Review: Altec Lansing T612 Digital Speaker System for iPhone and iPod
Pros: The first Works With iPhone-certified speaker system, packing audio shielding and electronics guaranteed to properly charge and perform audio from an iPhone without wireless antenna interference—the only such option available as of press time. Based upon an earlier iPod speaker system called M602 that rivals Bose’s SoundDock in room-filling volume, offers user-adjustable bass and treble controls, and includes acceptable Infrared remote control, wall power adapter, and audio-in cable. Features new, iPhone-matching black and silver coloration, and remains compatible with Dock Connector-equipped iPods. Optional wall mount kit can be acquired for only $3.
Cons: Audio quality is good but not great for the $200 asking price, given recent competition from aggressive $150-$200 alternatives. Requires user calibration to approximate SoundDock’s out-of-box sound; low-end isn’t as impressive and continues to distort when slightly pushed. Loses video-out, USB, and headphone-out ports from prior model, as well as device-agnostic dock adapter.
When the portable inMotion speaker designers at Altec Lansing released the non-portable M602 Digital iPod Speaker System a year and a half ago, the appeal was obvious: as a combination of metal-grilled speakers and an iPod dock, M602 offered an audio experience close to the popular, similar Bose SoundDock at two-thirds the price, with added versatility in the form of bass and treble adjustments, video-out, line-in, and USB sync features, as well as different styling.
Last month, the company rolled out T612 ($200), a same-priced, same-shaped update with slightly different coloration, fewer rear ports, and one major advantage—T612 is the first “Works With iPhone”-certified speaker on the market. Basically, this means that T612 can dock both iPhones and iPods without fear that wireless interference will interrupt music playback, even if you’re using an iPhone with its cell phone, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth features turned on. Since T612 is otherwise so similar to the iPod-specific M602, our review focuses largely on what’s new, rather than reiterating most of the details found in the M602 review.
The Basics: M602, Revised
When Altec created M602—a 14” wide, 8.2” high, and 5.4” deep silver and white plastic speaker dock with a full-width metal grille in front—it was obviously targeting Bose’s SoundDock with a similar, but slightly edgier design. T612 preserves M602’s shape, its silver top and sides, and its metal front grille, but strips out virtually all of the white and silver front and back coloration in favor of black. With the hints of its silver top and sides showing through on the front, it mimics the silver-rimmed iPhone, with the black metal grille and soft touch black rubberized plastic dominating the rest of the visual experience. T612 otherwise continues M602’s traditions: five blue lights are hidden behind the metal grille, providing a way for you to see the current volume level, while five buttons are on the unit’s top for power, volume, bass, and treble toggles. These lights and buttons perform like M602’s, while an included Infrared remote—also now black—features volume, bass, treble, and standard play/pause/track controls. Altec ships T612’s remote battery separately from the remote to avoid power drain, so you install it once you’re ready to use the system for the first time; the remote continues to work reliably from a distance of around 15 feet before commands become less predictable. The company again offers a wall mounting kit for T612 for only $3, the price of shipping and handling.
As with M602, T612’s central dock is of the Universal Dock variety, with a plastic Adapter-ready well that lets you connect almost any iPod or the iPhone. Altec doesn’t include any iPod-specific Dock Adapters, or the non-iPod, device-agnostic insert that was packed-in with M602; all you get is a single black iPhone Dock Adapter, plus a black auxiliary-in audio cable and a required power supply—again, this system does not run off of battery power. Most likely to simplify the iPhone engineering, testing, and certification process, T612 also loses M602’s composite video, USB, and headphone ports, retaining only the aux-in audio port and power port in the rear. As such, you can’t connect T612 to a computer, TV, or headphones—it’s solely here to perform audio through its integrated speakers.
We’d describe T612’s audio performance as good, but not spectacular given the wide variety of value-priced iPod speaker systems now on the market. A year and a half ago, M602 rated a B+—the same as the earlier Bose SoundDock—primarily on the grounds that it wasn’t as impressive in low-end performance as the SoundDock at average to above-average volumes, but sold for $100 less. We discuss this in greater detail in our earlier review; T612 has substantially the same benefits and issues, with bass limitations increasingly evident as the volume increases, or if you turn up the “bass” setting past the system’s default. Since M602’s release, however, equivalent and better speakers have appeared at the sub-$200 and even sub-$150 levels, such that T612 and M602 aren’t standouts on sound quality—listeners will find both to sound “good” out of the box, but will notice their limitations after extended solo listening or brief comparative testing.
Why wasn’t T612 radically upgraded from M602? The answer is simple: T612 was a strategic release on Altec Lansing’s part, an iPod speaker dock that was convenient to quickly retrofit for the iPhone and get into stores before its competitors, rather than a thoroughly new or even substantially reimagined iPhone speaker system. Consequently, fans of the iPhone’s widescreen video or video-out features will find nothing here to satisfy their needs, and those looking for a better-than-SoundDock-caliber listening experience will similarly find T612 to be a little short of that mark. Just like M602, T612 delivers good, but not spectacular audio quality for the dollar, and—other than the cosmetics—makes changes that are important to iPhone owners, but not iPod users, and not all positive.
The First Works With iPhone Speaker
What does “Works With iPhone” really mean? During the lifespan of its brother program, Made For iPod, Apple made only the most bare assurances that badged products would fully work with iPods, allowing developers to certify their own accessories, and essentially disclaiming responsibility when new firmware or iPods broke compatibility. Works With iPhone is supposedly a more rigorous program, with guarantees that badged accessories will be free from radio interference and other electronic issues, but there have been few such accessories and even fewer details publicized by Apple. Does Works With iPhone mean that T612 will work with an eventual iPhone mini? A next-generation iPhone? No one knows, and if past Made For iPod history is any indication, Apple’s badge is specific to this product, nothing else.
Consequently, all that’s known for certain is that T612 generally works properly with the current-generation iPhone. Unlike the vast majority of other speakers out there, you can plug an iPhone into its central dock and enjoy listening to music without fear that simultaneous cell phone calls, text messages, e-mails or web browsing will interrupt your tracks with piercing beeping tones.
We tested T612 under a variety of calling scenarios: normal calls, calls with Bluetooth turned on and a headset connected, and speakerphone calls, all while music was playing. We also tested having calls come in while music was playing, the Safari web browser was loading pages off of EDGE and off of Wi-Fi, while Bluetooth was turned on. There wasn’t a chirp or a beep to be heard from the iPhone: T612 was, as promised, shielded against whatever types of radio signals the iPhone could put out or receive.
iPhone’s behavior under these scenarios was predictable, given the behavior of other, unreleased Works With iPhone accessories we’ve tested. When a call comes in, regardless of whether iPhone is in speakerphone, handset, or Bluetooth mode, the music quickly fades out to a pause, and the iPhone’s ringer turns on, playing through the T612’s speakers at the same volume as the music. If the ringer’s off, the iPhone vibrates quietly in the dock, without coming loose. Unless you’re using a separate Bluetooth accessory, accepting the call basically requires you to remove the iPhone from the dock: on speakerphone mode, callers described us as sounding muffled because of the dock-covered microphone, and on handset mode, you need to put the phone up to your ear to hear it. In neither case does the iPhone perform in-call audio through the T612’s speakers. But with a separate Bluetooth accessory, you don’t need to pull the iPhone from the dock—it works just as expected to send your voice and your caller’s voice wirelessly to a separate accessory. Music resumes and fades quickly in as soon as your call ends.
The only weird thing about T612’s iPhone connectivity is common to other Works With iPhone accessories we’ve seen. Plugging in a Works With iPhone accessory is supposed to free you of the “nag screen”—that annoying “This accessory is not made to work with iPhone” dialog box Apple inserted to remind people to go out and buy accessories that have been all but impossible to find in stores until now. As with other Works With iPhone accessories, however, this screen still pops up with T612 sometimes, most frequently when the T612 has just been connected to wall power, but also infrequently under other, random situations. Though we strongly suspect the nag screen’s behavior is Apple’s responsibility—the iPhone’s firmware and power demands of each accessory’s iPhone-ready authentication chip—rather than something developers such as Altec are doing wrong, this is still annoying, and should be fixed.
As of the date of this review, Altec Lansing’s T612 has no competition as a Works With iPhone speaker system: it’s your only option if you want a unit that is guaranteed to provide appropriate power, shielding, and nearly seamless handling for the iPhone’s unique wireless capabilities. While other systems will be available over the next few months, T612 is a good baseline for the iPhone speaker category, and though it’s not as strong on frills or low-end performance as some of Altec’s best prior releases, its good looks and competent handling of iPhone music playback are undeniable selling points.
Having said that, if you’re an iPod owner, you may find that T612 isn’t as smart of a purchase for your needs as the earlier M602. Altec’s decision to strip out the prior unit’s headphone port won’t bother anyone, but the loss of its video-out and USB ports may impact some users—particularly owners of color 4G and 5G iPods with video-out functionality, rather than users of today’s video-locked iPods—and while we prefer the new black and silver color scheme for the iPhone, M602’s white and more silver body still works visually with iPods of any stripe. If you’re one of the many millions of iPod users without an iPhone, and aren’t concerned about the potential future-proofing Works With iPhone certification may or may not offer, consider the earlier M602 as a nice alternative.