Review: JBL On Time - Time Machine for Your iPod
Pros: A museum-class all-in-one speaker system worthy of the iPod family, delivering clear, balanced stereo audio from three medium-sized drivers, and featuring a complete, sophisticated digital AM/FM clock radio with dual alarms. Properly supports Apple’s Universal Dock standard and includes matching Dock Adapters in either of its black or white body colors. Nearly ideal for typical users at average to above-average volume levels, and placement in a visible area of your home or office.
Cons: Lacks a remote control. High-volume performance isn’t as strong as competitors at same or slightly lower price points, and price-to-performance ratio isn’t as impressive as in past JBL offerings. Despite screen controls, clock size and viewing angle may not be right for in-bedroom use.
Two-thousand-five conclusively established three facts about iPod-specific speaker systems: first, there’s a group of people willing to spend up to $300 for speakers, but second - and despite better options - those people will generally buy Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+) unless they are affirmatively convinced to buy something specifically better for their own needs. Third, speaker buyers unwilling to spend $300 are looking at options closer to $100, a price point dominated by affordable all-in-one systems such as SDI’s iHome iH5 (iLounge rating: A-), and multi-piece systems such as JBL’s value-laden Creature IIs (iLounge rating: A).
This explains the potential of JBL’s newest speaker system On Time (
$250), billed by the company as a “Time Machine for Your iPod.” If you can’t decide between the $100 iH5 clock radio or the better-sounding $300 SoundDock stereo, On Time’s your compromise: it has both products’ key features, and more. Best of all, it’s beautiful - a shrine for your iPod, capped by an interior blue dome light. This combination of great looks, typical JBL-quality sound and cool ingredients elevated On Time to an iLounge Best of Show award at the 2006 Macworld Show in San Francisco; in our view, it’s already earned a place in iPod accessory history. [Editor’s Note: Following our review, JBL dropped the MSRP of On Time from $300 to $250; we note this without making further changes to the review below.]
But is it a great clock radio? Does it live up to the audio standards people have come to expect from premium iPod speaker systems? And is it missing any important features people will want? Our comprehensive review answers all these questions below.
Aesthetics and Pack-Ins
There’s no doubt that On Time’s initial appeal is physical; it’s the most impressive looking iPod speaker design we’ve ever seen. As shown in the photograph below, JBL has radically evolved the design of its earlier On Stage (iLounge rating: B+) system, which pioneered the concept of a single disc-shaped iPod speaker dock. Instead, On Time uses two separate discs - one for the dock, one for the speakers.
The first disc lays flat on a horizontal surface, docking your iPod on top of a brightly backlit LCD clock screen. JBL’s other disc is mounted vertically, like a cross-section of a globe, housing three total speakers - one north (25mm), one west (45mm), and one east (45mm). Your iPod sits in the center of this 10” x 10” x 9” (tall) structure, with a blue dome light shining down on its top, and the blue and white clock immediately underneath.
We don’t like to gush, but for On Time, we’re making an exception. As is the case with great sculptures, JBL has nailed virtually every one of its visual touches in a way that photographs can’t totally capture; it needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. You choose from black or white plastic versions to match your room’s decor or iPod; silver metal iPod minis and black iPods look especially cool in the black On Time, while other iPods fit the white model better. Both versions hide their speakers inside a flint gray metal mesh grille that wraps around the vertical disc, interrupted only by a chrome circle at its top.
That’s an oversized Snooze button, so labeled, which also happens to hold the unit’s 25mm tweeter. Ten chrome buttons on the front are internally illuminated with blue lights, and an ambient light sensor can properly adjust the dome light, LCD, and buttons together the darkness level of your room. Other than the fact that you don’t have independent control over the dome light, which we’d strongly have preferred to be brighter or darker in certain situations, the design is pure genius.
It’s also highly functional. Five inconspicuous ports on the back permit connections to an auxiliary audio source (such as CD players, older iPods or the shuffle), AM antenna, and wall power supply, each of which are included - regrettably all in white - plus a separate subwoofer and iPod data synchronization cable, which are not included. An FM antenna is integrated into the back in a color that matches the unit’s body, and as JBL has supported Apple’s new Universal Dock standard, it even includes eight similarly color-matched Universal Dock Adapters (iPod 3G/4G/mini/nano) in the package; 5G models work fine with the thin 3G and 4G Adapters.
What’s missing? Two things. First, On Time’s bottom has a compartment that holds three AAA batteries to preserve the clock radio’s time, presets, and other settings in the event of wall power interruption, but you’ll need to buy the batteries separately. Second and more importantly - actually, critically - On Time doesn’t include or apparently offer any support for a remote control. It’s actually the first iPod speaker system we’ve seen without a remote at or over the $200 price point, and suffers more than a bit for its omission. Bose’s SoundDock and Altec Lansing’s superior inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) both include remotes, so if this is a feature you find important, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Clock Radio Performance
One of On Time’s more distinctive features is its integrated and actually sophisticated clock radio - as suggested above, it uses a white-on-blue LCD screen, two antennas, and ten control buttons to offer AM and FM tuning, presets, alarms, and more. The buttons are configured in two sets of four buttons plus one set of two alarm buttons.
JBL’s left button cluster has volume up and down buttons, a system power button, and a music note-labeled input (AM/FM/iPod/auxiliary) selection button. These features work just as you’d expect; volume has a nice graphical on-screen slider. The right button cluster has menu back and select buttons, plus left and right navigation buttons. You skip up and down through layers of On Time’s menus with the back and select buttons, then set radio stations, the clock, alarms, and other settings with the navigation buttons. Alarms can use the iPod, radio, or an increasingly loud tone to wake you up. Once the alarm parameters have been set, you separately turn on and off alarms one and two with the two buttons furthest to the right.
The good news: JBL’s implementation of virtually all of these alarm and radio features is unquestionably better than iHome iH5’s. You can set each of On Time’s alarms to go off seven days a week, only on weekdays, or only on weekends; the clock knows the current day of the week. Changing numbers - radio or time - is far easier with these digital buttons and auto-scanning than with SDI’s analog dials. And in a move which will delight those who have found iH5’s LCD backlight too bright for their rooms, JBL permits either auto brightness adjustment with the ambient light sensor or three manual settings, the top brighter than iH5’s best and the bottom dimmer than iH5’s lowest setting. You can even turn the screen off entirely. Independent contrast control makes the white lettering stand out nicely against the blue background.
The neutral news: Apart from ease of tuning, On Time’s radio is roughly the same as iH5’s; neither is decidedly superior. As discussed further below, a clear station sounds better on On Time than iH5 because of On Time’s superior speakers, but iH5 does slightly better on AM tuning than On Time - Tivoli Audio’s more expensive iSongBook (iLounge rating: B+) beats both of them on AM - and On Time does better on FM tuning than iH5, and is at least as good as iSongBook.
Then there’s the bad news: Least importantly, we had mixed experiences with On Time’s “TimeCrawler” feature, which is supposed to automatically set the clock by scanning local radio broadcasts for the correct time. TimeCrawler worked properly only one out of six or seven times we tried it; thankfully, manual clock setting is very easy. Similarly, we had no luck getting On Time to display RDS (radio station text data) information despite a reference to RDS in one of its menus, though its language and US/Euro radio toggles appeared to work fine.
Most importantly, On Time’s LCD screen is very low on its body, and its digital clock is smaller than iH5’s. From a distance, and on the wrong angles, the numbers are difficult to see, even with the brightness and contrast settings optimized. Some will find this objectionable for bedroom use, others won’t. In our view, it does best as a desk clock, or as a bedroom clock for someone who needs alarms more than the ability to constantly check the time. If we just needed a timepiece with a competent radio, we’d pick a dedicated clock or the iH5 first.
Comparative Audio Performance
Judged solely on the quality of its audio with an iPod connected, On Time is one of the better audio performers we’ve seen in the one-piece iPod speaker system category - decidedly superior to iHome iH5 and JBL’s earlier On Stage, for instance. But it runs into tougher competition against Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 and Bose’s SoundDock, a fact which is somewhat surprising given JBL’s past commitment to delivering price point-dominating audio quality.
We’ll get the most obvious comparisons here out of the way first. Placed side-by-side with iH5, On Time not only offered noticeably superior high- and low-end response - which says something given that iH5 was a strong bass performer - but also displayed superior detail across its entire range. At its peak volume, the iH5 distorted music to a far greater extent than On Time, which not only sounded better but also could get a bit louder. Simply put, it made iH5 sound like a decent - not cheap - clock radio, whereas On Time sounded like a true stereo system.
Then there’s Bose’s SoundDock. As we’ve previously noted, despite the SoundDock’s popularity and aggressive marketing, it’s not the best audio performer on the block for its price - you can definitely do better for less. It also offers no user control over bass or treble. Instead, in Bose tradition, it automatically equalizes its speakers to adjust to the type of music you’re playing, resulting in sound that’s consistently rich and pleasant, if not as detailed or dynamic as competing products. Interestingly, On Time now uses a similar auto-equalization technology, and in all of our testing at average to above-average volumes, On Time’s renditions of songs were even better than SoundDock’s, with the same general bass, but superior highs and detail.
Where On Time suffered against SoundDock, however, was at higher volumes. On Time began to show bass distortion in some songs at its 75% and above volume levels - way louder than one should be listening up close - but SoundDock did better with high-volume bass, and could be turned up a bit louder, besides. It’s also important to note here that SoundDock’s remote control lets you actually turn up the volume from a safe distance away; On Time’s lack of one is more understandable, but not forgettable, in light of its less impressive high-volume performance.
Finally, there’s Altec’s $250 iM7, which we’ve previously lauded for its noticeably better-than-SoundDock price-to-performance ratio. Not only is iM7 $50 cheaper, but it also sounds better, boasting an especially impressive integrated subwoofer that delivers bass power the SoundDock couldn’t match. Neither can On Time: in this price range, iM7 remains the volume and sound champ, with boom and bass that - unlike the others - is actually portable, and can’t be beat for the price. Even at average listening levels, we preferred iM7’s user-adjustable bass and treble controls, though On Time followed JBL’s track record of delivering very nicely balanced sound.
Value and Conclusions
In sum, JBL’s On Time is what we consider to be a major gamble: it enters a speaker field dominated by Bose’s SoundDock with a matching price, better looks, and slightly different features, surpassing Bose’s audio quality at typical listening levels but lacking a remote and falling behind it at higher volumes. Similarly, it offers an experience that’s superior to iHome iH5 on sound quality and several key clock radio features, but not as good on others, a surprise given On Time’s $200 price premium. For these reasons, we think there are going to be people who absolutely love its combination of clear sound, beautiful design and nice AM/FM/clock features - basically, the “it has a radio and I don’t care about the Bose name or iH5 price” crowds - while others will have good reason to feel it falls short of either earlier system in some important category.
From where we stand, On Time at a $200-225 price point would have given both SoundDock and iH5 a run for their money, and at any price, a remote control would have added quite a bit to its functional appeal. Thankfully, given JBL’s history of flexible street pricing and “version II” products, either or both of these things could happen, and if they do, On Time may well deserve a rating bump. Until then, we think that this is a museum-class piece of speaker design work that deserves to be seen and heard in person, and depending on your needs, may well win you over despite its price.