Five years ago, thanks largely to the efforts of a certain fruit-themed computer company, every man and his dog was releasing products with an "i" prefix. If current trends are anything to go by, the modern iteration of this is to suffix your product with "360". We've got a with that suffix. There's a strangely suffixed security suite. And now, Altec Lansing have jumped into the annular fray with the Orbit-M 360 portable speaker system. At least in their defence, the Orbit-M is actually circular, and thus justified in using that particular number of degrees. We'd pay good money for an that was entirely spherical -- but we're not going to hold our breath waiting.
The Orbit-M is a relatively simple speaker with no embedded volume controls at all. The speaker itself switches on by twisting the silver portion of the speaker bezel. A simple coloured indicator shows you whether it's on or off. A small speaker cord with a 3.5mm speaker jack loops around the body of the speaker for plugging in to regular audio sources. A 2.5mm adaptor is provided for those with smaller audio plugs (including a number of mobile phones) and owners of Sony Ericsson phones are particularly provided for, with a 12-pin adaptor for Sony Ericsson mobiles. We lacked a Sony Ericsson phone to hand to test with the adaptor, so can't comment on its usefulness except to note that it's rather short, and thus possibly prone to the kind of shielding interference effect that many mobiles can inflict on speaker systems.
The base of the Orbit-M is where the batteries go in. It takes 3 AAA batteries, which are provided. They go into the Orbit-M in a triangular arrangement at the base that opens up like an old-fashioned piggy bank. Our only concern here is that three is an annoying number of AAA batteries to use, as they're most commonly sold in packs of four. Presumably you're either meant to buy big multi-packs of batteries, use rechargeables, or save up the spare batteries from every three packs you use.
Our expectations of a small portable speaker were never going to be that great, as there are genuine practical limitations to the kind of sound you can get out of a small, cheap speaker that's only powered by batteries. The usage profiles of most users won't help either; many of the MP3 player users will most likely be using low-quality MP3 files, and mobile music is generally encoded in an even more sloppy fashion. The Orbit-M actually did manage to acquit itself well at basic volume levels, where it ran for around 20 hours in our tests. That's a little shorter than Altec Lansing's claimed 24 hours, but not by too much. Predictably, if you pump up the volume on your device, the Orbit-M's speaker suffers from distortion more than just a touch.
The Orbit-M 360 hits the right notes with us; it's small, portable and gives out a decent sound as long as you don't require earth shattering levels of volume -- and frankly speaking, if you do, make sure to keep well away from us. We like our eardrums, and would prefer you shatter yours by yourself.