The iPhone dock is dead. Despite all the fuss surrounding iPod-iPhone-iPad docks over the past few years, it was inevitable that the very notion of sitting apart from a beloved phone would be the genre’s downfall (as well as the arrival of the “too big to dock” iPad), and at last we’re seeing an influx of wireless speaker systems like this one from Altec Lansing.
Small - just 33cm across - and weighing just 450g, the iMW725 is fully portable, with a built-in rechargeable battery. The wireless speaker sector was revitalised by Apple’s own AirPlay standard, notable largely because of its capability with streaming lossless music files, but that’s not on offer from the iMW725. Instead, it relies on the much lower-spec Bluetooth technology; even then, the iMW725 will only playback tunes streamed from your smartphone if it’s compatible with the stereo-capable A2DP protocol. Happily, most are, and the absence of Apple AirPlay is a veritable bonus for anyone with a non-Apple gadget.
The disadvantage is that Bluetooth isn't exactly renowned for delivering high quality audio. With that in mind, Altec Lansing has fitted this product with apt-X Bluetooth technology, which, it claims, delivers “CD quality audio” - though only if your device is capable of sending it in that format. Apple’s Mac Book Pro is, though most laptops and PCs will require the Apt-X USB dongle included with the iMW725. Apt-X is increasingly being used on the current generation of Bluetooth speakers, receivers and headphones, and claims to offer low latency and high quality from compressed music files.
For devices that don't have a USB slot to take the apt-X dongle, Waves' Maxx audio algorithms are used within the iMW725 itself to nudge sound quality up a notch or two.
Altec Lansing claims this unit can receive a wireless stream from a phone up to 10 metres away, and in our test that proved about right, but that’s not all the iMW725 can manage. Using the Apt-X USB dongle in the box it's possible not just to stream in lossless quality to the unit from a PC or Mac desktop or laptop, but from as far away as 100 metres. Since the unit can manage north of 5 hours playback without mains power, that could come in handy.
Use that dongle and a really high-end feature comes into play: multi-room music. Once the reserve of custom installations, and more recently on pricey products from Sonos or Naim, a couple of iMW725’s can serve the same purpose (albeit in a non-extendable rudimentary manner). Great for a house party, with a more cost effective solution being to wire-up a laptop to an existing hi-fi for one room while simultaneously streaming to a iMW725 in another; to make this easy, the apt-X USB dongle also boasts an analogue line output. There’s also an auxiliary button just below the iMW725’s function buttons for hooking-up any external audio device.
The product itself has a rather retro feel, with a soft-to-the-touch grey plastic finish, though the moulded carry handle and a detachable remote control (which clicks into place on the unit’s rear) are nice touches on this thoroughly solid, well made product.
From an iPhone (over regular Bluetooth without apt-X) we streamed some tracks off REM’s “Collapse Into Now” album to the iMW725, with great results. Totally reliable, the built-in speakers somehow manage to dredge out a thoroughly decent amount of low frequency sound, with some excellent detail and stereo imaging, to boot. An “ESS” button on the remote creates an oddly effective soundstage where Michael Stipe’s vocals appear to be placed behind the instrumentation, though this is where bass is at its tightest and most profound. The same tunes pumped into the iMW725 from a netbook fitted the apt-X dongle produced a sound with noticeably less hiss and bags of detail, though it’s presence or otherwise shouldn't be a deal breaker unless the 100m distance is crucial to you; the Waves Maxx Audio codec puts in a fine performance with standard Bluetooth audio.
Bluetooth’ed straight to the iMW725 from an iMac (again, without apt-X at work), Radiohead’s “Morning Mr Magpie” - stored on iTunes as a 47.3MB WAV file - sounds fabulous and significantly better than some MP3s compressed to 320kbps, though even 128kbps files remain highly listenable.
The maker of both the first iPod docking station and “Works with iPhone” speaker system has turned its back on the latest AirPlay spec to configure its own Bluetooth-based wireless speaker - and it’s an absolute steal. Carefully thought-out and fine-tuned, it’s the iMW725’s abilities as a two-room audio system we like best, though it’s the generally impressive sound quality on this everyman wireless solution that scores it victory. Who needs cables, docks or even apps?