Until recently, if you wanted a compact speaker system for your iPod, you were forced to compromise: portability or sound quality/volume. That’s not to say you didn’t have any good options; we’ve been big fans of portable systems such as Altec Lansing’s
inMotion iM3 and iMmini
($180 and $130, respectively), and Logic 3’s
($100). But although these compact systems are great for throwing in your suitcase or laptop bag, their volume levels are limited (by both their size and their 4AA batteries) and their sound—though good considering the size of the systems—isn’t comparable to that of “home” or “desktop” speaker systems. On the other hand, Bose’s $300
provides impressive sound quality and volume in a compact desktop/bookshelf package—but you have to give up battery-powered portability.
Late last year, DLO’s $150
became the first iPod “boom box”—and thus the first system that provided both portability and bigger sound. Although we generally liked the iBoom and found it to be a lot of fun to use, its audio output, while definitely louder, wasn’t of significantly better quality than the inMotion iM3. We also found a few quirks with the system that kept us from giving it our wholehearted recommendation.
iPod users now have another option, thanks to Altec Lansing’s new $250
, a portable, battery-powered system that definitely won’t fit in your suitcase but promises to provide bigger and better sound than other portable systems. After taking our review unit for an extended spin, I can tell you the iM7 lives up to that promise. But is it worth the price? Read on.
Note: A few weeks after posting this review, the iPod cradle of our review unit stopped closing properly—the iM7 still worked fine, but the cradle wouldn’t latch shut. We also heard a few similar reports from consumers. Altec Lansing has since confirmed that this issue affected a small number of early iM7 units. As a result, the company recalled initial shipments from retailers; currently shipping units are not affected by this problem. If you purchased an iM7 and have experienced this issue, Altec Lansing asks that you call 800-258-3288 to arrange an exchange.
Like Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3, the iM7 features a white plastic body with silver metal grills covering much of the unit’s surface. But that’s a bit like saying a Civic and a Hummer are similar because they have the same paint job. At 16.75” wide by 6.25” in diameter—it’s shaped like a tube—and weighing nearly 11 pounds (including batteries and an iPod), the iM7 dwarfs the more travel-friendly iM3. In fact, based on size, features, and price, Bose’s SoundDock is probably a better point of comparison. And whereas the iM3’s design is fairly utilitarian, the iM7 is visually stunning. The system also feels solid and well-constructed—my only concern is that because the system is round and most of its surface is covered in the metal grill, it’s possible that an accidental bump could result in a dent in the grill. (I haven’t tested this theory, and don’t intend to any time soon.)
On the front of the unit, hidden behind the grill, are four speaker drivers—each side features a 3” neodymium driver for mids and upper bass along with a 1” version for treble. But the iM7 also takes advantage of its tube shape to provide a 4” “subwoofer,” located on the right end. (Given the driver’s 4” size, it’s really more of a woofer than a subwoofer.) The left end provides a complementary 4” passive radiator, and the body of the iM7 appears to act as the sub’s enclosure, which allows the system to provide more bass than you would expect.
Although its tube shape is certainly unusual, the iM7’s most unique feature is its iPod cradle. Like most cradles, it works with any dock-connector iPod (3G, 4G, photo, and mini); however, unlike the cradle on most portable iPod systems, which is either a simple dock-connector platform or a slip-in slot, the iM7’s cradle is more like the door of a cassette deck (remember those?). By pressing the top edge, a toggle latch releases the door, which slowly swings down to provide access. You then slide your iPod into the cradle until it connects to the dock connector at the bottom. The door closes securely using the same toggle latch.
Also unique is the way the cradle adjusts to fit different iPods. A plastic insert is included to fit iPod mini models, but for all full-size iPods, the cradle is resizable. You move a small slider, located on the inside of the cradle, to the left to accomodate thicker iPods or to the right to fit thinner iPods. As you do, the back of the cradle moves back or forward, respectively. I had no trouble fitting everything from a 20GB fourth-generation iPod to a 60GB iPod photo.
The front of the cradle is open to allow access to the iPod’s screen and Click Wheel. Although this leaves the face of the iPod unprotected, the cradle is recessed enough that I was never concerned about bumping the iPod when carrying the iM7 around.
The iM7’s power and volume up/down buttons are located on the top of the unit, just above the iPod cradle.
Like Bose’s SoundDock and the inMotion iM3, the iM7 also includes an infrared remote control. In fact, the iM7’s remote is almost identical to the iM3’s: Exactly the same size and shape, both provide buttons for power, volume up/down, track forward/back, and play/pause. When you’re not using the remote, it stores in a handly slot in the back of the iM7.
However, the iM7’s remote also includes increase/decrease buttons for both treble and bass, letting you customize the sound of the iM7 to your taste—something even Bose’s SoundDock doesn’t let you do. That being said, I do have two minor quibbles about this functionality. The first is that I wish you could also adjust the treble and bass on the iM7 itself—even if you’re within reach of the unit, you still have to reach behind it and retrieve the remote in order to make such adjustments. (Not to mention that if you ever lose the remote, such adjustments will forever be out of reach, so to speak.) The other nitpick is that the iM7 doesn’t feature any visible indication of treble or bass levels (or of the volume level, for that matter), so there’s no way to discern the current setting—are you at 3/4 the maximum or 1/8? Although some would say that you should simply set the treble and bass to whatever sounds good, many users like to set them to “flat”— the iM7 offers no way to do this.
Overall, the remote works well, with one limitation: As an infrared remote, it requires line-of-sight proximity to the receiver, which on the iM7 appears to be located near the top of the system on the right-hand side. This means that you can’t use the remote from the side or from behind the iM7. But it also means that you may have trouble using the remote at too severe an angle from the
. Specifically, when the iM7 was placed on a shelf or other location where the remote was at an angle lower than the iM7, the iM7 at times had trouble receiving the remote’s signal.
The iM7 is powered portably by 8 D batteries, which Altec Lansing claims should provide an estimated 8 to 10 hour battery life; after 10 hours of portable listening at low to moderate volumes, the review unit was still going strong. (The rest of my testing was done using AC power.) A universal AC power adapter is included for non-portable use; the adapter comes with a number of interchangeable plugs that should allow you to use the iM7 with most wall plugs around the world. Your iPod is charged while the iM7 is powered by the AC adapter.
Finally, the back of the iM7 includes a small, rubber-lined carrying slot, much like the one on DLO’s iBoom. Like the one on the iBoom, I found it to be adequate for moving the iM7 around, but not something I’d rely on if I planned to move the speakers frequently. Altec Lansing has announced a carry bag with shoulder strap that should offer both a better way to carry the system and better protection for outdoor use. We’ll review those accessories when available.
Audio (and Video!) Connectivity
Altec Lansing has made some interesting choices with the iM7 in terms of AV connectivity. The system provides—via a panel on the back of the unit—the basics that have come to be expected on this type of a system: a 1/8” auxiliary input minijack that allows you to listen to another audio source (your computer, another portable player, a non-dockable iPod, etc.) at the same time as, or instead of, your iPod; a 1/8” headphone minijack (which mutes the speakers when headphones are connected); and the AC adapter jack. (I would have preferred the headphone jack in the front for easy access.)
But what’s surprising are the other connection options—both what’s there and what isn’t. Unlike with the iM7’s less expensive sibling, the iM3, there’s no iPod dock connector port, so you can’t sync your iPod with your computer while it’s in the iM7. On the other hand, the iM7 does feature something not found on any other iPod speaker system we’ve seen: video output jacks. If you’ve got an iPod photo, you can connect the iM7 to your television via a composite video or S-Video cable and then watch a slideshow—the iM7 is magnetically shielded so as to make it safe to place next to a television or CRT monitor. The iM7’s remote even lets you control the slideshow—play/pause, skip forward, and skip back. (However, in my testing the forward and back keys sometimes skipped audio tracks, as well, making the remote less useful for this purpose that it could have been.)
Including video outputs on the iM7 is an interesting choice for Altec Lansing. Since the usual way to connect your iPod photo to a television is via Apple’s AV cable (included with the original 40GB and 60GB iPod photo, a $19 add-on for today’s iPod photos) or iPod photo dock base ($39), the company’s position seems to be that by including video outputs on the iM7, you can save a bit of money on cables/docks and keep your iPod in the iM7 all the time. However, if this is indeed the rationale, it’s surprising that the iM7 doesn’t include a dock connector port. In order to sync your iPod with your computer, you’ll have to remove it from the iM7. Perhaps the company figures that when using the iM7 portably, you’re more likely to be away from your computer and/or near a television.
Overall, the iM7 offers excellent sound for a portable iPod speaker system—the best I’ve heard by a good margin. Unlike the less expensive iM3, which is occasionally lacking in the treble department, the iM7 provides good performance at the high frequencies, and the system’s “subwoofer” design actually allows it to produce decent bass, as well. (Although you shouldn’t expect true subwoofer extension and power.) The iM7’s speakers are far enough apart to provide some degree of stereo separation, and the iM7 is also the loudest portable system we’ve tested, easily able to fill a good-sized room with music.
I proposed earlier that in many ways it would be fairer to compare the inMotion iM7 to Bose’s $300 SoundDock than to most of the smaller (and less expensive) portable iPod speakers on the market. One listen of the iM7 next to the iM3, our favorite travel/portable system, comfirms this, as the $250 iM7 outperforms the $180 iM3 in every category—bass, treble, midrange, stereo separation, and volume. It similarly outperforms DLO’s $150 iBoom boombox.
When compared to the SoundDock, the differences are more subtle. The SoundDock—known for its rich midrange—edges the iM7 in the mids, whereas the iM7, with its adjustable treble and bass levels, has the advantage at the extremes. The iM7 can also play louder without distortion. However, to be fair to both systems, apart from the maximum volumes, these differences are more easily discernible when doing A/B testing of identical, high-quality music files on each system. For most listeners, the SoundDock and iM7 will be fairly comparable in sound quality, although some people will prefer the iM7 because of its ability to fine-tune the treble and bass.
If you’re looking for a portable system that’s compact enough to fit in your suitcase or backpack, the inMotion iM7 isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to sacrifice small size, the iM7 is clearly the best sounding—and loudest—portable system on the market. (Of course, it’s also the largest and most expensive.) It has a few quirks that keep it from getting our rare 5-Play rating—the lack of a dock connector port and bass/treble indicators, the awkward carry handle, and the aforementioned minor issues with the remote—but it still easily earns our Playlist Pick designation.
How does iM7 stack up in terms of value? Consider what you’ll be using it for: If you need a portable system—one that can be powered by batteries—the iM7’s main competition is DLO’s $150 iBoom. Although the iBoom includes an FM radio, overall I think the iM7’s superior sound and build quality are worth the extra $100. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at the iM7 as a “desktop” system for your iPod—one that will usually be stationary, or perhaps moved only around the house—Bose’s $300 SoundDock is the only real alternative. Both systems offer excellent sound for their size. The SoundDock is about 5 inches narrower, making it a better fit for a desktop or bookshelf, and the SoundDock remote is both more effective and more comfortable to use. On the other hand, the iM7 is $50 less and offers an auxiliary input, headphone output, and video outputs. The iM7 also offers versatility—its portability means you
take it with you.
UPDATE 3/16/2006: When the original version of this review was published, Playlist used a full-rating-only (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 Plays) rating system. Playlist has since added half-ratings (2.5, 3.5, and 4.5) to allow us to better differentiate between products of similar, but not equal, quality. Some products reviewed prior to this change would likely have received a half-Play higher rating had we been using such a rating scale at the time; a few of those products we feel strongly enough about that we have upped their ratings 1/2 of a Play. The inMotion iM7 is one of those products; its rating has been changed from 4 Plays to 4.5 Plays to reflect the fact that it is clearly better than the 4-Play-rated speaker systems we’ve tested.