Altec Lansing XT1 Speaker System
Developer: Altec Lansing
Price: $130 (list); $50–$100 (street)
Requirements: Mac OS X, Mac with USB
It’s no great secret that the built-in speakers on most laptops—even such aural tours de force as the PowerBook 3400 with its built-in subwoofer—are at best adequate for occasional use. If you’re trying to give a multimedia presentation or use your laptop as a mobile alarm clock/jukebox, you’re very familiar with just how bad those built-in speakers are. As a result, lots of folks have begun using portable (or semi-portable) speaker systems for this purpose.
Of course, portable speakers are nothing new. I can remember a pair of speakers some kid brought in to school back in about fifth grade so we could all listen to his Walkman on the bus. The problem with most portable speakers is that they’re either unpowered, making them little better than the built-in speakers they’re intended to supplement, or they’re bulky, rendering them rather non-portable.
Altec Lansing has attempted to solve both problems with their USB-powered XT1 portable speaker system, and for the most part, they’ve succeeded pretty well. The XT1 is essentially a repackaged version of their various inMotion portable speaker/dock iPod accessories, but unlike the inMotion line, the XT1 is targeted at laptop users.
These attractive stereo speakers come in their own carrying case, which also holds two sets of USB cables—a nifty retractable cable and a more standard cable—and the removable speaker stands. The case is 8.5" × 7" × 2" with two internal dividers and a small pocket for easy sorting of the various cables. The only complaint about the case is that it’s just a hair too small; it needs to be about half an inch wider.
As with most USB speakers, no drivers are required. Simply connect everything in accordance with the included pictoral quick-start guide and ensure that the speakers are selected as the output device in the Sound preference pane. Volume control can be achieved either via the OS or via the buttons on the side of the right-hand speaker unit, which also features a power button (to mute the speakers or turn them off when they’re not needed) and a standard 3.5-mm stereo mini-jack input. The input seems to be a fairly useless feature, as you can’t get any sound out of the speakers at all unless USB power is provided. The only real use for this port would be if you have a laptop old enough to support USB but not USB audio.
The speakers sound pretty darn good. As you’d expect, the midrange and treble response is excellent, making for top-notch voice quality. After all, these are the same drivers in Altec’s FX6021 satellites and the various inMotion products. The downside, of course, is that there’s no subwoofer, making bass response fairly weak. It’s still far superior to the bass response of the built-in speakers on a 15" AlBook, and the XT1 takes full advantage of the USB power, delivering a much cleaner, louder signal without distortion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the XT1 exhibits none of the high-frequency hiss that plagues the otherwise-superb FX6021 desktop system. The USB input is a digital input, not an analog one, which prevents electrical noise in the circuitry in the absence of a signal. Altec would do well to note this advantage and apply the knowledge to the rest of their product line where practical.
Some of the other industrial design decisions are a bit questionable. The dark grey plastic border doesn’t match any modern computers (Mac or PC) and it looks rather cheap, especially on a pair of $130 speakers. As mentioned above, the stereo input is nearly worthless. I would rather Altec spend that dollar on matching silver plastic or even brushed aluminum bases. Interestingly, the included stereo patch cable (for that useless input) has very high quality, machined, gold-plated metal connectors. On the plus side, Altec very sensibly put the blue LED power indicator behind the speaker grille, greatly muting its brightness, which is a serious problem on the FX6021 system’s control pod.
The $130 MSRP on these speakers is, to be blunt, ridiculous. They’re great speakers, but they aren’t worth $130. Fortunately, street prices (via Froogle) are 25–60% lower.
There are a multitude of sub-$100 speaker systems out there, including several from Altec Lansing. The singular feature that sets apart the XT1 is its portability. Without a subwoofer, they’re not a serious contender in the crowded desktop speaker market, and they’re not intended to be. For the mobile professional who needs a relatively powerful but very compact pair of speakers to toss in the briefcase for presentations, these speakers do the job admirably.
Also in This Series
- Altec Lansing FX6021 Speaker System · July 2005
- Altec Lansing XT1 Speaker System · July 2005