Review: Altec Lansing inMotion MAX Premium Portable Stereo for iPhone and iPod (iMT702)
We're going to come right out and say it: Altec Lansing's inMotion MAX ($200) is not what we'd call an attractive portable speaker system. It's also $70 more expensive than its leading competitor, Logitech's Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, and consumes roughly twice the physical volume. But -- and those are three big buts -- if you're looking for a briefcase-ready, iPod- and iPhone-compatible speaker system with somewhat better sound and an FM radio, inMotion MAX may interest you.
Several historical details might help you to understand where inMotion MAX fits into the iPod/iPhone speaker galaxy. Altec created the first dedicated portable iPod speaker, inMotion, and then released numerous sequels of various shapes and sizes. But a few years ago, Logitech started to release competing speakers that outperformed comparably-priced inMotion offerings, beginning with the mm50. This portable unit had a marked audio performance lead over Altec’s same-priced designs, but Altec introduced a nice alternative in the $150 glossy black iM600—the family’s best-sounding system to date, and the first with an integrated FM radio. Logitech responded with the Pure-Fi Anywhere, and more recently the identical but iPhone-ready Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, lowering its price to $130.
Also known as the iMT702, inMotion MAX represents steps up over Altec’s iPod-only iM600 in both sound quality and pricing. Unlike the iM600, which we felt was roughly on par with the similar mm50, Pure-Fi Anywhere, and Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 in sound, inMotion MAX decisively sounds better. Though we’ve praised Logitech’s systems for dynamic and nicely equalized audio in the past, MAX manages to present even more of the sound spectrum, offering noticeably more bass and a little extra detail in both the treble and mid frequencies. Music sounds as full-bodied as is possible in the absence of a dedicated subwoofer, and we actually enjoyed listening to any track we played through MAX’s speakers, something we couldn’t always say about iM600. Just like Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, it sounds very good without any sort of audio adjustment, and offers the user only one performance enhancer to turn on or off: an “ESS” feature, which like Pure-Fi’s StereoXL uses slight equalization and other tricks to expand the sound stage past the apparent edges of the speakers.
With Pure-Fi Anywhere and 2, that particular feature makes a big impression: audio appeared to be coming from outside the 13.25” wide by 3.7” tall by 1.6” deep systems’ frames. With inMotion MAX, which measures 12.2” wide by 7.6” tall by 2” deep when closed, or roughly 5.3” deep when its front dock and rear stand are popped open, the ESS feature works, but doesn’t seem as impressive. It’s a little narrower, but twice the height of the Pure-Fis, and therefore a very big speaker system by iPod portable standards. Though it can fit in a briefcase as noted above, it’s going to consume a lot of the space inside. Standing up, it looks like a throwback to the 1980’s, with big gold rims on its four speaker drivers, highly angular styling—there are no curves—and buttons that are emblazoned with a very old-looking dot matrix font. Black coloration aside, inMotion MAX doesn’t match any iPod or iPhone in any way, nor does it look like any past inMotion audio system, many of which we’ve really liked or loved physically. This is a confusing change of design direction for the pioneering Altec family.
There’s also another oddity: the battery. Unlike the Logitechs, which offer 10 hours of play time on their included rechargeable cells, Altec rates its own battery for a seemingly mere 3.5 hours of audio playback. While the performance is understated for use at average volumes, it’s still not up to the longevity that we’ve come to expect from other portable audio systems; Altec used to boast of 24-hour run times for its audio systems. You’ll want to keep the power supply around MAX if you’re planning for extended listening sessions.
There are counterbalances. Sure, the buttons on the unit and included Infrared remote are unusually labelled, but the system’s top uses an interesting touch-sensitive, high-gloss control panel with amber backlighting and a matching amber tuning screen on the unit’s front. We liked the buttons, but didn’t like that they’re extremely easy to activate accidentally when you go to pick MAX up by its top and carry it around while in use. In this case, the volume typically goes up—quickly, and a lot. You’ll have to pick MAX up by its sides instead, and really, Altec could have avoided these issues and power drain by going with pressure-sensitive buttons instead. By comparison, the remote’s buttons are pressure-sensitive and arrayed in a simple grid; the remote sneaks into a hole on the system’s back for easy storage.
The FM radio has been improved, generally, from the iM600’s. Tuning is now done on the amber screen in convenient .2 increments, as it should have been before for U.S. users, and you now have the option to connect an included external antenna that really improves the radio’s clarity from the prior model’s. Unfortunately, if the antenna’s pulled out, you’ll have problems receiving anything. Four presets can be saved on the remote, but not accessed without it.
Finally, inMotion MAX is Altec’s first iPhone-compatible portable system, and as such includes an Apple authentication chip, also used here to carry over eight characters at a time from the song title and artist name to scroll on the radio tuning screen. Volume mirroring isn’t included, nor is video-out; the system has only an auxiliary audio input. We didn’t observe any iPhone-specific interference in the audio, either with the iPhone or iPhone 3G, which is as it should be.
Our overall rating of inMotion MAX is a reflection of several competing feelings we had about the system. On one hand, the system sounds better than the Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, as well as JBL’s On Stage IIIP, perhaps the two most prominent iPhone-ready portable audio systems on the market. But the odd design, sheer physical size, low battery life, and higher price all are head-scratchers, rendering MAX a far more niche speaker than it could have been. When we ask ourselves whether we’d pay a $70 premium and suffer the physical consequences just to get the audio and radio differences MAX offers over its leading A- rated competitor, the answer’s “no,” and not by just a little. But if you like this system’s looks, want a little extra audio horsepower, and don’t mind carrying it around, consider inMotion MAX anyway. It’s a great-sounding audio system trapped in an oversized, overdesigned, and slightly overpriced body.