The land of iPod accessories is nothing if not a very crowded space. In the speakers area alone there are a ton of companies competing for the coveted shelf space in Apple’s stores. New players in the market compete with trusted brands and things can get murky quickly. Companies have to do more and more to distinguish themselves from the competition.
JBL positioned itself early on as a big player in the arena of iPod speakers. Walk into any Apple Retail Store and you’re bound to see JBL stuff on display. Recently they sent us some speaker systems, no strings attached, in case we wanted to review them.
Naturally I’ll talk a fair amount about sound quality in this review, but that is not the only measure of success. These products have a few different price points, too. Also, we’ll talk about convenience and any extra features that are worth mentioning.
On Stage Micro
The On Stage Micro is definitely targeted toward portability. With a pretty small footprint of less than six inches, this little guy is the tiniest of the bunch. The ‘Micro is the little brother of the extremely popular JBL OnStage. I found the audio quality of the On Stage Micro to be rather lackluster. It’s understandable given the retail price of $99, and that it’s so geared toward portability. The thing even comes with a little tote bag.
There are a few nice touches that you wouldn’t expect to see in a dock this small. One is the IR remote. The remote isn’t as classy and refined as the Apple remote, but it works just fine and is nice and tiny. On the back are plugs for both audio out and in. In my mind, this feature alone expands the usage scenarios greatly for this product. I envision plugging it into a home stereo allowing a person to use some much bigger speakers and still benefit from the remote functionality. Sure, this is just turning the On Stage Micro into a glorified dock, but it’s a dock that you can also easily take with you and play music by itself. If you buy Apple’s Universal Dock and Apple Remote, then you’re out $68, and you’d still need to buy a power adapter to keep the iPod running while plugged into your stereo. The last extra feature that I like is the USB port. This again replaces the need for an Apple dock on your desktop.
All in all, I think the JBL On Stage Micro is a decent value for $99, if your needs fit what it offers. On the other hand, if your main priority is is audio quality you might want to pass it up.
Who wouldn’t want an iPod dock that also looks like an MRI machine for your gerbil? Of all the speaker systems I’ve seen, the JBL Radial seems the most divisive on looks. Some people love it, others can’t stand the thing. Since I’ve had this out for a couple weeks, I am about 85 percent sure I like the looks.
At three times the cost of the On Stage Micro, it may be a tough pill to swallow, but the Radial is far superior a product in almost every aspect. The only thing the On Stage Micro has on the Radial is portability. The sound is really good. It doesn’t distort at really high levels and has a nice range. I was pretty surprised when I turned up the volume. I wouldn’t have thought that kind of sound could come out of speakers that small.
It also has a pretty nice RF remote. Most remotes are IR, meaning you need direct line of sight to operate them. The Apple Remote is a good example. The remote on the Radial is RF, which is definitely superior. No line of sight required. One downer is the remote: It has just six buttons, yet it comes with its own manual. You’d think that if all it has to do is operate the iPod, JBL could have made something simpler. I like remotes that I can use without looking at them. The Apple remote is a good example. Just by touch, you can tell how to use it.
The Radial has audio in and a USB port. It also has s-video out, so it would be easy to plug the radial into your TV to watch movies from your iPod. Not all iPod docks, even the high end ones, offer this feature, so it would be a good idea to keep your eyes open for that when you’re shopping.
At $299, the JBL Radial is definitely approaching the high end of iPod docks. It’s a tough area in which to compete and there are a lot of great products out there. I can’t say that the Radial is the best one in this area as I just haven’t tested them all. I can say though that it does kick some serious butt, and I was pretty surprised and impressed.
Moving away from iPod docks for a moment, let’s check out some speaker systems. JBL sent us the Spot and the Spyro, two speaker sets that they debuted as a replacement for the much loved Creature line. I had a set of creature speakers for years and enjoyed them a lot. These feel familiar, but I’ve noticed a few changes.
Both the Spot and the Spyro are basically the same system with cosmetic differences. They feature two satellite speakers plus a subwoofer, and they sound pretty good. They are not the best-sounding speakers on the market; however, for the price, $129, I’d definitely call the Spyro and the Spot a good value.
I like the Spot better than the Spyro for two reasons. The spots have interchangeable helmets. My set came with black and white, but while I was at CES, I saw spots with all sorts of covers, so knowing that it offers that flexibility makes me like them that much better. Also, for some indiscernible reason, the Spot has a mute functionality and the Spyro doesn’t (with most JBL speakers, tapping the Volume Up and Volume Down buttons at the same time mutes the speakers). My wife likes the Spyro better than the Spot, so I suppose it’s a personal decision.
One really nice thing about both of these systems is how JBL has done the cabling. The cables for the satellites are wrapped in a really nice-looking rope. This reduces tangle and makes even the cables look nice. One gripe many people have about three-piece speaker systems is how it adds a lot of clutter with all the cords draped everywhere. The nice touch of using wrapped cables acknowledges this annoyance and makes it much more pleasant.
Since this review is more catered toward iPod docks than speaker systems, there are a few extra things to consider. If you are looking to buy a speaker system just for your iPod, and are considering systems such as the Spot or the Spyro, you must also consider the price of an iPod dock, remote, and power charger and cable to match even the functionality found in the OnStage Micro. I suggest considering the added costs of over $100 before going this route.
Go + Play
About half way through writing this review, a new entry landed on my doorstep: The Harman/Kardon Go+Play. This iPod dock is the classiest looking of the bunch. It’s very understated, yet when I fired it up, I realized it packs some serious sound.
JBL and Harman/Kardon are both owned by Harman International, so when comparing the Radial and the Go+Play we realize these guys are cousins. They pack nearly identical features as far as inputs and outputs. The Go+Play has audio in, s-video out, and a USB Port. The Go+Play dock is probably a bit nicer, actually allowing the iPod to lie flat and snug in the device. That could be construed as a drawback if you look at your iPod a lot while playing it. Again, it’s up to your preference. I also like that it has various dock adapters rubberized fitting and an adjustment knob to make sure any sized iPod fits nice and snug.
A bonus of the Go+Play that you won’t find in the radial is that it’s portable. On the bottom is a battery cover, allowing you to shed the power cord tether for the mere price of eight D batteries.
Having listened to them side by side, I give a vigorous nod to the Go+Play. As much as I was impressed with the Radial, I am even more blown away by the Go+Play. Whether playing classical, jazz or Radiohead, you can crank this thing up and it rises to the challenge very impressively each time.
The only drawback in my book to the Go+Play is the same as with the JBL Radial. The remote, while thankfully RF, suffers from poor usability. Operating a remote control, especially for something as simple as an iPod dock, shouldn’t be something that requires a manual.
$349 is the price of entry for the Go+Play, pricing it on par with the iPod Hi-Fi. Ouch. That’s pretty pricey. Then again, we’re talking about the top-of-the-line in iPod docks. Is it better than an iPod Hi-Fi? Maybe. I might have to leave that up to the audiophiles. Feature-for-feature, it seems about a wash. The iPod Hi-Fi has a better-feeling remote, but it’s not RF like the Go+Play. The iPod Hi-Fi accepts optical audio as an input, but doesn’t offer s-video out. The Go+Play is over 10 pounds lighter than the iPod Hi-Fi, though the Hi-Fi does have a built-in power supply (the Go+Play has a smallish external power brick). I suggest checking your personal preferences to see what you need, what you can afford, and what you like.
I say that the Go+Play is the best of the bunch reviewed in this article. Even at $349, it presents a remarkable value. (Note: on Amazon you can find the Go+Play for just $299.)