Review: JBL OnBeat Mini Speaker Dock with Lightning Connector
When JBL first showed OnBeat Mini ($150) at CES all the way back in January, we weren't sure whether the larger version of the $100 OnBeat Micro would have enough added value to justify its higher asking price. Released in late 2012, the original model was a small, bowl-shaped two-driver speaker notable more for its early support of Apple's Lightning connector standard than anything else; the new version is roughly twice as large to accommodate full-sized iPads and iPad minis, but still has only two drivers inside. As it turns out, JBL has made a number of changes under the hood to improve OnBeat Mini's appeal, though one critical issue — case compatibility — regrettably remains unresolved in this model.
Just like OnBeat Micro, OnBeat Mini is offered in your choice of white or black colors, each accented only modestly by hints of contrast such as a silver front logo and an orange rubber bottom stabilizer. While the first model was a little over 7” wide, OnBeat Mini is 12” from left to right, 6.2” deep, and 3.5” tall, consuming considerably more space and weighing over twice as much — 1.78 pounds. Once again, the top of the speaker is covered by a painted metal grille, which in this particular case happened to arrive with some gunk on the left hand side, perhaps from a sticker that was attached to it before it arrived for testing. We tried with only limited success to remove the gunk, a challenge due to the perforated grille; hopefully most OnBeat Mini users won’t have the same issue.
Interrupting the center of the speaker grille is a matte plastic and rubber-padded docking well, which unlike the iPhone/iPod-only Micro has enough room here for any size of iPad, though the Lightning connector in the center remains the same as before. Per Apple’s requirements, the connector’s bottom is flush with a long flat surface, which makes OnBeat Mini all but entirely incompatible with encased devices. Apart from removing their cases every time they dock, case users’ only other option is to use a self-supplied USB or audio cable to connect to one of the ports on OnBeat Mini’s back, which is a welcome alternative, but not a great solution for primary connectivity. JBL has kept the same simple power and volume buttons that were found on OnBeat Micro for OnBeat Mini, switching their texture from matte to a slightly more attractive glossy plastic.
One arguably big change between OnBeat Mini and Micro is the inclusion of an eight-hour rechargeable battery in Mini — Micro left you to self-supply four disposable AAA cells for five hours of play time. Because the battery is included here, every time you plug Mini into a wall outlet, you can play music, charge your device, and recharge Mini for untethered use at the same time. JBL includes a large wall adapter for this purpose, and it’s color-matched to the unit. There aren’t any other frills in the package, and JBL doesn’t make any promises about the Lightning plug’s power output, though we had no problems recharging an iPad Air and iPad mini that were docked inside.
As with the dock’s power, JBL says very little about the two audio drivers inside OnBeat Mini, though they appeared to be around 1.5” in diameter as we peeked through the front grille, and the company says that they’re each 7 watts in power, versus 2 watt drivers in OnBeat Micro. In reality, the performance differences between the two units aren’t as pronounced as those numbers might suggest. They both perform at around the same shy-of-room-filling volume, but OnBeat Mini’s frequency range and clarity are both a bit better than Micro’s, which is to say that music sounds more dynamic due to increased treble, as well as somewhat less muddled in the midrange, and just a little stronger in the bass department. Music doesn’t sound ultra-rich, ultra-detailed, or otherwise amazing in any way, but it’s more engaging than the typical alarm clock radio by a small margin. Because they’re both forcing two speakers to cover much more of the audio spectrum than can be handled properly by two drivers, neither OnBeat Mini nor OnBeat Micro comes close to the performance of the best $100-$150 audio systems we’ve tested for Apple devices, but OnBeat Mini is certainly the better system — just not by leaps and bounds.
Overall, OnBeat Mini is a pretty good speaker, benefitting from broader device compatibility, improved audio, and a superior battery system — all reasons that it will be preferable to OnBeat Micro except for users who need something small. Mini’s footprint and weight don’t preclude it from fitting in a backpack and going out on the road, but it’s certainly not as bag-friendly or -focused as many of the portable systems we’ve tested. The biggest factors impacting its appeal are case-compatibility and sonic performance for the price tag, the former an Apple-imposed annoyance that JBL can’t easily get around, and the latter fully within its control. At one point, JBL’s systems were almost universally guaranteed to deliver superb audio quality for their prices, but OnBeat Mini is closer to the middle of the pack, most likely because development dollars that might otherwise have been spent on drivers instead went towards the Lightning connector. If you’re looking for a Lightning speaker, this is one of the better models we’ve seen, but you’ll enjoy dividends in both size and performance if you’re willing to give up the dock in favor of a Bluetooth speaker instead.