Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM600
At a Glance
Ever since we reviewed Logitech’s mm50 back in August 2005, it’s been our favorite portable iPod speaker system. Thanks to a good set of features, an attractive and functional design, reasonable portability, and better-than-expected sound quality, the mm50 was (and remains) a great value; although we’ve seen many other portable speaker systems since then, none has matched the mm50 at sweet spot of $150. (The mm50’s current street price of $100 makes it an even better buy today, although the current version no longer includes a dock-connector port for syncing your iPod with your computer.)
The mm50 finally has some competition in the iM600 , the latest in Altec Lansing’s varied inMotion line of speaker systems—and the best truly portable system yet from the company. At 11.1 inches wide by 6 inches high by 1.75 inches deep, the iM600 is narrower than the mm50, but a bit thicker and considerably taller; it’s also slightly heavier at 2.1 pounds. Still, it takes up a bit less room, overall, in a bag or suitcase than the mm50, especially when you factor in the latter’s carrying case. (Unfortunately, the iM600 doesn’t include a case or even a carrying pouch, leaving its glossy-black surfaces vulnerable to scratches.)
Borrowing a feature from some of Altec Lansing’s other inMotion speaker systems, pressing a button on the front of the iM600 releases a fold-down dock base in the front and a stand in the back; the stand locks into place until you close the front dock base. (Doing so automatically turns off the system.) The dock uses Apple’s Universal design, making the system compatible with recent iPods via the custom-fit dock inserts included with those iPods. That said, Altec Lansing includes Dock inserts 9, 10, and 11 (which accommodate fifth-generation [5G] iPod and second-generation [2G] iPod nano models), presumably because the black color of the included inserts look better than Apple’s white versions. (Older dockable iPods will fit loosely in the iM600’s cradle without an insert, or you can use, if you have it, the appropriate Universal dock insert for your older iPod. Apple sells these “legacy” inserts with its iPod Universal Dock, and many third-party iPod accessories include them. Of course, most of these inserts are white, so they won't match the iM600 aesthetically.)
Like the mm50, the iM600 includes a built-in rechargeable battery which charges in approximately three hours using the included AC adapter. Altec Lansing rates the battery at 7 hours of continuous playback. I actually saw longer playback times than that—as much as 10 hours—but the iM600’s battery life is still shorter than that of many other portable iPod speaker systems, some of which offer as much as 20 hours. Although the iM600’s battery isn’t advertised as being replaceable, the system’s manual provides instructions for removing the battery for storage, so if Altec Lansing sells the battery separately, replacement should be easy enough.
The most significant difference between the mm50 and the iM600 is the latter’s FM tuner. This tuner offers surprisingly good performance, in terms of both sensitivity and selectivity; it’s not as good as the best tuners we’ve tested (such as those on Tivoli Audio products), but it’s better than I expected, pulling in stronger public and community-college stations clearly. (A telescoping, rotating FM antenna slides into the iM600’s body when not in use.) The tuner also offers the widest tuning range of any FM tuner we’ve tested: from 76.0 to 108.0, in 0.1 increments. Unfortunately, this range is wider than the usable frequency range in any single part of the world, so if your listening area is confined, for example, to the U.S., you’ve got lot of unused frequencies to tune through when “wrapping around” the dial (for example, to quickly go from 105.3 to 88.9); it also takes quite a while to traverse the FM band, given the 0.1 increments. One consolation is the iM600’s four radio presets, accessible from the system’s wireless remote control.
You choose the system’s audio source—iPod, FM radio, or auxiliary-input (AUX)—using a button on top of the iM600 or via the system’s remote. Also on the top of the main unit are Back and Forward buttons (for tuning the FM radio or skipping/scanning tracks during iPod playback) and an SFX (Stereo Field Expander) toggle button. On the front of the unit, just under the buttons, is a digital display that indicates the system’s current battery charge, the current source (including the FM frequency when in tuner mode) or, when adjusting the volume, the volume level. Unfortunately, there’s no way to keep the display’s lighting on; after a few seconds it goes dark, presumably to conserve battery life, and the only way to see the readout again is to perform some function (changing the channel, skipping a track, changing the volume, etc.) Just next to the backlit display are indicators for battery charging (on the left) and SFX mode (on the right).
You control volume and power using buttons located on either side of the iM600’s iPod dock. The iM600 also automatically turns itself off when running off battery and no audio is detected for four minutes in either iPod or AUX mode. One minor power-related inconvenience is that the iM600 doesn’t automatically pause or sleep your iPod when switching the input source away from the iPod or turning the system off—a useful feature provided by a number of other speaker systems.
A panel on the back of the iM600, hidden when the stand is folded up, hosts the system’s inputs and outputs. AC-adapter and 1/8-inch auxiliary-input jacks let you connect the system’s AC adapter as well as an external audio source, respectively. A subwoofer-out jack provides compatibility with Altec Lansing’s BB2001 external subwoofer, and a composite-video jack lets you view videos and photos from a color, photo, or 5G iPod on a TV. Finally, a mini-USB port lets you connect the iM600 to your computer—cable not included—to sync your iPod with iTunes. (It would be great if you could also use this USB port to charge the iM600’s battery, but that’s not an option.) Also on this panel is a slot that holds the iM600’s wireless remote when not in use.
The remote itself offers the usual iPod-speaker functions: power, play/pause, back and forward, volume up and down. But it also lets you switch the audio source, tune the radio (using the same back and forward buttons), set and choose each of the radio’s four presets, and toggle SFX mode on and off. (Unfortunately, no Mute button is included.) Although the remote uses inexpensive “bubble” buttons that can be difficult to press, its overall performance is excellent for an infrared (line-of-sight) model: I was able to control the iM600 from over 30 feet away, and at closer ranges from nearly 90 degrees to either side.
The iM600 has an impressive array of features, but we’ve seen a number of other feature-packed products that haven’t impressed us when it comes to actually listening to music. Thankfully, the iM600’s sound quality, provided by left and right, 2-inch neodymium drivers, is very good for a portable iPod speaker system. In fact, the iM600 is the first product in this category to truly challenge Logitech’s mm50 when it comes to sound quality; the systems are close enough in audio performance that without comparing them side-by-side, most people will be quite happy with either.
That said, once you do some extended listening with the two systems, you’ll notice minor differences in their audio reproduction. For example, the mm50 provides noticeably better stereo separation when its 3D Sound feature is enabled, and the mm50 sounds a bit richer and fuller overall than the iM600; the iM600’s own SFX mode does add a bit of stereo separation, and I preferred the iM600’s overall sound with SFX enabled, but SFX isn’t nearly as effective as the mm50’s 3D Sound. On the other hand, the iM600 provides slightly better bass extension than the mm50. (You don’t get the impressive-for-the-size bass performance of Altec’s inMotion iM9, but the iM600 gives you better detail than the iM9.) Compared to the mm50, the iM600 also exhibits a bit of emphasis in the treble and upper midrange that results in a more aggressive, “in your face” sound. Finally, the iM600 can play a bit louder than the mm50 without distortion, especially when the mm50’s 3D Sound feature is enabled (that feature improves the mm50’s overall sound quality, but results in more distortion at higher volume levels).
Overall, I personally prefer the mm50’s sound quality, but just slightly; and, again, these are subtle differences that are only obvious in direct, side-by-side comparisons. And my slight preference doesn’t diminish the fact that the iM600 sounds great—like the mm50, good enough to double as a “desktop/tabletop” system for your bedroom, desk, or kitchen.
The iM600 easily earns our Playlist Pick designation thanks to good sound quality, a unique set of features that includes a quality FM radio, and a reasonable price. The only thing keeping me from offering an unreserved recommendation is that Logitech’s mm50—which offers similar sound quality and, apart from the iM600’s FM radio, comparable features—is now widely available for $100. (It’s also worth noting that if you don’t need true portability, Altec Lansing’s own inMotion iM7, a larger, “transportable” system that offers notably better sound quality than either system, but no FM radio, is available at street prices of around $165.) Still, the iM600’s FM radio and its ability to sync your iPod with your computer, along with its impressive performance, make it one of the best portable iPod speaker systems currently on the market.