Review: JBL On Stage Speakers
Pros: Fantastic sound by comparison with existing iPod-dedicated portable speaker systems, impressive physical design, useful with all generations of iPods.
Cons: High price given lack of portability and other features (remote control, battery, case) associated with competing and comparably sized iPod speakers, delivers less performance for the dollar than JBL’s similarly not portable Creatures.
When iLounge reviews iPod-compatible speakers, we always consider several factors: the quality of sound is first and foremost, followed closely by price and value, then style and aesthetic appearance, and then portability. Our rationale is that (a) everyone wants a great sounding speaker system, but (b) price is a critical counter-consideration for most users. Additionally, (c) iPod matching or complementing style are important to many users, and (d) a subset of people will care (at least initially) about whether they can tote the speakers around.
In the past, we have described JBL’s three-piece Creature speaker system as one of our top recommendations based on its great sound for the dollar, and iPod-matching aesthetic design. However, when compared against truly portable solutions, the Creatures are clearly less compact, don’t run off of batteries, and are not fit to be carried around in a briefcase. We have continued to recommend them regardless not only because we really like their sound, but because so many people initially are attracted to “portable speakers” as a concept, yet ultimately place the speakers in one place and never move them.
JBL’s new On Stage speaker system for the iPod presents an even more interesting challenge for iLounge’s readers and editors alike. In essence, On Stage packs 90% of the Creatures’ sound quality into a significantly smaller and novel disc-shaped enclosure. Unlike the Creature system, On Stage is specifically designed as a combined iPod dock and sound system, including everything you need to connect an iPod for easy, immediate enjoyment with speakers. The only hitches are two: unlike other small iPod speaker systems released recently, On Stage is not truly portable. And it sells at a substantial premium ($199.00) over the Creatures - $20 more than Altec Lansing’s recent and fully portable iM3 inMotion speakers, which we noted were at the very cusp of acceptable pricing even given their numerous packed-in accessories.
The challenge, then, is how to grade speakers that sound great, look great, are only quasi-portable, and carry a comparatively high price tag relative to both portable and non-portable options. We’ll walk you through our logic below.
iPod owners were both excited and puzzled several months ago by JBL’s simultaneous announcement of two small but quite different iPod-matching speaker systems. The company’s under-$100 and truly portable (batteries optional) On Tour system is technically hardware agnostic, but clearly matches the iPod’s style. By contrast, JBL’s $199.00 On Stage is specifically designed as an iPod accessory: it’s a 6.5-inch diameter white flying saucer of an iPod dock, featuring four total speaker drivers divided into two sets of two left and right channel drivers. Like Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3 and iMmini speakers, the On Stage features an attractive silver metal grille that covers and protects the speaker drivers, which rest on either side of an empty iPod dock. Touch-sensitive volume buttons - minus on the left, plus on the right - sit immediately in front of the dock on either side of a JBL logo.
Each On Stage comes with four interchangeable plastic iPod mounting panels - one for 10/15/20GB iPods, one for 30/40GB iPods, one for iPod minis, and one for first- and second-generation iPods - plus a short pass-through audio-in cable that can be used with the older iPods and other devices. The rear of On Stage includes an on-off power switch that glows yellow when pressed inward, plus ports for audio in, power in, and Dock Connector cable in. JBL uses three rubber pads on the bottom to secure the unit on a table, and prints the product’s name only on the bottom surface. The only mismatched component in the package is a large black country-specific power supply (with similarly black cable) that doesn’t fit visually with the white On Stage, a modest problem, but one that Altec avoided by using white and fully country-adaptable power supplies.
When we first saw photos of On Stage, we weren’t sure whether we’d like it in person, but there’s little doubt that JBL’s newest speaker system makes a very good first impression. Like Altec’s most recent inMotions, On Stage turns out to be a perfect visual match for full-sized iPods (only modestly less so for the colored aluminum iPod minis), and does not seem oversized despite its deeper-than-iM3 footprint. At only 1.5” tall, it’s easy enough to consider tossing into a briefcase, like the inMotion series and unlike Tivoli’s iPAL, though JBL doesn’t tout On Stage as a “portable” device in any way.
What’s Missing: Battery and Remote Control Options
Two omissions from the On Stage package were surprising given the unit’s price and current competition: the ability to be powered by batteries, and a remote control. Altec’s iM3s partially justify their $179.00 sticker by including power adapters that let the speakers work in different countries, plus compartments for AA battery power. Tivoli’s bulkier milk carton-sized iPAL ($129.99) includes its own rechargeable battery, even though it’s less portable than the Altecs. By comparison, and despite the facts that it’s more expensive than both of these options and more easily carried around than at least the iPAL, On Stage runs only off of the supplied AC power adapter. Though there are reasons not to include the feature, we strongly believe that JBL’s decision to forgo battery-powered portability in On Stage given its price level will put off some potential buyers.
Part of this is attributable to marketing; JBL markets On Stage as a design that can be used in any room of the house, not as a travel companion. Marketing logic aside, we found the lack of a remote control (or even an IR port to support an optional accessory) to be a fairly significant omission compared with Altec’s lower-priced package, and underscore that this feature of the iM3s significantly increases their utility when used in the home. In the pre-iM3 world, where only Altec’s inMotions and Tivoli’s iPAL were somewhat comparable alternatives, On Stage would have seemed only a step behind in features. Today, lacking batteries and a remote, On Stage now looks like a relatively basic speaker system concept: a non-portable iPod dock alternative that you’ll need to control with your hands (or aggressive playlists), not from afar. In this regard, it’s almost identical to the experience you’d have with a pair of JBL’s Creatures, only in a smaller and more expensive package.
In the absence of a remote control, volume is controlled solely through two metallic surfaces next to On Stage’s dock. Like the controls of the 3G iPod and the Creature speakers, the volume controls of On Stage are digitally touch sensitive (using impedance) and work pretty well most of the time. They adjust in click-click-click (or finger tap-tap-tap) increments rather than more smoothly and graduatlly, but this doesn’t affect the output, which is entirely acceptable at typical volume levels. Pressing both buttons mutes the system.
We were generally wowed by the sound that came out of the On Stage speakers, even by comparison with the inMotion, iMminis, and iM3s, say nothing of the other speakers we’ve tested. Contrary to initial expectations, the circular and short shape of On Stage produced significantly better stereo separation than the traditional upright, taller Altec speakers, casting sound off on 45-degree angles to the left and right sides of the dock. We could clearly hear the left and right channels of songs, which sounded more distinct than in any of Altec’s comparably sized products.
More importantly, three other factors were also better than in any of the Altec options: clarity, apparent frequency response, and size of the audio stage. We heard less line-level noise in On Stage than in the iM3s and iMminis we recently reviewed, and loved the frequency balance of the On Stage’s sound, which had just enough treble to produce crisp sounds, and strong enough bass to create depth and resonance in drums and lower-range strings. Song to song, we heard very little compression in the midrange of the On Stages as compared with the Altecs, especially in the iM3s, where it’s quite noticeable. And both we and outside observers commented on the depth of the “stage” created by On Stage - like the Creatures we have liked so much, On Stage put nearby listeners in the center of a more lifelike audio performance. It sounded much bigger and richer than one would expect from its small size, especially given its similarly small competition. In sum, on all of the above factors, the distinctions were instantly apparent, and became obviously night-and-day different to our ears after a few listens.
However, and critically, it must be noted that JBL’s Creature speakers still outperform the considerably more expensive On Stage package. While similar in audio clarity, the Creatures created an even bigger apparent sound stage than On Stage, with a modestly richer sound on its default settings. Significantly, however, the Creatures include a feature surprisingly absent from On Stage - user-adjustable bass and treble knobs, which are capable of generating sound as rich or as shrill as the user prefers. We say “surprisingly” because On Stage’s box claims “dynamic bass control,” but unless the speakers are doing all the control work on their end, we didn’t see any evidence of the feature.
Price, Comparisons, and Conclusions
We consider the Creature/On Stage comparison critical because of JBL’s decision to develop and release On Stage as a non-portable speaker solution. As described above, we do think that many “portable speaker” buyers wind up dropping those speakers into one place and not moving them, but we still afford the Altecs more than a little additional consideration because they can truly be used anywhere by people so inclined. As is, a $199.00 On Stage system is only more portable than the under $99.95 (and lower) Creatures in the sense that it’s smaller and easier to move. On Stage comes with none of the portable accessories offered by Altec, can’t run on batteries, and will always need to be tethered to an AC adaptor - just like the Creatures, which sell for half the price and sound better.
The counter points, of course, are that On Stage looks sexier, includes complete Dock compatibility for all iPods, and is if not truly portable far more packable than speakers such as the Creatures and Tivoli’s iPAL. These points are all true, and provide the strongest case for dropping extra cash on On Stage. If you have the money burning a hole in your pocket, we’re pretty certain that you won’t be disappointed by the sound of this product. Ignoring the Creatures, it is the best sounding iPod-matching speaker system we’ve heard.
That said, there is similarly little doubt in our minds that Altec made a wiser decision to include remote functionality and numerous truly portable features and accessories with its iM3 speakers. Even though the iM3’s don’t sound as good, in every other regard they offer a lot more for the dollar than JBL’s more expensive offering, and we would recommend them over On Stage in a heartbeat to a person who will actually keep her iPod at a remote-controlled distance or use the speakers while traveling. As a desk-based solution only, On Stage sounds great, but if we’re spending our own money to buy speakers, we’d still take a set of Creatures.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge. A consumer electronics fanatic who practices intellectual property law in his spare time, Jeremy’s recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.