We’ve always had a healthy respect for JBL’s professional audio products. It has consistently built rugged, high-performance PA speakers and monitors for over 60 years and remains a favored brand of many a musician and sound engineer to this day. Its consumer audio division, on the other hand, has had its share of ups and downs. We recall a period in the late 80’s/early 90’s when JBL, like Infinity and KLH, fell out of favor with the North American audio enthusiast community, perhaps in reaction to a sudden influx of, shall we say, rather mediocre (Northridge) speaker products. Since then, it seems as if JBL’s home audio products haven’t been able to recoup the prestige they once had. But when we ran into JBL and its $60,000/pair Project Everest DD6600 speaker at CES 2007, it was glaringly obvious that JBL was on the rebound.
Over the past five years JBL has released several high-end speaker models, which have wowed us every time we’ve had the opportunity to hear them, but the company isn’t pouring its entire engineering prowess strictly toward esoteric floor-standing speakers with stratospheric price tags. It is working to make relevant, accessible products it hopes will resonate with the public, and backing them with some heavy-hitting marketing, which features the legendary Paul McCartney as front-man, no less. Case in point: The OnBeat Extreme speaker dock.
We’ve been wondering if JBL’s latest home audio products could deliver the goods, so we accepted the opportunity to evaluate the OnBeat Xtreme with no reservation. Read on to find out how this new speaker dock compares to the likes of B&W’s Zeppelin Air and Klipsch’s G-17 Air.
Out of the Box
The OnBeat Xtreme’s “weave” shape makes it an attention grabber, for sure. In fact, without an iPod or iPad mounted, you might not immediately recognize it as a speaker. We think someone with some eccentric design chops really got creative while developing this thing’s shape. Its geometry is strange, yet oddly appealing to your author (the rest of our crew thought it was…challenging to look at). To be sure, it’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it designs. At one point we actually heard someone comment that “it looks like it’s hugging itself”. Sure…that works!
Aside from its unique shape, the OnBeat Xtreme has other appealing aesthetic features including a wrap-around grill, chrome accents (yeah, they’re plastic) and an arching dock support which doubles well as a handle. Even the metal buttons on the right hand side of the dock have a solid feel to them.
As we started pulling accessories from the box, we noticed there was no bulky power brick to deal with (yay…those things are a pain in neck!). With this much beefier model, the power supply is built in, so only the provided detachable AC cord is needed. Also provided in the box was a remote control, USB cable, docking clips for iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad and a product manual. Though this unit offers composite video output and a ⅛-inch auxiliary input, cables for these connections are not included.
The unit weighs 9 respectable pounds and measures approximately 9 x 17.5 x 9.5 (H x W x D, in inches).
Features and Design
One of the OnBeat Xtreme’s key benefits over competing speaker docks is its floating docking connector and the clips that come with it. The iPhone and iPad clips snap into place on the reclined, rubber-padded device backing in order to hold either device securely in place. That’s not all, though. The docking connector can be rotated 90 degrees to hold devices in landscape mode, which we found especially useful when watching videos or movies.
The OnBeat Xtreme uses Bluetooth for wireless audio streaming. We find it interesting that JBL opted for Bluetooth wireless technology rather than Apple’s AirPlay for its top-of-the-line speaker dock. From our experience, Airplay usually sounds better than Bluetooth and, from a setup and use standpoint, AirPlay is almost always easier to deal with. As we’ll soon discuss, however, JBL’s choice to use Bluetooth turned out to be a really smart move.
Initially, we thought the USB input would allow playback of audio from a laptop or desktop computer. It turns out that is not the case. The USB input simply allows users to synch their iPod or iPhone with iTunes on the connected computer (which is convenient). Unfortunately, the cable is only 4 feet long (not as convenient). At any rate, the provided ⅛-inch auxiliary input makes it compliant with just about any device with an analog audio output, so the lack of USB audio input isn’t such a big deal.
The nifty features keep on coming. A composite video connection comes in handy for feeding video from an iDevice up on a larger screen. The included rubberized remote control works on RF, so you don’t have to see the dock to control it, and the button layout is intuitive, to boot.
The dock features a built in microphone allowing users to take a phone call while playing music. The catch is the iPhone must be paired with the dock in Bluetooth mode. The speakerphone feature doesn’t work if the iPhone is simply docked, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us.
There are five EQ settings built into this speaker dock. We only liked the “music” setting. All of the others were pretty terrible. Also, unless you download and use JBL’s OnBeat app, you don’t have a visual confirmation as to which EQ you’re listening to, leaving it to guesswork. Honestly, we could have done without the EQ thing altogether.
Finally, for the energy-conscious, there’s an auto-off feature which kills the power when not in use. Power consumption in standby mode is listed as 0.5 watts.
Want some tech specs? Here ya go: The OnBeat Xtreme is armed with two woofers and two tweeters. The size of the drivers isn’t disclosed at JBL’s website but we’d guess the woofers come in at around 3.5 inches and the tweeters at 1 inch. For enhanced bass, a rather large port is cleverly hidden on the back side of the dock behind its wrap-around grill. The output power rating for this unit is listed as 30 watts x 4, leading us to believe that the total system power would be around 120 watts.