Altec Lansing Octiv 650
We review a lot of iPod/iPhone speaker docks and most of them sound somewhere between fair and OK, which is why we initially scoffed at the promotional materials for Altec Lansing's $199 Octiv 650, which the company bills as the "epitome of stylish audio performance."
It's not unusual for a company to speak highly of its own products, but the description for the Octiv 650 was especially gushing: "Its discreet lines and unique wedge shape blend in with your decor while it fills your space with full, well-balanced sound...the design is clean and stylish...it's the epitome of understatement and impressive over-delivery."
Based on experience, we expected to be underwhelmed. Happily, however, we weren't.
As for the design, it's pretty much as described: clean and stylish, with a wedge shape that almost makes it look like an old horn speaker. It's about the same dimensions--7.1 inches tall, 12.5 inches wide, and 5.2 inches deep--as a Bose SoundDock iPod/iPhone speaker but a little deeper. Weighing in at 4.2 lbs, it's got some decent heft but is light enough to be easily moved around the house. (Note that it runs on an AC adapter, not batteries, so it can't be considered a truly portable unit).
Because of its wedge design, the unit actually appears thinner than it really is when you look at it head-on. We didn't love the black cloth grille that covers the speaker because it has a tendency to attract dust, but that's a relatively minor gripe.
The real highlight of both the Octiv 650's design and performance is the inclusion of a bottom-firing "nested" subwoofer, which you can check out by turning the unit over. On top of the speaker you'll find bass, treble, and volume controls, plus a power button and a video button that engages video to your TV. The component video (green/red/blue) output can double as a composite video out (using just the blue terminal); however, it's up to you to supply your own cable or cables.
Around back, next to that component video output, you also get an aux input for connecting other audio devices (again, cable not included).
With the auxiliary input, of course, you could even use the Octiv 650 as a makeshift TV speaker. To do that, ideally you'd stick the unit on a shelf below your set, but we could see kids in dorm rooms using this as a dual-duty computer/TV speaker for TV watching, video gaming, and music listening. While it won't outperform a good sound bar, it actually works pretty well as a TV speaker, particularly in smaller rooms.
With the unit ships a small remote that controls your basic iPod/iPhone functions (track forward/back) and has volume and EQ controls (you get some EQ presets as well as the ability to customize bass and treble settings from the remote).
While the Octiv 650 doesn't have such features as an FM radio or alarm clock built in, Altec does offer a couple of free iPhone apps (Music Mood and Alarm Rock) that enhance the feature set for iPhones and iPod Touches. Alternatively, you can use any other third-party music or alarm apps. This is the trend with these types of speakers: build fewer features into the hardware, which in theory keeps the cost of the speaker down, and offer extras in software apps.
One thing missing from the Octiv 650 was any sort of wireless streaming option. There is neither Bluetooth nor AirPlay compatibility built in, which means you can't stream audio from an iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch wirelessly--having an iPod or iPhone in the cradle is the only way to listen to music on the Altec's speakers.
When using the video output, you'll need to press the video button a couple of times until the composite/component outputs engage. While Altec advertises Netflix video output, it should be noted that we could only get that to work on an iPhone 4, not an older iPhone 3GS. However, iTunes video output worked fine on both phones.
While we liked the understated wedge design, where the Octiv 650 scores highest is in the performance department. For a compact iPod/iPhone speaker dock, the Octiv 650 really sounds good, with good detailed bass and pleasant treble. All in all, this is a well-balanced system that doesn't try to push or overaccentuate lows, mids, or highs. It also plays pretty loud, though it will still do best in small to midsize rooms.
In terms of sound, for $200, it's hard to do much better than the Octiv 650. That said, in some ways it's a shame Altec couldn't go a little cheaper, because while the Octiv 650 is a decent-enough value at $200, it would be a bargain for $25 to $50 less. (If you like the wedge design and can live with less beefy sound, the smaller and far less expensive Altec Lansing Octiv Duo M202 may be a good choice.) Hopefully, we'll see the Octiv 650 at that price level in the future, but for now we can recommend it even at $199.