Review: Altec Lansing Octiv 650 MP650 Speaker for iPod + iPhone
Once known by iPod owners mostly for its inMotion series of portable speakers, Altec Lansing has more recently shifted its development efforts substantially into a series of wall-powered "Octiv" audio systems -- the dual-dock Octiv Stage MP450, to name just a couple. Now the company has released Octiv 650 ($200, aka MP650), the biggest member of the family yet, and it comes tantalizingly close to the standards of greatness Altec was previously known for.
Slightly softened angularity has been the Octiv family’s visual signature, and Octiv 650 carries on the same general theme: it’s wedge-shaped and looks like a matte black plastic and fabric version of the loudspeakers placed on metal poles outside of some schools. Roughly 12.75” wide by 7.25” tall at the front, it tapers down to a 5.25” circle in the back across 5.5” of depth, using three rubber and plastic feet to keep the bottom of its chassis from touching the surface it’s resting upon. These feet surround a 4”-diameter bottom-firing subwoofer, Octiv 650’s most noteworthy feature, which manages to put out some nice low-frequency sound without making the speaker walk off of a table. A relatively large wall adapter is included in the package, and required to power the unit.
Despite the unusual shape, Octiv 650 is otherwise the most minimalist design in its family, which has become known for mixing matte silver or gold accents with otherwise black designs, not always with ideal results. The face of this unit is entirely black save for a small Altec Lansing badge at the top, centered above a simple, flexible dock. If it wasn’t for the glossy plastic dock’s contrast with the fabric speaker grille behind it, only the 30-pin Dock Connector sticking out of its top would clue you in that it’s there. We actually really liked the front design, which does a nice job of hiding the twin 3” drivers that sit off to the left and right of the dock; the only thing worth changing is the relatively short Dock Connector plug, which will connect to some iPod touch and iPhone models through certain cases, but could really have stood to be just a little taller to make proper connections with other cases.
The rear panel has been newly redesigned with one particularly noteworthy feature: component or composite video out capabilities, the former handled through separate Y, Pb and Pr RCA connectors, with the Pb connector doubling as a composite-out port. Assuming that you’re willing to self-supply a video cable, this feature enables Octiv 650 to serve as an iPod- and iPhone-docking audio companion to a television set, in addition to its primary role as an Infrared remote controlled standalone speaker system.
Octiv 650 offers three separate sets of controls. The first is a set of six glossy buttons on the top left edge: power, volume down and up, bass, treble, and video. While the first three buttons are self-explanatory, holding down the bass button while hitting the volume up or down buttons increases the emphasis on low-frequency sounds, while treble does the same with high-frequency audio. Each is indicated with a series of five blue lights that appear behind the fabric grille right below the buttons. The Video button toggles between video pass-through “off” (one light), “composite” (two lights), or “component” (three lights); by default, the system outputs in component mode, which is the cleanest way to view output from most of the iPods and iPhones sold over the past several years.
The next set of controls are found on Octiv 650’s included Infrared remote control. Rectangular with a curved base, the remote includes separate bass, treble, volume, mute, track, and power controls, plus a collection of equalizer toggles and menu navigation buttons. We found that the remote worked very well to control Octiv 650 from afar; combined with the bright indicator lights on the unit’s face, it was easy to see how much we were turning up the bass or treble. All that was missing from the remote was an obvious “flat” or “default” setting, but “Altec EQ” is effectively that, just under a different name.
Last but not least are the controls integrated into a new iOS application called Music Mood, which you’re prompted to download immediately after connecting an iPod touch or iPhone to the dock. On a positive note, Music Mood provides on-screen granular and preset controls over the bass and treble settings, complete with multi-band EQ bars to suggest how the frequencies have been adjusted—you can swipe through simple “bass” or “treble” sliders over to a separate screen with seven separate adjustable bands. The app also contains four “visualizers” that are actually just so-so, looping pre-recorded videos of a fireplace, clouds, river stream, or beach sunset. You can watch (and/or hear) these videos through the iOS device, or see them output on a connected TV screen, where they’re grainy, but a little more compelling. Running the app while playing music turns the TV into a Now Playing screen of its own, a nice and unexpected little benefit for users without Apple TVs.
The bummer about Music Mood is that the app didn’t respect the “App Auto Launch Off” setting we selected, so every time we plugged an iPhone 4 into Octiv 650, the app loaded, literally stopping whatever music we’d been playing before. Sometimes the app properly called up the equalizer tab and settings described above; other times, it displayed a loading graphic over and over until the speaker was turned off and on again. When it’s open, iPod album art occupies a far smaller portion of the screen for no good reason, surrounded by a gray box and oversized buttons. Unless you’re interested in playing with the equalizers or “visualizers,” you might be best off not installing Music Mood in the first place.
Sonically, Octiv 650 isn’t easy to categorize. Our initial reaction upon hearing it was positive; the 3” drivers are impressively capable of reproducing high-frequency and midrange sounds, and we seriously liked how powerful and useful the down-firing subwoofer was as a contributor to music. Regardless of genre, most of the tracks we listened to sounded pretty good—Octiv 650 can be turned up louder and produce clearer, fuller-sounding audio than any of the members of its immediate family, with some deep, strong bass notes that come very close to sub-sonic rumbling. At average volumes, it can be tweaked to produce some really nice, almost natural-sounding music that nonetheless seems to be designed to catch your attention with low-end power. No one who hears Octiv 650 is going to call it bass-deficient in the traditional sense of that phrase, and as a room-filling audio system, it does a surprisingly good job given its footprint.
On the other hand, Octiv 650 does have a couple of weird things going on with its speakers. While the bass driver can generate nice low notes, we began to notice in certain songs that they weren’t sounding entirely natural—as if there was a sonic gap between where the 3” front-firing drivers left off and the 4” subwoofer began, leaving certain beats without some of their mid-bass, and thus turning soft dips into more staccato pulses. Playing with the bass and treble settings didn’t seem to help this at all, and the issue became more pronounced at higher volumes; songs still sounded okay, but they were less natural as the volume went up. While this particular issue is not evident in all songs, we did find that we needed to play with the EQ settings more on Octiv 650 than on some of the better dynamically adjusting audio systems we’ve tested in order to really get the most out of the speakers in a given song.
Given its price point, its generally very positive industrial design, and the overall quality of the sound, Octiv 650 strikes us as worthy of a general recommendation and flat B rating. While it’s not an audiophile-grade audio system, few people will be expecting that sort of sonic excellence for the $200 asking price; frankly, Octiv 650 will sound good enough to satisfy most users. That said, between the little dock and case compatibility limitation, the bass and high-volume issues, and the glitches with the Music Mood app, Altec still has a few issues to address before Octiv 650 lives up to its full potential. Overall, this is a good addition to the Octiv family, but like its predecessors, it leaves just enough unresolved to make us hunger for a superior sequel.