iPod Speaker Shootout: Apple iPod Hi-Fi vs. Altec-Lansing IM7

by | Apr 3, 2006 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

Specs of iPod Hi-Fi:

removeable grille
Class D internal amps
internal universal power supply
quiet switcing between AC and battery power
uses just six D cells
2 80mm widerange custom drivers
1 dual voicecoil 130mm woofer
acoustically-tuned, sealed enclosure for midrange
acoustic suspension for midrange drivers
ported bass reflex for woofer
frequency response: 53Hz – 16kHz +-3 dB
maximum peak sound pressure level: 108 dB at 1m
compatible with all iPod models
tone control for additional EQ settings
input port accepts analog 3.5mm stereo minijack
or S/PDIF digital optical miniplug
dimensions: 6.6″ H x 17″ W x 6.9″ D
weight with batteries: 16.7 lbs.


Speaker-docks for the iPod

It started with the Bose Sound Dock for the iPod. For $299 you could get a system that could produce enough high fidelity sound from an iPod to make up for the lack of a proper stereo system. It needed to be good for a small dorm room or even a middle-sized living room. I’m not sure if the first ones also had batteries, but they do now. But they were not designed to be portable players.


After a while Altec Lansing got in on the act with an entire line of iPod amplifier/speaker systems, topped by the IM7 for $249. I fell in love with it, so I compared the output at an Apple Store (where nothing is ever discounted) and decided I wanted the IM7 over the Bose. I found it on Ebay for $173 plus shipping, which made it a dollar cheaper than Fry’s [a local computer & electronics superstore…Ed.].

Since then, more manufacturers have joined the fray: there are dozens of speaker options for the iPod. Finally, along comes Apple with their own entry and it costs more than any other portable: $349! How can it possibly be worth that, I wondered.

There are spendier iPod accessories; from freestanding sound columns for your living room at $499 all the way up through the MiniCooper ($17,000-$25,000 plus $150 for the radio/iPod cable adapter) and the BMW ($30,000 to $70,000 plus adapter), but this article is meant to focus strictly on the portables that could possibly replace or substitute for your home stereo or TV audio system.

Thanks to the generosity of The Mac Store in Portland, I got my hands on one for the weekend so I could compare it with the IM7, still the gold standard for iPod boomboxes to me. What could it offer that made it worth $100 more? Or $150 more, if no one discounts the Apple HiFi?

Thoughts While Unpacking

There were a few surprises. First, the “Out of box experience” is definitely better with the Apple. The IM7 is just an object in a box. The Apple box has a built-in handle, pretty graphics and nice packaging. Inside is a fitted sleeve sitting on top of the styrofoam blocks that contains the cords, the remote (same as the one that comes with the iMac) and a box of fitted dock adapters for each model of iPod ever sold! The multi-language operator’s manual is in the same kind of box you find their other products, such as the MacMini, the AirPort Express, and the iPod itself. All sleeved in black with “Designed by Apple in California” printed on the outside.

The iPod adapters, ten in all, are fitted in their own high-grade cardboard display holders with little grey labels indicating which ‘pod they are for. Choose the one that works for your model and don’t lose the rest; you may buy a different iPod some day.

It’s obvious that a significant fraction of the cost went into the packaging, even at Chinese pricing. But something is missing from the box: a stereo patch cord that can link the HiFi to an external sound source. Unlike the IM7, you will have to provide your own here.

Attaching the iPod, the IM7 Thinks Different(ly). Instead of perching the iPod precariously on top of the unit, it has a hinged tray that pops forward to swallow your Pod, which is then pushed back and clicks firmly into place. Both units charge the iPod while it’s plugged in.

The IM7’s tubular shape and appearance reminds me way too much of the head of the King in Catamari Dimashi (a bizarre video game from Japan). It is designed to be truly portable. The iPod is protected in a recessed frame that still gives you access to the screen and the click wheel. The remote control fits into a slot in the back, and the unit swallows up eight C batteries (to the HiFi’s six). At this point, you are good to go. The Apple HiFi, however, does not protect the iPod in any way so you not only never want to move it around with the Pod in place, you must also make sure it isn’t placed where drunken revelers can stumble into it. The IM7 could be knocked about a bit, but nothing short of dropping it out of a speeding car could cause the iPod to come out of its holder (not tested).

Both units are almost exactly the same size. The IM7 dock is not as versatile, however. It is designed to accept the standard iPod, the Video, the Mini and the Nano. Other models (Shuffle) will have to use the analog cord to connect to the headphone jack.

The HiFi has two recessed handles in the left and right top corners so you can grip it firmly. With no iPod in place you can grab either handle to move it about. The IM7 has a single rubber-lined handle in the center rear just above the slot for storing the remote, but it isn’t as comfortable to use as the Apple handles. You also get a free shoulder harness when you buy it from Altec Lansing directly; can’t say that about other outlets. I did not get a harness with mine.

Yeah, but how do they SOUND?

Oops, I forgot for a minute; this is an audiophile magazine and some of you probably actually care about such things.  In a word, they both sound great to me. Good bass when necessary; strong speakers that can make themselves heard in any room. I tested both units on my back patio and yard to see just how effective they would be for providing sound for an outdoor summer party.

I have an ancient Audio Dynamics sound level meter, so I set them up on my deck, cranked up the IM7 and stepped back ten feet. The meter measured 90 db at that point, but the sound was distorted. I had to reduce the volume to 80 db to get clear music. The Apple HiFi, however, cranked up to 88 db, and the sound was clear with only slight distortion. It’s obvious that their engineers tested for the best sound at the loudest possible volume. [Keep in mind that the final sound is dependent on what you put into your iPod. If you used a 64 kbps rate it’s going to sound bad no matter what the amp and speakers. For best sound use AIFF/WAV or at least the highest bit rate of 320 if you must data-reduce…Ed.]

When I walked to the back of the lot, fifty feet from the speakers, I measured music at 68 db and could still hear it clearly, bass and all. The IM7 actually sounded less distorted at a distance but was better at the lower volume in either case. Since each device comes with a remote, I tested how far away it would work. The IM7 loses out here: at 14 feet it stopped working. The Apple was good to 25 feet.

The IM7 remote has separate controls for bass and treble, as well as fast-forward/skip to next track, rewind/skip backwards, on/off and pause/play. The Apple HiFi does not have a built-in slot to store the remote; the IM7 has one just below the handle. The Apple remote can pause, rewind, skip forward and adjust volume.

Both have only volume control on the unit itself, with an on/off button on the IM7. The Apple turns itself on by plugging in the iPod. The iPod’s own volume control does not affect the sound level on either player. Don’t lose the remote! Both models are dependent on it for any real control. Although you could buy a replacement in any Mac store, you’d probably have to send away to Altec Lansing for theirs.

External devices come in via each unit’s input port, standard mini-phono. There is no output port on the Apple, but the IM7 sports AUX Input, Headphones Out, Composite Video out, and S-Video out. You can play your photo slide show or your iPod Videos on your TV! Apple missed a real bet here; they should have chosen to incorporate this capability in the HiFi. The IM7 has been out long enough that they certainly knew about it.

Other Uses

I mentioned earlier that either box can be a substitute for a home hi-fi system [probably not for many of our readers, Michael…Ed.]. Considering how cheaply made the combo stereo systems are these days, there is a real argument for one of these instead. I have plugged my IM7 into my PowerBook to get great sound from iTunes or DVDs; I have plugged it into the headphone jack of a $20 used 1970s stereo tuner/amplifier, which is also plugged into my satellite TV box so I can get “good” stereo sound for the TV. You could, of course, plug it directly into your TV’s headphone jack (which my old set didn’t have). Play CDs? Use your computer or a portable CD player. Cassettes or vinyl LPs? Please.

Note I said “good” stereo. What you won’t get is good separation. Both boxes fall down at this. It’s understandable, though. We are talking about a standalone unit here. Neither has a real edge because all speakers face forward: The IM7 has two 1-inch tweeters and two 3-inch midrange drivers. A 4-inch side-firing subwoofer and a 4-inch passive radiator sit behind the screens on either end of the cylinder. That is not conducive to good separation. The Apple has just three speakers facing forward but they are really good speakers! Two 80mm wide-range and one 130mm woofer. The ports for the woofer face front and are tuned for optimum bass (according to their web site). The two units are about equal in perceived sound quality with the IM7 sounding a little more “brilliant.”

Bottom line here is, if I really didn’t care about price I would have made the decision on portability. As long as you don’t have to worry about someone – you, a drunk or your cat – knocking the iPod off its stand, and if you don’t plan to schlep it around very much, the iPod HiFi has a slightly better sound. But if you like to take your sounds to the beach, barbecues, parties and the like, the IM7 is the better buy. All that convenience and it’s cheaper too. Battery life is rated at 8-10 hours for the IM7; I have not heard reports on the Apple and their web site makes no time claims. Hardcore Apple aficionados will have to simply buy the HiFi because that’s what they do. To them I suggest: buy one of each.

— Michael Pearce

[Michael Pearce is a Macintosh consultant in Portland, Oregon who enjoys the audio side of Macs. In fact he recently replaced his Mini-Cooper with a new model primarily because it had an iPod dock on the dashboard!]

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