Review: Altec Lansing iM3 and iMmini

Last October, Altec Lansing’s inMotion speaker system became one of the first — and certainly the most notable — of a group of high-tech accessories specifically made for the iPod. Offering an iPod-matching white/metal appearance, a “dock” slot that could both charge your iPod and sync with iTunes, and great sound in a truly portable package, the inMotion was an immediate hit despite its $150 price.

A year later, Altec Lansing is shipping not one, but two successors to the inMotion: the $180 inMotion iM3, compatible with all iPods, and the $130 inMotion iMmini, which, as its name implies, is compatible with only the iPod mini. Each offers a number of improvements, aesthetically and functionally, over the original.

Family Resemblance

Both the iM3 and the iMmini provide the same basic functionality of the original inMotion. When collapsed for travel, each is approximately the size of a paperback book. Both provide a dock connector — the iM3 via a dock-like slot, the iMmini via a small “shelf” — that feeds audio to the speakers and also charges the iPod when using the included AC adapter. In addition, when you connect the iM3 or iMmini to your computer via your iPod’s dock cable, you can sync your iPod with iTunes whenever the iPod is “docked” with the speakers. Finally, a 1/8” auxiliary input jack on the back of each system allows you to connect a 1st- or 2nd-generation iPod or any other audio source (such as your computer or another portable audio player).

Power and battery life are also consistent with the original inMotion, as the new systems provide 4 Watts of total power and are expected to play for up to 24 hours, depending on volume levels, via four AA batteries. (My playback times were shorter than 24 hours, even at low volumes, but not significantly so.) An auto-shutdown feature automatically turns the systems off when your iPod is removed or stops playing for more than a few minutes. (Both models also have a manual power on/off button — although, oddly, the iM3 has two.)

New Blood

So what’s different about these two new inMotion systems? For starters, the iMmini is, well, mini. Whereas that iM3 is almost identical to the original version in size and weight (8”W x 5.5”H x 1.1”D, 15 ounces), the iMmini is 40 percent smaller overall and 30 percent lighter (7”W x 4.4”H x 1”D, 10 ounces). Because of its smaller size, the iMmini uses two 25mm and two 18mm drivers, as compared to the four 28mm drivers in the iM3. (The original inMotion used four 1” drivers.)

The iM3 offers compatibility with all iPod models via a set of adapters that fit the various iPod generations — you just snap the appropriate adapter onto the iM3’s base. (These adapters aren’t the makeshift rubber pieces Altec Lansing offered to owners of the original inMotion. They’re instead custom-fit adapters, made of hard plastic, that match the finish of the iM3 perfectly.) With the correct adapter in place, your iPod or iPod mini fits snugly and securely and connects to the iM3 via its dock connector. The only exceptions are 1st- and 2nd-generation iPods (since they instead have a standard FireWire port). For these iPods, Altec Lansing provides an additional adapter that actually covers the iM3’s dock slot, providing a shallow groove on which to rest your iPod; you then connect the iPod via its headphone jack, using the included mini-to-mini cable.

The iMmini, on the other hand, works only with the iPod mini. It does so via a small “shelf” that folds down to accomodate your mini’s dock port. Although the iMmini’s dock shelf is a perfect fit for the iPod mini and helps give the system a very elegant appearance, I do have two minor complaints. The first is that there’s no “slot” into which the iPod mini can fit, so the only thing holding it in place is the dock connector itself. This setup looks and feels less secure than the fit of the iM3, and I found myself wondering if it was putting undue stress on the dock connector, especially when moving the iMmini from place to place with my iPod mini attached. The second issue is that unlike the iM3, which has solid, folding base, the iMmini’s stand is a piece of spring-loaded, lightweight plastic that braces against the body of the iMmini via another small piece of plastic. To fold the unit for travel, you have to push this latter piece in before collapsing the stand and dock shelf. This stand mechanism isn’t nearly as solid as that of the iM3. Although I didn’t have any problems with it during my testing, I do wonder if the springs will wear out over time, or if the plastic brace would hold up under stress (for example, if the system was accidentally dropped).

Both new systems also take a different approach from the original inMotion in terms of how they fold up for travel. Whereas the original inMotion folded up much like a book, which meant the hard plastic base protected the face, the new systems use a more subtle approach: Only the dock connector and (on the iM3) part of the base actually flip out during use. This makes for a more elegant appearance, but it also lessens the protection for the speakers themselves when folded for travel. To protect the speaker’s drivers, both new systems feature metal speaker grills. (Considering how many inMotion systems I’ve seen on display in stores over the past year with their drivers dented or otherwise damaged, this is a welcome improvement, flipcover or not.) In addition, both systems include a case for added protection. In the case of the iMmini, it’s a hard plastic cover that snaps onto the front of the unit; the iM3 gets a lightly padded nylon sleeve that can also store your iPod or the AC adapter.

Finally, the iM3 also has a couple major features not found on the iMmini. The most significant is that the iM3 includes a wireless remote control which allows you to change the volume, skip tracks, play/pause, and turn the iM3 on/off, all from across the room. When you’re not using the remote, it tucks neatly into a slot on the back of the system. The other feature is important for international travelers: Although both systems include an AC adapter, the iM3’s adapter is an international model, allowing you to use the system outside of the U.S. without having to buy a third-party travel kit.

Sounding Board

So both inMotion models are cool gadgets, but do they sound good? The answer is a qualified “yes.” Both models offer good detail and midrange and can fill a small room with tunes; the overall sound quality is quite good, considering that we’re talking about portable speakers. But that’s the “qualified” part of the evaluation: They’re portable speakers, so you’re not going to get impressive soundstage and stereo separation, and you’re not going to get deep bass response. That’s the price you pay for portability, and it’s not necessarily a knock on the inMotions — they offer some of the best sound of the portable speaker systems we’ve heard, comparable to the mono (but fuller) sound of the excellent Tivoli iPAL.

[Standard “portable speakers” disclaimer: No truly portable speaker system will sound as good as a decent set of “home” computer speakers with a subwoofer and satellites, especially in terms of stereo imaging and bass response — you can get a set of very good computer speakers for significantly less than most good portable speaker systems. (See our Product Guide for a few suggestions.) However, just as a laptop isn’t designed to outperform a desktop computer, portable speaker systems aren’t designed to best home speaker systems in output or imaging. You’re paying a premium for the convenience and portability that a portable system brings — you can listen to your music, out loud, anywhere you like, using battery or AC power. If you need such flexibility, it’s probably worth paying for and you’re likely willing to sacrifice ultimate sound quality to get it.]

In terms of how these two systems sound when compared to each other, the iM3, with its two larger drivers, offers slightly — and I do mean slightly — better bass response. (Altec Lansing’s specifications note a bottom end of 100Hz for the iMmini as compared to 60Hz for the iM3. During my listening tests, I didn’t feel the difference was that dramatic, and my impressions were confirmed when I evaluated both systems using test tones specifically designed for measuring frequency response and sound levels: The two systems provided almost identical bass performance.) Conversely, the iMmini offers a bit better treble response, I assume due to its dedicated tweeter. That being said, the differences between the iM3 and iMmini in “real-world” sound quality are almost negligible and are only detectable when you directly compare the systems (by playing the same sound files simultaneously). In other words, if you’re happy with the way one of these inMotion systems sounds, you’ll like the other, as well — sound quality shouldn’t be a factor when deciding between the two. (One audio-related factor that may be important for some buyers: The iM3 will play a bit louder than the iMmini at maximum volume. Not a lot louder, but noticeably so.)

One flaw I did find with both inMotion systems is that they produce a noticeable amount of background noise. (Most people would describe the sound as a “hiss,” and it’s fairly common to portable speaker systems.) If you listen at low to medium volume levels, it’s not likely to be an issue, but it can become bothersome at louder volumes.

The Lowdown

Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3 and iMmini speaker systems are killer portable speaker solutions for the iPod. They’re relatively small and non-bulky, they have great battery life, and they sound good for their size. They’ll also appeal — along with JBL’s On Stage and Bose’s SoundDock, which provide better sound but don’t offer battery-powered portability — to people who want a good office/bedroom/kitchen system but don’t want to deal with the cable clutter of more “full-sized” computer speaker systems. If you travel a lot, or even if you just need to be able to move your music from room to room, I recommend checking them out.

In terms of which model to get, if you’ve got a standard iPod your decision is easy: The iM3 is the only one that fits. If you’ve got an iPod mini, you’ve got a tougher choice. The iMmini is a perfect aesthetic match for the iPod mini, but the iM3 seems slightly sturdier and I really like the remote control and the international power adapter included with the iM3. Whether the iM3’s advantages are worth paying an extra $50 for is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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