- Review Price: £279.99
Look at it one way, and you can see the success of the iPod and other digital audio players as the victory of style and convenience over pure audio quality. No wonder, then, that you can see the huge sales of iPod speaker docks in the same terms. Hi-Fi buffs might quibble over the audio characteristics of compressed music and compact speakers, but there’s no getting around the fact that an iPod and dock gives you an easy way to enjoy music in the home.
There’s no need to mess around with CDs or complex, expensive Hi-Fi separates, and no need to put up with big speakers or masses of cable. Instead, you just switch on the dock, plug in your iPod and play. Of course, you don’t get Hi-Fi quality, but as a device for day-in, day-out listening, a compact, plug-and-play dock makes an awful lot of sense. Most of us will take style and convenience over sound quality every time.
Altec Lansing’s Octive Air M812 takes these two selling points to a whole new level. Altec’s twist on the regular iPod dock is that its system comprises two separate units; a small transmitter dock where your iPod sits and charges, and a large stereo speaker unit which connects wirelessly to it. The technology is apparently a variant on bog-standard 2.4GHz wireless, and it seems both robust and effective: Altec Lansing claims a range of 100 feet, and I can comfortably state that, in my tests, the speaker unit effortlessly hooked up and streamed audio from every location I tried it in within my average-sized, three-bedroom detached home.
One advantage of this setup is that there’s no need to compromise between keeping your iPod accessible and placing the speaker wherever you want. You can leave the transmitter dock on your desk or living room shelf and place the speaker on the windowsill, the kitchen worktop or even mounted on the wall (though you’ll need an optional wall-mounting kit to do so properly).
The only cable you need to worry about is the two meters connecting the speaker to a mains supply. This separation of sock and speaker help keep your music portable. Leaving the lounge to do the washing up? Just switch off the speaker unit, unplug it from the mains and you can carry on listening in the kitchen.
The separation of dock and speaker unit is a good idea in itself, but Altec has taken things just that little bit further. Buy two M812 systems and you can set up two speakers in one room as a stereo pair; a little switch on the bottom allows you to choose between 40W per channel stereo and 80W, single channel left or right modes. Alternatively, you can place up to seven additional Octiv Air speakers around the house and get a basic multi-room setup going, though you will, of course, have the same music playing in every room. It’s an intelligent, flexible approach, and one that gives you room to expand your system in the future.
The units themselves are well-built and attractive. It’s a shame that the lightweight transmitter dock can’t double as a PC connection cradle – it recharges your iPod but doesn’t have any USB sync facilities – but on the upside it has an auxiliary 3.5mm input and, when hooked up to supplied T-shaped FM antenna, will feed the speaker unit with a signal from the built-in FM radio. Radio features are fairly basic; you can search for channels and add them as presets or manually tune, but there’s no full automated auto-tune facility. All the same, the quality of sound is more than acceptable, and I didn’t experience any problems getting the major channels in what’s not a particularly brilliant signal area.
The supplied remote, which unlike some speaker dock remotes feels like a proper consumer electronics control, gives you access to all these features, plus volume, bass and treble adjustments, not to mention the most basic track navigation controls. Be warned, however, that if you want to skip from album to album or playlist to playlist you’ll still need to do so from your iPod itself.
The speaker unit also leaves a good impression. It’s solid, robust and reasonably heavy, with a round plastic stand on the base and four rubber feet on the back allowing you to place it horizontally or vertically. Thanks to its neat, uncomplicated design it looks good either way. The front is all black bar the Altec logo and a simple LCD display, which gives you feedback on volume or radio channel changes.
There’s nothing flashy or unnecessary about the design, and while this means that the Octiv Air isn’t a style statement like the B&W Zeppelin, it also means that it’s not something that your other half might describe as an eyesore.
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.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 7