- Decent sound quality
- Great build
- Good value
- Bulkier than all-in-one options
- Review Price: £32.39
- USB powered
- Carry case
- Lock-together speaker design
Tablets are trying desperately to nudge ultraportable laptops and netbooks into a kind of geriatric obscurity, but they remain more flexible than most tabs. They’ll usually play far more varied media, for one, but laptop speakers are usually terrible. The Altec Lansing Orbit USB Stereo speakers are here to make watching movies and TV episodes on your laptop a pleasure – to banish the tinny treble and beef-up that non-existent bass.
They don’t have a power source of their own, instead sucking a small amount of current from your desktop or laptop over a USB connection. They’ll lessen battery life slightly, but not much – USB ports can only supply 500mA of power. Using them is blissfully simple. Just plug them in and they’ll take over from any built-in speakers automatically. There’s no volume control on the speakers. You use your computer’s software controls as the volume knob instead.
Thanks to their size and limited power, the Altec Lansing Orbit USB Stereo are necessarily speakers of compromise, but they manage the balance between convenience and performance very well. They’re separate speakers, and so produce a great stereo image when placed to either side of your laptop, but also slot together securely to stash away in a bag or suitcase. Joined together like this, they make a fairly chunky column, but all wires are stashed away safely and all connections protected by the armour of the tough outer shells of the speakers.
Altec Lansing includes a material pouch for a little extra protection against scratches too. Fully trussed-up we can’t imagine much amiss happening to these speakers unless they get on the wrong side of a rhino’s foot. Sturdy metal stands rotate out from the front of each speaker to give that essential bit of lift – so the sound is pointing to your ears, or at least chest, rather than your tummy – and these flip back against the speaker bodies when in storage or transit.
Two cables snake out of the speakers – one for the USB connection and the other to plug the non-powered speaker into its “master”. Both cables coil away into a recess within each speaker. There’s no vacuum cleaner-style retracting action here though, so packing them away feels a little like cramming a little too much into a holiday suitcase. It does all fit though.
Altec Lansing’s main claim for the Orbit USB Stereo speakers is that they provide up to 2.5 times the volume of built-in laptop speakers. This is a claim that’s very dependent on the speakers you’re comparing to, but we’re more concerned with overall audio quality anyway – and here the Altec Lansings deliver.
Laptop speakers are almost universally tinny and produce a very small-scale sound. This is down to a handful of factors, including driver size, the lack of any speaker cavity and the compromises of speaker positioning on any laptop. The Orbit speakers solve the last two of the these problems, with units that extend back far beyond where the drivers themselves sit and little stands that do a good job of projecting sound up to your ears.
Bass is much increased over just about any laptop speaker we’ve heard, and Altec Lansing’s claims about volume aren’t misplaced. Detail is also much improved, with the high-end given much more body than an integrated speaker. They’ll provide enough room to fill bedrooms and hotel rooms, and the sound is full enough to make watching a full movie on your laptop a pleasure.
Some treble nastiness crops-up at times, sounding as though you’re listening to a low-quality digital music file (even when you’re not), with some garbled digital detritus audible, but the upgrade is unmistakable. Most importantly, they ditch that disappointing “small speaker” sound that remains in some one-piece laptop soundbars – where the sound always sounds like it’s straining against insurmountable limitations.
The sound isn’t grand or epic, but it has a stature that makes it comfortable, and enjoyable, to listen to – whether you’re playing music or films. This is the main aim of speakers like these, making them a complete success.
The Altec Lansing Orbit USB Stereo speakers are outperformed by the QSB Soundscience pair, but also sell for half the price. Like those speakers, they don’t lead the USB speaker brigade in terms of convenience. That accolade is reserved for one-box solutions, but in sound quality terms this is one of the best options available at the price.
If sound quality is all you care about, you’d be better off with a fully-powered 2.1 computer speaker set, like the Logitech Z323 or X-210, but out on the road we’d pick the Altec Lansing Orbit speakers any time.
Smaller and more convenient USB-powered speakers are out there at the same price, but few match the sound quality offered by the Altec Lansing Orbit USB Stereo pair. They won’t turn your laptop into something to rival a home stereo, but for watching movies on holiday, on business trips or in your room – having been ousted from the lounge – this is a great-value solution that improves hugely on the quality of built-in laptop speakers.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 7