IPod Streamer Offers Cheap Alternative to Sonos
The scoop: Octiv Air (M812), by Altec Lansing, about $400 (basic set, additional speakers cost $300).
What it is: The M812 base package of the Octiv Air wireless speaker system includes an iPod docking station that acts as a transmitter, and one stereo speaker (40 watts per channel, two channels) that acts as a receiver. In addition to the iPod slot, the docking station has an FM radio receiver, as well as an auxiliary port for connecting non-iPod devices, such as a portable CD player or other MP3 player. You can add a second stereo speaker (about $300 through the Altec Lansing Web site), then flip a switch for one to act as the "left" speaker, and the other as the "right" speaker. The docking station also can recharge the iPod when it's docked.
The system uses proprietary 802.11-based wireless technology to stream the music from the base station to the speaker -- Altec Lansing says it has a range of 100 feet. A remote control includes buttons for volume, mute, bass, treble, play/pause and next/last track, and six presets for the FM radio.
Why it's cool: The system is designed for users who would like to separate the location of their iPod from the speaker portion -- the tiny docking station can sit on a desk, but the speaker can be wall-mounted or placed higher up on a bookshelf, for example. In addition, the system can be expanded with extra speakers. The docking station supports audio streaming to as many as eight speakers. Only one song can be streamed to the multiple speakers, however; unlike other multi-room systems, you can't play multiple songs to different rooms in the house.
I tested the system in the office, and the wireless range was very good. In two locations (separating the transmitter and the speaker by 75 feet and about 100 feet), I could connect the system wirelessly and hear the music without any delay. This included going through several office walls, so I have no doubt that in most homes, the wireless range wouldn't be a problem.
Some caveats: The system doesn't officially support the iPhone, but in my tests I was able to stream audio from the iPhone to the wireless speaker. Unfortunately, the recharging capability doesn't apply to the iPhone; it works only with iPod models. I could still stream audio from such music services as Slacker and Pandora on my iPhone, but going over the 3G or Wi-Fi network would drain the battery eventually (I use my iPhone with other speaker systems that also can recharge the battery while using those services).
At $400, the initial cost of the system may seem steep for the benefits of having a wireless streaming system. If being able to play music in one location and have the music emanate from another location appeals to you, this is a very impressive system and worth a look. In addition, this might be an affordable way (compared to more expensive multi-room systems, such as Sonos) to approach multi-room audio if you're not worried about playing multiple songs but just want the same song appearing everywhere.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five).