Review: Altec Lansing inMotion Speakers

Pros: Great looking portable design, more than acceptable audio quality with enough volume to use outdoors in a park (maybe even a major league ballpark), and plenty of battery power.

Cons: Not an indoor audio standout given its high price, and missing a handful of generally standard speaker features.

Review: Altec Lansing inMotion Speakers

The Little White Brick That Could

Fans of the Transformers will appreciate the design of Altec Lansing’s new inMotion speaker set for the iPod: with one flip, inMotion transforms from a book-sized plastic brick into a mighty little iPod boom box. Powered by batteries or AC power, inMotion may seem like the perfect traveling companion for the portable iPod, but it’s also likely to appeal to other people – space-constrained college students and office cubicle inhabitants among them.

But there are a couple of catches: the price tag and audio quality. Both inspire comparisons to cheaper but less portable iPod speaker solutions, such as JBL’s iPod-matching white Creature 2.1 speakers. How does inMotion fare in the end? Read on, dear reader, read on.

Put Away the Headphones

If your iPod has been shackled to its headphones, the inMotion speaker set offers you the chance to spread your music through the air. Altec touts inMotion as a speaker set with four 1” neodymium magnet Micro Drivers, a Class D low power consumption digital amplifier, and “revolutionary MaxxBass technology” for “deep bass without a subwoofer.”

Packaged in a white-and-black box reminiscent of the iPod’s, the inMotion includes an AC power supply, a classy black suede protective carrying bag, and the barest of documentation: a six-step picture guide to setup, a warranty, and a multilingual set of troubleshooting tips. Because the setup is so simple and intuitive, we didn’t need the instructions to figure anything out.

Out of the box, inMotion looks like a small white plastic book (8” wide by 5.4” deep by 1.2” high) with painted silver pages, and its unfolding hinge initially flips its two halves open as if you’re going to read what’s inside. But the hinge continues to open past the flat 180 degree mark, then past the 270 degree mark, eventually providing a stable flat base and a nearly vertical set of two speakers. When fully unfolded, inMotion measures 8” by 5.4” by 5.25”.

The top of the base contains a 3G iPod dock, two buttons (labeled “-” and “+”) for volume adjustment, and an on-off switch with a green LED. On the rear are four ports, one for AC power, one each for headphones and auxiliary input, and one input for Apple’s proprietary 3G iPod cables. (Altec includes a short 3.5mm stereo cable for use with the auxiliary input, a rubber dust cover for the iPod dock, and a plastic dock spacer for thinner iPods.) On inMotion’s bottom are two ports for two sets of AA batteries – a total of four batteries are required for an impressive 24 hours of continuous playback – plus three black foam rubber pads that slightly grip the table or other surface below. As a finishing touch, the iPod is mounted directly between the two speakers, resting against a plastic surface with another foam rubber grip pad.

Overall, the inMotion makes a very good first impression.

As a one-piece audio solution, it matches the iPod’s look and simplicity so properly that observers commented that it would be a natural peripheral to bundle with the iPod, particularly as a gift. With a built-in 3G dock that serves to recharge the iPod when plugged in, inMotion could easily become an Apple dock replacement on the right-sized desk. And, of course, at a weight of 15 ounces, it’s equally easy to quickly toss into a backpack and carry around. The suede bag is an especially nice touch.

Right For Some, Not For All

Notably, however, inMotion’s simplicity has a cost: it is what it looks like in photos, and nothing more. The same observers who earlier loved the design were surprised and disappointed that the speakers cannot be detached in any way from the base, a limitation that only bothered us after comparative testing. An inMotion-equipped iPod is therefore bound to look like a miniature boom box no matter where you use it – an acceptable limitation for a device that will be used primarily at picnics, but not an optimal solution if you’re looking for a permanent indoor setup.

When plugged in alone without any competition, inMotion sounds quite good – almost regardless of volume level, and thanks to its efficient built-in amplifier, it certainly belts out a lot more sound than its tiny body would suggest. Bass and treble are both pleasant at their default settings, though importantly not user-adjustable in any way, and tests with multiple types of audio ranging from spoken words to techno music yielded more than acceptable results. Altec’s peripheral neither hides the artifacts in highly compressed audio nor significantly muffles the benefits of uncompressed music, rendering it an indoor audio solution that won’t get you laughed out of a room where it’s being used.

But that’s a low threshold to meet. By comparison with JBL’s cheaper Creature 2.1 speakers (MSRP $99.95), inMotion excels primarily in its portability. The Creature speakers also match the iPod’s look – perhaps accent is a better word because of their unusual rounded shapes – but offer quantifiably superior (and adjustable) bass, treble, and left-right audio separation. When these two speaker alternatives are placed right next to one another, iPod alternating between them and playing the same song, there is no question that the Creature speakers produce better sound in all regards, and that the advantages of having detachable speakers to create a true sound field are significant.

We suspect that Altec left out bass and treble adjustments because the speakers are small, and similarly removed speaker detachability to insure the simplicity of its design, but for the price, we think it’s fair to say that many users might expect such features.

However, JBL’s Creature speakers don’t include a dock, cannot be used with batteries, weigh considerably more and cannot be tossed into a backpack with other items. They’re really not portable, for all intents and purposes. Therefore, as an indoor speaker solution, the inMotion may lack features by comparison to other relatively inexpensive options, but its all-in-one design and compact size have plenty to offer, particularly for those who hope to exploit its portability. And we feel comfortable adding that inMotion’s amplifier and speakers are more than capable of competing with (and overwhelming) typical outdoor noises should it actually wind up in a park or other potentially noisy setting.

[Author’s Note: We did not do real-life comparisons between the inMotion peripheral and Sony’s SRS-T77 ($79.00), but Altec’s solution offers slightly superior frequency response, four 1” speaker cones rather than two 1.5” cones, and a design clearly more suited to the iPod’s aesthetic – at a higher price. User reactions to Sony’s option have been mixed but generally not positive, noting distortion and vibrations in certain sounds. But if you’re not looking for inMotion’s style or superior performance, the SRS-T77 is an otherwise comparable and cheaper alternative.]

Other Notes

Previously, Belkin noted that the small speaker in its Voice Recorder peripheral could exploit the iPod’s Alarm Clock feature, which at a designated time emits a loud musical beep before playing a queued song of your choice. As clocks go, the Voice Recorder was less than ideal – without mounting accessories, it would lay flat on a table and make a sound. The inMotion implementation of this feature – assuming you’re running on AC Power and willing to leave the speakers powered on overnight – is significantly better, especially given that the iPod’s screen is well-positioned to actually display the time when the alarm goes off.

Review: Altec Lansing inMotion Speakers

It should also be mentioned that although Altec Lansing promotes inMotion primarily as an audio solution for iPods with dock connectors, its auxiliary input port (with accompanying 3.5mm stereo cable) provides an avenue to connect older iPods and conceivably even the new iPod mini. While older iPods may fit comfortably in the small space provided between the speakers, the iPod mini might balance more precariously in that space.

For the same reason, though the box correctly suggests that the jack could be used to connect other audio devices, such as laptops and other MP3 players, we truthfully wouldn’t imagine that most people would take advantage of this option. When unfolded, inMotion does have nearly 32 square inches of empty, usable “base space” between its speakers and the back of its base, but it’s hard to picture a Nomad Zen user wanting to lay the larger device there, and devices larger than the iPod likely won’t fit between the speakers.