Review: JBL On Stage IIIP
Though we have surveyed much of the history of JBL's iPod speakers in a recent iDesign feature and interview, we haven't discussed all of JBL's versions of the dish-shaped On Stage speaker at length. Over the years, there have been many: the original On Stage, a sequel with remote control called On Stage II, a modestly updated version with an Apple Universal Dock called On Stage II UD, a cheaper portable version with Infrared remote called On Stage Micro, and then a redesigned hybrid of the earlier devices called On Stage III - known in some places overseas as On Station III.
This month, JBL released three different On Stage models in the United States: the $130 On Stage III, its iPhone-compatible follow-up On Stage IIIP ($170), and a brand-new $150 product called On Stage 200ID. Confused? We’ll sort all the details out in a moment, but the simplest explanation is that if you’re looking for a high-quality portable iPhone speaker system and willing to pay a higher than typical price, start by checking out the $170 On Stage IIIP. If you have an iPhone and portability isn’t necessary, you can consider the $150 On Stage 200ID, while if you don’t have an iPhone, or don’t mind using it with its wireless features turned off, the iPod-specific $130 On Stage III or $100 On Stage Micro may be better options.
Here’s the more detailed explanation of these products and their relevant predecessors. Despite small changes to their bodies—mostly the location and shape of their iPod docks—On Stage, On Stage II and UD, On Stage III and IIIP all share the same general design: a UFO-like dish with an iPod dock and volume controls up front, four speaker drivers hidden under a wrap-around metal grille, and both ports and a power button in back. The original On Stages were 6.75 inches in diameter; On Stage III and On Stage IIIP are now 7.5”. Previously, the On Stage dish was all at a single 1.5” height, but now the body is angled, shortest at its 1.37” front and tallest close to its 1.75” back.
This extra space enabled JBL to fit a six AA battery compartment into the newer version 3 models, a feature that was absent from On Stage and On Stage II, and permits On Stage IIIP to run for 12 hours at typical volume levels. Notably, the original On Stage lacked a remote control, but On Stage II gained an 50-60-foot RF remote control, while On Stage III and IIIP revert to a cheaper but functionally similar 30-foot, line-of-sight-dependent Infrared version. This remote has volume, track, play/pause and mute controls, plus four buttons to let you navigate an iPod’s menus from afar. Cosmetically, the glossy black plastic III and IIIP look the same, except III has a silver metal grille and IIIP has a black metal grille. And only IIIP has shielding inside for iPhone interference. Clear dock adapters are included for various iPod and iPhone models.
Thanks to the new battery compartment and remote control, On Stage III and IIIP have more in common than ever before with the earlier On Stage Micro. That $100 model is smaller, with a 6”-diameter housing that holds two small speaker drivers and requires only four AAA batteries. It doesn’t work fully with the iPhone, but is available in a wide array of iPod- and nano-matching colors, and includes a soft carrying bag not included in any other On Stage. Finally, On Stage 200ID is the most unusual model in the family; it loses portability, using a completely different, wider shape and different speaker drivers. Our full review discusses its pros and cons at length.
To the extent that the aforementioned list of major features and differences might inform or simplify your choice between models, it was worth discussing first, but there are a few other points that need to be made about the new On Stage models relative to their predecessors. First, there’s On Stage IIIP’s back side, which has an audio input and power button next to a power port, plus two rubber-sealed holes and a third that long-time users will recognize as the place that JBL used to include a pass-through Dock Connector port. Contrary to some pre-release documentation, and what you might read elsewhere online, this version has neither a rear USB port nor a Dock Connector for synchronization with your computer—a change for the worse. As with On Stage 200ID, the digital volume buttons on the front have switched to pressure-sensitive controls rather than capacitive ones, a change for the better.
Then there’s the bigger issue of sound quality. To be clear up front, On Stage IIIP is one of the rare speaker systems that sounds really good straight out of the box. As with other recent JBL products, the on-board digital signal processor automatically balances your audio for the integrated drivers, and though you’re not given bass or treble controls to fiddle with, the default sound signature is pleasing to the ear—nicely balanced, warmer in the bass department than one might expect, and more detailed than many same-sized portable speakers out there. That said, we placed On Stage IIIP next to Logitech’s award-winning, $130 Pure-Fi Anywhere, and while On Stage IIIP delivered superior clarity, it lost out somewhat in bass warmth, apparent spatialization, and frills such as Logitech’s included carrying case and integrated rechargeable battery. Had the two systems been priced identically, they’d almost be peers; JBL’s release of the $130 iPod-only On Stage III, which we’re not reviewing here, was most likely designed to fight off the similar iPod-only Pure-Fi Anywhere.
On Stage IIIP stands up well to older members of the On Stage family. While each of these systems is impressive in the sense that they sound like they are physically much larger than their bodies would suggest, there are differences. Side-by-side testing between the original On Stage and On Stage IIIP shows that JBL has limited the newer model’s top volume level to prevent distortion that was previously obvious at its peak—a change with positives and negatives—as well as having taken a little of the edge off of its treble and adding a bit more to its bass. This latter change is a net positive, at least with current iPod models: On Stage IIIP sounds a little more lifelike and smooth than its predecessors, at both lower and higher volumes. For those considering On Stage Micro as an alternative, it’s also worth noting that the quality differences between On Stage IIIP and the cheaper model aren’t trivial: thanks to the two extra speaker drivers, On Stage IIIP and On Stage III have better frequency response and clarity; they don’t sound like they’re straining to reproduce the notes they can reach.
The comparison between On Stage IIIP and the non-portable but similarly iPhone-compatible 200ID is a little less straightforward. For 200ID, JBL swapped the earlier On Stages’ four-driver array for two drivers that were larger and more powerful, plus accompanied by a much larger, 14”-wide enclosure with a better bass chamber. A side-by-side comparison between 200ID and On Stage IIIP confirms the obvious: despite improvements in IIIP’s bass, 200ID is still stronger in that department, while IIIP continues to offer modestly better treble and clarity. Neither is a decisive winner, and given their size and portability differences, the choice of whether to prefer one over the other will depend more on the features you need than anything else.
In our view, the only major stumbling block for On Stage IIIP is its pricing, which is the same reason we have liked but not loved earlier On Stage speakers over the years. On one hand, no matter which On Stage you buy, you get a speaker that sounds at least good, and possibly very good, right out of the box. But on the other hand, to the extent that On Stage IIIP adds little more than iPhone compatibility to the much more appropriately priced On Stage III, it’s harder to recommend. Having tested virtually all of its major competitors, On Stage IIIP doesn’t sound like a $170 portable audio system; it sounds like a great $130 audio system with a somewhat steep $40 iPhone premium tacked on. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the interference shielding is worth paying for, but our feeling is that this is a good but not great option for the price, and like earlier On Stages, will be worthy of more attention if and when it becomes more affordable. On the fine edge of our B and B+ ratings, the very good out of box sound tips On Stage IIIP over the edge to the higher mark.