicroBlast gave users the option to customize its looks with black and white interchangeable shells, an unusual and interesting touch that we liked a lot. For better or worse, the iM500 is black throughout, and no white version is planned.
Unfolded, the iM500 consumes roughly the same amount of space as the iMmini/iM300 - both are shaped and reclined in such a way as to demand stabilization on a flat surface, so Altec pops two feet out, one in back that exposes power, data, and audio ports, and another in front containing an iPod dock. Unlike the iMmini dock, which can hold both minis and nanos, albeit with nanos slightly off to one side - an issue corrected in the iM300 - the iM500 dock is nano-only, and actually sits so close to the unit’s front speaker grille that there’s a depression in the metal sized to the nano’s back. We’re not sure what will happen if Apple changes the nano’s shape in the future, but for now, the iM500 docks current-generation nanos without any issue. Tiny power and volume buttons are found to the dock’s left and right, rather than on top, as was the case with iMmini.
Other components on the unit have also been shrunk down. The Dock Connector port found on the iMmini has been replaced with a tiny USB plug for synchronization - you provide the cable yourself - and the old 3.5mm auxiliary audio port’s been swapped for an unusually small 2.5mm port. Thankfully, Altec includes a 2.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable so you can use non-nano audio devices that have a standard-sized headphone port. Additionally, unlike the iMmini and XtremeMac’s MicroBlast, Altec includes a thin, soft fabric sleeve to carry the speakers rather than a hard protective front shell.
A final miniaturization took place in the power department. Like all of Altec’s inMotion speakers, iM500 can run off of wall or battery power. Rather than using four AA batteries like the iMmini, the iM500 now uses six thinner AAA batteries - not included - similarly situated in two rear components, and achieves only 10 hours of play time per set, which is roughly the same as MicroBlast’s run time, but considerably lower than iMmini’s roughly 24 hours. If you need more continuous music, you’ll need the included wall charger, which is full-sized, thicker than the folded speakers, and can’t be packed inside the included carrying bag.
With all of that out of the way, it’s obvious that Altec’s crammed virtually all of the iMmini’s features into a thinner enclosure, except for one: sound quality. Our testing revealed that Altec’s decision to go thin and wide didn’t do any favors for iM500’s audio, which overall takes a couple of steps down from the nicely-balanced and same-priced iMmini, though it’s a step up from XtremeMac’s MicroBlast. At the time of our MicroBlast review, we noted that its rating was based more on its innovation than its sound, which was only decent for its $120 price; iM500 costs a little more and sounds a little better.
Rather than using one of the four round driver-designs of its earlier rivals, iM500 uses a total of two flatter, boxier drivers that clearly were necessary to achieving the unit’s thickness. Altec’s prior iMmini design sounded so balanced because its two small tweeters delivered quality high-frequency (treble) detail, while its two full-range drivers focused on mids and lows. Lacking those tweeters, the iM500 falls short of the iMmini in treble, leaning towards the more traditional inMotion mid- and low-biased sound signature. This isn’t bad - many people are comfortable with this sort of sound - but we prefer the balance of the iMmini. On the other hand, Altec has made good on its promise that the unit delivers surprising bass given its size: one would expect basically zero bass from such a thin enclosure, but the iM500 rivals the company’s thicker low-end portable speakers (such as iM11) in this regard. You can also turn the iM500 up surprisingly loud - a little louder than the iMmini and iM11 - though like them, it distorts pretty significantly at its peak volume.
It similarly says something that iM500 bests XtremeMac’s bigger four-driver design in overall sound quality, though we think that’s more a statement of MicroBlast’s poor use of its drivers than anything else. Placed next to each other, MicroBlast displays greater bass distortion at average to high volume levels, and iM500’s sound is a bit bigger, cleaner and smoother, particularly in the mid-bass. Neither system is going to impress serious listeners, but iM500 is the better of the two on sound, gives you a synchronization pass through, and will be a bit more future-proof thanks to its auxiliary input; MicroBlast lacks in these departments.
At this point, it bears mention that all three of these speakers retail for around the same price - $120 to $130 - and that they’re all primarily designed for portable use. If you’re willing to give up the portability but still want to shop at those prices or less, you can do better on sound - even in a cheap, universally iPod-compatible all-in-one like the Logiix GX4 Pro, which includes a remote control. We’ve also reviewed pocket-sized iPod nano speaker options that cost a lot less and consume even less space, but don’t deliver equivalent volume or aggregate sound quality matching the more expensive options. When buying speakers, always consider your actual needs first.
Overall, the iM500 takes one step forward and a few steps back in Altec portable speaker design: you get a thinner, sleeker enclosure for the same price as its predecessor, but lose out at least a little on sound quality, battery consumption, and ease of both audio and data connections. Given the choice, we’d still recommend the iMmini/iM300 if you can find one online, but the iM500 is a pretty good speaker too - assuming you like the black coloration and don’t mind compromising on a few of the prior design’s benefits. Consider XtremeMac’s MicroBlast only if its swappable plastic casings or slightly lower price strongly appeal to you.