JBL Radial Micro
At a Glance
JBL's original Radial is one of our favorite iPod speaker systems, thanks to impressive audio quality -- among the best of any desktop system for the iPod -- and an attractive design. However, at $300, it's more than some people are willing to spend for a small audio system for an office or bedroom. So JBL shrank the Radial down, made a few cost-cutting tweaks, and called the less-expensive result Radial Micro.
The Radial Micro has basically the same eye-catching design as the full-size Radial: a circular shape surrounding a Universal iPod dock. The biggest visual difference between the two, besides the Micro's smaller size, is that the Micro is missing the Radial's metal-looking trim near the bottom. The Micro includes the same chrome-looking Volume buttons near the front of the iPod dock and an on/off toggle switch on the back. As with other JBL speaker systems, pressing the Volume Down and Up buttons simultaneously mutes and unmutes the volume (a nice touch: when you unmute, the volume ramps back up gradually). As with the larger Radial, you're unlikely to use the rear power switch much, as the system's remote lets you put both the Radial and your iPod to sleep by pressing and holding the Play/Pause button. (Also similar to the Radial, turning the system's power off using the Radial Micro's rear switch doesn't pause or sleep your iPod; your iPod continues to play until you pause it or put it to sleep using the system remote or the iPod's Click Wheel -- another reason to use the remote instead.)
But the Micro differs electronically from the full-size Radial in a number of significant ways. The most obvious change is that the Micro has smaller (and fewer) speaker drivers and offers less power. Whereas the full-size Radial uses four small drivers (two left and two right) along with a 3-inch down-firing woofer, the Micro has only four one-inch drivers (two on each side); and the Micro's total output is limited to 20 Watts instead of 60. The result is that the Micro's overall sound quality is tilted towards the treble compared to its larger sibling. Still, midrange is good; the Micro's treble detail is comparable to that of the larger Radial; and, like the Radial, the Micro offers better stereo separation that you'd expect given its size.
The Radial Micro's sound quality compares favorably to that of Altec Lansing's inMotion iM600 and Logitech's mm50, the two portable systems in this price range that have most impressed us. I prefer the overall sound quality of the iM600 and mm50 slightly, mainly because each provides a bit more presence in the low end, resulting in audio that's slightly fuller overall, but the Micro is close enough that you likely wouldn't notice these differences unless you compared the systems side by side as I did.
Other features downgraded from their counterparts on the full-size Radio in the name of size and price include using a 1/8-inch minijack instead of an S-Video connector for viewing iPod-hosted video on a TV; this minijack, similar to the video-capable headphone jack of fifth-generation iPods, accepts Apple's iPod AV cable (not included) or any compatible third-party iPod video cable. Similarly, the full-size Radial's stylish radio-frequency (RF) remote control has been replaced on the Micro by a rather generic-looking infrared (IR) model, which means you're limited to line-of-sight control from distances less than approximately 20 feet away. (However, like the Radial's remote, the Micro's allows you to navigate your iPod's menus, a rare feature among IR remotes we've tested.) Finally, the Micro omits the blue "ambient" light of the larger Radial.
On the other hand, unlike its larger sibling, the Radial Micro includes a set of Universal dock inserts for older iPods. And the Micro's remote has four more buttons; this ten-button layout makes navigating your iPod's menus a bit easier than the six-button approach used by the full-size Radial's remote, which required you to switch between menu and playback modes.
Like its sibling, the Radial Micro includes a 1/8-inch stereo-input minijack for listening to an audio source other than a dockable iPod (cable included), as well as a USB-B port for connecting the system to your computer to sync your iPod with iTunes (cable not included).
At $150, the Radial Micro isn't the least expensive desktop/compact speaker system we've tested, but it's an attractive option -- figuratively and literally -- given its good sound quality and standout design. On the other hand, for the same price as the Micro, keep in mind that you can get an excellent portable system with a rechargeable battery in the form of the Altec Lansing inMotion iM600 or Logitech mm50.--Dan Frakes