Less expensive than similar models from other vendors
Includes both FireWire and USB connectivity
Good sound quality in a portable package
3D processor distorts at higher volumes
Removable cover/stand design a bit clumsy
One of our favorite portable speaker systems for the iPod is Altec Lansing’s
inMotion iM3, which offers good sound, a great feature set, and book-sized portability. Its only real drawback is its price—at $180, it’s more than some people want to spend on a portable system, regardless of quality. We’ve also covered a few systems in the $40-$50 range, and while they’re less expensive, their sound quality isn’t nearly as good as the iM3. So we’ve been keeping an eye out for a compromise. British company Logic 3’s i-Station ($80-$100 in the U.S.) may be what we’ve been looking for.
Your first impression upon seeing the i-Station is likely to be its similarity to Altec Lansing’s popular inMotion models. In fact, it’s difficult to talk about the i-Station without comparing it to the popular inMotion iM3—the companies have used very similar design approaches. And to be fair, many people interested in the i-Station will be considering it as a less expensive alternative to the iM3, so such comparisons are warranted. In that context, the important question becomes, “How does the i-Station stack up against the iM3 for half the price?”
Like the inMotion iM3, the i-Station is about the size of a book (7.75″ x 5.5″ x 1.5″, 18 ounces including batteries) when folded up for travel. During use, it unfolds into a stand-like configuration, complete with an iPod dock-connector cradle that holds your iPod. When connected to AC power, the i-Station charges dockable iPods; you can also sync your iPod if the i-Station is connected to your computer. (Unlike the inMotion series, which use Apple’s dock connector cable for connectivity with your computer, the i-Station provides FireWire and USB ports, which allow you to use standard FireWire and USB cables. However, note that the i-Station’s ports are the less common “mini” versions found on DV and digital cameras; thankfully, Logic 3 includes both cables.)
The two main differences between the i-Station and the iM3 are found in the speaker configuration and the actual “fold-out” process. Whereas the inMotion systems use four drivers—two left and two right, all 1″ in diameter—the i-Station uses three: one left, one right, and a “subwoofer.” Granted, in a system this size, it’s not a true subwoofer, but the i-Station’s stand is actually a 2.5-inch driver for reproducing lower frequencies; the 30mm left/right drivers handle the highs.
And while the inMotion iM3 uses a one-piece design that simply unfolds for use, the i-Station’s approach requires a bit more assembly. When closed for travel, all three drivers are flush against the unit’s front face; since the drivers are not protected behind a grill, the i-Station includes a clear plastic travel cover. To open the i-Station for use, you slide the cover off and then fold the center “woofer” section down until it locks into place, revealing a dock-connector base. Your dockable iPod then fits in the cradle. (Adapters are provided for various models—the only dockable iPod model that doesn’t fit is the 60GB iPod photo.) However, in a bit of clever design, the plastic travel cover also serves as a support panel for your iPod; you just flip the cover around and slide it back into place. When you’re ready to fold the unit up, you remove the cover and press two buttons on the rear of the unit to release the stand.
The i-Station can be powered from four AA batteries or the included AC adapter, which includes US, UK, and European plug attachments and automatically switches to the correct voltage. During use, up/down buttons on the front of the unit control volume; a 3D button toggles the “3D surround sound processor” (covered below); and a power switch lets you turn the unit on and off. In a bit of an odd touch, a pair of blue lights illuminate the sides of your iPod when the i-Station is powered up.
The rear of the i-Station includes the aforementioned USB and FireWire jacks, as well as the AC adapter jack and an auxiliary audio input jack that lets you listen to audio from an additional source. However, whereas some speaker systems with an auxiliary input “mix” your iPod’s audio with that of the external source, the i-Station’s jack automatically mutes iPod audio when a minijack is inserted.
Readers are likely to be most curious about how the i-Station sounds, especially compared to Altec Lansing’s similar iM3. The good news for those on a budget is that buying the i-Station isn’t going to require you to settle for a big sacrifice in sound quality—although neither system will rival a set of full-size speakers, or even that of Bose’s compact
SoundDock ($300), both provide good sound in a portable package. In fact, the best way to describe the sound quality of the two systems is different ; some people will prefer one, others the other. In general, I preferred the sound of the iM3, thanks to what I felt was better midrange and bass response (yes, even given the i-Station’s “subwoofer”). And with the i-Station’s “3D” setting disabled (a major caveat, as explained in the next paragraph), I preferred the treble of the Altec Lansing model. But to be fair, these preferences are by slight margins.
On the other hand, the i-Station does have a couple of sonic advantages over the iM3. The first is the i-Station’s 3D feature. One of the drawbacks of small speaker systems is that you generally don’t get much stereo separation or soundstage; Logic 3’s 3D processor attempts to overcome this limitation. Although you can’t really get “3D surround sound” from speakers four inches apart, enabling the 3D feature does provide a bit more spaciousness to the sound for some music, along with a boost in treble response. I say for some music because the effect of this feature varies significantly depending on the track—on some songs it makes absolutely no difference, while on others the difference is quite noticeable. For example, listening to Coldplay’s “Clocks,” enabling the 3D feature provides significantly more detail and extends the simulated soundstage well beyond the outer edges of the speakers. On tracks where this feature had such an effect, I actually preferred the sound of the i-Station to the iM3.
The second advantage the i-Station has over the iM3 in my testing is maximum volume. The i-Station is rated at 12 Watts of total power—3 each for the left and right channels and 6 for the woofer—as compared to the iM3’s 8 total Watts, and although it’s a good idea to take manufacturer power ratings with a big grain of salt, I did find that the i-Station could pump out louder volumes without distortion. Not significantly louder, but noticeably so. (The only caveat here is that the i-Station’s 3D feature at times leads to distortion when the system is played too loud; I found myself disabling this feature at louder volumes.)
The Logic 3 i-Station provides good sound quality for its size, and at $80-$100 in the U.S., is around half the price of Altec Lansing’s similarly-designed inMotion iM3. Although I think the iM3 is overall a better system thanks to a bit better design, slightly better sound quality (most of the time), and a handy wireless remote control, the bigger question is whether or not those advantages are worth the extra $50 to $100. That’s a decision readers will have to make for themselves. Whatever your preferences are, I can say this: The i-Station is the best sounding portable speaker system for the iPod I’ve heard for under $100. I have no hesitations in recommending it.