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Altec Lansing’s $30 Orbit-MP3 is a portable speaker that’s small enough to carry with you in a bag or backpack, and its sound quality is surprisingly good for such a small device.
Measuring 3.63 inches in diameter, the Orbit-MP3 uses a 3.5mm plug to connect to your iPod, iPhone (the plug fits into the iPhone's recessed jack), or any device with a headphone jack (Altec Lansing also includes a 2.5mm adapter). The Orbit-MP3’s audio cable is 9 inches long, and wraps around the base of the speaker when not in use.
The speaker is powered by three AAA batteries, and, unfortunately, doesn't provide an option for AC power. To turn the Orbit-MP3 on or off, you look for a notch along the side of the silver speaker grill; the notch aligns with “OFF” and “ON” markers on the base, and you turn the grill until the notch lines up with the setting you want.
That leads me to the only major problem with the Orbit-MP3: Other than looking at the power switch, there’s no way to tell if the Orbit-MP3 is on. When the speaker is unplugged it’s dead silent, so there’s no audible cue to tell you the speaker is on. There’s also no power indicator light. On three occasions, I used the Orbit-MP3 to play some background music as I worked, and on each occasion, I didn’t notice that the playlist ended. When I finished working, I exited my office and inadvertently left the speaker on. When I would come back to the speaker a day later, the batteries were dead (Altec Lansing says you get “up to 24 hours” of battery life, and I found this to be the case). If the device had a power indicator LED, I would probably notice it and it would serve as a reminder to turn the speaker off. And if the Orbit-MP3 had a power adapter, you wouldn’t have to worry about dead batteries.
Altec Lansing touts the Orbit-MP3 as a “360-degree sound” speaker. When you point the speaker upwards, the audio doesn’t noticeably sound like it’s coming from one direction, though it doesn’t sound like it’s all around you, either. If you want to direct sound in a particular area, you can simply prop the Orbit-MP3 on its side.
As you might have guessed, stereo separation is non-existent. Fortunately, the Orbit-MP3 plays both left and right channels, although, thanks to its single-speaker design, audio sounds like it’s coming from a single point.
The Orbit-MP3’s audio is clean and distortion-free. Midrange sounds are what the Orbit-MP3 does best; it does a good job with high notes, but notes on the very high end couldn’t be reached. If you like bass-heavy music, you’ll be disappointed with the Orbit-MP3; it just can’t drop bass that low. But the overall sound quality is quite pleasing.
The speaker lacks any volume controls; you use the controls on your audio device. The Orbit-MP3 didn't saturate a 300 square-foot room with sound, and if you're on the other side of the room, you can still have a conversation at normal voice levels and still hear the speaker. The Orbit-MP3 is loud enough for using at a desk, when you don’t want to wear headphones and you would like some background music.
Macworld’s buying advice
For $30, the Orbit-MP3 is a very nice compact speaker you can take with you around town or on trips. Its sound quality is much better than other portable speakers in this price range. I wouldn’t mind paying a little more for a power adapter; instead, I’ll just have to remember to turn it off.