Let's begin with a list of the box's content. You won't find many surprises here -- there's obviously the speaker dock, a disc-shaped remote control (powered by a CR2025 cell, if you must know), dock adapters for the iPhone 3G / 3GS and iPod touch, power adapter, and three wall-plug adapters (for UK, US and Europe). Oddly, there's no tray adapter for the iPhone 4, and in response to our complaint we were told that Altec's still working with Apple to extend the speaker's official "compatibility"; for now, iPhone 4 users will just have to bear with the loose docking and be more careful. Boy, that universal iPod dock patent could come in handy right now.
The nicely built matte-black dock comes in a rather odd shape -- apparently its resemblance of a flat horn loudspeaker helps reduce standing waves inside the body; or in layman's terms, the resultant audio suffers from less distortion. Sure enough, the speaker sounds great to our humble ears -- bass is surprisingly rich given the size of the device, and treble isn't bad, either, although it can still go further to bring out cleaner guitar plucking and drum brushing. Mid-range seems to be where the speaker needs most work, but as a sub-$100 speaker dock, it's good enough for its demographic market -- we'd obviously have to pay a lot more for some audiophilic satisfaction.
Just above the twin 3-inch neodymium drivers lie three orange LEDs for indicating the audio source (dock A, AUX, and dock B), accompanied by the only four buttons that you'll find on the dock: power, source, volume down and volume up. There's a whole bunch more buttons -- especially for menu control on the iDevices -- on the magnetic IR remote control, which can be slapped onto the back of the dock or on the fridge. And finally, the power input, AUX input and a USB port are located near the back. Don't get too excited, though, as the USB port is simply for charging your other devices; it's still a handy feature, nevertheless.
What really sell this device are the two aforementioned iOS apps. When you first plug in an iOS device, you'll be asked to check out the dock's accompanying software in the App Store. Starting off with Music Mix: this is essentially the smarter brain of the dock, allowing the iOS device to allocate a set amount of play time between the two docked devices. For instance, if you want a fair mix of music between you and your partner, simply leave the slider at the default center position where it indicates 50 percent for both sides, and consequently, you'll get roughly 50:50 playback over at least ten tracks. Well, we say roughly, because it's not exactly "ABABABABAB..."; but more like "AAABBABABB...". If you feel that your collection deserves more attention, just quietly slide the bar towards your device -- just make sure your partner doesn't find out. You'll see a good demo of this shuffling action in the video above.
As useful as it sounds, there's actually not much else in the Music Mix app -- on the first page you get the basic playback controls sans timeline for scrolling, while the second page shows you both devices' battery lives, and the third page lets you pick one of the three audio sources for the speaker, as well as toggling "Stereo Widening" mode which didn't sound particularly effective to our ears. What's missing here is the ability to choose music within the app, so one would assume that it'll simply continue whichever playback mode you were using in the iPod app (such as by playlist, by genre, by artist, etc.); but in fact, Music Mix simply shuffles your entire library on each device. You can picture the embarrassing scenario where a hip-hop party gets interrupted by your High School Musical collection. Another problem we discovered later on is that when the slave device is playing music, quitting Music Mix on the master device would simply stop the music altogether, which means you can't go into the iPod app to queue up your next track. Not sure if this would be an easy problem to fix, but integrating some sort of music selector in Music Mix would be good enough for us.
The second app is called Alarm Rock (as featured on the Octiv Mini), and it does pretty much what it says on the tin. Upon launching, you're greeted by a simple clock interface with seven skins to choose from (our favorite one is "Pop"), and after some hands-on time we figured out that we could change the screen brightness by swiping vertically anywhere on the screen -- pretty handy for bedside usage. At the top-left corner of the home screen there's a sleep button for fading out music over a desired period (30 minutes by default), which can be changed in the settings menu (accessible via the top-right info icon). Similarly, that's the same menu for adding alarms or quickly toggling a 20-minute power nap alarm. Now this is where things get juicy: you get to set your alarm sound using the default iOS alerts, or anything from your music library by individual tracks, by albums, by artists, or by playlists. Yes, ironically, the built-in music selector that we wanted is here! That said, the selector can be slightly confusing, as it doesn't jump straight to the filter corresponding to what you tap on in settings, but whatever you pick, it'll still satisfy your initial search criteria, i.e. if you pick by artist, then whatever song you choose it'll still select the artist instead of just that one track. If this is still too puzzling, have a look at our walkthrough in the above video.
We gotta say, it's nice to see a refreshing take on iPod speakers -- especially ones with dual docks -- by means of iOS apps. Sure, Music Mix still needs some tweaking, but there's no doubt that Altec Lansing will continue to polish its software for a while. As for the speaker itself, not only is the build quality top-notch, but its sound quality is also pretty good for its price and small footprint. We also commend Altec for thoughtfully throwing in a magnetic remote control and a USB port, neither of which can be found on even more expensive dual-dock speakers like Pioneer's Duo series (from $349). Sounds like a very compelling option, if you ask us -- at least until we save up enough cash for a pair of electrostatic loudspeakers.