Review: JBL Radial Micro Superior Loudspeaker Dock for iPod
Over the past couple of years, the JBL name has become synonymous with "cool-looking iPod speakers," and for good reason: its somewhat esoteric alien-inspired designs evolved into mainstream, gender-agnostic round and semi-round speaker docks. Our first introduction to the company's heightened design potential came in the form of On Time, a beautiful clock radio, which was followed by Radial, a more powerful speaker system without the clock radio features. Both systems debuted at a $300 price point -- a bit too high given their overall sound quality, made somewhat understandable only since they looked like works of art.
JBL’s new Radial Micro is designed to bring Radial’s design to the masses, trimming out some of the size, weight, and audio performance to hit a $150 price level. Micro’s width and height fall from 12” by 10.5” to 8.5” by 7.75”, and its central iPod dock now has just enough room inside for a full-sized iPod; the prior model’s blue dome light has disappeared. So has Radial’s 3-inch subwoofer and 60-watt amplification package, leaving Radial Micro with four similar full-range Odyssey drivers and only 20 watts of power, a hint under the older, larger On Time. You still get an audio cable and power supply, along with eight Dock Adapters for various iPod models. The Adapters match the Radial Micro, which now comes in either black or white.
Other changes are less obvious. Micro keeps Radial’s Universal Dock and dock-side chrome volume buttons, rear power switch, and ports for audio-in, video-out, and USB synchronization. But Micro’s video-out port drops S-Video in favor of a minijack-style AV-out connector. The remote’s also shifted from the six-button RF design of Radial to a 10-button Infrared controller with nearly identical features. Micro’s extra buttons permit you to navigate iPod menus, mute the system, change volume, tracks, and play/pause status without consulting an instruction sticker—a minor issue with the earlier Radial remote.
In raw performance, the new remote is fine, not spectacular. The Radial remote was weak by RF standards, working from around 35 feet without needing to be in a direct line of sight from the speaker system. Radial Micro’s requires a straight line of sight, and works reliably from around 20 feet away. With the exception of its improved iconography, it’s functional- and performance-identical to JBL’s On Stage Micro remote.
The reference to On Stage Micro—JBL’s last attempt to strip one of its earlier popular speakers down to a cheaper, smaller form—is appropriate here in that Radial Micro follows basically the same formula. On Stage Micro sacrificed two speaker drivers and RF remote technology from JBL’s earlier On Stage II to gain battery-powered portability and a lower price point. Radial Micro isn’t as much a small Radial as it is a reshaped, slightly lower performance, and slightly lower priced version of On Stage II; either could be tossed into a bag or briefcase, but neither runs off of battery power.
Radial’s strong bass performance, arguably its biggest selling point given its novel shape, is gone here, leaving you with the rough sonic equivalent of Logitech’s portable mm50 and Altec Lansing’s iM600, both priced at the same $150 level. The word “rough” is appropriate here, as we preferred the sound from the mm50 overall—its drivers had the edge in clarity and apparent range, though the differences between Radial Micro and these others weren’t huge, and it passed our other sound tests such as proper stereo separation and low amplifier noise without issues. However, Radial Micro lacks these systems’ rechargeable batteries, true portability, and faux 3-D spatializers; if you put looks aside, you’ll do better for the dollar with either of those options.
In our view, the single biggest justification for Radial Micro’s price is its enclosure. Between On Time and the original Radial, JBL had an amazing design year in 2006, and Radial Micro is like a good print of a famous painting—close enough to the original that people who can’t afford the real thing will be satisfied with what they get for half the price. As with virtually all of JBL’s iPod-specific products, you’ll like how Radial Micro sounds without any adjustments, assuming you don’t do direct comparisons to other speakers, and you’ll love how it looks on your desk; these are all reasons for its B+ rating and solid general recommendation. That said, you’ll still get bigger, better sound for the dollar from the company’s iPod-agnostic speakers such as Creature II, but you’ll need to provide the dock and remote yourself.