Review: Altec Lansing Octiv Duo Dual-Dock Speaker/Charger
Altec Lansing was one of the very earliest iPod speaker manufacturers, and though it wasn't the first to create an iOS application-compatible audio system, the app-aided Octiv Duo ($100) has arrived, distinguishing itself from the pack in several ways. Most of its features are assets, but as with other Altec speakers in the company's recent "black and gold" era, it also has a couple of unusual characteristics that will appeal more to some people than others.
Octiv Duo will either win or lose you pretty quickly with its shape, which looks like an elongated piece of pie that’s roughly 10.7” at its peak of width, 5.25” deep, and 3.6” tall, though each measurement represents a maximum thanks to slanting lines and bulging curves. Altec has suggested that the wedge can fit more easily than typical boxy speakers into some spaces, and those looking to place decor elements behind a speaker will find this one to be a bit more accommodating than its peers. A power cable runs from the back right side to an rectangular included wall adapter, and a circular Infrared remote control provides yet another shape to make the system visually distinctive. Despite the shapes, its comparatively judicious use of gold and reliance on matte black plastic and charcoalc-colored fabric for the enclosure makes it blend more into an environment than many of Altec’s other recent speakers, which had an almost ghetto-fabulous reliance on faux metallic accents and retro elements. In our view, Octiv Duo tones it down to a level that’s as close to “right” as the company has come in two or three years.
Altec Lansing’s electronic components are more familiar: like speakers we’ve seen from iHome, JVC, and others, Octiv Duo offers twin iPod/iPhone docks on the top and only two total speaker drivers—full-range 2” units backed by an unspecified amplification package—to provide adequate rather than stellar sound. The de-emphasis of the system’s sonic capabilities in favor of its dual-device charging potential is unusual for Altec, which made its name as an audio manufacturer, but the message between the lines here is fairly obvious to those who have been watching the company’s lineup over the years: Octiv Duo is supposed to be a value play, not a breathtaking sound system. It’s designed to appeal to people who have two Apple devices that need to be charged in the same place with an at least occasional need for more powerful speakers, and $100 to spend, total. That much it does, and more.
Part of the value Octiv Duo brings to the table is invisible until you plug it in and connect at least one iPod touch or iPhone to one of the docks. You’re prompted to download one or both of two applications, Alarm Rock and Music Mix, which transform the speaker and charging system into a simple alarm clock and enable you to combine the music from two connected devices into one shuffled audio stream. The hardware includes only power, audio source toggle, and volume buttons, using orange light bars to indicate which docked device—or an auxiliary audio input, complete with a separate rear-mounted USB port for charging—is performing audio at a given moment, controlled via the remote or the source button. Notably, the remote is one of the weaker Infrared models we’ve seen, working fine from 10-foot distances but becoming inconsistent thereafter for the menu navigation, track and volume control features it offers.
Though it’s a little confusing at first, Music Mix provides an on-screen interface that manages the content of two docked devices without the need to install or run an app on the second device—it works to control iPod nano, classic, and touch models alike, as well as with iPhones. You’re presented with a bar that indicates the percentages of music that will be drawn from the left-docked device and right-docked device, respectively, plus a slider to change the percentages to balance them out, or place greater or lesser weight on one of the devices. Play/pause and track-switching buttons are there to give you control over the currently playing track, and Music Mix operates in a shuffle mode, grabbing additional songs from one device or the other at random.
The confusion is primarily centered around the bar and the use of the word “mix.” If you’re expecting to blend the songs from both devices together, sorry, that doesn’t work; similarly, if you’re hoping to access the iPod audio application on the device that’s being controlled by the application, sorry again, it’s frozen while Music Mix is doing its thing. Altec designed it solely to unify the music libraries of two different devices, and then, to do so without giving you much direct control over the tracks you’re playing—you can take individual control of each device separately and toggle between them manually if you don’t want to use Music Mix at all. A “Juice Meter” bar lets you simultaneously see the charge levels of both connected devices on the iOS device’s screen, within 5% of the actual amount, and works fine.
Alarm Rock is Altec’s nice attempt to evolve Octiv Duo into a screenless alarm clock option. What’s cool about Alarm Rock is the variety of seven different clock faces included as options, one stylish, another cowboy-themed, another plain, a fourth and fifth edgy, a sixth conservative, and a seventh old-fashioned with the name hip-hop. Each is color-customizable, with color and background art replacement options; they all include the current time, calendar date, and ability to adjust brightness with finger swipes, plus multiple programmable alarms, a 20-minute Power Nap button, and an alarm volume control feature. Your alarms can wake you from a song, album, artist, playlist, or built-in special effect, and include an on-screen snooze bar.
Not so hot is Alarm Rock’s major caveat, namely, that the app has to be left running in the foreground if you want to actually use it as an alarm. This is unfortunately a limitation of the iOS’s current approach to multitasking, and places the weight on the user to make sure that the app is operating in clock mode before nodding off. Otherwise, the alarm’s time will pass without any sort of notification—a disadvantage of Octiv Duo relative to systems such as iHome’s iA5, which sells for the same price and has a clock of its own built in for times when you can’t rely upon the app-assisted iPod or iPhone in the dock to be running the app in the foreground. It’s also worth noting that Octiv Duo once turned on the screen of the wrong docked device during our alarm testing, forcing us to turn on the correct screen to deactivate the alarm—a small software glitch.
We’d put that glitch aside due to the likelihood that it will be fixed with a patch, and moreover, Octiv Duo’s otherwise superior components. While it may be easy for single-device users to write off the second iPod/iPhone dock, the fact that Altec has given this system both that feature and twin speaker drivers instantly vaults it ahead of the monaural, single-driver iA5 in the value department. Octiv Duo is a classic “boom and tizz” system with sound that would be fairly described as a bit above decent, flat and unimpressive in clarity but with enough bass, treble, and volume to sound better than your typical FM radio. The bass distorts a little at peak amplitude, but the system puts out more than enough sound to be used as a very competent bedside speaker, and unlike iA5, it’s in stereo, with true left/right-channel separation that was obvious in testing.
Ultimately, the appeal of Octiv Duo isn’t that it’s the most beautiful, sonically amazing, or impressively app-enhanced speaker we’ve tested, but rather that it does a whole bunch of things quite well for the $100 asking price—a dollar amount that two years ago would have bought little more than the two speakers inside this shell and an FM radio with an external antenna, maybe or maybe not with a remote control. That you can now add two charging docks, a third charging port, and interesting apps to the mix for the same price shows how far low-end iPod and iPhone speakers have come in recent times. Consider Octiv Duo seriously if you’re interested in double- or triple-device charging or want a speaker system that’s at least occasionally up for doing extra duties as an alarm clock; it’s solid enough for the price to merit our B+ rating and strong general recommendation.