Review: JBL On Stage 400P
When JBL announced the On Stage 400ID back in January 2008, we were a little confused: its smaller, less expensive brother On Stage 200ID was iPhone-compatible, and due to some undisclosed engineering challenges, 400ID wasn't. Apparently, 400ID came out anyway, but must have done so very quietly -- seemingly more in Europe than in the United States -- because we were looking, but never saw it in stores. A year later, JBL has released On Stage 400P ($250), a cosmetically and most likely sonically identical unit that boasts both iPod and iPhone compatibility.
On Stage 400P is part of a 2008-vintage family of JBL speaker designs that all bore the same shape—think of the base of a thinner, gently curved pyramid with the top point and middle cut off—but differed in components. All were made from black plastic with silver fabric speaker grilles and silver top buttons. The least expensive model, Duet 200, was identical to the On Stage 200ID save for On Stage’s centrally-mounted iPod and iPhone dock; clock radios called On Time 200ID and On Time 400iHD interrupted the silver grilles with blue clocks, adding both alarm and radio functionality. While the other models were all short enough to fit under most monitors, and particularly designed to do so with Apple’s displays, On Stage 400 was designed to be a Goliath. Though On Stage 400P has the same roughly 14” width of the 200ID model, it’s far larger in height and depth, measuring 4.25” tall to 200ID’s 2.63” and 7.13” deep to 200ID’s 4.25”. It includes transparent Universal Dock adapters for iPhone and iPod models, as well as a power supply and auxiliary audio cable for connection to devices that lack Apple’s Dock Connector.
JBL’s choice of audio drivers has been a little surprising from system to system. The company typically hides its speakers behind metal grilles, but chooses between super-small Ridge tweeters, small Odyssey full-range drivers, medium-sized Phoenix full-range drivers, and big Atlas bass drivers when assembling iPod audio systems. The $150 On Stage 200ID packed twin Phoenix drivers, differing from a similarly-priced dish-shaped version called On Stage IIIP that included four smaller Odyssey drivers, as well as a smaller $100 On Stage Micro that included two Odyssey drivers; all three of these systems sounded very good for their prices. However, we were displeased to find that the $300 On Time 400ID clock radio included the same drivers as the $150 On Stage 200ID, and sounded basically identical; its clock and radio features weren’t worth such a hefty premium.
On Stage 400P is a different, yet somewhat familiar story. This system includes the same four Odyssey drivers found in On Stage III, plus a dedicated Atlas bass driver, all equipped with substantially more amplification than any of the other On Stage or On Time models. JBL fans will recognize this configuration as the same one found in the company’s 2006 iPod release Radial, which debuted at a $300 asking price, featured very distinctive styling, and differs from this model in only a handful of particulars: On Stage 400P includes an Infrared remote control rather than Radial’s RF remote—yes, there is some inaccurate information out there; 400P does include an IR remote—while losing the USB and S-Video ports found on its back, and shifting from a radical body design into the aforementioned squished pyramid shape. Additionally, 400P isn’t quite as ear-splittingly loud at its peak volume.
There are three critical sonic questions that potential On Stage 400P customers will want to have answered: first, how much different is this model from the $100 less expensive On Stage 200ID; second, how does On Stage 400P compare sonically with roughly peer-priced options such as Altec Lansing’s T612 and Bose’s SoundDock Series II; and third, how much if any iPhone interference is present? To take the questions out of order, the third answer’s “virtually none;” we thought we heard a whisper-level chirping from the 400P on one occasion when an iPhone was in EDGE mode but couldn’t reproduce it, and no interference was apparent at all when it was in 3G mode. JBL’s typically clean amplifier is definitely bolstered by great shielding here.
Differences between the On Stage 200ID and On Stage 400P are non-trivial, but also not massive at normal listening levels. We’ve previously credited JBL with doing an outstanding job of maximizing the output from its audio drivers, and every passing week sees the release of another competitor that falls at least a little short of making as much from two or four small speakers as does this company. As a result, the two medium drivers in On Stage 200ID roughly tied for overall audio performance with the four smaller drivers in On Stage IIIP—the same ones found in On Stage 400P—and we commented that IIIP was stronger in treble and clarity, while 200ID was stronger in bass and power. On Stage 400P essentially offers the best of both worlds, using the IIIP’s drivers to achieve superior treble performance and clarity than the 200ID, and its large Atlas bass driver to add back the low notes that IIIP was comparatively missing. Put 400P next to 200ID and you’ll notice that the $250 system has higher highs, lower lows, and more detail throughout the range. It’s also a little—not a lot—louder, and at higher volumes the difference in bass is even more noticeable. Simply put, 400P sounds better, though 200ID sounds so good given its lower price and smaller size that some users will find the upgrade unnecessary.
So how does On Stage 400P stack up to competing options from Altec Lansing and Bose? Still sold for $300—$50 more than On Stage 400P’s MSRP and $100 more than its street price—Bose’s SoundDock Series II boasts a similar DSP-aided audio equalization feature that makes the most of its speaker drivers no matter what type of music you play through it, a feature that Altec’s systems have traditionally lacked. Even though the Series II doesn’t quite rival the 400P in clarity, treble, or bass depth at normal volume levels, it has a little more midrange warmth, and comes close enough on both highs and lows that most users wouldn’t mind if the systems were priced the same. It also does one thing 400P doesn’t: SoundDock Series II can be turned up to a higher volume level, reaching decibels beyond JBL’s design but also introducing very noticeable distortion in the process. Given the price differences and the way we normally listen to music, we’d pick On Stage 400P first.
Altec’s T612, the first iPhone-certified speaker system, debuted at a MSRP of $200—a price we thought and said at the time was too high—and though that MSRP remains, it now has a street price of around $125, or $25 less than the On Stage 400P. Rather than offering DSP-assisted automatic equalization, T612 features user-adjustable bass and treble controls that you can use to tweak its audio to your personal preference. As we’ve noted before, T612 isn’t in quite the same league sonically as the SoundDocks, and due to the fact that it requires a bunch of tweaking to optimize, it’s hard to like as much as the 400P or SoundDock Series II, both of which sound their best without any adjustment. Even with T612 set to our preferred levels, On Stage 400P sounds clearer, with better treble and more controlled bass, particularly at high volumes; T612’s low-end completely falls apart when you turn the volume up above normal listening levels.
In summary, On Stage 400P is a strong mid-priced iPod and iPhone speaker system with certain strengths—namely, audio balance, detail, and an impressive combination of high highs and controlled lows—and certain weaknesses, namely its reluctance to climb too high in volume, and a body design that hasn’t exactly grown on us since it first appeared in 2008. While it’s not a complete replacement for the earlier Radial, it’s also less expensive, and thanks to aggressive street pricing continues to serve as both a better buy and generally superior sounding alternative to Bose’s latest SoundDock, assuming that you like the style. On Stage 400P is worthy of our B+ rating and strong general recommendation.