Editors' Note: As of September 2008, this product has been replaced by the similar Altec Lansing iM237 orbit MP3. The rating of this product has also been modified accordingly.
Altec Lansing has had its fingers in the iPod speaker business for several years now, which may explain why the company has been one of the most innovative when it comes to design--the retro-slick iM7 boombox and the ultrathin iM600 provide some excellent evidence of that. Further proof is now available in the form of the Altec Lansing Orbit-MP3, an ultracompact speaker that connects to any MP3 player or audio source. The MSRP for this speaker is only $40, but it can be found online for less than $30--an exceptional value given its versatility and passable sound quality.
The Orbit-MP3's name is a pretty telling indicator of its design. It's shaped like a disk that tapers in at the bottom. In fact, if you hold it sideways, it looks like a truncated speaker cone taken right from its housing. The Orbit is definitely compact, even within the realm of portable speakers, measuring just 3.5 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches tall. The base of the unit is all black plastic, while the speaker grille is made of brushed silver aluminum surrounded by a chrome-colored plastic ring. This ring acts as the power switch, which is the only control function of the unit; clockwise powers it off while counterclockwise turns it on. It feels a little fragile, which raises some concern for durability.
The base of the Orbit-MP3 is outlined by a thin groove that acts as a cable manager during transit. The wire terminates in a standard 3.5mm straight plug, which means the speaker can be used with just about any audio source; Altec Lansing even includes an adapter for use with 2.5mm jacks, often found on cell phones. Around the bottom edge of the speaker, you'll notice some flattened grooves. This small, but appreciated, detail allows you to prop it up on its side for directed sound, should you desire. The very bottom of the unit houses a battery compartment that takes three AAA batteries (not included). The rated battery life is more than adequate at 24 hours.
We've heard better sound quality from portable speakers, but the Altec Lansing Orbit-MP3 sounds more than passable given its size and price. Music is clear and multidirectional, an impressive feat given the single-speaker design. There's no background hiss, a fair amount of detail and high-end representation, and bass is not totally absent. On the downside, music does sound hollow, and it lacks the richness we like. Still--we reiterate--the Orbit is $30 and super travel-friendly, so we can forgive its rather minimal shortcomings.