JBL Onbeat Xtreme speaker system combines unique look, excellent sound, frustrating controls
JBL’s $600 OnBeat Xtreme is a Bluetooth-enabled, dock-cradle speaker system for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Now, one of the first things we like to do when we review a speaker system is describe how the thing looks. In this case, though, I’m going to just direct you to the photos associated with this review—the OnBeat Xtreme looks like its own thing, and it’s nearly impossible to describe in words. My best attempt: It looks like it’s from the future, it’s a mix of black materials with shiny chrome, and its various pieces form a sort of oblong X.
Though the OnBeat Extreme includes Bluetooth audio (more on that in a bit), it also includes a traditional 30-pin dock cradle. In order to be all things to all i-Devices, the Xtreme ships with a pair of adapter clips for that cradle. One clip fits iPhone, iPod touch, and iPod classic models, while the other holds all iPad models. (Though, depending on which model iPad you have and whether its clad in a skin or Smart Cover, you’ll need to to rotate the rubber grips on the clip.) You need no clip at all for an iPod nano.
Speaking of iPad compatibility, the OnBeat Xtreme was released before the third-generation iPad, so JBL didn’t include specific instructions for using the system with the latest Apple tablet. In my testing, I found that I needed to follow the instructions for securing the original iPad to ensure that the new iPad’s dock-connector port maintained a secure connection.
Though it’s easy enough to switch between adapter clips, you’ll likely want to pick one device for docking and keep it at that, as keeping track of the clips and rubber bumpers is a nuisance. Once you’ve configured the OnBeat Extreme’s cradle for your device, you can rotate the cradle between portrait and landscape orientation.
On the right side of the Xtreme sit five vertically arranged buttons: power, volume up, volume down, a source-select button (represented by a music-note icon), and a Bluetooth button (represented by a phone icon). The source button toggles between the Xtreme’s dock cradle, Bluetooth, and auxiliary inputs; its backlit color changes depending upon its current setting. You hold down both volume buttons at the same time to toggle mute.
If you hold down the power button for two seconds or less, you put the OnBeat Xtreme into Sleep mode. In Sleep mode, the system turns on a bit quicker, and it will automatically wake up if a Bluetooth-paired device attempts to connect to it. Sleep mode consumes more power than Eco-Standby, which you enter by holding down the power button for longer than two seconds.
The OnBeat Xtreme also ships with a nice-quality remote about the size on an iPhone screen. The remote’s buttons include iPod/iOS-navigation controls—Menu, Up, and Down—along with track and volume controls. The large center button cycles through five equalizer (EQ) settings: Music, Movies, Chat, Internet Radio, and Game. The latter three of those settings are lousy, but Music (the default) sounds great, and Movies pumps up the system’s already considerable bass presence without distortion, even at very loud volumes.
On the back of the Xtreme, you’ll find a 3.5mm (1/8-inch) auxiliary input jack (for connecting an additional audio source), a composite-video output jack, a USB port (for using the included USB cable to sync your docked device to iTunes on your Mac or PC), and a power-adapter connection.
To send your docked device’s video through the Xtreme’s video output, you need to press and hold the Up button on the remote control for longer than two seconds; if you forget this, you’ll need to either check the manual or try every button until you find the right one. The system’s use of this type of challenging-to-remember controls—where buttons serve multiple, unlabeled functions—is at best frustrating. Another interface frustration is that the only way to figure out the current EQ setting is to memorize the order of the EQ presets as you toggle through. A few more controls, and a status screen or LED, would go a long way toward making the system more user friendly.
Pairing the Xtreme over Bluetooth is a painless process; I successfully paired a couple iOS devices and my Mac with the system. When paired with a phone, the OnBeat Extreme’s phone button can trigger and end calls—you can use the system as a speakerphone—and, with an iPhone 4S, trigger Siri. In my testing, people on the other end of calls could tell I was on a speakerphone, and there was a decided delay when my end of the conversation was relayed. But my voice sounded passable to them, and the folks on the other end sounded great to me.
Interface frustration aside, the OnBeat Xtreme sounds great. It produces phenomenally good audio, in fact, rivaling the excellent sound produced by the also-pricey Klipsch G-17 Air. Whether playing from a docked device or over Bluetooth, bass presence was borderline astonishing, and midrange and treble frequencies were crisp and clear.
Macworld’s buying advice
I’m torn on the OnBeat Xtreme. Its appearance might not be for everyone, but even if you like the futuristic look, you should ask yourself how you’d intend to use the system. In my house, we frequently pop iPhones and iPads in and out of compatible speaker docks for charging and music playback. The OnBeat Extreme is certainly not ideal for such use—you’re not going to want to pry off a clip and put a different one on each time you want to switch devices. But if you plan to dock a single device, or if you primarily intend to use Bluetooth playback—and you won’t begrudge the Xtreme’s lack of AirPlay support—it’s a great-sounding speaker, albeit one with mediocre controls.