Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM600 Digital Speaker System for iPod
Pros: A beautifully designed portable iPod speaker system with excellent value for the price, incorporating an FM radio tuner, universal iPod dock, rechargeable 7-hour battery, and stereo speakers into a slim, fold-open enclosure. Roughly the peer on overall sound quality to leading competitor at same MSRP, but with added rear ports, most of the same features, and a classier overall design. Very strong Infrared remote control.
Cons: Though generally impressive, and sometimes superior, FM radio and iPod sound quality are occasionally slightly below the levels of top peer products; average users won’t mind. Radio uses an odd full-spectrum tuner that’s not optimized for any particular radio region, leaving all users to tune through many stations that aren’t available in their regions. No carrying case.
As we’ve mentioned in past reviews, Altec Lansing basically created the portable iPod speaker category with its inMotion speakers, and through innovative designs has helped to radically expand and improve the category: the tube-like boombox iM7, shock-resistant iM9, and “impossibly thin” iM500 have all been pioneers of one type or another, and now there’s the iM600 ($150). Properly understood as a thorough re-thinking of the original inMotion, iM600 has turned out to be Altec’s best-ever iPod speaker offering, drawing on the sleek lines of the nano-only iM500 for an enclosure with superior audio quality, full iPod family compatibility, and a somewhat novel feature: a digital FM radio tuner.
Altec’s iM600 package is, by design, highly streamlined. Inside, you’ll find three black iPod Dock Adapters, a 12-button Infrared remote control, a wall power charger, and the iM600 itself - a 11” by 1.7” by 6”, 2.1-pound combination of stereo speakers and a central, pop-out universal iPod dock. Unlike the original inMotion and its successors, there isn’t a battery compartment for multiple disposable cells: instead, there’s a seven-hour rechargeable battery built-in, and you have the option to run iM600 off the wall adapter if you need additional play time or recharging. A small yellow light on the unit’s front illuminates when it’s charging. Altec also includes auxiliary audio in, subwoofer out, composite video out, and mini-USB sync ports on iM600’s back alongside a hidden remote control storage compartment, but leaves you to provide the audio, video, and data cables yourself.
At least the ports are there. iM600’s most significant iPod speaker challenger is the Logitech mm50 (iLounge rating: A-), an impressive-sounding system that is in most other regards a match for the iM600, but now includes only audio-in and power ports on its back. Of the two products, Altec’s design is certainly more versatile, even if it’s missing the nice protective carrying case that Logitech includes, so you’ll need to keep its body scratch-free on your own. You’ll probably want to take that precaution; iM600’s new all-black body is beautiful, but does show scratches and dust to a greater extent than its white predecessors.
The unit’s versatility extends to a feature that we haven’t previously seen in other $150 portable, dockable iPod speaker offerings: the aforementioned digital FM radio tuner. Similar to Tivoli Audio’s early, dockless monaural radio iPAL, iM600 includes a telescoping radio antenna that pops out of its right side to improve FM reception, and adds a blue and white digital tuner to its face, directly above the iPod dock. Using buttons on iM600’s top or remote control, you can tune stations, while four preset buttons on the remote let you access previously saved favorites with a single touch. Altec’s remote, incidentally, works from more than twice the distance of mm50’s - we tested it successfully from 35 feet away, a major improvement for the company, and including all of the iPod, power, volume, and source controls one would expect to find.
The FM tuner’s functionality will be modestly controversial. Unlike virtually every radio tuner we’ve yet tested in an iPod accessory, it dials all the way from 76.0FM to 108.0FM in .1 increments. This can charitably be described as a “broad-spectrum international tuner,” or less positively viewed as a sloppy alternative to offering separate tuning modes for several different FM radio regions. U.S. users will have to skip all the channels from 76.0FM to 87.6FM - and thereafter - in .1 tuning increments, even though all U.S. programming is done in .2 increments. Residents of other countries will also find the tuner too broad for their needs. A simple region setting would have fixed this; Altec partially compensates with the presets, and by letting its tuner skip quickly through stations so tuning isn’t too painful.
Testing of the tuner yielded interesting results. It was a A-/B+ performer by the standards of devices its size and price, tuning in most stations with low static and very good sound, and some stations with outstanding sound and little static, but occasionally refusing to tune in difficult stations at all. What appears to be static filter rendered some sub-optimal stations unhearable even though a Tivoli radio could pick them up and sound decent. Altec appears to be favoring quality over quantity here, and in any case, iM600’s inclusion of any FM radio tuning elevates it a step over the radio-less mm50.
So given that it packs this radio, more rear ports, and a nicely updated cosmetic design, why would we rate iM600 the same overall as Logitech’s same-priced mm50? There are several related reasons. When used with your iPod, the two systems are basically a wash sonically. This is a good thing in that they’re both way above average in sound quality for the dollar, but a challenge in that describing the similarities and differences between them is unusually tricky. To be fair in our comparisons, we tested both units with a wide variety of songs on two sets of identical iPods - two nanos, and two 5G iPods - and found that for the most part, the systems sounded so similar that the average user would have a hard time telling them apart. In other words, if you’re not an audiophile, don’t let anything below stand in your way of trying and enjoying the iM600.
That said, the iM600 and mm50 each had strengths and weaknesses. Though the systems have very similar ranges (treble, midrange, and bass capabilities), mm50 was the most predictable from song to song, with comparatively smoother mids and bass, and less pronounced treble. iM600 instead tended to have a slightly sharper, crisper sound that helped in some songs and diminished others; certain elements of songs (sometimes instruments, sometimes voices) “popped,” but not always in the way one might hope. To that end, iM600 sometimes brings out the punch in percussion more than mm50, while mm50 occasionally appears to have a wider stage or less compressed sound. Again, at typical listening levels, most listeners mightn’t even notice these differences: you need to be listening for them, or hearing one of few songs where the differences are more pronounced. At high (peak) volume levels, mm50 has a small edge: iM600’s maximum volume level was a little higher than mm50’s, but mm50 exhibited less distortion and generally sounded smoother at high volumes.
Each includes a sound enhancer button designed to artificially widen the apparent sound stage of a song, but no user-adjustable bass or treble controls. Both systems saw similar, small midrange boost benefits in certain songs when the enhancer was turned on, so we generally preferred to leave the feature on.
The major reason we view these systems as peers is pricing. Both have a MSRP of $150, but since it’s been in the marketplace for a year and a half, the mm50 can now be found for under $100 if you shop around, while it’ll take some time for the iM600 to fall substantially below its $150 asking price. Some stores will, of course, carry them both for the same price, and if you’re only inclined to shop at those places, the iM600’s a better buy, but more aggressive retailers will provide you with a strong financial incentive to prefer the mm50. We’re inclined to view saving $50 as a little more persuasive than the added features you get in the iM600, but others - particularly those who like FM radio or value iM600’s design over its lack of a carrying case - may disagree.
Overall, though it would be unfair to call iM600 truly “exciting” from an innovation standpoint, we feel the same about it as we did when we named it a 2007 Best of Show winner back in January: the greatness is in the complete package. Altec has combined very good FM radio tuning, iPod sound quality, and features in an enclosure that’s aesthetically and practically the best we’ve seen in the portable iPod speaker space. To say that iM600 is a dramatic improvement over the flat B-rated original inMotion - and most of its successors - is an understatement, as it truly incorporates so many of the family’s best traits in a single package, making us happy to highly recommend it to our readers. Because of its classier body, radio, and added ports, iM600 is the first peer-priced product to make the wisely-designed mm50 look a bit anemic, and as such, it’ll be interesting to see whether Logitech goes for a redesign or merely a uniformly lower mm50 price point as a consequence.