Pros: An attractive, easy-to-move four-driver speaker enclosure that delivers very good sound, iPod docking, syncing, and charging, and a similarly very good RF-based remote control.
Cons: As with last year’s model, is not portable despite its small size, and therefore confined to use indoors and/or near a wall outlet. Delivers less performance for the dollar than company’s excellent and similarly confined 2.1-channel speaker systems, and approximately equivalent performance to a leading portable option that’s a bit less expensive.
Slightly more than a year ago, we reviewed and really liked JBL’s On Stage (iLounge rating: B+), a docking speaker system for iPods that was shaped like a small flying saucer and retailed at the time for $200. Recently, the company has quietly released On Stage II, which is identical to its predecessor except for two things: the price, which has fallen to $170, and a new RF remote control, which is based upon Griffin Technology’s popular AirClick.
A month ago, the inclusion of AirClick mightn’t have mattered much to some people, and you might even have had one already for a 4G iPod or iPod mini. But its addition to this package results in a nice benefit: true speaker volume control using the iPod’s line-level audio output, rather than mere volume attenuation of the iPod’s headphone port. Consequently, you can dock, charge, listen to your iPod, and control its tracks and volume from a 50-foot distance at the same time with On Stage II – all very good things – and now equally true with first-generation color 4G iPods, which was a weakness of the original version of AirClick. Combined with the lower MSRP, AirClick’s addition alone almost scores On Stage II a better rating than before.
Of course, all of the nice features of its predecessor are still here: a Dock Connector port to let you sync your iPod with your computer, an auxiliary audio-in port that renders the system able to play audio from (but not dock) an iPod shuffle or non-iPod devices, a short audio cable for those devices, and a wall adapter that provides power. We continue to like On Stage’s (unchanged) sound quality, physical design, and touch sensitive front volume controls, and think that its size and shape make it one of the best options we’ve seen to put iPod music into a corner of any room. It produces bigger, cleaner sound than its footprint would suggest, and for that reason alone will appeal to many iPod owners. But it’s still not as attractive in other ways as JBL’s other highly-rated speakers: there is no user adjustability of bass or treble levels (like Creature II), speaker positions (Creature II and Encounter), or ability to go anywhere and run off of battery power (On Tour).
There have also been changes to the competitive landscape and the iPod since the prior On Stage was released. For the lower price of $150, Logitech’s mm50 system (iLounge rating: A-) now offers a truly portable, remote-controlled speaker setup that’s really quite nice, including a rechargeable battery and carrying case that let you use it virtually anywhere, which the wall-tethered On Stage II can’t be. mm50 also has a 3D Stereo button that provides an optional mid-treble boost, which On Stage II lacks, and a wider apparent soundstage even when this button is off.
The systems are otherwise very similar – both dock and computer-sync your iPod – and have only a few other differences that could be considered neutral and user-dependent: mm50 is shallower but longer than On Stage II, leans more heavily towards bass while On Stage II has more treble, and each system uses a different plastic docking system. As of this writing, neither speaker system is yet customized for iPod nano or the 5G iPod, but we tested both, and they work; the nano just doesn’t fit as snugly as with Apple’s recently unveiled Universal Dock and Dock Inserts. The only decided negative on mm50 is its Infrared-based remote control – On Stage II’s works around corners and at greater distances. If we were on a budget and had to choose just one of these two systems for all of our needs, we’d have to go with the less expensive mm50 on features and versatility. But if you don’t need the small footprint, consider an Apple Universal Dock and Remote plus a pair of Creature II speakers – you’ll be more impressed by the audio than with either of these options.
So far, On Stage II is only available from the online Apple Store, and apparently won’t be out at other retailers until February of 2006. If it is like other JBL products and becomes significantly cheaper, or if you have a need for its remote’s additional 20-30 feet of through-the-wall broadcasting power, bump it up to a high recommendation and A-. Otherwise, you’ll mostly likely find mm50 to be a better value.
Company and Price
Company: JBL/Harman Multimedia
Model: JBL OnStage II
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G/color/photo, 5G, iPod mini, iPod nano*, iPod shuffle*