Review: Altec Lansing iMT800 Mix Digital Boombox for iPhone and iPod
Stated as simply as possible, Altec Lansing's iMT800 Mix Digital Boombox for iPhone and iPod ($300) wraps beautiful speaker technology in a whole lot of ugly, cheap-looking packaging. This oversized audio system -- the largest released by Altec for iPods or iPhones since the once-awesome inMotion iM7, measuring roughly 20" across by 8" tall by 8.25" deep -- continues the aesthetically depressing gold and black plastic themes found in the company's smaller and less expensive speakers over the past year, but packs such impressive sound that some users just won't care. While groan-inspiring design elements preclude it from meriting our high recommendation overall, there's no doubt that the same components in a different shell would make for a near-universally appealing audio system.
The concept behind iMT800 is a little gimmicky, but it makes some sense: though its connectivity options aren’t substantially different from prior Altec systems, the company has positioned this unit as a lug-it-around multi-device party speaker, with an iPod- or iPhone-ready dock front and center, plus a generic, device-agnostic tray positioned on the system’s top. iMT800 includes a single Dock Connector in the front dock, plus two small auxiliary audio cables to jack into AUX 1 and AUX 2 audio ports found inside its top tray. Since the audio ports are up top, the back is bereft of holes save for a port to connect an included power adapter, while the bottom has a compartment for 8 D-cells, capable of powering the system for up to 30 hours of play time. You can switch between the dock, the auxiliary ports, and an integrated FM radio tuner at will, and carry the system around with two oversized handles that jut out of the front of the trapezoidal system near its four front speakers.
Notably, iMT800 also includes some other parts. The best of the bunch is a cooler version of the remote controls we’ve seen with other Altec iPod speakers in recent months, possessing a somewhat anemic 12 buttons that lack for iPod or iPhone menu navigation but include a useful equalization adjuster, plus four FM station preset buttons for the unit’s integrated FM radio.
This remote’s most distinctive feature is an integrated spring-loaded clip that you could attach to a belt loop or keychain—something we haven’t seen before—thankfully made from real metal rather than plastic. Dock Adapters for iPods and iPhones are also inside the package, some custom-made with padding to prevent device damage in the dock.
Turning iMT800 on yields a few interesting little surprises. First, the system recognizes and displays the name and track information for your connected iPod or iPhone, even flashing a stylized, Apple-like iPhone 3G(S) logo on its integrated, two-line orange screen. Illuminated source, EQ, and track buttons are found to the left and right sides of a combination power button and volume knob on its top, and if you play with the source and track buttons, you activate the FM radio, which tunes from 87.5 to 107.9 in .2 increments, just as it should. Tuning across the dial is a little slow, and reception is a little on the staticy side even when the old-fashioned wand-style antenna has been extended, but the unit puts up a signal strength meter and shows RDS data on the screen, which makes the experience a little more interesting.
FM static aside, it’s really the audio quality of the iMT800 that makes everything from radio to iPod or iPhone audio work, and we can only say that we are legitimately impressed by the sound that Altec has packed into this unit. In addition to a DSP that helps adjust the speakers dynamically to your music, the iMT800 includes twin 1” tweeters, dual 3” drivers for mids and mid-bass, and critically, a 5.25” subwoofer with a matching passive radiator. The tweeters and mid-range drivers fire forwards, while the subwoofer and passive radiator follow the old iM7’s model and shoot from the unit’s sides. As we’ve said in the past, the combination of dedicated high, mid, and low audio drivers—properly tuned by a speaker developer—has the potential to deliver incomparable sound by reference to systems with fewer and lesser speakers.
Altec has tuned the iMT800 very impressively, indeed. As much as we loved the design and very smart equalization of iHome’s recent iP1, the iMT800’s added subwoofer hardware pushes it further in the bass department, and not in a trivial way. Even on its default, relatively judicious initial setting, iMT800’s sheer bass power is considerable, adding powerful undertones to songs that make the iP1—and many other competing $300 or less expensive systems—sound comparatively clinical rather than “fun.” While both the iP1 and iMT800 can reach the same dangerously high level of volume, the presence of the subwoofer in Altec’s design gives electronic and rap tracks in particular a clear low-end richness that they don’t have in iP1, which lets you hear but not swim in bass. It accomplishes this feat without compromising on the highs, mids, or mid-bass, which are comparably clean and impressive to the iP1’s. The difference in the way these systems perform audio is partially attributable to different listening preferences; iMT800 has clearly been designed to appeal to the “loud, bass-loving” boombox crowd, rather than iP1’s more studio-focused, accurate sound signature. You don’t need to play with either system’s EQ settings to hear the differences; that said, using the +/-10 level bass and treble meters adds greater emphasis to the iMT800’s bass, rather than depth, and you can on occasion make the treble unpleasant rather than enhancing it. The system sounds like it was calibrated properly right out of the box, and doesn’t really need to be messed with.
That having been said, iMT800 strikes us as so lacking in the class department visually that it’s not a system we’d actually want to keep on display in our homes or offices. The gold, black, and silver theme didn’t do much for us in the smaller Altec systems, and the size of this system only emphasizes the plasticy, retro-cheesy elements of the enclosure design. Because of its shape—smaller in back, widening in front—it’s about as in-your-face and anti-minimalist as such designs get, and little touches such as a sliding, faux silver metallic bar in front of the iPod dock, and a matching device-propping handle near the auxiliary ports contribute to a sense of cheapness—a massive contrast with the fewer but sleeker, metal components in earlier systems such as Harman Kardon’s Go+Play. iMT800 represents a truly polar shift from the days when Altec’s speakers were futuristic, beautiful, and iPod-matching; it’s hard for us to think of any iPod speaker system that sounded this strong and looked this cheap. Fans of “ghettofabulous” products may like its design, but we seriously don’t, and at price points of $300 or higher, an iPod/iPhone audio system has to look good, too.
Overall, Altec Lansing’s iMT800 is the sort of iPod and iPhone audio system that will compel users to make a tough choice: accept a third-rate enclosure design in exchange for extremely strong, impressively bass-rich sound, or make compromises on either sound or price to get something that looks better? You can decide for yourself what works visually for your own living space and needs, but by carry-around audio system standards, iMT800 is one of the most powerful and sonically impressive we’ve tested—the reason it rates our strong general recommendation—yet in a better wrapper, we’d be a lot more excited about actually using it.