Although Apple’s Wi-Fi-based AirPlay audio streaming technology has captured the lion’s share of attention over the past several months, Bluetooth wireless speakers are undergoing the most exciting period of development we’ve seen in years. Recent releases from SoundMatters and Aliph have sparked interest in pocket-sized, battery-powered wireless speakers, while bigger, wall-powered versions such as XtremeMac’s Tango TRX have taken marked steps forward in features and speaker technology for the dollar. This month, Altec Lansing debuted its own entry called inMotion Air ($200), billed as a “Universal Wireless Speaker” with stereo Bluetooth streaming capabilities compatible with most iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad models. Physically much larger than SoundMatters’ foxL v2.2 and Aliph’s Jawbone Jambox but similarly capable of running off an integrated rechargeable battery, inMotion Air competes with Tango TRX as a desktop-sized speaker that can be carried from room to room, but not on the road.
Altec’s strategy with inMotion Air turns out to be markedly different from the ones that rivals have pursued—at least, in some ways. As has been the case with the last two or three years of Altec speakers, inMotion Air uses an unusually shaped cabinet that deliberately aims for extra angularity wherever possible. The twin-driver speaker is angled to appear as if it’s leaning back, has an extra facet where its silver top button controls appear, and adds matching slants to its included Infrared remote and USB-to-computer wireless dongle. While the soft touch black rubber used in the cabinet design feels nice to the touch, the shape of the system may or may not be as soft on your eyes. From our perspective, it’s a decided improvement on the garish gold and faux metallic designs that Altec released in recent cycles, but still not beautiful in any absolute sense of the word. Creative’s ZiiSound D5 is still the high water mark for iPod/iPhone Bluetooth speaker system designs, though it’s more expensive than inMotion Air, too.
In the absence of similarly gorgeous design, Altec has relied on sound quality and features as selling points for its speakers, and it’s here that inMotion Air becomes most appealing as an alternative to the aforementioned rivals.
Unlike the similarly-sized ZiiSound D5 and Tango TRX, inMotion Air completely leaves out an iPod/iPhone dock in favor of a more powerful Bluetooth wireless chip—one that is theoretically capable of working from 333-foot distances rather than the more common 33-foot range of typical Bluetooth systems. In our testing with an iPhone 4, Altec’s wireless streaming worked from actual distances in excess of 100 feet away, maneuvering around walls and a staircase, before the signal began to break up. In elegant fashion, the signal loss sounded like split-second drop outs rather than buzzing or distorting. Different Bluetooth broadcasting devices will vary in performance with inMotion Air—Altec includes the aforementioned USB dongle to guarantee maximum performance with computers—but even the level of performance we saw with the unassisted iPhone 4 is impressive by typical Bluetooth speaker standards. Most systems stop working right around the 33-foot mark promised by basic Bluetooth chips; some reach to 60-foot distances before losing signals.
A couple of Altec’s other assets are also worth mentioning at this point. There’s a scoop-styled handle on the back, and Air is light enough to be easily carried around inside a house or office so that you can really take advantage of its battery-powered portability. Seven hours of play time between charges are promised from the built-in cell, which is right between the five- to eight-hour run times promised by foxL v2.2 and Jawbone Jambox; notably, inMotion Air has much bigger speakers to power, and puts out a lot more volume than these smaller units. Altec manages its power using a switch hidden inside a remote control storage nook next to the carrying handle. Flip the switch on and the system works in portable mode; flip it off and it will only turn on when connected to wall power.
Since Tango TRX and ZiiSound D5 only work when they’re connected to outlets, inMotion Air has a decided advantage over peer-sized audio systems in this regard.
Altec’s sound quality is in the “good” rather than “great” category overall, though how impressed you’ll be by the audio depends on what you’re using as a comparative reference. On paper, comparing inMotion Air’s only two speakers—3” “full-range long throw drivers”—to the five speakers in XtremeMac’s Tango TRX might make you think that Altec had shown up with a knife to a gunfight. But due to less than optimal tuning of TRX’s drivers and some impressive work on Altec’s side, including aptX optimized Bluetooth audio, Air actually offers only a little less bass and peak volume than Tango, while besting it in treble performance and clarity—at least, when both are in Bluetooth mode. (Tango TRX cleans up somewhat when its dock is used.) Put inMotion Air next to either foxL v2.2 or Jawbone Jambox and, not surprisingly, you’ll find Altec’s speakers to be in another league entirely: they’re louder, clearer, and with superior dynamic range that makes the pocket-sized systems sound like FM radios.
While the sonic differences between the foxL, Jambox, and Air might seem obvious enough given the difference in their sizes, the fact that Altec is offering superior functionality and performance for the same price tag has not been lost on us. inMotion Air delivers pretty much what we’d have expected from a $200 Bluetooth wireless speaker, while the smaller systems have continued to strike us as overly expensive given what they actually deliver. Only their “take them anywhere” sizes and integrated iPhone-ready microphones enable them to co-exist alongside an option like inMotion Air.
Altec also has some advantages in the control department relative to its rivals. Air’s top-mounted buttons are actually capable of controlling track play/pause/forward/reverse functions on iPods, iPhones, and iPads running the latest versions of iOS, which means that you can change, stop, and start tracks even when your device is on the other side of the house. This will be common enough in AirPlay speakers later this year, but it’s rare in Bluetooth speakers these days; the pocket systems barely make room for their own power and volume buttons.