Review: JBL On Stage 200ID
Pros: The second fully iPhone-compatible speaker system, offering a combination of very good out-of-box audio quality and clean design in a form factor that seems to fit almost anywhere. While compatible with past iPods, contains shielding to avoid interference from iPhones and other wireless devices, performing audio without requiring the iPhone’s Airplane Mode or exhibiting the screeching noises associated with its cell phone functionality. Superior bass performance to prior On Stage designs, and superb equalization makes all songs sound “right” without user adjustment. Includes Infrared remote control with iPod menu and standard controls, audio input and cable for use with a computer or non-iPod devices.
Cons: Shared with other upcoming speaker models, functional cosmetic design won’t wow some fans of past JBL iPod speakers. Peak volume performance offers very good sound but not as much amplitude or user-adjustability as competing, same-priced devices. Unusual power button location is also absent from remote. Eleventh-hour omission of USB port makes it ineligible to serve as a computer dock for iPods or iPhones.
Given JBL’s storied history of breathtaking industrial design, we were not initially taken by the look of On Stage 200ID ($150), the second official “Works with iPhone” speaker on the market, and the most affordable. As noted in our iDesign feature on JBL, On Stage’s iconic, inspirational donut shape has given way to something different—a 14” long, 4” deep and 2.5” tall dock that looks like someone cut the top two-thirds off of a flattened, rounded-off pyramid—and surprisingly, this shape has been carried through to two other JBL product lines, Duet and On Time, as well. Is the company going crazy, or perhaps just overly conservative?
As it turns out, the answer is no. Despite whatever misgivings we might have had about its shape in a display case, when it entered our home and office testing environments, On Stage 200ID turned to be a very practical option, blending right in to various rooms with differing decor. With a metallic looking fabric speaker grille wrapped around its body and glossy black plastic at its top and bottom, it’s not as stunning as the company’s circular Radial series, but it is unquestionably part of the same family; the major difference is its physical versatility. Unlike prior On Stage systems, which at 6”-7” deep needed to occupy the corner of a desk or nightstand, 200ID’s frame seems to fit anywhere. If there’s no iPhone or iPod in its dock, it can sit in front of or under a computer monitor, connecting to a desktop or laptop through an integrated audio port and an included cable.
It also displaces larger clock radios we’ve tested, in the process offering better sound. Though the technical details of JBL’s changes might bore some readers, it suffices to say that On Stage 200ID has changed a lot under the hood from earlier On Stage units, swapping four small drivers and a 12-Watt amplifier for two bigger drivers, a 20-Watt amplifier, and a better bass chamber. The consequence is that the newer model has decidedly better bass performance, remedying the lone audio criticism that is occasionally levied at JBL’s all-in-one audio products, but also surprisingly doesn’t give up much in the treble department: the company has used a digital signal processor and smart equalization settings to make the most of its speakers, with only one limitation, namely that you aren’t given bass or treble controls. No matter what song we picked, On Stage 200ID sounded dynamic, lively, and warm—very good overall—right out of the box; however, its lack of dedicated extra drivers for bass or treble mean that if you need something with more high- or low-end power, you’ll need to pick another option.
How does On Stage 200ID compare with the first Works With iPhone speaker, Altec Lansing’s T612 (iLounge rating: B)? The answer’s somewhat complex. On Stage 200ID is a decidedly simpler system, featuring nothing more than top-mounted volume controls and a rear power button, sitting 5.5” shorter than T612, and possessing both smaller and fewer drivers. T612’s remote has fewer buttons, eliminating the iPod menu navigation and mute controls found on 200ID’s remote, while preserving the track, volume, and play/pause controls, and adding bass, treble, and power buttons missing from JBL’s design. These latter buttons aren’t trivial: they let you tweak the audio more to your preference, and completely turn T612 off, while On Stage requires you to reach around to its back and press a power button. From an interface standpoint, which you’ll prefer will depend on whether you value iPod menu control over bass and treble controls and a power switch.
Sonically, the differences are somewhat surprising. Thanks to its superb equalization and high-quality drivers, On Stage 200ID sounds a lot bigger than it looks, and continues to sound excellent even at its peak, medium-sized-room-filling volume. T612 sounds generally like what you’d expect from its size and its three times more powerful amplifier—it can get much louder than the 200ID—but its sound becomes more distorted, particularly in the bass, as it gets louder. Similarly, while you can tweak the bass and treble settings to extend beyond 200ID’s capabilities in both regards, a feature we generally like, they don’t improve T612’s overall sound as much as in the best such adjustable speakers we’ve tested. As we noted in T612’s review, its out of box sound is “good” for the price and becomes a bit better with tweaking, but 200ID’s out of box sound is very good for the price and untweakable. Neither system blew us away, but unless you need high-volume sound and are willing to make some sonic compromises to get it, 200ID will make a better first and second impression, and of course, it sells for a lower price.
iPhone performance is the same in both units: neither one exhibits TDMA interference at any time when the iPhone is docked or sitting nearby, and you can dock the iPhone without needing to turn on Airplane Mode to disable its phone and other wireless features. Both systems follow Apple’s protocol when calls come in, enabling the device to perform its ringer through their speakers and vibrate inside the integrated dock. To actually take a call, you need to use a Bluetooth headset or pull the phone from the system, as no microphone or other speakerphone capabilities are included in either Altec’s or JBL’s design. We’re still hoping to see someone develop a device that handles everything from audio to speakerphone calling in a single enclosure, but for now, these are the options we have.
The only major omissions from On Stage 200ID are ones that may or may not matter to you. Unlike some of the company’s other recent On Stage systems, including the iPod-only On Stage Micro and the iPhone-ready On Stage IIIP, 200ID runs only off of wall power with its included adapter, not batteries. And, contrary to some of the marketing materials that are still online, 200ID does not feature a USB port to let you synchronize your iPhone or iPod with a nearby computer. Normally, we wouldn’t care too much about the absence of a USB port on a speaker, but given how impacted our computer speakers have been by iPhone interference, this would have been a great way to replace them and our iPhone Dock all in one swoop.
Overall, On Stage 200ID is a decidedly better all-in-one speaker than we would have expected after seeing it for the first time, possessing the charming ability to fit pretty much wherever you want to use it, and audio quality that surpasses its same-named predecessors. While it’s possible to find same-priced iPod speakers with better overall sound quality, On Stage 200ID’s iPhone compatibility, as well as its performance for its size, make it a seriously worthwhile option for iPhone and space-conscious users.