Review: JBL On Stage IV
Whether you love or hate the rapid pace of Apple's product refreshes, you have to acknowledge that the company has done an incredible job of accelerating improvements in product performance for the price, pushing competitors and third-party accessory developers to continually improve alongside them. Some companies have done a particularly good job at keeping pace, notably including Logitech and iHome, which have introduced numerous and ever-improving speakers over the last five years, while others, including JBL, have seemingly found the process more challenging. Six years after the company introduced On Stage, an early and iconic UFO-shaped iPod speaker, it has released its latest sequels On Stage IV ($150) and On Stage Micro III ($100), and though they look considerably different from their predecessors, they're stuck with the same small audio drivers inside -- and now officially falling behind more innovative rivals.
The pitch with both new On Stage units is the same: JBL has introduced a new industrial design concept called “Weave,” which gives both of the glossy black plastic and silver metal grilled units the appearance of domes made from flattened, overlapping ribbons. Following in the traditions of past UFO- and dish-shaped On Stage models, On Stage IV packs four Odyssey drivers inside, just like 2008’s On Stage IIIP, while On Stage Micro III continues its 2006 family’s concept of using only two of the same-sized drivers, and thus demanding less power—IV needs six AA batteries, and Micro III needs four AAAs. Each unit comes with the same parts: a wall adapter, ten-button remote control, and one Dock Adapter with rubber sizing pads for different devices—but no other frills, such as audio cables, extra Dock Adapters, or carrying bags that have slowly disappeared over the years. One thing that has returned after an absence: Mini-USB ports for syncing the iPod or iPhone on top. You have to supply the cable yourself, but at least syncing has come back to the On Stage family.
While the weave design is a very welcome return to the company’s days of dramatic visual flair after a season or two of comparatively uninspired shapes, it has its disadvantages, primarily in size. The original On Stage was 6.5” in diameter, which On Stage III grew to 7.5”, and On Stage IV is even bigger: JBL calls it 8.25” square, but it actually measures out at 9.5” at IV’s widest points. By comparison, the original On Stage Micro and its sequel were 6” in diameter, but On Stage Micro III has become roughly 7.5” at its widest points—close to the size of the full-sized On Stage III—or 6 5/8” square by JBL’s calculations, bigger than the original On Stage. It’s the reverse of Apple’s “smaller and better” philosophy, packing largely the same components into bigger shells at the same prices, without adding much as an offset.
There’s one new addition, though, a crystalline plastic dock at the top of each unit that glows with white LED light when the power is on. We liked this feature, which continues JBL’s tradition in higher-end iPod speakers of adding some eye-catching lighting for the docked device, but some people may want to turn it off. Unfortunately, that’s not an option, and once again, both units have power switches inconveniently located on the back, something we’ve been hoping for years that JBL would fix, to no avail. If you’re looking for a similar, less bright unit, On Stage IIIP is essentially the same speaker as On Stage IV in different packaging.
And that’s the critical and arguably damning issue with both of the On Stage units: industrial design changes are (almost) always welcome from a company with JBL’s chops, but these are both basically the same audio systems we’ve been listening to for a long time with only minor changes. Looked at positively, each On Stage uses the angled drivers inside to sound bigger than its frame, projecting audio outwards and creating audio that is—although treble- and midrange-focused, with limited bass—fairly clear and, richness aside, entirely unobjectionable. On Stage IV in particular has the ability to rival larger systems with its four small but high-quality drivers, while On Stage Micro III uses its two drivers to produce comparably balanced but less loud and wide sound. Apart from amplifier hiss in each speaker, which is at least as loud in IV as it is in On Stage III, the systems are sonically very similar; III may have a slight edge in bass quality, as IV can be turned up a little louder and distorts a little as it hits its peak.
The real problem is that On Stage IV and On Stage Micro III have stood still as competitors such as Logitech, iHome, and others have continued to push the envelope on sound quality and performance for the price with systems such as S715i; it’s now possible to get a great 8-driver speaker like that one for $150, or a good 4-driver rechargeable system like iHome’s iP46 for $100. In a word, the differences are stark: S715i has the power, particularly in the bass department but also in peak volume, of a full-sized audio system; for the same price, On Stage IV sounds like a toy, and On Stage Micro III similarly struggles to hold its own against the similarly bass-rich iP46.
What JBL is offering now relative to competitors are systems with half the drivers, noticeably less bass power, and no batteries inside—feature sets that worked at these price points in 2004 and 2006 but have officially become passe as we close out 2010. Combined with their larger physical sizes, the only things that keep them at our flat B level recommendation level are the appealing new aesthetics and the fact that JBL’s current prices are, while less appealing than competitors, modestly lower than were the official MSRPs of their prior-generation predecessors. Now that JBL is back on track in the industrial design department, our hope is that it will turn its attention to improving the components inside its iPod and iPhone audio systems, because some increasingly large changes are going to be needed to make future On Stages as worthy of attention as their older brothers were.