Review: Altec Lansing M602 Digital iPod Speaker System
Pros: An all-in-one iPod speaker dock capable of rivalling Bose’s SoundDock in room-filling volume, complete with user-adjustable bass and treble controls, a wall power adapter, and auxiliary audio attachments for non-docking audio devices. Includes acceptable Infrared remote control, audio-in and -out ports, video and USB ports, and can be wall-mounted with inexpensive optional kit. Reasonably priced, especially by comparison with SoundDock.
Cons: Requires user calibration to approximate SoundDock’s out-of-box sound. Though physically larger overall, does not equal or beat Bose or the most recent equally priced competitor in clarity of low-end response; noticeable distortion begins as soon as bass is turned up beyond default setting. No Dock Adapters included for current iPods, though they’re needed to keep full-sized iPods from touching speaker grille.
Even though it’s nearly two years old, Bose’s all-in-one iPod speaker system SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+) continues to cast a long shadow in the iPod speaker market: because of its good brand name and sound, and despite its price, retailers report that it’s still the most popular iPod speaker dock by a considerable margin. Serious audio companies ranging from Altec Lansing to JBL and Klipsch have sought unsuccessfully to unseat the SoundDock, trying everything from slightly more aggressive pricing to radically different and sometimes superior cosmetic designs, but nothing has worked.
This week, two companies have tried the same new tactic to challenge Bose: release conservatively designed, SoundDock-like speaker docks with virtually identical features - each at a $100 discount off of Bose’s $300 price. All three systems include remote controls and wall power adapters, and though they’re easy enough to transport around, all are intended for in-home use only; none has a battery compartment. Sonic Impact’s black and gunmetal T24 (iLounge rating: B+) adds a little width and additional speaker cabinet depth to the SoundDock design, while Altec Lansing’s silver and white M602 ($200) goes even wider and taller. While both new systems are more than worthy rivals for the SoundDock, and certainly will save you some cash, neither decisively tops Bose’s design on sound quality - they each skew towards a different direction. Our review of the M602 is below; our T24 review is separate.
As noted above, Altec has tried to take on the SoundDock before: its inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) remains one of our favorite iPod speaker docks, boasting better-than-SoundDock quality at a lower, $250 MSRP. And its more recent inMotion iM9 (iLounge rating: B+) offers Bose-approximating sound, minus a remote control, but plus an even more portable enclosure and carrying backpack, all for the even lower MSRP of $200. Both of these systems run off of wall or battery power, and feature eye-catching designs.
M602 takes a somewhat different approach. Aiming more directly at the SoundDock in styling and features, it’s Altec’s first iPod speaker system designed solely for in-home use - hence the lack of the “inMotion” name. In a now predictable arrangement for such speakers, it features a single metal speaker grille with an Apple-standard Universal Dock in front, though at 14” wide, 8.2” high, and 5.4” deep, it’s larger than the SoundDock and similar competitors from Sonic Impact and Klipsch. Power, volume, and bass/treble buttons are centered on its top surface.
Size aside, there are lots of similarities to these earlier products. Like Sonic Impact’s T24, it includes ports on the rear for auxiliary audio input and composite video output, but adds to them a mini-USB port for iPod synchronization and a headphone-out port for connection to earphones or other speakers. Similarly, like Klipsch’s iGroove HG (iLounge rating: B+), Altec includes a detachable plastic cradle and audio cable for MP3 players without Dock Connector plugs, including early iPods, the iPod shuffle, and competitors. You’ll provide your own mini-USB to USB cable - there isn’t one in the box.
(On a related note, no Universal Dock Adapters are included for other iPods; like the USB cable, you’ll have to supply them yourself. For full-sized iPod owners, we need to emphasize the word “have” here - if you don’t put an Adapter into the dock, your iPod will rest against the unit’s metal front grille, and likely cause a bit of unnecessary audio distortion. We haven’t seen this particular issue in an iPod speaker dock before.)
A number of M602 design touches - color, remote control, and internals - will be familiar to fans of the 50 total watt iM7 system, though Altec has made a couple of changes, most significantly giving M602 a 60 total watt amplifier, and taking away one of the iM7’s five speakers. Consequently, the company boasts that 30 watts per channel have been spread across M602’s four drivers - two 3” full-range drivers, and two 1” tweeters - the same audio arrangement as the front-facing components in iM7, but with more power going to each component.
M602’s remote adds two buttons to the SoundDock’s standard six, which are power, play/pause, volume up/down, and track forward/backward. One new button is labeled “bass,” the other “treble,” preserving features from the iM7’s remote while cutting down on the number of buttons. In Altec’s most impressive deviation from the iM7 - quite possibly inspired by Apple’s more recent iPod Hi-Fi - lights hidden inside M602’s speaker grille activate to signal current volume, bass, and treble levels when the appropriate buttons are pressed on the remote control. Pressing the volume up and down buttons reveals a total of 5 blue lights, each moving from off or a dim level 1 to a strong level 10, for a total of 51 different gradations of volume. But if you press “bass” or “treble,” the lights switch to one- or two-dot displays that start out centered, then move progressively left or right through 11 stages each, depending on your preferred low- and high-end settings. This is a smart usability solution, and even better than the volume, bass, and treble displays on Altec’s FX6021 speakers.
Button and indicator changes aside, M602’s remote achieved better distance performance in our testing than iM7’s, working reliably from 15 to 17-foot distances with or without fluorescent light interference, but failing thereafter. By iPod speaker dock standards, this is fine and acceptable - not bad, like iM7’s - but not up to Bose’s or Sonic Impact’s standards.
The biggest question about M602 is the obvious one: how does it sound by comparison with the SoundDock, its roughly equivalent but cheaper T24 rival, and earlier iM-series Altec speaker docks? Our answer isn’t exactly what we would have initially expected to say or hear, but it makes sense given some of M602’s design constraints. In sum, as with the T24 and Altec’s earlier iM9, we’d have to give Bose the overall edge on sound quality here, with the iM7 still dominating the field. Since the T24, iM9 and M602 all sell for $200, but offer different features, you’ll need to decide whether any of them is right for your personal needs. Meanwhile, the SoundDock generally performs a bit better than these options, but demands a $100 premium, while the iM7 generally does even more than the SoundDock, and costs less.
So here’s the full story. Judged on numbers alone, the 60-watt M602 would appear to be more powerful than the iM7, which spreads only 25 watts to four identically-sized speakers. But the iM7 actually bolstered its front-facing speakers with a second 25-watt amplifier solely dedicated to powering a substantial, 4” side-firing subwoofer, a significant and intentional omission from the M602’s design. Minus the subwoofer, M602 can be lighter and use a smaller, more SoundDock-like speaker chamber, rather than the oversized tube-shaped chassis in iM7. Yet Altec actually went one step further, designing an even thinner-than-SoundDock enclosure that you can optionally hang on a wall - a first in iPod speaker dock design. (A coupon in the box lets you get the wall-mounting kit from Altec for only the $3 cost of shipping.)
There’s only one problem with all of this. Deeper enclosures and dedicated subwoofers are the easiest ways to create rich, impressive bass, and M602 has neither. Though it’s wider than the SoundDock - our photo below is taken in perspective that doesn’t illustrate this properly - its main chassis isn’t as deep as even the portable iM9, and only measures deeper overall because of the size and shape of its iPod docking base. The result is noticeable low-end distortion - thuds rather than thumps - at average to high volumes, especially evident when the M602’s bass control is turned more than slightly above its default position. Put another way, you can turn up the bass past the SoundDock’s and iM9’s limits, but you probably won’t want to. As much as we love user-adjustable bass controls, we’d go so far as to say that M602 might have done better without one given the effect it has on the sound - the more you push it, the worse it gets.
As it turns out, the numerical superiority of the M602’s 60 total watt amplification package over the iM7’s 50-watt arrangement isn’t borne out in real-world testing, either. The iM7 and M602 can actually reach equivalent, room-filling volume levels, but because of that dedicated subwoofer, the iM7 sounds better, particularly in the bass department, at virtually any volume level. Altec’s original design was more efficient - the left and right channels didn’t get 30 watts a piece because the iM7’s dedicated 25-watt subwoofer made it unnecessary.
All of this discussion might be unnecessary for those who remain convinced that the M602’s only real competitor is the SoundDock. If the choice comes down to $200 for the M602 or $300 for the Bose, our opinions are these: though neither is great on soundstage or detail for the dollar, the M602 can be tuned to approximate the SoundDock’s sound at any volume, and can match the SoundDock’s peak amplitude while acceptably holding itself together. But no matter how we tuned the M602’s equalization, we couldn’t get it to sound definitively equal to or better than the SoundDock at average to above-average volume levels. Our issues were mostly on the low end; in treble, the two systems were at least evenly matched when M602’s treble was properly calibrated. Tracks we tested lacked the SoundDock’s smoothness and richness, and a little more background hiss was noticeable in M602’s amplifier at higher volume levels. Uncalibrated or set in the wrong bass/treble positions, the M602 would give typical listeners considerable reason to prefer the SoundDock, which lacks for adjustable equalization and sounds a bit better fresh out of the box.
That said, the M602 sells for $200 and the SoundDock for $300, and we think that the considerable price difference alone forgives its sonic limitations. Altec’s design is much like Sonic Impact’s T24 in that it comes close enough to matching the SoundDock that some people will bite regardless; they’ll be lured in by the lower price, styling, wall mountability, added rear ports, or all of the above. Similarly, though the iM9 isn’t quite M602’s equal in audio quality, its equivalent price, greater portability and shock resistance continue to justify its existence. Though we continue to feel that the company’s earlier iM7 represents a better value for the dollar in overall audio quality - say nothing of its battery-powered portability and more inspired design - if you’re willing to compromise a bit, like M602’s more conservative design, or need its superior remote control, you’ll be pleased with the overall package.