While iPad-docking speaker systems are definitely worth building, truly smart new designs have proved surprisingly elusive for companies that previously specialized in iPod and iPhone audio systems. iHome scored an early win by making last-minute changes to the iA100 alarm clock it had already designed for iPods and iPhones, but companies that have taken on the challenge of completely rethinking what an iPad speaker needs have run up against pricing, user experience, and sound quality challenges. Altec Lansing’s Octiv Stage MP450 ($150) follows Jensen’s JiPS-250i as a “close but no cigar” design, offering features that may appeal to some current-generation iPad users, while leaving out some that will be critical to others, and quite possibly buyers of future iPad models.
Putting the JiPS-250i’s $50 price advantage aside for a moment, Altec’s and Jensen’s speakers have a lot in common. Both are made predominantly from plastic, placing two speakers inside a weighted base with a T-shaped mounting arm jutting out of the top and front. While each system is technically compatible with other Apple devices, their arms are highly specific to the size and shape of the 2010 iPad, using rigid arms that can’t expand on the sides even enough to accommodate protective cases, but do support the device as it rotates 90 degrees from portrait to landscape viewing mode. Each system also offers tilting as an option, relies upon an included wall adapter to both power the system and charge the iPad, and packs in an Infrared remote control with volume, power, and track control buttons.
The Infrared remote works pretty reliably from 30-foot distances despite the fact that the sensor is hidden well on Octiv Stage’s face.
A few other specifics of Altec’s more expensive implementation are a little nicer than Jensen’s. Octiv Stage’s iPad holder is streamlined with additional space on the bottom, and can rotate 90 degrees either to the left or right whereas JiPS-250i only turns left, a modest and generally unimportant difference. Fabric speaker grilles and matte black plastic are used in Octiv Stage, rather than the glossy and cheaper-looking base materials in JiPS-250i; a trapezoidal shape provides solid support, and Altec’s remote adds menu navigation to its collection of buttons. Additionally, Altec’s tilting arm has been designed with greater stability than Jensen’s, so that the unit doesn’t tip with the iPad in its most extreme positions. On the flip side, the rigidity and rotation feel just a little too stiff in Octiv Stage, rather than effortless and smooth, the base has a noticeably larger footprint, and JiPS-250i includes both video-out and line-in ports, whereas Altec has only the latter. A mystery port on the bottom of Octiv Stage includes five tiny pins for an unknown purpose; it’s rubber-sealed but unlabeled, leading us to guess that it was for late-stage factory firmware upgrades and nothing else.
Both systems are in the same “acceptable but not great” class sonically, using two speakers to represent as much of the audio spectrum as they can.
Whereas Jensen has designed its midrange-focused speakers to fire off to the left and right rather than straight ahead, a choice that contributes to perceived treble weakness in the front, Altec’s drivers are better balanced, with enough boom in the bass and tizz in the treble to be generally satisfying at normal listening levels; the system also does not distort appreciably when hitting its peak—a level short of filling a small room, but adequate to be heard in any of its corners when placed in any other. On the other hand, Octiv Stage exhibits significant amplifier hiss that’s particularly noticeable during quiet moments at high volume levels, scaling down as the volume decreases and disappearing if the iPad is paused for several seconds, resuming again when play is pressed. While we’d call Octiv Stage a jump up from Rocker in the audio department, it could have been better.
One other small and arguably unimportant difference between the systems is Altec’s lack of app integration in Octiv Stage, whereas Jensen lets you install a free application called Jensen Rocker to add alarm clock and other functionality to its speaker. It actually took some restraint on Altec’s part to avoid doing what Jensen did with JiPS-250i: despite the speaker’s iPad-specific design, the app was clearly designed for the iPod and iPhone and did not feature native iPad support. Rather than pushing one of its existing iPod or iPhone apps along with Octiv Stage, Altec held off, and though it’s debatable whether having a weakly implemented feature is better than nothing at all, we commend Altec for not taking a shortcut here. That said, we’d be glad to see a version of its Alarm Rock software designed for iPad use, as well.