capsule review

Review: JBL On Stage

At a Glance
  • JBL On Stage

    Macworld Rating

Over the past few weeks we’ve reviewed a number of “dockable” desktop speaker systems for the iPod, including Altec Lansing’s $130-$180 inMotion iMmini and iM3 and Bose’s $300 SoundDock. The one popular system we haven’t yet covered is JBL’s $200 On Stage; I tackle this system here.

Mmmm... Donuts...

The first thing most people notice about the On Stage is its unique appearance. Like most iPod speaker products these days, the body of the On Stage is made of white plastic with a metal grill. But instead of the traditional rectangular speaker shape, the On Stage features a donut-shaped (or bagel-shaped, for the calorically disinclined) design which is sure to generate a good number of sales on its own—it looks that cool. This “donut of sound” is interrupted only by a dock slot on the front of the unit. As with the other systems mentioned above, this slot provides compatibility with dockable iPods—you simply slide your iPod in and press play. (Dock slot adapters for each iPod size, including the iPod mini, are supplied; unlike the all-plastic adapters offered by Bose and Altec Lansing, JBL’s adapters feature soft rubber “bumpers” to protect your iPod from scratches.) Your iPod is also charged while seated in the unit.

Additional connectivity includes an auxiliary input minijack (for connecting another audio source) and a port for Apple’s dock connector cable; when the latter is connected, the On Stage acts like Apple’s own dock base—you can sync your iPod with your computer while using the unit. The On Stage also uses the same unique, touch-sensitive volume control buttons found on the (Playlist Pick) JBL Creature II sub/sat speaker system: Lightly touching the up or down button changes the volume, while touching them both at the same time mutes the system.

Like Bose’s SoundDock, the On Stage isn’t a true portable system; it runs only off AC power. However, unlike the SoundDock, it’s small enough—7” in diameter, 1.75” tall—to toss in a suitcase or large carry-on, making it easily “transportable.” (Overall, the On Stage is actually smaller than the portable inMotion iM3.)

Details, Details

As we’ve noted in every review of one-piece, “desktop” speaker systems, such units will never sound as good as a quality set of “home” computer speakers with a subwoofer and satellites, especially in terms of stereo imaging and bass response—their smaller drivers simply don’t have the ability to reach the low end and the drivers are generally too close together to provide significant stereo separation. At the same time, we’ve also noted that just as a laptop isn’t designed to outperform a desktop computer, one-piece speaker systems aren’t designed to best home systems in output or imaging. You’re paying a premium for the ease of use, space-saving design, and “movability” that such a system brings. If you need or appreciate these attributes, you’ll likely find them worth paying for and will be willing to sacrifice ultimate sound quality to get them.

Given the limitations of these small systems, how does the On Stage fare compared to similar products? Very well in some areas, not as well in others. In our review of the Bose SoundDock, we discussed that system’s full, well-rounded sound, which lacked only in treble detail and in the expected lack of significant stereo separation. The On Stage’s performance is nearly the polar opposite. Unable to reach some of the midbass notes the SoundDock reproduces with ease, the On Stage is decidedly lacking at the low end. (Enabling the iPod’s “Bass Booster” EQ setting indeed boosts the midbass slightly , but it can’t help with those lower frequencies the On Stage isn’t capable of producing in the first place.) On the other hand, it excels in the high frequencies, providing crystal clear detail unmatched by other products in this category. (These two characteristics are likely interrelated—the bass sounds thin because the treble is emphasized, and the treble appears especially forward because of the lack of significant bass response. Even so, some listeners will likely find the On Stage to be too treble-heavy; those with high frequency sensitivity should consider a different solution.) Providing 12 watts of total power, the On Stage can also play louder without distortion than Altec Lansing’s inMotion systems, although it can’t match the Bose SoundDock for overall output.

Besides treble detail, another area in which the On Stage betters other desktop speakers is in the hard-to-describe area of “spaciousness.” Whereas competing systems place the speaker drivers on a plane facing the listener, the circular shape of the On Stage dictates that the drivers be placed around the “donut,” facing slightly outwards. This design, along with the On Stage’s accentuated treble performance, results in an overall airiness and spaciousness to the sound. This effect doesn’t quite equate to a better overall soundstage—the accurate portrayal of the placement of instruments and voices—but it does result in an openness to the sound that belies the On stage’s small size. Several times I had people listen to the On Stage with their eyes closed just to see their surprise when they later found out how small the system was.

Out of Control

The one significant feature I miss in the On Stage is a wireless remote control. The inMotion iM3 and SoundDock systems both include a remote, and during my evaluations I enjoyed having such an accessory handy. An argument could be made that the On Stage is a true “desktop” system so listeners will be within arm’s reach of the unit most of the time, but given the On Stage’s spacious sound, I think more than a few people will purchase the product for use in other settings. Hopefully JBL will add a remote in a future version, as Altec Lansing did with the second version of their inMotion system.

The Lowdown

If you’re in the market for a small desktop speaker system for your iPod and you don’t need battery-powered portability, JBL’s On Stage offers open, detailed sound in an attention-grabbing package. At $200, it fits nicely—both in price and overall performance—between the $180 inMotion and the $300. Its biggest flaws are poor bass response and a lack of a wireless remote, but it also offers the most spacious sound of any of the one-piece speakers we’ve tested, and its size, shape, and touch-sensitive volume controls make it a design winner.

At a Glance
  • JBL On Stage

    Macworld Rating
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