Review: JBL On Time 400iHD HD/AM/FM Speaker Dock for iPod
Announced back in January but only recently appearing in stores, the new iPod desktop radio On Time 400iHD ($300) mostly looks like a JBL speaker system. And it mostly sounds like a JBL speaker system. But oddly, it doesn't feel like a JBL speaker system. Completely redesigned from the company's earlier, beautiful On Time, On Time 400iHD loses the elegance that characterized its predecessor, simultaneously employing a more conservative shape and a less intuitive interface for its alarm clock and radio features. The result is an iPod audio system that's merely OK by JBL's past high standards -- a somewhat concerning disappointment heading in to 2009 -- but still above average given its competitors.
It’s worth noting up front that On Time 400iHD is the product of a few zigs and zags in JBL’s iPod accessory history. In name, it’s the sequel to the company’s aforementioned On Time, a stunning desktop clock, radio, and speaker system that looked like a futuristic shrine to the iPod, falling short of expectations mostly on sound quality for its original $300 price tag. Physically, however, it’s the heir apparent to On Stage 200ID, a surprisingly conservative and oddly shaped audio system that debuted earlier this year.
Shown here, On Stage 200ID wrapped a silver fabric speaker grille around a black plastic shell with two buttons and an iPod or iPhone dock on top; it featured no clock or radio functionality. It was a good system for the $150 asking price, but not amazing.
On Time 400iHD is On Stage 200ID, only bigger and more complex. Both units are roughly 14.2” wide, but 400iHD measures 5” deep and 3” tall versus 200ID’s 4.38” depth and 2.5” height. These differences aren’t huge, but they make 400iHD look more substantial, and an array of 14 silver buttons on top versus On Stage 200ID’s 2 and the original On Time’s 11 makes 400iHD feel more intimidating. Similarly, while the original On Time completely lacked a remote, On Stage 400iHD comes packed with a disorientingly complex 21-button Infrared version, loaded with icons, phrases, and shapes. It feels like visual and conceptual overload, a marked and unfortunate change from the company’s prior control schemes. You also get three antennas—two FM, one AM—plus five dock adapters, an auxiliary audio cable, and a power supply in the box.
The most notable visual and functional difference between On Stage 200ID and On Time 400iHD is the presence of a blue-backlit clock and text screen, which interrupts the otherwise silver fabric face. One of the complaints about the original On Time was that its screen was on an odd recline that was hard to see at certain angles and distances. On Time 400iHD has a bigger screen that should be easier to see, but it’s not entirely better. The time is actually smaller, the numbers represented in a less attractive font, and most of the display is now used for text of one sort or another. The date is always displayed below the time, and there are simple, old-fashioned text menus on the screen that are easy to understand but not fun to look at.
While the display is sort of ugly, it does provide entry to functionality that wasn’t found in the original On Time. You can now set multiple alarms—not just two, but many—each with interesting parameters that go beyond even iHome’s well-regarded 7-5-2 (all week, weekday, weekend) settings, including the ability to pick all of these options, plus a one-time only alarm, or a single specific weekday that an alarm should go reoccur on. Each alarm can tap into AM or FM radio channels, the docked iPod, or a buzzer. Unlike the first On Time, you can’t see multiple alarm times on the screen at once; instead, you’re shown whichever alarm is closest to the present time, with digits and a confusing alarm icon that hover above the current time on the clock screen.
We weren’t completely thrilled with JBL’s button-based interface for accessing these features. Though the first On Time had 11 buttons that were more or less obvious in functionality, 400iHD’s 14 are more confusing, apparently in the name of adding more functionality. New to the cluster are HD, TAG, PS, and ZZZ buttons, representing a new HD Radio tuning feature, iTunes Tagging, a screen to let you modify and access five preset stations, and a sleep timer. Separate from the snooze bar, the sleep timer lets you turn off the unit automatically after anything from 5 to 60 minutes, in 5 minute increments; for whatever reason, the unit’s sleep timer setting menu was glitchy in our testing. Because of the way the buttons are spread out on the unit’s top, and on the remote’s face, we found that it was overly difficult to navigate menus and do simple things like changing the speaker’s output modes. Like the first On Time, the 400iHD also lacks audio adjustment features, and depends upon an unusually large number of batteries—three AAAs—to keep its clock running when not connected to wall power.
The most significant new features in 400iHD are probably the HD Radio tuner and iTunes Tagging, which we’ve previously discussed in a feature article and two prior iPod speaker reviews. HD Radio is essentially a digital version of FM or AM radio that depends upon a better antenna and receiver to acquire what could be either a greater quality or quantity of sub-stations linked to existing radio channels. Visit the right channel and an HD logo will appear, letting you know that the radio will attempt to tune in a clearer digital version of the station; if it succeeds, you’ll hear less static in the audio signal, and see text on the screen to indicate the station name and track details for the currently playing audio. You can press the TAG button to save the HD channel’s current track details to the device, and transfer them to certain iPod models for later synchronization and possible purchasing at the iTunes Store.
While we haven’t yet been won over to the value of HD Radio or iTunes Tagging—the first iPod speaker with these features, Polk’s i-Sonic ES2, was an overpriced bust—serious radio fans may like these features. But they’d like them better in Jensen’s earlier, $150 JiMS-525i, which not only includes the same HD Radio functionality, but did better at tuning stations during our testing.
We tried On Time 400iHD with both of its included antennas, one bipolar and the other unipolar, and as is unfortunately all but mandatory for HD Radio tuners, gave the antennas plenty of access to nearby windows so that they’d actually be able to locate HD stations. When both JiMS-525i and On Time were equipped with their bipolar antennas, the Jensen unit did a better job of picking up HD channels. Both were quick to acquire HD versions of stations when they found them, but on certain stations, On Time didn’t see the HD version as readily as the Jensen with its bipolar antenna; it was, however, on par with JiMS-525i at finding stations when we connected On Time’s single-pole antenna. Unfortunately, the JBL unit was more likely to lose an HD signal mid-stream, regardless of the antenna we tested; we saw the signal warble and sometimes drop out on stations it was initially having trouble acquiring. In simple summary, the less expensive JiMS-525i did a better job with HD Radio tuning; we’d also give it a slight edge on standard AM and FM radio tuning.
What does this mean, practically? When On Time 400iHD is unable to see HD stations, it uses the base FM version of the station, typically increasing static, reducing sound quality, and losing iTunes Tagging capability. Additionally, since the JiMS-525i is able to display RDS text data from non-HD channels, there’s a greater chance that you’ll see some sort of text on the Jensen display than on the On Time screen. On the flip side, JBL’s screen—which we didn’t like much as a clock—does display more text without scrolling than the Jensen screen. In other words, if it does tune in an HD station, you’ll like what you see on the On Time screen more, but you’ll probably prefer the listening experience on the JiMS-525i.
That leaves only one dimension of On Time 400iHD’s performance undiscussed: its speakers. JBL has used a pair of 1.375” Phoenix drivers—the same ones found in On Stage 200ID—and apparently, a little more amplification power, 24 Watts versus 20 Watts. We say apparently because we’ve seen the specifications, but in practice, the 200ID and 400iHD sound the same, even at their peak volume levels. Our prior comments on 200ID’s audio can be read here. These are fine-sounding audio systems, but not the best we’ve heard for the On Stage’s $150 asking price, let alone for On Time 400iHD’s $300 one. It bears mention that the original On Time included two Phoenix drivers and one Ridge tweeter, the latter item left out of the new model; between this and the enclosure changes, On Time 400iHD loses a bit of both the high- and low-end performance of its predecessor. Especially given the strong $300 iPod audio system competitors out there these days, including Logitech’s Pure-Fi Elite, we’d expect better than a two-speaker array from On Time 400iHD for the price.
There is only one other thing to mention about On Time 400iHD: its device compatibility. Unlike the original On Time, which used FireWire charging, 400iHD uses USB charging and therefore both charges and plays audio from 2008 iPod models, as well as most of their predecessors. However, On Time 400iHD does not officially support either the iPhone or iPhone 3G, unlike On Stage 200ID. This is an iPod-only audio system, unless you’re willing to risk audio interference.
Overall, On Time 400iHD is a disappointing sequel to one of our very favorite iPod audio systems. It jettisons a stunning, only slightly flawed industrial design in favor of a more plain one, adds new features but also too much complexity, and retains a price tag that isn’t justified by its overall performance. We know with absolute certainty that JBL knows how to build both impressive $300 audio systems and revolutionary-looking iPod speakers. Unfortunately, On Time 400iHD falls short of the company’s past high standards, and we’re hoping to see better in 2009.