Review: JBL OnBeat Micro
In the weeks leading up to Apple's official announcement of the iPhone 5, developers contacted us to voice a concern: everyone knew that the nine-year-old Dock Connector was about to be replaced with a smaller alternative, but Apple hadn't disclosed anything about the new standard -- an issue compounded by limited supplies of the connectors, such that third-party accessories supposedly wouldn't be available in time for the holidays. But a few companies received special assistance from Apple, and began to promise that a limited number of Lightning accessories would become available just before the end of the year. JBL notably was the first speaker maker to officially announce a Lightning docking audio accessory, OnBeat Micro ($100), which arrived in our offices just before the end of November, and is already heading to Apple Stores at press time.
Though the product name is new, OnBeat Micro is actually a resculpted version of On Stage Micro, a small portable system that changed from a circular dish to a weave-styled version across three iterations, all retaining the same $100 price and basic features: two speakers, a small top-mounted charging dock, a wall adapter, and remote control. Notably, each iteration of On Stage Micro trimmed a little to stay at the same price; by the time On Stage Micro III arrived in late 2010, it had lost its carrying case while gaining more distinctive styling, and now OnBeat Micro has gone a step further, dropping the remote control. As a result, it ships with nothing more than a wall adapter. Black or white versions are available.
The most obvious changes to OnBeat Micro are in the industrial design, which is now a roughly 7” wide by 5.5” deep rounded pyramid with its top chopped off at the 2” mark, featuring a deeply recessed dock in the center with a flexible Lightning connector poking upwards. It’s surely not coincidental that the spring-loaded flex joint containing the Lightning plug is the same size as a classic Dock Connector—a hint that this was originally planned to be released with the older plug—but it’s worth noting that JBL did not take the time to redesign the Lightning connector with case compatibility in mind. Since the bottom of the metal plug sits flush with the plastic, most iPhone and iPod cases won’t work with it; you’ll need to find a case with a wide-open or flip-open bottom, such as Speck’s CandyShell Flip, if you want to use an encased device with OnBeat Micro. While the recessed dock is considerably wider that the iPhone 5 and all Lightning-equipped iPods, it’s not big enough to accommodate the iPad mini or full-sized iPad; JBL does include both 3.5mm audio and USB ports on the back, should you want to use the system with those or other devices.
Other tweaks are worth noting, too. On a positive note, JBL’s new power and volume buttons are both tactile and obviously mounted in front of the dock, making it easier to turn on the system and change the amplitude at will. JBL has also redesigned the battery compartment for quick access: you can use a small finger to pop the unit’s rubber-edged bottom off in one gesture, rather than needing to twist anything. Unfortunately, the four AAA batteries you have to self-supply now promise only five hours of play time versus up to 24 in the On Stage Micro family. If you buy this model, you’ll probably want to keep the wall adapter around.
Sonically, OnBeat Micro has a lot in common with JBL’s outstanding Flip, which won our Speaker and Accessory of the Year Awards for 2012. They actually sound nearly identical to one another at most volume levels, which is to say delivering a very respectable balance of bass, midrange, and treble for a very small speaker. OnBeat Micro’s peak volume level is surprisingly a little lower than Flip’s, falling short of being able to fill a small room.
While OnBeat Micro’s relatively low list price excuses some of its omissions, there are some problems with that level of sonic performance in this model. Start with the fact that Flip occupies around half the physical volume and modestly outperforms the newer model—couldn’t something as large as OnBeat Micro have sounded better, given JBL’s heritage in audio engineering? Add to that OnBeat Micro’s omission of the speakerphone and rechargeable battery functionality found in Flip, and its completely wired usage paradigm, whereas Flip offers Bluetooth wireless compatibility with almost every iOS device, including older models and every iPad. Flip is easier to carry, sounds better, does more, and works with more devices. Who would prefer OnBeat Micro at the same price?
There’s only one answer: someone who really needs the Lightning docking functionality built into OnBeat Micro, and is willing to pay a premium to get it. For all of its great battery, wireless, and speakerphone features, Flip doesn’t have any sort of device docking or charging capability, so if you’re looking for a way to prop your new iPhone or iPod up and keep it fueled, perhaps this unit will appeal to you. However, it’s hard to see where the extra value is with this model, relative to the last On Stage; OnBeat Micro receives a lower rating for that reason. Now that it’s been stripped of its remote control, carrying case, and other frills, it doesn’t deliver as much value as the prior units, and should be sold at a commensurately lower price. Until and unless the price of Lightning connector-equipped speakers comes down to match prior Dock Connector-based ones, or become competitive with ever-improving wireless options, most users will be better off with the far more capable Flip or other Bluetooth solutions, instead.