Pros: Acceptable audio quality for typical users, great portability (and international power capabilities), great ease of use, remote control functionality and overall design, works with all iPods.
Cons: Overall sound balance is not great for the price unless you strongly prefer heavier bass and less treble in your speakers, lack of user-adjustable bass and treble controls hurts, stereo separation isn’t impressive, high price is beginning to push outer limits of what we could in good conscience recommend to the average consumer.
[Editor’s Note – Feb. 14, 2006: Following publication of our original review on September 16, 2004, and because of the subsequent release of several new iPods, Altec Lansing has released an updated version of the iM3 system called iM3c. We discuss the minor differences between iM3 and iM3c models at the bottom of this review.]
Some of iLounge’s most controversial reviews have been for speaker systems designed for use with the iPod. In the past year, we’ve reviewed accessories ranging from Monster’s iSpeaker Portable to Altec Lansing’s inMotions and Tivoli’s iPAL, each product designed distinctly to offer its own price and performance trade-offs. Today, we prepare to re-open the controversy with reviews of two new Altec speaker systems, the iM3 ($179.95), a third-generation inMotion designed for use with all Dock Connecting iPods, and the iMmini ($129.95), designed solely for use with the iPod mini.
To provide context for our earlier reviews, we have often cited an inexpensive alternative that we frequently recommend to people who ask for our personal opinions. JBL’s iPod-matching white Creature 2.1 speaker system is a product that routinely retails for $72 (shipped) from Amazon.com, and delivers an excellent price to performance ratio, with clean sound that can be bass and treble adjusted to any user’s preference. Its sole limitation is that it is not portable in the same way as Altec’s or Monster’s battery-powered iPod speakers, an issue which limits its utility to those who actually pack up and carry their iPod speakers around.
By contrast, Altec’s inMotion series has excelled at portability. Like the earlier inMotions, the iM3 and iMmini are ideally portable speaker solutions, folding up to fit in any briefcase or backpack without a problem. However, despite their similar names, the new products are actually noticeably different offerings from an audio standpoint – in ways we didn’t expect. While the iMmini actually produces more balanced sound, the iM3 includes slightly stronger output, more bass-heavy sound, and a collection of superior ancillary features that partially justify its higher price. If you’re interested in portable speakers with some audio compromises, you’ll want to read on to see which of these new alternatives might be right for you.
From a design standpoint, Altec’s original inMotion speakers ($149.99) were pretty impressive when they were released around nine months ago. Vaguely resembling the Transformers toy ghetto blasters Soundwave and Blaster, the first inMotions used a unique two-piece flip-open mechanism that converted a white plastic brick-like package into a complete stereo speaker system with a fully functioning central iPod dock. When closed, the original inMotion casing protected the two speakers (with four 1” drivers) from damage, and when open, the speakers and iPod rested on a gentle incline on top of a fully supportive bottom base. Adding further luster to the package, Altec included a suede carrying case, an AC power adapter, and a small 3.5mm stereo audio cable with every inMotion.
The iM3s are without question Altec’s first true spiritual successor to the original inMotions.
Unlike Altec’s iMmini speaker system ($129.99), which is only iPod mini-compatible and noticeably smaller, and the company’s blue-colored, device-agnostic, two-driver-only iM2 speaker system ($129.95, but frequently available for as little as $39.99), the iM3s offer legitimate design and functionality improvements upon the first inMotion concept.
Altec’s changes begin with the look of the iM3, which is a legitimate improvement in virtually every way upon the inMotions. It’s still a mostly white plastic brick, its dimensions are almost identical (8” x 5.5” x 1.1” (iM3) versus 8” x 5.4” x 1.2” (inMotion)), and its weight is the same (15 ounces), but now the “closed” position iM3 shape is a more stylish trapezoid rather than a rectangle. When closed, the front of the brick shows two metallic gray speaker grilles, its back several non-descript compartments (including two double-AA battery compartments at the bottom left and right), its top nothing but a metallic gray panel, and its bottom a similar panel with a carve-out for a stereo input jack, a female iPod Dock Connector port, an analog power on/off switch, and a DC power input port.
The iM3s open differently from the inMotions, with a spring-loaded mechanism that splits the front and back panels of the iM3s into two pieces, the bottom of each side unfolding together to form a flat table-mounting base. Now the front bottom half opens to reveal a base with the concealed and protected iPod dock, while the back bottom half slides down to form the rear of the base, positioning the aforementioned input and power ports at the bottom back of the speakers. Altec includes three detachable hard plastic adapters that convert the dock perfectly for use with different generations of Dock Connecting (3G/mini/4G) iPods, and a fourth plastic adapter that covers the dock with a small recessed panel, permitting the iM3 to be used with other devices and older iPods.
Meanwhile, the iM3’s speakers and iPod open on a gentle recline like the original inMotions. But unlike the inMotions, they are now protected by the grilles when they’re open and look seriously cooler than before with a unified metal and plastic panel. And the front of the iM3’s base centralizes its volume controls and a digital power on/off switch (in addition to the rear analog one) rather than placing them on the sides. Then there’s a mysterious black panel on the front of the base.
Design Highlight: The Black Panel and the White Controller
That small panel turns out to be one of the iM3’s most important innovations, and the biggest reason to prefer the iM3 over the inMotions or other iPod speakers we’ve tested. It’s an infrared sensor that connects to two critical electronic components in the iM3: its internal speaker volume controls, and its Dock Connector jack. The iM3s therefore are capable of doing something with a remote control that iLounge strongly requested in our previous review of the prior inMotions – they connect to both the iPod’s internal hardware to permit powering on and off, play/pause, and track forwarding and reversing, plus the IM3’s own speakers to permit true digital volume adjustment of the inMotions.
The importance of this design innovation cannot be overstated. Unlike any other iPod-specific solution (individual product or combined offerings) iLounge has seen on the market, the iM3s let you place an iPod at a distance, get line out-quality output from its Dock Connector port, change its volume, power both the speakers and iPod on and off, and access play/pause functionality. You currently just can’t do this with other iPod remote controls or speakers.
In addition to the black IR panel, the iM3s include a six-button white plastic remote control that matches the speakers’ casing: there’s a power button, two volume buttons, a play/pause button, and two track buttons. The remote is powered by an included coin-sized CR2025 battery, and slides into the top back of the iM3 casing for easy and safe storage when not in use. When stored, it sits nearly flush with the rear of the case, and looks quite nice.
On the whole, the design of the new iM3 speakers looks great – it’s an unquestionable improvement on the less unified case of the inMotions, and better protects the included dock while easing multiple-iPod compatibility. Like the older inMotions, the included stereo mini jack cable makes the iM3s compatible with any device that has a headphone jack, and an included AC power supply nearly rounds out the package. Unlike the older inMotions and the more recent iMminis, Altec opted to include four different international adapters with the iM3s, permitting the speakers to be used almost anywhere in the world you will travel, plus a new and larger carrying case that holds both the speakers and AC adapter – unfortunately made from vinyl and soft internal fabric rather than suede, but with a neat magnet-sealing front flap.
These adapters, the new carrying case, and the remote control system are the biggest differences between the iM3s and Altec’s other iPod-specific speaker systems.
You’ll have to determine whether they justify the $30 premium Altec’s charging over the MSRP of the prior inMotions, and the $140 practical premium you’ll pay over a far less stylish set of iM2 speakers.
Wait a second. Did we really just compare the iM3s with the iM2s? Yes. And have we underscored enough that the aesthetic and ancillary additions to the iM3s are the biggest differences between these new speakers and the original inMotions? Yup. There are reasons for this, and ones that will not impress true audio connoisseurs: the iM3s sound like the original inMotions, which is to say that they are better than average but not fantastic speakers. Their sound is pleasant enough if you don’t compare them with other options – say, the aforementioned JBL Creatures, or even the iMminis – but they’re not going to win awards for audio quality alone.
Though like the inMotions in that there are four total similarly-sized drivers in the iM3s, each larger than the four drivers in the iMminis, the iM3s’ speakers didn’t sound as good to our ears as the iMminis. Instead of using four similar “full range” drivers that all seem to be producing the same type of midrange and bass-focused sound, the cheaper iMminis use two small tweeters that produced better-sounding treble from our perspective, creating a more balanced overall sound that we preferred to the iM3s.
Some users may not mind the heavier bass. Altec heavily promotes the “MaxxBass” sound of their iPod products, and while many users prefer the warmer (but somewhat muddier and more compressed) sound of bass-focused speakers, serious listeners who pay $180 for speakers tend to either dislike such a default setting or desire treble and bass adjustments to adjust the sound to their liking. Again, this feature appears in sub-$100 speaker systems like the Creatures, and while we found the omission slightly disappointing in the $149.99 inMotions, we’re finding it seriously disappointing in the $179.99 iM3s.
Like the iMminis, we also noticed that there was a bit of noise in the iM3s’ audio signal, appearing as a slight hiss on the line noticeable at the 50% volume level, and magnified as you adjust the volume upwards from there. We chalk it up to an inexpensive amplifier not ideally matched to the iPod’s output, an issue that while not “new” per se to the inMotion line again becomes harder to accept as the price levels for the products go up. Again, average users won’t mind this much, but audiophiles (a small fraction of the population, we note) won’t find it endearing.
And on a final audio note, like all of the Altec inMotion speakers, the iM3’s two speakers are still close to one another and do not detach in any way from the docking base, meaning that you’re guaranteed to achieve only the most modest stereo separation when using them, and can’t remedy that by moving the speakers apart from one another. Despite the presence of separate sets of left and right channel audio drivers, the iM3s’ effect is more like a wall of noise than a stage with two discrete audio channels. However, it must be noted that having tested numerous iPod-matching speaker options, we’ve yet to see one (besides the Creatures) with better stereo effects, but for the price, we’d still prefer that there was a way to detach the speakers for user adjustment. With three upcoming dedicated iPod speaker sets forthcoming from JBL and Bose, we’ll be looking carefully to see whether any of the new options produces better stereo effects than the iM3s, but for now, they’re as good as one can get from a truly portable iPod speaker system.
It’s also worth brief mention that the iM3s, like the older inMotions, squeeze around 24 hours of continuous playback out of their AA speakers. While not an improvement per se, this feature, combined with the flat-packing, small-sized design of the iM3s, really does make the speakers fantastically and practically portable. The only non-audio feature addition is that the iM3s do have a nice auto power off feature that kicks in when no signal has been detected through the speakers for a little while – not a major difference, but it’s there.
In summary, regardless of some of its audio limitations, Altec Lansing’s iM3s are something that neither the iMminis nor the Creatures can claim to be – a portable speaker system that’s fully compatible with all generations of iPods, and equipped with a really awesome remote control system.