iDesign: The Art of JBL’s iPod Speakers
Gather tiny speakers. Place them inside a plastic box. Put an dock on it and make it shiny. Then quadruple whatever the parts are worth and try to sell it. This recipe for iPod speaker creation—attempted by hundreds of cooks over the past six years—is, in one word, stale. But before it became so passe, it was polished to near-perfection by two companies that defined the iPod speaker market for an entire generation of customers and cloners. One of those companies was JBL.
While JBL may not have invented the idea that speakers could also be pieces of art, the company’s willingness to take bold design risks and sell its work at mainstream prices differentiated it from the boutiquey Bang & Olufsens and the clean but conservative Sonys of the world. First, the company’s multimedia speakers shocked customers with eye-catching shapes, incredible sound quality, and reasonable prices. Then, they evolved into iPod-specific products that redefined the look and feel of digital music player accessories. And ultimately, like Altec Lansing’s early inMotion speakers, they were mercilessly copied so many times over that it became hard to see where JBL’s designs stopped and the knock-offs began.
Our second edition of iDesign explores the iPod speakers of JBL and its brother company Harman Kardon—aesthetically revolutionary and globally appealing products that remain among the finest examples of iPod audio systems as art. As with our first edition, this look at JBL and Harman speakers has been assembled without participation from the companies, and strictly on the merits of the products featured. Enjoy.
B.i.: Before iPod
As hard as it may be to recall, there was a time—not too long ago—when there was no such thing as an iPod-specific speaker system. Multimedia speakers, most often bland beige or black boxes, were sold at computer stores and grudgingly, uneasily connected with mismatched parts to early Apple-built iPod docks, or even to nothing more than the headphone ports of early, dockless iPods. Cambridge Soundworks, eventually acquired by Creative Labs, sold popular, boxy audio systems to complement popular, boxy Windows PCs. Multimedia speakers back then had no style. And though that might have been OK, it certainly wasn’t good.
Remember the gray days of beige- or black-bodied computers and their multimedia accessories?
Harman Kardon took a different approach to speaker creation: design mattered. Even when its early computer speakers were made from matte black plastics, they tended to have curves. Unusual ones, even, that defied audio product conventions and sometimes traditional descriptions. One system’s satellite speakers looked like little exclamation marks, while another’s were shaped like champagne glasses.
Harman’s HK-695 was known as Champagne; its 395 was a popular bundle with Dell PCs
Not all of the Harman designs were art museum-worthy, but some—most notably including the Apple-collaborated iSub, which won gold honors from the Industrial Designers Society of America and Industrial Design Excellence Awards—were featured in MoMA, magazines, and TV shows. The iSub was attributed to Apple’s industrial designers working in conjunction with Harman sound engineers, and eschewed the traditionally opaque plastic or wood enclosure in favor of a completely transparent housing. Widely admired for its beauty but not useful with computers other than early iMacs, iSub and its satellite Soundstick speakers were later repackaged as Soundsticks II, as shown here, becoming one of the company’s best selling and longest lasting multimedia speaker products.
Four-driver Soundsticks were added to Harman’s iSub, winner of major industrial design awards
Over time, the designs completely abandoned multimedia system conventions. A later system’s subwoofer looked like an Imperial Snowtrooper’s helmet from The Empire Strikes Back. Abstract but predictable geometry shifted into hugely rounded, alien-inspired shapes and names, such as Invader, Creature, and Encounter, the latter with alien head satellites and a mothership-shaped subwoofer. But one thing remained constant: regardless of looks or price, the speakers invariably sounded very good, and in most cases great.
The Snowtrooper helmet-shaped Creature subwoofer came with matching satellites
Unlike high-end competitors, Harman sold its speakers at reasonable prices. Duet, an entry-level pair of plastic speakers with fabric grilles, debuted at a suggested price of $60—stores sold the model for street prices of $35 and up. iSub, the award-winning subwoofer, carried a retail price of only $99, while its more complete Soundsticks upgrade version was originally priced at $200. Retail and online stores around the world picked up these models and others, offering them at aggressive prices, a strategy that helped to cement Harman as a formidable competitor on design, quality, and pricing in the multimedia speaker space.
Enter the iPod
Despite Harman’s successful 1999-2000 partnership with Apple on the iSub, no one—not even Apple—was prepared to start designing speakers for the iPod when it was released in 2001. As beautiful as Apple’s products were becoming, they were unquestionably not yet mainstream, and if the market for Mac-specific speakers was small, the demand for iPod-specific versions was even smaller. Yet the earliest iPods, lust-worthy designs that lacked integrated speakers, quickly demanded equally attractive audio hardware. JBL’s existing multimedia speakers were a natural fit.
The Creature II satellites mirrored the chrome and white plastic bodies of full-sized iPods
Creature II, a budget-priced $100 combination of twin satellites and a subwoofer, was an obvious match for the early white and chrome iPods, using wilder curves than Apple’s but highly similar materials, equally polished to a glossy finish. When the iPod gained a curvy, Apple-designed Dock, the Creature system visually matched it, and over time, JBL released a variety of Creature colors—mostly to thrill computer fans, but some iPod-friendly, as well.
Similar design cues influenced On Tour, an affordable portable speaker system
But as spectacular of a value as Creature II was—initially, you couldn’t find anything as well-equipped in the bass department that matched the iPod—a new movement was beginning: the “all-in-one” iPod speaker system. Altec nailed the original concept with inMotion, a fold-up, portable $150 speaker that sounded fine but offered great convenience, and other companies rushed to copy the idea. JBL again went in a different direction. It released a fold-up portable speaker of its own, but left out the iPod dock in favor of a line-in port and a lower $100 price, focusing its dollars on audio quality rather than adding features. This was On Tour, which ran off of wall power or alkaline batteries.
When not in use, On Tour folded up into a small, uniquely curved package with chrome accents
On Tour was accompanied by a more expensive and immediately attention-grabbing alternative, thr $200 On Stage. Shaped like a flying saucer with a hole in the center and iPod dock up front, On Stage unusually mounted its four speaker drivers in a round array pointing outwards rather than in flat stripes pointing forwards. It also incorporated capacitive, touch-sensitive chrome controls on its face, a touch taken from Creature II, which appealed to fans of the iPod’s own touch control surfaces. Its only surprise: despite its small size, it wasn’t portable, like Altec’s inMotions; JBL’s amplifier and speakers demanded wall power, so the unit was designed to sit on a desk.
On Stage was less alien in name than earlier JBL products, but its UFO influences were undeniable
Like inMotion, On Stage “inspired” a shocking number of Asian copycat manufacturers: rounded UFO-like iPod speaker docks began to appear all over the place, sometimes in the same stores that carried JBL’s original products. Each company made token changes to the plastic shell, and typically focused less on sound quality than JBL’s obsessive sound engineers, offering their cheaper-looking, cheaper-sounding alternatives at cheaper prices.
While On Stage brought style to the $200 iPod speaker market, it also inspired cloners in Asia
For its part, JBL opted to revise On Stage multiple times, developing the remote control-laden On Stage II and Universal Dock version On Stage II UD, the finally portable On Stage Micro, and most recently the iPhone-ready On Stage IIIP. Each kept the same general shape, but with small tweaks, including size and additional color options.
Apple Worship: On Time and Radial
While On Tour and On Stage were clearly designed to appeal to inMotion customers, JBL’s most aggressive designs were yet to come. The first, released in early 2006, was On Time.
Breathtaking on first view, On Time still remains one of the finest iPod all-in-one designs
Each of the products’ names suggested what JBL intended they’d be used for. On Tour was the portable, On Stage the desktop home audio system, and On Time something new—a clock radio. A smaller company, iHome, had made a killing with its simple, inexpensive iH5 clock radio, and JBL saw an opportunity to offer something bigger, better, and more beautiful. On Time was it. With a larger base than On Stage, a vivid blue clock, and a vertical circle of speakers that looked like something out of the movie Contact, the silver and white system was a shrine to the iPod inside—gorgeously designed, and thoroughly unlike anything that had come before. It didn’t just match the iPod; On Time glorified it.
Little elements, like the oversized chrome and mesh Snooze button, reeked of class
Even by past standards, the company’s attention to detail was surprising and impressive. A small blue dome light illuminated the iPod underneath. The clock radio inside could set its own time by referencing data found on certain FM stations. And the dual alarms could be set to go off repeatedly every day, only on weekdays, or on weekends.
A blue dome light, hidden inside, illuminated the iPod below, an element found in one later JBL speaker
But On Time had a few serious problems: initially sold for $300—a steep price that only Bose seemed capable of scoring with its SoundDock—it didn’t sound uniformly better than certain less expensive alternatives, particularly in bass, and its clock wasn’t as easy to read on common angles as iHome’s. Despite its fantastic looks, users couldn’t figure out exactly where it fit into their homes, and its lack of a remote control put it at a disadvantage relative to many of its competitors.
Radial repositioned and enhanced On Time’s speaker drivers, then came Radial Micro
So JBL dropped On Time’s price and tried again, releasing Radial, an even bigger, more powerful alternative. Radial used a more powerful amplifier, a down-firing subwoofer and four high- and mid-range drivers rather than the single high-frequency and dual full-range drivers in On Time, improving the system’s range, detail and volume; it also added a remote control to the package. The new design, edgier than On Time’s, was immediately popular with iLounge’s readers; it was later shrunk and cut down for Radial Micro, shown alongside it here.
The Little Details, and the Big Boombox
From product to product, JBL has—like other truly great design companies—remained focused on even the small details. In shrinking Radial down to Radial Micro, the company managed to preserve most of the original device’s best aesthetic features, stripping only the ones that no longer made sense in the smaller package. Chrome stripes at the bottom had served as a stylish base to allow Radial’s down-firing subwoofer to breathe; Micro lost the stripes when it lost the subwoofer. Less noticeable was the absence of On Time and Radial’s dome light in Micro, which was now small enough that its inner top nearly touched a full-sized iPod inside.
Radial Micro (foreground) lost small aesthetic and functional features from the larger Radial
Remote controls, so often forgotten by even aggressive speaker makers, continued to receive attention from JBL’s designers. Initially, the company merely rebranded one of Griffin Technology’s RF remote controls for use with On Stage, but Radial received an all-new remote—one with chrome buttons, JBL-like curves, and a special feature—a button that shifted the buttons from track and play/pause controls into iPod menu navigation features. It would have been easy to just leave the remote boring and plain, but JBL tried to do more without loading its face with buttons or reducing the level of design quality.
JBL’s slick six-button RF remote, developed for Radial, was shared with Harman’s later Go + Play
JBL’s advanced remote found its way into another product, as well. Go + Play was the company’s first and only iPod boombox, released in early 2007—after a number of other companies had taken stabs at making high-volume, easily transportable audio systems with carrying handles. Sold under the Harman Kardon brand name, Go + Play dropped the glossy plastics of most JBL speakers in favor of a matte shell with serious stainless steel accents—massive circular speaker grilles and a huge, wraparound carrying handle that made the system look like an alien invader’s handbag.
ll>Go + Play delivered far better than boombox-quality sound at a much higher-than-boombox price
Despite the Harman name, there was no question that Go + Play was a product of the same minds and hands that created On Tour years earlier. Its metal speaker grilles look like robot or alien eyes, staring out at you as they perform your music, and the enclosure is—like the little On Tour—curved unlike anything seen in an audio product before. But unlike On Tour, it was designed not to compromise: its $350 price tag, combined with its massive 20” width and 9.5” height, put it in a different price and size league than almost all of its all-in-one iPod speaker competitors; it doesn’t fit as easily as a Bose on a bookshelf or table, and its odd dock—top-mounted and lacking protection against the elements—makes it less than ideal to tote around to a beach or pool. Yet it delivers a robust audio experience, and like all of its JBL cousins, is as well-suited to display in a gallery as for its originally intended purpose.
Metal-ringed speakers came to replace alien curves as JBL’s primary design theme, shown here in Spot
As impressive as its alien designs were, On Time, Radial, and Go + Play showed that JBL and Harman were interested in moving away from sci-fi themes into more mainstream, though still ultra-modern designs. That transition continued into its multimedia products as well, as JBL evolved the Creature II into two systems with similarly impressive rounded shapes, but more mainstream appeal. Spot was a slightly audio-diminished, more expensive Creature with swappable body shells, and Spyro used the same audio hardware inside flower-shaped satellite speakers that were designed to appeal to girls. New shells for Spot and colors of Spyro eventually made Creature look comparatively pedestrian, though its sound remained superior to both of the newer models.
From Speakers to Headphones, and What’s Next
With the exception of Go + Play, the past year has been quieter for JBL and Harman on the iPod speaker front: the company spent much of 2007 rolling out iterative versions of On Stage and Radial, while working on JBL-branded consumer earphones that borrowed more from the company’s aesthetics than its sound signatures. A collection of Reference Series headphones, most notably Reference Series 610, saw the Creature satellites transformed into high-tech earcups, while smaller pairs such as Reference 220 and Reference 510 took cues from Harman’s Austria-based headphone brand AKG. New lineups of JBL and AKG headphones are expected in 2008; it’s unclear which, if either, company’s designs will dominate in the years to come.
JBL’s speaker designs, including Creature, inspired its earcup-styled Reference Series headphones
More surprising, however, was the company’s early 2008 iPod speaker lineup: for the first time in years, JBL’s speakers actually became predictable. Rather than preserving their past bold designs, speakers such as Duet, On Stage, and On Time were blurred together by JBL into an unusual new shape that might be described as the base of a flattened, rounded-off pyramid. Duet is dockless, On Stage is clockless, and On Time features a clock radio at center; On Stage and On Time come in 200 and 400 versions with more features and higher price tags. For once, the appeal of the company’s lineup is dependent entirely upon what’s inside the enclosures, rather than what’s outside—could the days of radical JBL iPod speakers be coming to an end?
The 2008 JBL entry-level speaker lineup: Duet, On Stage, and On Time 200
It’s hard to know for certain. Since it first arrived on the iPod accessory scene, JBL has unquestionably brought the iPod accessory market to new heights of design, and in our view, only model-specific pricing and practicality concerns have stood in the way of its greater success. And the window of opportunity is still open for the company to polish its few rough edges; despite plenty of competition on features and price points, the number of beautifully designed iPod speakers still remains low. This, however, will change, especially if JBL’s designs become conventional, or competitors see an opportunity to seize design niches Harman is unwilling to go after. For instance, Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin aimed at a much higher price point than JBL and Harman have angled for in the iPod market, while the aggressively priced Vestalife Ladybug aimed lower, and at younger customers. Either of these speakers could have just as easily been a JBL product.
With similar curves and balances of materials, Vestalife’s Ladybug is heir apparent to JBL’s low-end speaker empire
Yet smart, creatively designed speakers like these don’t always enjoy the sales volumes of more neutrally designed, marketing-heavy products such as the Bose SoundDock—JBL’s 2008 speakers may well be an attempt to see how potential customers respond to less dramatic designs. Perhaps they’ll do well; perhaps they’ll be lost in a crowd of similarly neutral options. In either case, older models such as the classically styled versions of On Stage and Duet will still be found in some stores, allowing consumers to match them with new and old iPods alike.
Duet, the company’s old, low-end multimedia speaker, is still available, and looks good with brand-new iPods
There’s reason to be optimistic. JBL’s design team has a history of repeatedly shocking the world with cool products, so maybe, just maybe, the company is quietly working the kinks out of even more radical speaker shapes and concepts, waiting to use a major new iPod or iPhone announcement as an excuse to share them with the world. We hope that’s the case: as far as iPod speakers are concerned, no company has produced as many knockout designs as JBL. Our ears and eyes are anxiously waiting for whatever might be coming next.
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