Review: JBL OnBeat Venue
Last week, we covered a large collection of Bluetooth wireless speakers that spanned a wide range of different sizes and features. Today, we're continuing our speaker roundup with looks at three speakers with 30-pin Dock Connectors, a standard Apple is currently in the process of phasing out -- and a fact that each company has addressed in a different way. The speakers are JBL's OnBeat Venue ($199), Kicker's Amphitheater ($300), and XtremeMac's Tango TT ($150).
Of all the iPod/iPhone/iPad docking systems in today’s roundup, the one that hedges most effectively against the replacement of the classic Dock Connector is OnBeat Venue. While this all-in-one audio system does support Dock Connector-equipped iPads, iPhones, and iPods using a front-mounted, spring-loaded dock, you can lock the dock inside the chassis if you don’t want to use it, converting the speaker into a purely Bluetooth streaming audio system. With a firm push, the dock slips so completely inside the chassis that you’d never know it’s there, but when it’s out, it has enough strength and support to accommodate a full-sized iPad—surprisingly even inside a relatively thin case.
OnBeat Venue follows Altec Lansing speakers released a couple of years ago, OnBeat Venue combines glossy black, matte black, and silver metallic plastics with a very prominent gray fabric speaker grille, plus stripes of orange rubber padding on the bottom similar to the just-released Micro II. Our editors’ opinions were generally positive on the new design, but it doesn’t look anything like JBL audio systems we’ve known over the years. Roughly 16.5” wide by 4.5” tall by 5” deep at its maximum points, it bulges and tapers to form a decidedly modern but hard to describe shape - something that wouldn’t look out of place sitting anywhere except a really old home. It runs solely off of an included wall adapter, and has the substantial weight and footprint you’d expect from a non-portable system.
Some of the controls and ports are a little surprising. OnBeat Venue’s top includes illuminated power and non-illuminated volume buttons on the right, with illuminated “bass” boost and “movie” EQ buttons alongside a non-illuminated input select button on the left. Three lights in the center indicate whether the current input is line in, a docked device, or Bluetooth. Although the “bass” and “movie” buttons are unconventional for a JBL system, they make some sense: the unit’s back includes component video out ports to let this serve as a video dock for some prior Dock Connector-based devices—a feature that’s notably incompatible with newer Lightning Adapter-assisted devices, and didn’t seem to work properly with our third-generation iPad, either, though it did work fine with the iPhone 4S. One press of the “movie” button rebalances the sound to make voices and sound effects stand out when you’re watching videos. An aux-in port and power port are also on the back, sitting between two large bass ports in the chassis.
One thing that’s uncharacteristically missing from OnBeat Venue’s box is a remote control; instead, JBL offers MusicBeat, a free app that works with the speaker either in docking or wireless modes. While we’d love to say that there’s some good reason to use MusicBeat, the app isn’t particularly compelling, largely creating an alternate interface for creating playlists and playing back music. For the most part, Apple’s own Music app works just as well, and is faster, particularly if you’re using a large iTunes Match library. However, as soon as you dock a compatible iPad, iPhone, or iPod with OnBeat Venue, MusicBeat lets you access a one-touch equalization system to switch the unit between “basic,” “movie,” “rock,” “jazz,” and “gaming” equalization modes; in Bluetooth mode, these buttons disappear.
Sonically, OnBeat Venue is most noteworthy—not impressive, but noteworthy—because of its high-volume performance for the price. JBL is uncharacteristically vague in discussing the audio hardware inside the system, at one point describing the drivers as being “two full-range transducers,” alongside a picture suggesting that there are actually four speakers inside. Other documentation makes it clear that there are two smaller tweeters inside as well, but JBL doesn’t specify their sizes or performance characteristics. The reasons became obvious when we tested OnBeat Venue: thanks to a 30-watt amplification package, it can be turned up to dangerously loud, medium-sized room-filling levels, but it breaks with JBL tradition by exhibiting very serious bass clipping and distortion at its top volume levels. At safer, lower volumes, we’d describe the sound as being solid rather than remarkable in any way: it’s respectably balanced, with enough treble, midrange, and bass to let songs sound good until the ear-destroying volume levels are reached, but the clarity’s basically par for the $200 speaker course, and there’s no emphasis or sparkle in the sound. You won’t confuse OnBeat Venue with the better five- or six-driver systems we’ve tested.
There’s one other noteworthy issue with OnBeat Venue, and that’s something we noted in certain other recent JBL audio systems— a dribble-like issue, such that manually stopped or changed tracks appear to stutter for a moment rather than ending or transitioning cleanly. This only happens during Bluetooth streaming, but it’s annoying, akin to a hiccup in the audio that has nothing to do with audio drop-outs or the distance you may be from the system. Wireless performance is otherwise entirely within expectations, and solid.
Overall, OnBeat Venue is a good rather than a great speaker system. While we can’t blame JBL for releasing a “legacy” Dock Connector-based speaker right as Apple is beginning the transition away from that standard, the reality is that OnBeat Venue does best with docked devices, and experiences at least modest functional and sonic limitations when it operates in fully wireless mode. Best-suited to users of pre-2012 iPods and iPhones who occasionally want to fill a room with music and aren’t picky about sonic quality, OnBeat Venue is a good value for its sub-$200 asking price, and hopefully will be the basis for an improved future model.