Pros: Solid if not audiophile-level audio quality, incredible portability, great ease of use and reasonable price.
Cons: Stereo separation isn’t impressive, only works with iPod mini, lacks some of the higher-end ancillary features of Altec’s full-sized iM3 iPod speakers.
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 first-generation inMotions and Tivoli’s iPAL, each product uniquely designed to offer its own price and performance trade-offs. Today, we prepare to re-open the controversy with the first of two reviews of new Altec iPod speaker systems, the iMmini unit ($129.95) designed for use with the iPod mini, and the iM3 ($179.95), a third-generation inMotion designed for use with all Dock Connecting iPods. Our iM3 review will appear separately on iLounge later this week.
[Update – August 3, 2006: In mid-2006, Altec Lansing released a limited number of iMmini speaker systems under the new name iM300, with small physical dock modifications to enable centered docking of Apple’s iPod nano. No internal changes have been made. The iM300 is intended for “narrow distribution in the Asia Pacific market only,” while Altec focuses the majority of its iPod nano development and promotional efforts on the newer, thinner iM500, covered separately on iLounge.]
To provide context for our earlier iPod speaker reviews, we have often cited an inexpensive alternative that we have frequently recommended to people who ask for our personal opinions. JBL’s iPod-matching white Creature 2.1 speaker system is a product that 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.
Altec’s inMotion series excels across the board at portability. Like the earlier inMotions, both the iMmini and iM3 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. And the iMmini is considerably smaller than the iM3, which in turn has superior ancillary features to partially justify its higher price. If you’re interested in purchasing portable iPod speakers with some audio compromises, you’ll want to read on to see which of these new alternatives might be right for you.
The iMmini speaker system is a radical simplification of Altec’s older inMotion speaker system, trimming some of the earlier product’s size and pack-ins in the name of cost reduction. Like the inMotions, the iMmini is a white plastic speaker housing and iPod dock with silver metallic accents, but from there, the similarities end. Gone is the inMotions’ boom box-like “two exposed speakers and a tape deck” look, replaced by a simpler unified body.
Now one piece of plastic rather than a two-piece hinged design, the iMmini no longer folds open into a base and speaker set, but rather includes two elements that achieve similar mounting and protective effects. First is a latch on the unit’s front that pops open hidden panels on the iMmini’s front and back, revealing an iPod mini-sized elevated male Dock Connector station, plus a rear supporting foot that props the unit up on a gentle angle. When both panels are open, the rear of the unit exposes a female Dock Connector port (ready to be interfaced with any iPod Dock Connector cable), a DC power port, and an line in for audio input. These panels are a really well thought out and supremely efficient way of protecting the iMmini’s ports when closed and making the speakers functional when opened.
Unlike the older inMotion design, the new one-piece design doesn’t protect the iMmini’s speaker grilles. Thankfully, Altec included a snap-on matching plastic panel that covers the entire front of the unit when you travel. The panel has a classy extruded silver inMotion logo, a gray version of which dominates the unit in two other places as well. Curiously, Altec’s only iMmini logo is hidden on the back of the speaker housing.
Design simplicity and parallelism carry forward to the unit’s other components. An analog volume adjustment slider appears above the left speaker, replacing the digital controls of the older inMotions, and a power switch with LED light are above the right speaker. Small rubber feet on the unit’s bottom parallel the placement of the aforementioned switches, and two small panels at the bottom of the iMmini’s back leave room for two optional sets of two AA batteries (four total). All told, the all-in-one unit measures 7” x 4.4” x 1” and weighs only 10 ounces, getting up to 24 hours of battery life out of those cells. The iMmini shuts down automatically when not in use to preserve power.
Together, the rubber feet and the flip-out back panel are supposed to steady the iMmini, and under most circumstances, they do a fine job. We would advise users to keep the unit’s power cord away from accidental tugs, which have the potential to tip the iMmini over, and make sure that the unit is sitting on a truly flat surface.
Our only issue with the design is a natural consequence of Altec’s decision to shrink the accessory. You can see through the metal grilles that each of the inMotion’s four 28mm speaker drivers have been replaced with smaller drivers – two 25mms and two smaller 18mms – which turns out not to be much of an issue, as you’ll see below. But more importantly, it’s immediately apparent that the device doesn’t have enough space to accommodate a full-sized iPod. The pop-out Dock Connector station is perfectly sized to the iPod mini, and precludes the docking of anything else.
Overall, the design and look of the iMmini speaker system is a significant improvement upon the inMotions in almost every way. We continue to wish that Altec would design its portable speakers to be detachable from the central dock, a choice which would significantly improve their products’ stereo separation, but for what it is, the iMmini looks good and is very easy to use.
It’s worth briefly noting that Altec does include a few other small items in the box, most notably a very short stereo male audio to stereo male audio cable that can conceivably connect non-iPod devices to the rear audio input. This isn’t an optimal way to use the speakers, but at least it’s an option. There’s also a white AC adapter in the box, which can use interchangeable international plugs that are included only with the iM3, and not with the iMmini. The only thing missing that we would have liked to have seen as an option was a remote control, which Altec designed solely for use with the iM3, and cannot be used with the iMmini. But then, that’s a reason to prefer the slightly larger and more expensive iM3, which is compatible with all sizes of iPods.
Normally, we wouldn’t care that the iMmini could only be used with the smaller iPod, but we were surprised to discover that we actually preferred the sound from the iMmini to both the earlier inMotion speakers and Altec’s newer iM3 accessory. While the smaller drivers in the iMmini’s speaker chambers aren’t as powerful as their larger inMotion and iM3 brothers, they actually produce more balanced sound that we found to be just right for natural treble and bass response. In a perfect world, the iM3s would sound as good as the iMmini so that we could more emphatically recommend both products to all iPod users, but as it is, iPod mini users get the better of this deal – so long as they have no plans to upgrade their iPod hardware in the near future (or don’t mind using the device’s audio in port rather than the Dock Connector).
This isn’t to say that the iMminis produce perfect sound, though. Both of Altec’s new speaker systems exhibited a bit of noise in their audio signals, a slight hissing sound that becomes more noticeable as the volume is adjusted above the 50% mark. (This is a fairly common, if disappointing issue in inexpensive speaker systems.) And though they do sound quite good when heard apart from any comparable products, they aren’t the aural peers of our less expensive reference Creature speaker system, which exhibited a better dynamic range and of course better stereo separation. As with the earlier inMotions, the iMminis make more of a wall of sound than a stage with distinct left and right channels – though you can occasionally hear separation if you’re close enough to the speakers, and it’s no doubt a better sounding wall of sound than what’s made by options such as Monster’s iSpeaker.
Properly viewed, the iMmini is a highly portable speaker system for the iPod mini that delivers better than average audio quality for its size, and at a lower price than the earlier and larger Altec inMotions it largely replaces. We frankly love the way it looks, and substantially enjoy the way it sounds. And there’s little doubt that it’s more truly portable than any other iPod accessory in its class save Monster’s iSpeaker, but the difference in audio quality between these products so strongly favors the iMminis as to make the Monster product largely irrelevant. It would be the first iPod mini speaker system we’d recommend today to someone who will truly make use of its portability. (Notably, however, those who plan to use their portable speakers with more than one type of iPod will need to look to the iM3 or older inMotion speakers instead.)
But for those who just want small, iPod-matching speakers, and don’t need to travel with speaker systems, we continue to feel that JBL’s Creatures offer the best price to performance ratio around for stationary use with an iPod. The iMmini’s audio quality is quite solid, but not great, and its lack of broader stereo separation (hindered largely by its small footprint and lack of speaker detachability) won’t endear it to audiophiles. Typical consumers, though, will likely love it.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school – ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.
Company and Price
Company: Altec Lansing
Model: inMotion iMmini / iM300
Compatible: iMmini – iPod mini / iM300 – iPod nano