Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM9 Mobile Speaker System
Pros: A ruggedized iPod docking speaker system that provides Bose SoundDock-like audio quality and volume at a considerably lower (and commensurately more reasonable) price, along with full battery-powered portability for 24 hours. Attractive black and silver industrial design, includes nice carrying backpack. Shock-proof body is substantially accident-resistant, and features a very nice integrated iPod dock. Video, audio, and data ports on the back allow system to be used with TVs, computers, and other audio devices.
Cons: Amplifier hiss is more noticeable at low to low-mid volumes than comparable alternatives. No remote control, so all iPod/volume control must be handled up close, limiting safe access to its top volume levels. While ruggedized, doesn’t offer even part-time protection for iPod inside.
Occasionally, we review an accessory that we like, but could have absolutely loved. Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM9 Mobile Speaker System ($200) is a prime example - as a heavily rubberized, portable, and $100 cheaper version of Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+), it’s going to satisfy many users, particularly those who frequently use their iPods outside. For that reason, we picked it as one of our 2006 Best in Show award winners back in January, and still believe it has taken a major step forward in iPod speaker pricing, power, and design.
But at the same time, iM9 falls just short of being an even more attractive “something for everyone” iPod speaker - one that we would have highly recommended to any of our readers, like its larger and more expensive predecessor iM7 (iLounge rating: A-). Its omissions are few, but not trivial, and so we’d suggest that you read on and determine whether its features are right for your particular needs.
Decoding the Numbers: iM9, its Predecessors, and the SoundDock
If you’re not familiar with the inMotion family of portable docking iPod speakers, there are two prior models worth mentioning here. Our favorite is the $250 iM7, an eight-pound, tube-like speaker which looks and sounds great, optionally runs off of D-cell batteries, and bests the SoundDock in both overall sound quality and user adjustability. Altec also sells the significantly smaller $180 iM3c (iLounge rating: B+), which weighs under a pound and fits easily into a bag or briefcase. Both systems dock and charge your iPod, decreasing simultaneously in size, price, and sound quality. They also include short-distance Infrared remote controls, unlike Altec’s cheaper and smaller inMotions.
Higher model number aside, the new iM9 sits both in-between and off to the side of the iM7 and iM3c systems. On one hand, its features are clearly similar to the iM7’s - iM9 has a central pop-open iPod dock that actually works better than its predecessor’s, plus the same composite video-out and audio-in/headphone-out ports on back, and a compartment for four C-cell batteries, offering over 24 hours of playback time. There are only four buttons on the unit, all on top - power on the left, ringed with a purple light, an eject button for the dock in the center, and volume plus and minus buttons on the right.
At the same time, its size, power, and sound quality are major steps forward over the cheaper iM3c. At 11” x 7.8” x 3”, and containing two 1” tweeters and two 2.5” mid-range drivers, iM9’s components actually rival the ones in Bose’s SoundDock, while offering the portability Bose’s option lacks. Like the SoundDock and iM3c, but unlike iM7, iM9 lacks user-adjustable bass and treble controls, and defaults to a sound balance that’s acceptably warm rather than neutral or tinny. Since it weighs roughly three pounds, iM9 is not the sort of speaker you can toss into a purse, but it’s surely a lot easier to take anywhere than the iM7 - Altec even includes an iM9-sized, single armstrap carrying backpack for that purpose.
inMotion, Outdoors, Indoors
Carrying backpack? That’s right: iM9 has been “designed for the active, outdoor lifestyle,” and is touted as the iPod speaker system that “takes campfire songs to a whole new level.” Thanks to a ruggedized enclosure, specifically a thick, hard rubber and metal shell that wraps around your iPod and the speakers, it’s a sharp contrast with glossy white plastic boxes like the iPod Hi-Fi, which seem ill-equipped to protect either themselves or the iPod against mishandling damage. The backpack has two internal compartments, a separate zippered front pouch, a mesh side pocket, and a Velcro-lidded cell phone carrier on its armstrap. It’s not padded, but it’s otherwise more than adequate, and well made.
Not surprisingly, Altec didn’t restrict the iM9’s appeal to only outdoor activities. Unlike most other speakers we’ve tested, its jet black, matte-finished body will essentially dissolve into the darkness of a bedroom when used with a fifth-generation iPod on a nightstand, turning that iPod into a miniature bedside television set. Similarly, the fact that it has video output functionality means that you can drop an iPod inside and use it with a larger television, and both its Dock Connector - also found on iM3c, but not on iM7 - and audio-in ports make it a potential computer desk speaker system, too. Altec could have colored the speakers “extreme yellow,” added reflective tape, and stripped off all of its indoor features, but didn’t, and in our view, iM9 is better for that choice.
That said, iM9 was clearly meant to appeal to the outdoors crowd, so how resilient is it, really? Prior to its release, Altec briefly touted the design as splash- and shock-resistant, the combination of which would have been outstanding - an iPod speaker truly ready for everything from the beach to the rain forest. It even sealed off the aforementioned rear ports and top control with rubberized shields to protect them against water. You need to intentionally pull the rear cover open, and even the bottom battery compartment uses a smart seal-tight design.
But as we noticed when the product was shown at two trade shows earlier this year, there’s no splash guard for the iPod - arguably the most expensive component you’ll be toting around. On the bright side, the iPod dock has been improved from the iM7’s, and now has a front screen and Click Wheel access hole that’s large enough to view the entirety of a 5G iPod, scaling downwards with the inserts to hold and properly frame iPods with smaller components. However, none of the inserts includes a clear plastic shield or other seal for the dock, even one that’s part-time and only for outdoor use. Accordingly, iM9’s box now describes the system only as shock-resistant, and doesn’t recommend you expose any of its parts to water. Dock aside, it looks and feels very sturdy - far less likely to be accidentally damaged than other iPod speakers, even if it’s tossed around a bit while carried in its backpack.
Pack-ins, Omissions, and Audio Performance
Other than the backpack, which is a more practical and attractive replacement for the company’s earlier vinyl inMotion carrying bags, iM9 is light on frills. Four black dock sizers are included, as is a black power supply and single region-specific power tip for indoor travel use in the country of purchase; no international power blades are included here, and most people won’t mind this.
In our view, the only truly disappointing omission is a remote control: you’ll need to adjust track playback and volume by walking over to the unit, which isn’t necessary with most of the speakers we’ve tested at and above the $150 mark, and is especially unfortunate when a system’s capable of delivering significant volume, as iM9 is. You can crank the system up nearly as loud as Bose’s SoundDock, but will risk hearing damage doing so - the SoundDock’s Infrared remote is a competitive advantage.
That aside, though we have very positive feelings overall about the iM9’s audio performance, there’s another important caveat that needs to be mentioned. The good news is that the iM9 is surely better-sounding than the iM3c, with noticeably better treble, superior detail across the entire spectrum, and a higher top volume level. Not only does it generally rival Bose’s SoundDock in each of these specifics, but its bass falls short of the superior iM7 only on the extreme low end, and at even higher volumes, where the iM7 has greater presence. While audiophiles won’t go ga-ga over iM9’s performance, those familiar with comparably affordable portable options will generally be impressed.
Unfortunately, iM9 suffers from low-volume amplifier hiss, a nagging issue that has detracted from a number of Altec’s less expensive speakers. At medium to high listening levels, you won’t hear the hiss, and to be fair, both the SoundDock and the iM7 have a little too - less than iM9’s - but at lower volumes, and during silences, it cuts into what is otherwise very pleasing sound.
To put this in perspective, you won’t notice this noise if you actually take iM9 outdoors or use it in the center of other significant ambient sounds. And if you’re going to keep it five feet away and walk over to use its controls once in a while, you’ll be fine. But if you - like we - hoped to use the system as a bedside iPod speaker system, you’ll be disappointed, because the level of hiss relative to its sound output is not impressive in an otherwise quiet room.
(For those interested in the comparison, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Tivoli’s $330 iSongBook (iLounge rating: B+) offers superior detail - across the board, but particularly in treble - to iM9, and of course includes an FM/AM radio, a detachable, user-positionable speaker, and a remote control. However, iSongBook distorts music far more noticeably than iM9 at higher volumes, and though its bass is tight, it’s not as rich or deep as iM9’s.)
If it had been executed perfectly - namely, with a good remote control and no amplifier noise - the inMotion iM9 system could have basically eliminated the indoor need for Bose’s more expensive SoundDock altogether. Similarly, if it had fully executed on its original premise of complete splash protection - a part-time iPod cover would have worked - it could have been very close to a perfect outdoor companion, no matter what you were planning on doing. These features would have made iM9 an A-caliber speaker, and one of our very top picks overall.
Instead, iM9 comes close, delivering a solid on-the-go listening experience that’s well-suited to those who want to use their iPods outdoors - wherever it’s not too wet. We very much like its smart, easily resizable internal dock, ruggedized enclosure, backpack, and aggregate sound quality, which offers a SoundDock-like experience you can carry more easily than the iM7. For the reasonable price, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to you if it meets your specific needs.