It’s about time Bowers & Wilkins’ award-winning Zeppelin Air had a proper challenger, and JBL’s new OnBeat Xtreme ($500) is just that — a premium-priced docking and wireless audio system with stylish curves outside and atypically powerful speakers inside. The surprise: though the two system’s aren’t identical to one another, OnBeat Xtreme actually outperforms the Zeppelin Air in the key ways users would consider important, and sells for $100 less. While JBL’s $500 asking price will take it out of the “impulse buy” category for most users, OnBeat Xtreme should be at or near the top of your list if you’re interested in an elegant all-in-one audio system for iPad, iPhone, or iPod use; it has only a few small but noteworthy caveats.
Yes, there’s something kitschy about the 1990’s-style “xtreme!” name, but OnBeat Xtreme is otherwise a sophisticated evolution of JBL’s earlier iPod and iPhone audio systems, with enough extra polish and class to match its price tag. As a considerably larger and more powerful version of the previously-released OnBeat, OnBeat Xtreme uses the same X-like “weave” industrial design and rotating central dock as before, but is so much better executed across the board that it feels like JBL designed it first, squeezing only as much as possible into the smaller version. For example, OnBeat Xtreme’s central dock is now capable of supporting iPads in portrait or landscape orientation, the latter problematic in the smaller OnBeat, and there are now four speakers inside the chrome and black base rather than two. The remote control’s better, and Bluetooth wireless streaming has been added, as well. A USB cable is included, as is a wall power cord, and a composite video port in the back allows docked devices to pump low-resolution video out to TVs. There’s generally a lot to love here.
And love it we do. OnBeat Xtreme’s enclosure now includes JBL’s Ridge drivers as tweeters plus Hercules woofers—the first appearance of those larger drivers we can recall in a JBL Apple speaker—and though JBL has repeatedly proved capable of doing more with fewer drivers than its rivals, the extra speakers and power work exceedingly well here. OnBeat Xtreme screams at its top volume level, providing more than enough volume to fill a medium-sized room and deafen people in smaller-sized ones, roughly equivalent to the peak amplitude of the Zeppelin Air.
More importantly, JBL’s system sounds great at safe listening levels, with noticeably superior treble detail and slightly improved midrange clarity relative to B&W’s $600 speaker, plus a little extra bass on its fixed setting. To be clear, OnBeat Xtreme’s default presentation is wonderfully balanced in typical JBL style, with judicious quantities of treble, midrange, and bass, all clear regardless of the system’s volume level. But having said that, it must be noted that Zeppelin Air includes a bass adjustment setting that OnBeat Xtreme does not, enabling you to modestly increase or decrease the low-end level if you prefer to do so. We preferred JBL’s default settings to the tweaked Zeppelin Air, but if you’re looking for added user adjustability, it needs to be said that OnBeat Xtreme doesn’t offer much of it. More on that in a moment.
JBL makes up for that relatively trivial omission with performance that’s surprisingly impressive given its size. Unlike Zeppelin Air, which has a remarkably long 25” width, OnBeat Xtreme’s roughly 17” wide base is actually smaller than many competing premium-priced speakers, with around 8” of maximum depth that’s partially due to the protruding, angled top dock. It’s also only about 1.5” taller, standing 9” high at its central peak, and even then, the system doesn’t look anywhere near as big as it sounds. The fact that you can dock an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch in your choice of orientations—sometimes when they’re inside cases—is a major advantage over the beautiful but highly restrictive dock in the Zeppelin Air, which offers only one position with no iPad compatibility, no rotation, and extremely limited case compatibility. JBL’s dock design worked with some iPhone 4/4S cases, and even with the flip-open Dock Connector covers of Speck’s iPad CandyShell cases. While we aren’t huge fans of the semi-flexible hard plastic and rubber grips OnBeat Xtreme uses to support the sides of rotated devices, they work if you need to use them.
You might not need to bother.
Unlike B&W, which was early on the bandwagon to support Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming technology this year, JBL instead chose the more reliable and popular Bluetooth standard for OnBeat Xtreme’s wireless functionality, and the results speak for themselves. Most users will find the sound quality to be virtually indistinguishable between docked and Bluetooth streaming devices—clarity is only a little better in docking mode—and as with all Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested, OnBeat Xtreme is a lot faster at making a wireless connection with Apple’s devices than AirPlay, starting playback in 1-2 seconds versus 10 or so. After initial pairing with your iOS device, which is far easier than setting up any AirPlay speaker we’ve yet tested, switching back and forth from docking or a cold start to wireless streaming is fast and completely reliable, which we haven’t yet found to be the case with any third-party AirPlay speaker. The only comparative inconvenience with OnBeat Xtreme is your need to manually switch the unit on from its standby mode, and then sometimes toggle it to the Bluetooth input source, when you want to start to stream music; AirPlay speakers in standby mode generally wake themselves up automatically, albeit slowly, when you start to stream music to them.
Using OnBeat Xtreme from a distance is only a little less than ideal. Though the unit comfortably exceeded the base Bluetooth streaming distance of 30 feet, working reliably in our testing from roughly 50 feet away before experiencing signal hiccups, we have tested some Bluetooth speakers with greater range. Similarly, AirPlay speakers generally offer even longer-distance performance, albeit with far more of a tendency to drop signals on congested networks. It’s also interesting that JBL includes a fancier RF remote control with OnBeat Xtreme than the typical Infrared remotes that it packages with most of its audio systems; this remote is a nicer-looking and -feeling version of the deluxe remotes JBL shipped with its earlier premium iPod audio systems, now with swirled metal buttons, a soft touch rubber finish, additional controls and a white status light. Track, volume, play/pause, and menu navigation controls are all available, though the latter nav features aren’t accessible during Bluetooth streaming. In the center is a JBL-marked “enter” button that can be held down to switch OnBeat Xtreme from its default audio setting into a confusing collection of “movies,” “chat,” “Internet radio” and “game” EQ settings that are too difficult to discern from one another and frankly not particularly well-suited to a device of this sort; we really wish this feature was better implemented, and frankly would have preferred it not be included at all in this manner.
JBL had an opportunity to make these EQ settings navigable—and more powerful—using the free OnBeat application Xtreme prompts you to download from the App Store, but for the time being, it hasn’t. The OnBeat app replicates the iOS Music application, adds alarm and distinctive clock functionality, and oddly provides setup directions for a different OnBeat system—OnBeat Air—rather than OnBeat Xtreme.