Pros: A thin portable speaker system for the iPod nano with USB data, audio-in, and wall power ports on its rear, augmented by included audio and power cords, a thin carrying sleeve, and the ability to run off of AAA battery power. Delivers superior sound to the most comparable nano-specific alternative in its class, which is thicker.
Cons: Aggregate audio quality is a step down from company’s earlier iMmini, which boasted better treble thanks to dedicated tweeters, better battery life on fewer cells, and was narrower and shorter than this design. Available only in black.
Shrinking the company’s earlier iPod mini-specific iMmini speaker into a design custom-fit to the iPod nano, this “impossibly thin” speaker system from Altec Lansing measures around 8.5″(wide) by 5″ (tall), and only .67″ thick when folded up. A nano-specific, tiny pop-out dock is at its bottom; a packed-in auxiliary 2.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable plugs into its rear to allow non-nano audio devices to play (but not charge) when connected. A thin soft speaker carrying sleeve resembling Apple’s freebie nano case is included, as is a power cube that’s on the large side and doesn’t fit into the sleeve. Six AAA batteries – not included – provide up to 10 hours of power when you’re on the road. Audio quality? Don’t expect miracles.
Every time Apple releases a newer, smaller iPod, speaker developers rush to release a newer, smaller, matching speaker system. But in the speaker world, smaller isn’t always better – in fact, with rare exceptions, it generally means the opposite: fewer, shrunken drivers and tiny enclosures produce less impressive sound than larger and better-equipped sound systems.
Altec Lansing’s 2004 iPod mini-specific speaker system iMmini (iLounge rating: A-) did a more impressive job than most portable speakers we’ve seen at its size and price level, using a four-driver design to produce nicely balanced audio at reasonable volume levels. In certain Asian markets, the iMmini has recently been re-released in small quantities as the iM300, and marketed towards iPod nano owners. Other countries have received a brand new iPod nano-specific model, the iM500 ($130), which in keeping with Apple’s traditions is thinner than ever before.
How thin? The iM500 measures a mere 0.67” when folded up, as contrasted with the 1.0” thick iMmini/iM300.
To put that in context, the iM500 is thinner than some of the older full-sized iPods, though it’s larger in both width (8.5”) and height (5”) than the iMmini, and comparable nano-specfic speakers such as XtremeMac’s MicroBlast (iLounge rating: B). In other words, if you’re planning to travel with the iM500, you can expect that it will take up roughly the same amount of space as these other options, but more in footprint than in depth.
Size aside, iM500 is roughly their equivalent in looks – more impressive on its thin side than from the front, where it’s a stark black panel with an iPod in the center, revealing no speaker drivers from a distance away. XtremeMac’s MicroBlast gave users the option to customize its looks with black and white interchangeable shells, an unusual and interesting touch that we liked a lot. For better or worse, the iM500 is black throughout, and no white version is planned.
Unfolded, the iM500 consumes roughly the same amount of space as the iMmini/iM300 – both are shaped and reclined in such a way as to demand stabilization on a flat surface, so Altec pops two feet out, one in back that exposes power, data, and audio ports, and another in front containing an iPod dock. Unlike the iMmini dock, which can hold both minis and nanos, albeit with nanos slightly off to one side – an issue corrected in the iM300 – the iM500 dock is nano-only, and actually sits so close to the unit’s front speaker grille that there’s a depression in the metal sized to the nano’s back. We’re not sure what will happen if Apple changes the nano’s shape in the future, but for now, the iM500 docks current-generation nanos without any issue. Tiny power and volume buttons are found to the dock’s left and right, rather than on top, as was the case with iMmini.
Other components on the unit have also been shrunk down. The Dock Connector port found on the iMmini has been replaced with a tiny USB plug for synchronization – you provide the cable yourself – and the old 3.5mm auxiliary audio port’s been swapped for an unusually small 2.5mm port. Thankfully, Altec includes a 2.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable so you can use non-nano audio devices that have a standard-sized headphone port. Additionally, unlike the iMmini and XtremeMac’s MicroBlast, Altec includes a thin, soft fabric sleeve to carry the speakers rather than a hard protective front shell.
A final miniaturization took place in the power department.
Like all of Altec’s inMotion speakers, iM500 can run off of wall or battery power. Rather than using four AA batteries like the iMmini, the iM500 now uses six thinner AAA batteries – not included – similarly situated in two rear components, and achieves only 10 hours of play time per set, which is roughly the same as MicroBlast’s run time, but considerably lower than iMmini’s roughly 24 hours. If you need more continuous music, you’ll need the included wall charger, which is full-sized, thicker than the folded speakers, and can’t be packed inside the included carrying bag.
With all of that out of the way, it’s obvious that Altec’s crammed virtually all of the iMmini’s features into a thinner enclosure, except for one: sound quality. Our testing revealed that Altec’s decision to go thin and wide didn’t do any favors for iM500’s audio, which overall takes a couple of steps down from the nicely-balanced and same-priced iMmini, though it’s a step up from XtremeMac’s MicroBlast. At the time of our MicroBlast review, we noted that its rating was based more on its innovation than its sound, which was only decent for its $120 price; iM500 costs a little more and sounds a little better.
Rather than using one of the four round driver-designs of its earlier rivals, iM500 uses a total of two flatter, boxier drivers that clearly were necessary to achieving the unit’s thickness. Altec’s prior iMmini design sounded so balanced because its two small tweeters delivered quality high-frequency (treble) detail, while its two full-range drivers focused on mids and lows. Lacking those tweeters, the iM500 falls short of the iMmini in treble, leaning towards the more traditional inMotion mid- and low-biased sound signature. This isn’t bad – many people are comfortable with this sort of sound – but we prefer the balance of the iMmini. On the other hand, Altec has made good on its promise that the unit delivers surprising bass given its size: one would expect basically zero bass from such a thin enclosure, but the iM500 rivals the company’s thicker low-end portable speakers (such as iM11) in this regard. You can also turn the iM500 up surprisingly loud – a little louder than the iMmini and iM11 – though like them, it distorts pretty significantly at its peak volume.
It similarly says something that iM500 bests XtremeMac’s bigger four-driver design in overall sound quality, though we think that’s more a statement of MicroBlast’s poor use of its drivers than anything else.