Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM5
It wasn’t long ago that Altec Lansing’s original inMotion, and later the $180 inMotion iM3, dominated the portable iPod speaker market. These systems were the first to provide decent sound quality in small packages with built-in iPod docks; the iM3 even included a wireless remote control.
The iM3 is still on the market, and is still a big seller, but over the past year or so a number of worthy competitors have appeared at lower prices, including Logitech’s $150 mm50 (which we like a bit better than the iM3 overall); Logic 3’s under-$100 i-Station (which offers sound quality nearly as good as that of the iM3 but doesn't include a remote); and even DLO’s $150 iBoom boombox (which can play much louder than the iM3 and is more appropriate for listening on the move).
To their credit, Altec Lansing hasn’t rested on the iM3’s laurels. Earlier this year, the company introduced the $250 inMotion iM7 , a much larger boombox-type system that provides significantly better sound quality than the iM3 and is one of our favorite portable systems (although “transportable” might be a better label). And most recently, the company released the inMotion iM5 , a portable speaker system that’s slightly more compact than the iM3 and retails at the lower $150 price point popular among competing systems.
The iM5 is a bit of an odd entry in Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM line: Despite its higher model number, the iM5 has a retail price that’s $30 lower than the iM3 and is missing features found on the iM3. At the same time, the iM5 includes a couple features, which I’ll cover in a moment, that you otherwise don’t get unless you pony up $100 more for the iM7.
The main body of the iM5 is 8.4" x 3.8" x 2.1" when closed and weighs 20 ounces without batteries, making it slightly wider and thicker than the iM3 (when the latter is folded for travel), and a bit heavier, but nearly two inches shorter—the iM5 is shaped like a chunky capsule, whereas the (folded) iM5 looks more like a book. Which is more portable? It depends on your bag, but the iM3 is likely to fit in more places thanks to its thinner profile. As a side note, Altec Lansing claims that the iM5 is also “shock resistant,” but the company doesn’t explain what this means.
Instead of using the folding design of the iM3 and original inMotion, the iM5 is a solid block, more similar to Logitech’s mm50. However, whereas the Logitech system includes a permanent iPod dock in between the speakers, the iM5’s dock cradle is hidden in the base of the unit. It pops out for use—you press a large button in the middle of the iM5 to extend the dock—angling the front of the iM5’s body slight upwards, but retracts for travel. The bare dock fits any dockable, full-size iPod; an included spacer accommodates iPod mini models. (Altec Lansing’s latest advertising copy states that an adapter for the iPod nano is included with current models; however, our review unit did not come with this adapter.) As with most other speaker systems in this class, a dock port on the back of the iM5 lets you connect Apple’s dock connector cable to the system so that your iPod can sync with your computer while docked.
Although this pop-out dock is a clever design, and worked well overall in my testing, I couldn’t help thinking that the cradle feels a bit flimsy: It wiggles when not sitting on a flat surface, and when closed, it sometimes opens accidentally, even if you don’t press the “eject” button. In addition, since the iM5 doesn’t include dock adapters for different iPod sizes, and there’s no support for the back of the iPod when sitting in the dock, full-size iPods don’t seem as stable when sitting in the iM5 as they do with the other systems discussed here.
The iM5 appears to use the same drivers (two left and two right) as the iM3, although I couldn’t be absolutely sure because the iM5’s metal protective grill isn’t as easy to see through as that of the iM3. Whatever the case, the two systems do sound different, as I’ll explain in a bit. The iM5 also includes a padded carrying bag that can hold the speaker system itself along with an iPod and AC adapter. However, I found the bag to be quite bulky and opted to leave the bag behind when traveling with the iM5.
Ins and outs
The iM5’s power and volume buttons are hosted by a rubber strip along the top of the system. The volume up and down buttons are embedded in the rubber, whereas the power button is surrounded by a ring that glows blue when the system is powered on. As with most dockable speakers, your iPod is charged when the iM5 is powered by the included AC adapter (an international model complete with multiple wall plugs). The system automatically switches to standby mode—not quite off, but not fully on—to save power if it doesn’t detect audio for 3 minutes.
Although the iM5’s power and volume buttons are large and easy to use, I found two power-related quirks during my testing. The first is that unlike some of the other portable speakers we’ve tested, turning off the iM5 doesn’t pause or shut off your iPod. Instead, your iPod keeps playing—something you may not realize until you try to try to listen again and your iPod’s battery is dead. The second is that when you turn the iM5 on, its volume is reset to a default level; the iM5 doesn’t remember the volume level from when you turned the system off. This wouldn’t be a major issue if this default volume was low, but it’s instead very loud—nearly full-blast.
On the back of the unit, behind a gray rubber door, you’ll find the iM5’s inputs and outputs. As you might expect, there’s a jack for the AC adapter as well as a 1/8"-stereo-minijack auxiliary input. (The iM5 can play both audio sources—an iPod and a source connected to the auxiliary input—simultaneously.)
But it’s the other two jacks that are unique—at least when the iM5 is compared to the more expensive iM3. One is a composite video output, which lets you connect the iM5 to your TV in order to project photos or video from an iPod photo, iPod with color display, or iPod with video. In my testing, this feature worked as expected and was comparable to using Apple’s AV Cable to connect these iPods to a television. The other jack is a 1/8" subwoofer output, designed to allow you to connect an external subwoofer for added bass response. Which subwoofer? According to the iM5 manual, “This output should only be used to connect an Altec Lansing optional subwoofer specifically designed to increase the bass output of this speaker system. Please check www.alteclansing.com for availability information.” Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, no such subwoofer was available, so I wasn’t able to test this feature.
The iM5 can be powered off the included AC adapter or 4 AA batteries. Altec Lansing estimates battery life at more than 24 hours, and based on my testing, that’s a fair estimate: I got over 20 hours of playback from a set of Duracells.
Overall, I actually prefer the iM5’s design to that of the iM3 in that the former’s chunky body feels a bit sturdier. So I was hopeful that the iM5 would offer sound quality comparable to that of the iM3. Unfortunately, in this respect, the iM5 doesn’t quite measure up to its sibling. Although the midrange quality of both speaker systems is roughly comparable, the iM3 provides better performance at both ends with superior treble detail and slightly better bass response. Neither system is going to give you great sound, but if you’re trying to decide between the iM3 and iM5 and sound quality is important, the iM3 is clearly the better way to go.
Since I prefer the sound quality of Logitech’s mm50 to that of the iM3, it follows that I prefer the mm50 to the iM5 by an ever greater margin. The mm50 simply provides better audio across the board—which is significant, given that the mm50 and iM5 have the same suggested retail price.
To be fair, the above comparisons were done via head-to-head listening with all three systems on hand; many people would likely be perfectly happy with any of the three since they’d never be comparing it with the others. But I think the differences in sound quality between the iM5 and the other two systems is large enough, given the similar price points, that they’re worth noting.
Besides the $130 inMotion iMmini, which works only with the now-discontinued iPod mini, the $150 inMotion iM5 is the least expensive of Altec Lansing’s iPod-dock portable speaker systems. And it has the potential to be an appealing “lower-end” entry in the inMotion line, thanks to a compact, sturdy design; good battery life; and decent sound for its size. Unfortunately, the iM5 is too expensive given the superior performance of Logitech’s similarly priced mm50, which gives you better sound quality and a wireless remote (but half the battery life). Unless you need the iM5’s video output—an admittedly nifty feature for watching movies on vacation or showing photo slideshows to the relatives—I recommend the mm50 or saving up the extra $30 for the inMotion iM3.
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