Can a $199 iPod speaker be good enough to satisfy audiophiles?

Altec Lansing's Octiv 650 iPod/iPhone speaker is a good deal smaller than most of the better sounding docks, but it still sounds sweet.

The Altec Lansing Octiv 650 iPod/iPhone speaker Altec Lansing

My brief exposure to the Altec Lansing's Octiv 650 iPod/iPhone speaker dock ($199) at the CNET office in New York made a strong, very positive impression. It sounded so nice, I had to try one for myself at home.

Before we go any further I have to say I'm not a big fan of iPod/iPhone speakers. The cheap ones mostly sound pretty awful, and while the best of the expensive ones are fine, they aren't worth the money. Think about it: for $600 you can buy a pair of bona-fide hi-fi speakers (from Aperion, Boston Acoustics, Paradigm, or PSB) and a receiver (from Denon, Pioneer, or Onkyo), and get vastly better sound for your money. Granted, the receiver and speakers will take up more space and won't look as cool as a big ticket iPod speaker, but they'll sound a lot better!

For less, say $200, you could buy a pair of Audioengine 2 powered speakers, and hook up your phone or music player, and have very respectable sound. Stereo separation easily trumps the Octiv 650s, but that speaker's bass clobbers the Audioengine 2s. Me, I'd rather listen to Audioengine 2s, but the Octiv 650 would make for a strong second-place alternate. As compact $200 iPod speakers go, the Octiv 650 is as good as it gets.

The Octiv 650's wedge shape and understated styling are a welcome alternative to the iPod speaker norm. I also like the Octiv 650's small footprint; it's just 12.5 inches wide and 5.2 inches deep. It has two 3-inch "full-range" drivers, plus a bottom-firing 4-inch "subwoofer." That woofer put so much bass energy into my desk it made a glass with a bunch of pens rattle and buzz. The speaker's build quality feels solid overall, but the little appendage housing the iPod/iPhone connector might be prone to break over the long term. Other connectivity options are limited to a component video output and a 3.5 mm mini-jack aux input for audio devices. The Octiv 650 comes with a two-year warranty.

The Octiv 650 sounds more refined than any small iPod speaker I've heard to date. I preferred listening to it from 3 to 6 feet away. Bass quality is outstanding, and not just because this little thing has a lot of oomph for its size; its definition is excellent. The Octiv 650 exceeded my expectations while listening to the low strings on the orchestral arrangement of "Across the Universe" from the soundtrack from the movie. Overall clarity was decent and since you can easily fine-tune the bass and treble via the remote or on the unit, you can always get the sound balance you want (the available free app offers more sound tailoring options).

The Octiv 650 sounded best at moderately loud volume, and acoustic music fared better than more produced rock or dance tunes. Brooklyn soul diva Sharon Jones' "I Learned the Hard Way" album uncorked solid grooves, and Ms. Jones' vocals talents were a joy to hear. The Octiv 650's loudness limitations become obvious while I was rocking out to Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," reminding me it's still a little speaker after all.

Read David Carnoy's complete CNET review to learn more about the Octiv 650's features.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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