Back: Logitech mm50
Middle: Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere
Front: Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere
Back: Logitech Audiostation
Front: Altec Lansing inMotion Max
This is by no means a full review of these products - for this you can refer to many excellent sites such as iLounge. I do not attempt to replicate what has already been done - instead this is a personal appraisal based on two extremely important criteria: 1) are these units actually capable of playing music continuously? 2) what is the audio quality really like? I answer both these questions and not from a purely personal perspective either - below you will find a sample recording of the actual sound produced by the inMotion Max. You will notice there are two Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere speakers - the reason for this is explained in the text. You will also see the Logitech Audiostation - this is not a portable speaker but is included here for referral to sound quality during comparisons. I am not a reviewer - I purchased all the above speakers for my own use and still have them except for the PF-As which I returned to the seller.
Update: I have recently discovered the Sony RDP-XF100iP - a phenomenal portable iPod speaker which I will shortly be adding to this review. I have also recently owned an Altec Lansing iMT800 Mix BoomBox and will be recounting my experiences with this speaker. Please tune in again soon!
I love music; especially I love listening to music as it comes naturally through the air, free from the entanglement of earbuds and wires - yet while on the move - moving around the house, from room to room and in the garden. For this reason portable iPod speakers are very important. I spent some time researching the iLounge site to help decide what speakers to buy. This is an excellent site with in-depth reviews of a wide range of speakers. Based largely on these reviews I purchased my first portable iPod speaker - the Logitech mm50 - in early 2007. What follows evolved from that early experience.
This speaker provides excellent sound quality for the money and for the size of enclosure. I would have no reservations at all except for one disturbing fact: after a few days of listening I became aware that this unit was regularly cutting out, every 2 minutes or so, while playing soft music on battery power. It did not cut out while on mains power or when playing loud music. I checked the Logitech forums and saw that this was a common problem for which there was no apparent cure. After further tests I deduced this was due to a firmware battery saving algorithm. It was thus 'designed in' purposely. It is hard to describe how much it destroys a musical experience to have the music repeatedly stopping dead. Unfortunately it soon became apparent that the mm50 could not be a viable portable music player with this major defect. Astonishingly, there was no mention of this at all in the iLounge review.
Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere (PF-A):
Despite the major design defect inherent in the mm50 I was very pleased with the audio quality. I was convinced that Logitech would surely fix this major problem with its successor product, the Pure-Fi Anywhere (PF-A). I avidly read the iLounge review for the PF-A but could see no mention of this problem. I therefore tentatively purchased one. Initial listening tests revealed a pleasing audio quality which sounded very similar to the mm50. Possibly it had slightly better bass, slightly better definition, and a slightly wider sound stage. But the differences were quite subtle, not enough to warrant an upgrade. But most importantly, did it fix the cutting out problem? No, to my horror, Logitech made this problem even worse with the PF-A - not only does it cut out on battery power, it even cuts out sporadically on mains power. I cannot imagine what is going on at Logitech, to even design products with this major defect, let alone let them pass quality control. I think the simple explanation is that Logitech is blissfully unconcerned - as long as the product is continuing to sell in high volume they simply don't care. Unfortunately some reviewers contribute to this problem - by remaining silent on major product defects they encourage the public to purchase products in the belief they work as described and are defect-free. Thereby Logitech's profits continue to ramp up and they have no incentive to fix the problem, but in reality large numbers of purchasers will be deeply disappointed.
Logitech Portable iPod Speaker Cut-Out Problem
This has emerged as such a major problem that I have devoted a section to it:
Firstly you will notice that there are two PF-As in the above picture. Why you may ask? This is because I approached the retailer about this problem (Gadgetsquare on eBay) and they offered to send me a second unit to check out, before returning the first one. I thought this was unusually generous and trustworthy. Having checked out the second unit, I found it was identical to the first one - in all respects - not only did it cut out in exactly the same way, on both mains and battery power, but the other defects of the PF-A (more on this below) were also identical.
The mm50 has an exactly similar cutting out problem. Thus I have personally witnessed three separate Logitech portable speaker products, all with an identical cutting out problem. Does it stop there? No, after considerable research, I believe this cutting out problem may exist across all Logitech portable (battery powered) speaker products - not only the mm50 and PF-A but also the 'Express' variants - there is certainly ample evidence of this in the Logitech forums. Indeed it would be unusual if they did not use a standardised firmware design across a range of similar products, because it saves money - the same reason why car manufacturers use the same engine in different models, and so on.
So what is the cause of this persistent cutting out? I have no proof but based on three decades of electronics experience and two decades of firmware and software design experience I believe this problem is due to deliberate firmware design to extend battery life. What happens is this: while in battery mode, the DSP firmware constantly monitors the incoming audio level and cuts out (puts the speaker into sleep mode) if the audio level remains below a certain threshold for a defined time of between 90 seconds and 2 minutes. This behaviour will most certainly save battery life and is undoubtedly a marketing-inspired move to enable Logitech to claim "10 hours battery life..".
However an obvious issue seems to have escaped Logitech: this design will have a major impact for the many people who listen to music with long quiet periods of which there are many genres including classical, 'soul' music, spiritual music, pipe music and so on. In these circumstances the unit can cut out so regularly as to be unusable.
Fortunately for Logitech the majority of their customers probably listen to rock music or pop music, or music that has any kind of regular beat or 'thump' - this maintains the threshold above the critical level, and the unit remains playing. Thus the majority of people who listen to rock music or pop music may never witness the problem.
Whatever the impact on any particular audience, this is a deeply flawed method of battery saving because music is an emotional experience. I don't know of any composer who deliberately put stops into their music - points at which the music arbitrarily stops dead for indefinite periods. Yet Logitech deliberately impose this upon listeners in the interest of marketing. Of course, a music player should NEVER cut out unless:
a) the iPod is paused, or
b) the battery runs out
That this is a huge problem can be seen from the Logitech forum, including especially this thread, one of the longest threads on the entire forum which deals exclusively with the PF-A cutting out problem.
What is a reviewer for, unless it will reveal massively debilitating defects in a product? I choose my words with care - music is an emotional experience - it is composed such that it be listened to without interruption from beginning to end - but when a system sold for the purpose of reproducing that music decides that it shall corrupt the musical experience by stopping dead every 2 minutes or so then it is indeed a massively debilitating defect. Some reviewers such as iLounge merely quote Logitech's blurb of "10 hours battery life". Surely a reviewer should test the product in some way? If they had done so they would have discovered that a battery life of "10 hours", even if true, is meaningless when the unit repeatedly stops dead every 2 minutes or so.
The "Logitech Nervous Tic"':
After a few months of listening to Logitech portable iPod speakers I began to develop a nervous tic. I could never relax and listen to music - I knew that the thing was going to cut out at any time. Whenever there was a quiet passage or a pause in the music I would fumble nervously for the remote, ready to turn the wretched speaker back on again. This is how it was - not for hours, not days, not weeks, not months, but for years. It was like torture. Is a musical experience really supposed to be like this?
The way forward:
After this experience it was clear that I could no longer wholly trust some reviews, and that I should be careful to avoid all Logitech portable (battery powered) speakers. I returned the two PF-As to the retailer who gave a full refund with no questions (Gadgetsquare - an excellent retailer). I kept the mm50 for my wife to use by her desk where it serves its purpose well because it is permanently connected to the mains (that is the sad summary of this experience: Logitech's "portable" speakers are unusable for the stated purpose by anyone who doesn't want to listen to pop or rock music - the speaker must be constantly tethered to the mains). In my view the mm50 is a better speaker than the PF-A - it is more compact, sounds essentially the same, and is better engineered with a more robust construction. Most importantly, it does at least keep playing on mains power!
In the past I have come to associate the name Altec Lansing with professionally designed audio equipment. I noticed they had introduced a new portable speaker called the inMotion Max which looked very interesting. I noticed that iLounge were less than enthusiastic about this speaker and gave it only a 'B' rating as opposed to an 'A' for the PF-A. In the light of my experience with PF-A I took this to be a recommendation for the Max - in order to get a really good, properly designed and functioning speaker it was clear that I had to go against the iLounge rating. Enter the inMotion Max!...
Altec Lansing inMotion Max
Sound quality: First of all this speaker has hugely impressive sound. It has rich and detailed sound right through the treble, the mid frequencies, and to the bass which growls, shudders, and thuds to an amazing degree considering the size of the enclosure. My first listening experience with this speaker was part of Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz) - the speaker was placed on a large table about 4 feet from me - I was amazed at how the drum beats seemed to 'explode' from the front of the Max - the table was vibrating and I even felt the vibrations in my rib cage. I had never heard anything like this from a portable iPod speaker. Pressure from the lowest bass notes cannot be generated with such a small speaker but after comparison with my Hi-Fi system (B&W DM-4 speakers) I can confidently say that all of the sounds are audible - what's missing is low frequency pressure, some definition and clarity in the mid/upper registers, and of course stereo separation which can never equal that of a separate stereo speakers.
Cutting out: What about the infamous Logitech cutting out problem? I am extremely happy to say that the Max does not cut out at all! It will only stop playing if: a) the battery runs out, or b) the iPod is paused. This is exactly the way it should be!.. Finally I am free of the thing that has plagued my listening experience for two years!.. At Last!.. I can finally listen to music and enjoy it, free of the dreadful, interminable cutting out!
Sound stage: With ESS enabled the Max gives a good sound stage with sounds apparently coming from beyond the bounds of the enclosure. As iLounge noted, the effect is more subtle than with the PF-A. But perhaps that's the way it should be - after all, this technology works by modulating the sound with frequency dependent phasing shifts. Not to put too fine a point on it, it warps the audio spectrum. Perhaps it had better be subtle!
Sound volume: the Max volume will rack up to very high levels - too high to be played for more than a few seconds for fear of disturbing others in the house and the neighbours - with windows open in the summer the Max will certainly do that. The Max at 70% volume will fill an average sized room. For comparison, the Max at 70% volume is already louder than the PF-A at maximum volume. I have read one or two reports which say that distortion can be heard at high volume levels. I have played the Max at up to 80% volume and the sound remains clean - certainly very much the same as the Audiostation at the same volume level. I have not so far tried to test it at higher levels than that because I don't have the environment (see above) - one would need a very large room (more like a hall) for this kind of volume.
Well sorted: In general you get a sense that the Max has been professionally designed. It feels solid and well engineered. Everything works as expected with none of the irritating quirks and glitches of the PF-A (more on this below). In short, it feels "well sorted".
Aesthetics: Aesthetics is a personal thing however I mention it only because of iLounge's remarkable stance. At the very top of their report they state: "We're going to come right out and say it: Altec Lansing's inMotion MAX ($200) is not what we'd call an attractive portable speaker system." Yet in the review itself they state: "..MAX manages to present even more of the sound spectrum, offering noticeably more bass and a little extra detail in both the treble and mid frequencies. Music sounds as full-bodied as is possible in the absence of a dedicated subwoofer, and we actually enjoyed listening to any track we played through MAXs speakers.." So on audio quality, the most important criteria of all, they rate it very highly, higher then the PF-A. Yet the overall rating is "B" compared to "A" for the PF-A... Why? The only possible conclusion is that they down-rated the Max because they don't like the look of it! As I mention in the opener, aesthetics is a purely personal thing - it can certainly be commented on, but should never form part of a rating, simply because people will have different views and it has no effect on product performance.
When you see the Max sitting on your table or bookshelf you may well think it looks rather sleek and professional. Sitting on my bookshelf, it certainly presents a pleasing and polished image and looks more 'in tune' with its surroundings than the PF-A, and it takes up less space. At least, you may feel there are no grounds for iLounge to down-rate the product on aesthetics, even if they didn't (personally) like its looks.
Aesthetics for a purpose: since iLounge apparently feel so strongly about aesthetics, didn't they spot the fact that the Max is designed this way for a purpose? The design is what gives the Max its astonishing audio quality - the whole enclosure is designed as a carefully tuned bass resonator. This is why a 'square' aspect ratio is required - such a resonator cannot be anything like as effective with an elongated design such as the PF-A.
Remote Control: is a joy to use. It feels very rigid with tactile buttons that respond instantly and really work. The only exception is if the Max is in 'deep sleep' mode (turned off for an extended period) - then the Power On button usually needs an extended press to wake it up. Most of the buttons are self-explanatory but I will briefly mention the P1 - P4 buttons. In FM mode the P1 to P4 buttons are used to store preselected radio stations and in iPod mode they have additional useful functions: P1 = Turn on/off Shuffle; P2 = Turn on/off Repeat; P3 = Switch to previous playlist; P4 = Switch to next playlist. The Max remote control is in marked contrast to the PF-A's, with its floppy/flimsy buttons that only work intermittently and a Pause/Play button that is buried in the centre of a flimsy outer ring with its own controls - it needs firm, often repeated presses and is hard to activate without activating the controls on the outer ring - especially frustrating as this is the button that needs to be activated constantly to turn the dratted thing back on, after it has cut out... yet again.
The rear panel has connectors for power, Aux (line-in audio), FM antenna, and a slot for storing the remote control when not in use. A very nice feature is a switch that shuts off power completely when the rear support is closed, as it will be whenever the Max is transported. It means the Max cannot be accidentally turned on and the battery will not drain.
FM Radio: The tuner performs very well, producing virtually no audible static on reception from a 250KW BBC FM transmitter 53 miles away using only the supplied wire dipole. FM music sounds very good, though speech exhibits some colouration, sounding a little 'boxy' with some apparent depression in mid frequencies, though it remains perfectly audible. Stepping through frequencies using the remote control sometimes needs a double press for each change, making it a bit laborious, though saving and recalling stations through the P1-P4 keys is very clean and accurate.
Portability: The Max is fairly easy to carry around but considering it is sold as a portable they could have made it a bit easier. Ideally it should have either a slot or a small fold-away carrying handle on the rear panel. As iLounge notes, it is easy to accidentally activate the touch-sensitive buttons when carried in this way. But I am not sure pressure sensitive buttons are the best answer. A handle is all that's required - the touch sensitive buttons are quite nice to use. Turning it off (quick touch on the power button) will stop the buttons from being accidentally activated.
Packed up and ready to travel: the Max is a little under 2" deep and approximately the size of an A4 sheet of paper (on which it is resting, left photo). Thus the Max will fit readily into any standard hand case whereas the PF-A sometimes had difficulty, being more than an inch wider. The Max feels surprisingly light though its actual weight is 1.1Kg compared to 735g for the PF-A (actual measured weights). Packed up in this way, the Max is completely turned off and no battery drain can occur (see above photo).
Removable internal battery: under listening tests I found that the internal battery does indeed last for around 3.5 hours, moreover the Max never stops or cuts out during that time - wonderful!
A very nice feature is that the internal battery can be removed and replaced simply by removing two screws in the rear panel. The battery should last several years but may eventually need replacing. It is a standard OEM Li-ion battery but may be hard to obtain in small quantities as these batteries are intended for volume purchase by manufacturers. I expect that replacement batteries can be ordered from Altec Lansing though I have not investigated this.
The battery specs are (as recorded / measured on this specific battery):
Part No: Mh29654
Model No: McR18650
Cycle Life: >_400
Date Code: 0808
Lead (Pb): ND
Cadmium (Cd): ND
Mercury (Hg): ND
External battery: Extended remote listening is easily possible by means of an external battery. I used a Yuasa NP7-12 12v, 7Ah lead acid battery which is ideal for this purpose. They cost only about £14 so one could have multiple batteries for really extended remote listening.
I made up a simple connector from fairly thick gauge wire and a standard co-axial connector, using heat shrink tubing for the inside connections and outer sleeve. Since the battery is connected to the power input it not only powers the Max but also keeps the internal battery and the iPod charged up. So even after the external battery expires one still has 3.5 hours left with the internal battery.
The nominal input voltage of the Max is 13v but I found that it continued playing with no apparent deterioration in audio quality all the way down to around 8v - this is excellent as it means the Max is responding to overall power (volts x amps) and is not dependent on a specific battery voltage.
Duration: the battery lasted for more than 24 hours of nearly continuous music playing at around 70% volume level which is enough to fill an average room with sound. I expect it will last a full week with short periods (3 hrs or so) every day, though I have not tested this. Make sure the battery is disconnected when the Max is idle because there is constant current drain even with the Max turned off.
Current drain readings: Max running on battery. Battery reading 12.7v
Turned off with Max and iPod charged: 170mA (this is almost certainly trickle charge current to both Max and iPod batteries)
Turned on but idle with Max and iPod charged: 200-250mA (not sure of the reason for variations)
Playing music with volume at 70%: 250-300mA on average but can peak to 400mA on very loud passages. A good average while playing classical music is 270mA. With a battery capacity of 7Ah this equates to almost 26 hrs. For heavy rock music the average may be around 280-290mA which should still give 24 hrs.
Recorded sound from inMotion Max:
Here you can listen to the actual sound of the Max, recorded by an Olympus LS-10 Digital PCM Recorder. The Max was placed on a bookshelf in a small but acoustically 'dead' room. There are bookshelves stacked with books up to the ceiling on three sides and a large curtain on the fourth. The Olympus LS-10 was on a tripod four feet from the Max, with its volume on 28 (70%). The mic sensitivity was set to low to minimise room pick up, but even so I think the room reverb is low.
Caveat: this kind of exercise is truly fraught with pitfalls as it is a multi-stage sound distortion and colouration exercise! All speakers, however perfect, produce some degree of harmonic distortion, it is unavoidable. The brain tends to cancel out some of these anomalies when listening first hand but it is picked up ruthlessly by the microphone. Layered on top of this are speaker colouration, room colouration, the process of re-digitizing the sound, and converting it back to MP3 from whence it came - another double pass distortion process. Please try to listen with headphones if at all possible as this will give the most accurate representation of the sound without introducing yet further colouration.
Nonetheless when listening to this please recall that you are not listening to a CD or a recorded live performance, but to the sound emanating from the Max!
Update: this recording has been temporarily deleted pending updates on further iPod speakes.
Three quite different pieces are selected to try to illustrate the quality (and defects):
1. Piano: extract from Beethoven Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor) (Sir Colin Davis, Evgeny Kissin).
2. Full orchestra with some powerful Gran Cassa: extracts from Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Two of the loudest parts cracked the PF-A.
3. Vocal: extract from Berlioz Romeo et Juliette: 'Premiers transports...' (Ozawa, BSO, Hamari). Both accents 'Quel roi' and 'Croirait' cracked the PF-A.
Distortion hardly describes it hence 'cracked the PF-A' means DSP breakdown as described below under "Anomalies, quirks, etc...". You can judge for yourself how the Max performed, bearing in mind the caveats noted above.
Audiostation: I never though it would be possible to compare a portable, battery powered iPod player to the Logitech Audiostation. But the Max compares very well even though the Audiostation (see title picture) is in a different category, being a heavy (4 Kg) mains powered unit with long throw 4" drivers that need a brick sized PSU delivering 2 Amps to power them. I compared the two side by side with the Audiostation volume around 75% and the Max volume on 80% (level 32) such that the volume from the two units sounded the same. I listened to an extract from Berlioz Te Deum with full orchestra, organ, and a large chorus. The Audiostation gave an impressive and full bodied sound with more power in the bass as one might expect, though the bass is perhaps overly DSP-enhanced, giving it a 'boom box' sound. The Max sounded very similar, delivering all of the bass sounds of the Audiostation, including low organ growls, but with less testosterone and I feel, more accuracy. The Max sound felt more spacious with a little more definition and clarity in both the middle and top registers. I could not detect any real distortion from either unit. As an aside, I have no problems with the Audiostation - it delivers a very full sound and, being mains powered, has none of the quirks and defects of the PF-A, and seems good value for money.
Bose SoundDock?: I would be very interested in a comparison between the Max and the Bose SoundDock Portable. I have heard the standard SoundDock but not at the same time or playing the same music as the Max. Based on this impression I think the Max would stand up very well against the SoundDock - and probably the portable version since, according to reports, they sound very similar. Since the SoundDock portable is double the price of the Max this kind of performance would be exceptionally good. The Max is in turn double the price of the PF-A, however in my humble opinion it is worth every penny because: a) the audio performance is hugely superior to the PF-A; b) it is very well engineered; and c) most importantly of all in my opinion, it is free of a raft of design defects, including (you guessed) the interminable cutting-out problem.
Anomalies, quirks, and defects
1. Cutting out: this is a huge problem, already described in full under "Logitech Portable iPod Speaker Cut-Out Problem" in the first section.
2. Scramble iPod: the mm50 quite often scrambles the iPod, especially when running on battery power. By this I mean that the mm50 would occasionally send some invalid set of signals to the iPod, causing it to crash. The symptoms are a frozen (totally unresponsive) iPod and the only solution is to reboot it (press Center button and Menu button simultaneously for about 6 seconds). This has never happened with the Max or Audiostation.
3. Sudden audio burst for no reason: sometimes, while in standby mode on battery power and usually idle for several hours, the mm50 would suddenly, for no apparent reason, play a half second burst of audio that I had been listening to earlier in the day. The first time this happened I had earlier been listening to a French language tape at high volume (to combat the din of a Hoover). Now it was the middle of the night and all was quiet - the mm50 decided that it would suddenly play a half second burst of some French vowel sound - the quiet night air exploded with a huge "WHOOAAARRRR!!" sound from out of nowhere. I was extremely shocked, frightened, and almost had a heart attack. It sounded like some God-awful demon had burst into the house. I had no idea what had happened and very nervously searched the rooms. It took a minute or two before I realised it was the mm50. It happened again, several times. One of these times my wife was with me in the same room, but I had forgotten to tell her about the problem - late at night she was sitting quietly doing some cross-stitch when this huge banshee wail suddenly burst upon her. She was badly traumatised and had palpitations for the rest of the night. After that we decided it was not safe to have the mm50 in the house at night unless it was under a pile of blankets. This kind of thing is ridiculous, of course - the result of inept design, lack of QA, and lack of management interest - the same as the cutting out problem. But as small consolation they don't seem to have replicated this problem on the PF-A, as they did with the cutting out problem.
4. Adjusting speaker volume changes iPod volume: This is irrelevant and should never happen because the iPod volume only adjusts the volume to the headphone socket which is not used with an iPod speaker (an iPod speaker uses only the line out connection at the base of the iPod). At face value this may seem like a minor quirk but it is symptomatic of negligent design and lack of QA that has resulted in a raft of design defects.
Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere (applies to both PF-As):
1. Cutting out: replicated from the mm50 but made even worse on the PF-A. This is a huge problem, already described in full under "Logitech Portable iPod Speaker Cut-Out Problem" in the first section.
2. Scramble iPod: exactly the same as described for the mm50, replicated on the PF-A. It seemed to occur somewhat less often with the PF-A, though this may have been merely 'happenstance'.
3. Gross distortion: References to 'cracked the PF-A' in the 'Recorded Sound..' section above refer to a gross distortion which must be due to DSP breakdown - such a sound must be electronically derived - it cannot come from the speakers alone. It occurs on some very loud passages when running on battery power. Some of these transients cause the PF-A to emit an extreme 'cracking' sound like high-voltage arcing - it is so loud that it causes a shock to the listener. This occurred on both PF-As at the loudest points described in the 'Recorded Sound..' section above. I believe that on such transients the audio amplifier tries to draw more current than the battery can deliver, causing a sudden glitch in power which in turn disrupts the DSP. I did not get a chance to record these parts on the PF-As before returning them but I wanted to show that the Max is clean on some difficult parts that trip up the PF-A and possibly some other portable speakers, though I did not witness it on the mm50. Whatever the cause, this is a design defect, just like the cutting out problem.
4. Adjusting speaker volume changes iPod volume: Exactly the same as with the mm50 (above). Yet another design defect that has been carried over across a range of products.
1. There is only one slight quirk I could find with the Max; the upper display panel sometimes takes a while to catch up with what is playing on the iPod. Most of the time it is accurate but occasionally it lags for a while.
Finally... I have no connection at all to Logitech, or to Altec Lansing, or indeed to any other company involved in audio products. I work as a business manager in telecommunications software and my main hobby is astronomy. As mentioned at the beginning, I love music but have no connection with any company involved in music. My reason for putting together this assessment was largely the result of my astonishment at the difficulty in finding a portable iPod player that sounded good and was capable of playing music with some degree of integrity - two very simple demands you may feel - however it took 2 years, copious research, and the purchase of 4 separate products before I finally found one that fulfilled this modest expectation. There should have been no difficulty at all if only some reviewers would stop their obsession with useless personal views on 'aesthetics' and substituted that valuable space with information that might substantially affect actual use of a product!
I hope this helps someone. Please feel free to comment if you wish.