The market for iPod-centric speaker systems seems almost infinite. Altec Lansing already offers roughly seven portable iPod speakers, but the company is turning to the home market with the release of the M602 Powered Audio System. Billed as a "high-end home system," the M602 ($199 list) is designed to sit on a table or shelf, or it can be mounted on a wall. (The latter requires mailing in a $3 check to cover shipping and handling charges for a "free" mounting bracket.) It's not as heavy as the boombox-esque Altec Lansing iM7, but it weighs in at 5 pounds and measures 14 inches wide, 5.4 inches deep, and 8.2 inches high. The upright single chassis design is relatively compact, but it feels reasonably substantial when you take it out of the box.
Most iPod speakers are attractively designed, and the Altec Lansing M602 is no exception. It's silver-and-white motif lends itself more to white iPods, but there's enough black showing through the grille to make it work with models in that hue, too. And while Altec Lansing markets the M602 as a "Made for iPod" speaker system, it hasn't excluded other MP3 players from the mix: the company includes a universal stand that allows you to prop up non-Apple MP3 players in the center-front tray. Of course, you won't get the dock connection or the recharging option that the iPod connector offers--non-Apple MP3 players are connected via their headphone jacks with an included analog cable that's stored under the speaker and plugs into an input on the unit's backside--but it's a slightly more elegant solution for attaching another brand of MP3 player.
Blue LED lights seem to be a subtheme for iPod speakers this year--the M602 has them on front, under the speaker grill, to indicate both volume and bass/treble levels. What's a little confusing is that, in order to adjust the bass and/or treble levels, you have to hold down the corresponding button, then press the plus/minus volume button to raise and lower levels. We had to read the fine print in the manual--in fact, the whole manual is fine print--to discover this.
Like many other iPod speaker systems, the Altec Lansing M602 includes a USB port that allows you to sync your iPod with iTunes on your Windows or Mac machine. It's a standard mini-USB connection, and you'll need to supply your own cable. On top of that, if you have an iPod with video capabilities, there's a composite-video output--you know, the little yellow jack you're used to seeing on TVs--that gives you the option of displaying those videos on a TV in all their low-resolution glory. For what it's worth, the M602's rear panel also sports a headphone jack, but using it precludes the whole point of the speakers. Additionally, a small wireless remote is included, but it offers limited functionality--you can skip tracks forward and back, pause and play, and adjust the volume and bass/treble levels. Navigating through your iPod's menus is not possible, though.
As for the Altec Lansing M602's sound quality, it grew on us as we put the speaker system through our series of listening tests. Like a lot of these all-in-one speaker systems, this model has very little in the way of stereo separation. The speakers, which are equipped with two 3-inch drivers and two tweeters, are essentially next to each other; as a result, the system probably sounds best if you're sitting only about four feet away from it. The treble and midrange are the system's strongest suit, with voices, guitars, and acoustic music sounding quite pleasant. This was quite evident when we popped on Burt Bacharach and the Posies' rendition of the songsmith's "What the World Needs Now is Love" and Aaron Neville and the Neville Brothers' "Tell It Like It Is." Where the M602 surprised us is with its bass--it's punchier than we initially thought it would be. While the low-end isn't supertight, it held together at higher volumes better than we thought it would on bass-heavy tunes such as Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot." Still, we had to roll back the bass a bit to avoid distortion on an Art of Noise tune. It played loud enough to fill a small room.
The only warning we have is that, while Altec Lansing is encouraging people to use this system with other MP3 players, we found that the sound quality is noticeably less impressive when you connect other audio sources via the speaker system's audio input. To be clear, it doesn't sound bad, but this system--no great shock--is really optimized for use with dockable iPods.
That minor gripe aside, Altec Lansing has put together in the M602 a good, solid package that competes well against other iPod speaker systems in this price class. It's a better value than the Bose SoundDock, which retails for $100 more but lacks the auxiliary input and video output. Whether it's a better value than the Eton Sound 50--which can be had for $100 less--is a more iffy proposition, but the Altec Lansing does deliver richer bass.