Most importantly, you won't find the M812 an ear-sore. Up to a point, this is a fine sounding speaker dock, the two 4in full-range drivers and 1in silk dome tweeters pushing out a warm, full-bodied sound that's at its best playing stripped back, uncomplicated music. Tracks sampled from albums by Alison Krauss, Ryan Adams and Madelaine Peyroux were great showcases for Altec's system. The bass isn't as well defined as with some comparable docks, but at least it's there, and the overall tone with acoustic instruments and vocals is pleasant, intimate and well balanced.
What's more, the speakers give a wider stereo spread than some iPod speaker docks, and while you don't get the sort of imaging and positioning you might get with a proper pair of Hi-Fi speakers, it's certainly a step up from the average product in this class. Better still, the sound doesn't need too much volume before it sounds good, and with 40W per channel there's easily enough welly to fill and average living room, and then some.
Sadly, the news isn't all good. Given something denser or hard-edged, like much of Justin Timberlake's FutureLove/SexSounds or Kanye West's 808 and Heartbreak, the output begins to sound cluttered. You notice a lack of sparkle in the treble and a certain wooliness in the bass and mid-range. The sound is too warm and rich to be described as disappointing, but there's just not enough detail or clarity to convince you that you're listening to a real Hi-Fi sound system.
Bass is strong, but not particularly articulate, and the higher you push the volume, the more brash the sound becomes. Basically, the Octive Air is more comfortable with stripped back riffs (AC/DC's Back in Black) than more complex, thickly layered rock (Audioslave's Revelations) and happier playing light classical (Bach's Goldberg variations) than huge, heavily orchestrated pieces (Wagner's Tristan and Isolde prelude). Give it too much to handle, and you end up with a messy collision somewhere in the mid-range, and not enough clarity at the top or bottom.
I'm not going to complain about this too much with what is still a compact, portable sound system. All I would say is that if you value audio quality over the Octiv Air's wireless convenience, unobtrusive looks and multi-room potential, then you'd be better off spending your £280 on the entry-level Fatman iTube dock and a pair of budget Hi-Fi speakers from the likes of Tannoy or Gale. Indeed, if you only want a compact system for the living room or kitchen, then you can get other systems that cost a good deal less and sound every bit as good.
What it comes down to, then, is whether the wireless features and versatility of the Octiv Air system make the additional outlay worthwhile. If the idea of leaving your iPod docked in the back bedroom or study and taking your music everywhere around the house appeals, then the answer might be 'yes', and the same goes if you want to start up simply and build up to a multi-room system. Otherwise, this is a perfectly decent speaker dock but not a truly great one, and given that whacking price point, I'm not sure that's quite good enough.
The wireless speaker unit is an interesting idea, intelligently explored. Audio quality, however, is only average comparative to the strong competition around the Octive Air M812's price point.