Review: JBL On Tour Portable Speakers
Pros: Clean, generally accurate sound in an attractive, truly portable package that can be powered by AAA batteries or wall current. Reasonably priced and elegant.
Cons: No iPod dock, lacks bass thump and warmth of comparable Altec speakers. Cheap cloth bag.
Until late last year, the portable iPod speaker category was all but owned by Altec Lansing’s inMotion series, which fold into small flat packages, sound pretty good, and run off of batteries. In recent months, the inMotions have seen challengers such as Logic3’s i-Station (iLounge rating: B+), but none has wrestled away the company’s throne. And this year, ultra-portable options such as Macally’s PodWave (iLounge rating: A-) and Pacific Rim’s Cube Travel Speakers (iLounge rating: A) have emerged with smaller bodies, lower price points, and less performance. None of them connect to the iPod’s bottom Dock Connector port, and none would decisively win a shoot-out with the inMotions, but they sound pretty good and fit in your pocket.
JBL’s On Tour speakers ($99.95, available for $65 and up) sit at the intersection of these two speaker categories, but more realistically in the portable camp than the ultra-portable one. As the smaller and legitimately portable sibling of the company’s more expensive On Stage (iLounge rating: B+), On Tour runs off of either battery or wall power, and comes with a thin gray cloth carrying bag, power adapter, and audio cable. The two products’ names suggest their distinctions: On Stage is the stationary docking system your iPod comes to visit, while On Tour is the one you travel with: it could fit in the oversized pocket of a man standing up in a pair of comfy jeans, and it looks great.
Gentle arcs give On Tour a shape unlike any other iPod speaker system. In an inspired design move, JBL took what could have been a flat white box with two speakers and turned it into a curved, upside-down U shape with a slide-open exterior casing. Folded, it measures 7” x 3.25” x 1.25”, and when open, the white and chrome U becomes a barely larger 7” by 5” x 2” and exposes a gray plastic panel with two chrome-ringed, gray metal-grilled speakers. A white JBL logo sits between them, while a set of four circles lays off to the far right: the top and bottom are chrome pressure-sensitive volume up and down controls, while two lights indicate power conditions. The central top amber light only goes on if batteries are installed and on their last legs; the central bottom green light indicates power and an audio signal.
While chrome is also used to accent On Tour’s sides, the remainder of the case’s exterior is white plastic, save for thin gray rubber strips used to stablize the speakers on a table. A battery compartment latch is incorporated into one of the strips, opening at On Tour’s rear to reveal a space for four AAA batteries. They power the system for around 24 hours of continuous play, or can be left out in favor of the power adapter. To plug that in, you slide the casing open and reveal two ports on the system’s inner bottom, audio-in on the left, power on the right.
Turning the power on is as easy as touching one of the volume controls; On Tour remembers your last setting, and powers off if you press both controls at once. Like the iPod, it’s a simple solution, minimizing the need for extra switches or buttons, and it works.
We really liked the look and overall physical design of the On Tour system. It’s not as intentionally alien as many of JBL’s other offerings - a plus - but it’s still unique, and its use of metal accents is especially appropriate and impressive. While it would have been nice to see JBL include a dock or iPod cradle of some sort with On Tour, it’s not strictly necessary for the reasons explained below. Our only style point detraction is the included cloth bag, which is very cheap by comparison with the rest of the package.
In two words, On Tour’s sound is almost perfect - given its size and price. Compared against other options in the portable category, it’s clear, has good highs and mids, and is acceptable though not great in bass. There’s little to no thump at typical listening levels, but bass notes (and mids) are audible, and not flattened or compressed like they are in Altec’s inMotions, iM3s and iM4s. JBL speakers generally have a certain dynamic sparkle that we really like, and it’s thankfully present in the On Tour system.
Volume is appropriate for the task of filling a medium-sized room, and assuming you’ve adjusted the iPod’s volume level properly, audio sounds pretty good even at loud volumes. While we prefer the sound and amplification potential of the company’s larger Creatures and On Stage systems overall, neither is truly portable, as On Tour is.
The only thing that On Tour lacks by comparison with some of Altec Lansing’s inMotions and other competitors is a dock. JBL appears to have made a conscious decision to put its dollars into audio quality at the expense of offering an iPod mounting and charging solution, which frankly we think should be an acceptable choice for people who truly carry their iPods all over the place: the docks don’t recharge iPods unless they’re plugged into walls, and it’s not terribly inconvenient to carry a separate cable and charger along if you really need it. Moreover, the audio quality advantage of a docking solution is frequently lost on the low-quality speaker and amplifier combinations found in portable systems, and though On Tour would have benefitted more than others from having a dock, it doesn’t need one to sound better than the inMotions.
It’s hard to find a small, affordable speaker system with truly great sound quality and the option to run off of battery power, but JBL’s On Tour comes as close as we’ve seen so far. In all ways save dockability - but notably including style, price, size, and audio quality - it compares favorably with the best of Altec Lansing’s offerings, which previously ruled this category. While a dock would have helped On Tour - and should probably be purchased separately from Apple or a competitor - the system is consequently compatible with all iPods (including shuffles), and other devices as well. Now if only someone could figure out a way to miniaturize a true subwoofer for one of these things…
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.