Review: JBL Radial High Performance Loudspeaker Dock for iPod
Pros: An attractive, shrine-like all-in-one iPod docking speaker system that roughly rivals Altec’s class-leading iM7 on sound quality and volume, with a RF remote control capable of 35-foot uninterrupted broadcasting and near-distance iPod menu navigation. Rich sound and overall power best Bose’s Sounddock and lower-performing competitors; size is more manageable than larger, heavier iM7. Available in black and white versions.
Cons: No user customization of bass or treble levels, and otherwise roughly equivalent to the less expensive, equally attractive iM7 on audio performance. Though similar to company’s earlier On Time in looks and still impressive in that regard, not quite as mindblowing visually. Review sample had reversed left and right audio channels, an issue that we’re told has been eliminated in units shipped to U.S. consumers.
This past January, we saw the most attractive iPod speaker dock ever developed, and by February, we had reviewed it: judged by its curves alone, JBL’s clock radio On Time (iLounge rating: B+) would be at the very top of our iPod speaker list. But On Time had three notable issues: first, at $300, it was hard-pressed to top the audio performance of leading systems such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-); second, it lacked a remote control - now mandatory in over-$150 iPod speakers, and included with some less expensive ones; and third, its integrated clock was nice, but not as easily viewable as in competing iPod clock radios. Following our review, JBL dropped On Time’s price to $250, and only hinted that something similar with a remote might appear in the future.
Witness JBL’s new Radial ($300), a spiritual follow-up of sorts to On Time: both systems use the same innovative, eye-catching “circle of sound” design theme, but where the 10-inch by 10-inch On Time focuses on its clock and looks, the slightly taller (10.5-inch), wider (12-inch) Radial emphasizes sound quality, power, and remote control. In each system, your iPod sits inside a large, shrine-like circular dock, with a large metal speaker grille running in a near-circle above the iPod and off to its sides, but Radial’s grille faces forward, contrasting with On Time’s top-mounted one, which looked better but didn’t project sound towards you. Both systems are available in glossy white or black plastic versions that match the colors of today’s iPods and nanos.
Design and Pack-in Changes: The Basics
Audio aside for a moment, the changes between the two units aren’t trivial, but they’re not earthshaking, either. In the “same song” category, JBL has preserved the Universal Dock found on On Time, as well as its front-mounted volume controls, now situating them to the front left and right of the dock. They’re pressure-sensitive rather than capacitive, and work reliably. Surprisingly, the company has even kept On Time’s interior blue dome light, though Radial’s is much dimmer, and can’t be adjusted in brightness.
But in addition to moving the power button from the front to the rear - something we didn’t like as much, JBL has changed the rear ports on Radial: gone is the pass-through iPod Dock Connector port for iPod synchronization, replaced with a standard USB port. Thankfully, the company now includes a USB cable to let you take advantage of the feature with ease. Similarly gone are the “sub(woofer) out” and “AM antenna” ports from On Time, replaced with an S-Video out port if you want to use Radial with a TV for iPod photo or video output. There’s still an auxiliary audio input port and matching cable to let you connect the speakers to non-docking iPods and non-iPod audio devices.
Two more interesting changes relate to Apple’s Universal Dock standard. On Time included its own dock adapters, properly color-keyed to the system’s body, but our black Radial unit didn’t - the first change. Instead, JBL included a sheet full of stickers - the second change - designed to adapt Apple’s official Dock Adapters to match the color of the speakers. While we can’t call this preferable to receiving properly colored adapters, and remain surprised that there were no adapters in the box at all, it’s a novel solution that we’d expect to see duplicated by companies with less adapter manufacturing acumen, tighter budgets, or lower price points.
Design Changes: The Audio
Under the hood, JBL’s changes are more substantial. In On Time, JBL used a Ridge tweeter, two full-range drivers, and 24 watts of total amplification to create sound that was good - if not particularly bass-rich - at normal listening levels, but fell victim to distortion at higher volumes. The design was more than adequate for a clock radio, but not up to snuff on power with Altec’s iM7. Radial does away with all of those limitations. It wholly removes the base-mounted clock from On Time, replacing it with a down-firing 3-inch subwoofer and considerably more powerful 60 watt amplifier system. On Time’s two full-range Phoenix drivers have been replaced by four full-range Odyssey drivers, and there’s no dedicated tweeter any more. Instead, the new subwoofer provides ample bass, and enables the system to reach higher volume levels without low-end distortion.
As you might expect, that led to mostly good news in our comparative audio tests. In most regards, Radial rivals Altec’s inMotion iM7, which as we’ve previously noted bests Bose’s popular SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+) in virtually every audio category. Only a hair lower in maximum amplitude than the iM7, Radial’s top volume level is still ear-splittingly loud - enough to more than fill a room - and has comparably low bass and treble distortion at its peak. Additionally, thanks to very low amplifier noise, Radial sounds at least as good at low to normal listening levels. It’s as good from 10 inches away as it is from 10 feet, a factor we consider to be increasingly important these days.
Volume aside, we affirmatively liked how Radial sounded. Like the SoundDock but unlike the iM7, JBL has chosen to take equalization entirely out of the user’s hands, opting for a dynamically adjusting balance that leans warm - the way that average listeners prefer - and does sound nice. Though the iM7 has a bigger, side-firing subwoofer, Radial’s delivers enough bass and stands up so well that few people would know the difference; you’d need to move up to a significantly larger (or less balanced) system to get much better bass performance than either of these options. Similarly, despite its lack of a dedicated tweeter, we didn’t find its treble response to be objectionable, though high-end was not as prominent here as in many other JBL systems.
There were only a handful of negatives in Radial’s audio performance. First, unlike many of JBL’s pre-iPod speakers, and competitors such as the iM7, Radial offers no independent bass and treble controls, so if you don’t like the unit’s warm leanings, or prefer to tweak the treble or drive your bass up to the point of distortion, you can’t do so. Second, though Radial’s is generally stable at 2.5 pounds of weight, its down-firing subwoofer is capable of slightly - yes, slightly, on a millimeter level - shaking the system on a flat surface. Don’t expect Radial to topple off of a table by any means, but don’t expect the solidity of a 10-pound iM7, either.
Third, though our review unit otherwise sounded fine, it arrived with reversed left and right speaker channels, an issue JBL has assured us has already been remedied in units shipped to stores for U.S. consumers. Based on numerous positive past experiences with the company, we take its word that this issue won’t affect our readers, but reserve the right to adjust our rating (to a B- and limited recommendation) if it does. Fourth and finally, there’s the price-to-performance issue, which we’ll address in the value and conclusions section below.
The “Up to 20 Feet” RF Remote
In addition to providing a system capable of high-volume output, JBL thankfully provides a safe way for you to crank the volume up from a distance. In the package is a distinctive-looking six-button remote control that has been marketed under-aggressively by JBL as possessing a broadcasting distance of “up to 20 feet away,” which would be normal for an Infrared remote control, but an unusually short distance for a RF (radio frequency) remote like Radial’s. In our testing, the remote actually worked reliably from an uninterrupted distance of 35 feet away before failing, which is still weak by RF standards, but considerably better than that of the iM7, and a bit better than the SoundDock, Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi (iLounge rating: B), and similarly competent IR-based competitors. Unlike systems with IR remotes, it’s not limited to working only in Radial’s line-of-sight, so you’ll be able to use it from a room away, but don’t expect that it will work through more than one wall, or through floors.
JBL’s also done something very distinctive and unexpected with the remote, which we discovered only when we noticed that the box included explanatory stickers (one English, one French) to help you understand its features. It turns out that there are six buttons on the remote’s face - one a square, and the other five similar to iPod track, volume, and play/pause buttons. It you want to use the remote in this simple, iPod shuffle-esque mode, you can, and a tiny light on the remote glows blue with every button press. But if you hit the square button - Mode - the light turns red, and the remote’s buttons access iPod menu commands (scroll up, down, menu up, and action), allowing you to navigate the iPod’s screen without reaching into the dock to touch it.
Our general feeling is that today’s iPods have screens and fonts small enough that the typical speaker dock user won’t benefit tremendously from remote controlled navigation features - the ability to go up or down in lists of artists, genres, playlists or the like is pretty much dependent on either keen vision or memory. But we do very much like the fact that JBL came up with an easy way to add this feature without radically increasing the number of remote control buttons, and hope that it will see better application in the future.
Value and Conclusions
Ultimately, the single biggest factor keeping Radial from our high recommendation is three characters long: iM7. In the year that has passed since Altec released its breakthrough tube-like speaker system, literally no company has been able to match its combined looks, audio performance, and value for the dollar, and as its street price has continued to fall close to the $150 mark, our opinion of its merits has continued to rise. At a $300 price point, there is literally only one way in which Radial convincingly outperforms the iM7, and that’s in the remote control department, while iM7 offers equivalent sound quality, user customizable equalization, battery powered portability, and a more than modestly lower price point. True, it’s wider and heavier, but Radial’s taller and deeper. If we had to pick one, we’d still pick Altec here.
However - and this is a big however - Radial’s biggest competitor in retail stores is still Bose’s massively successful Sounddock, and to the extent that you want to compare only these two systems to each other, there’s no doubt that Radial is the better of the two. It delivers iM7-like audio quality in a Sounddock-sized package that’s better-looking and more powerful than Bose’s stark wall of sound, plus more versatile thanks to its greater array of rear ports and superior remote control. They - and JBL’s earlier On Time - might share the same overall iLounge rating, but our message should be clear: pick Radial if you want the best sound and remote, SoundDock if you love the Bose name or need something physically shorter, and On Time if your chief concerns are looks, price or clock radio performance, and you don’t need a remote or high-volume audio. It would hard to go wrong with any of these options - the only question is which features are important to you.
Editors’ Note: JBL has subsequently released a smaller version of Radial called Radial Micro, shown above, and reviewed separately here.