JBL ON AIR Clock Radio Reviews
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JBL ON AIR Clock Radio

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A Botched First Attempt at AirPlay

Jul 29, 2011
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Compact, good eye-catching looks.

Cons:Serious distortion, complete absence of bass, non-protable. 

The Bottom Line: Save your money and wait for something better. They will come along. This if 1970's clock radio sound for $350. 


AirPlay has been around in several forms for a number of years with the ability to stream from computers and other devices to speaker systems connected to the Apple AirPort Express routers. It has worked very well from day one with sound being as good as the speakers which were connected to the AirPort. Apple opened up this technology and allowed speaker makers to build AirPlay into their products. We're just now starting to see the first attempts at making this work. One such attempt is the Harmon/JBL "On Air". 

In the interest of full disclosure, I bought, used and returned this product as unsatisfactory. At nearly the price of a Bose SoundDock Portable, this device had a lot to do in order to impress me. The styling is interesting. It takes up little space and it just looks good. It can serve as an active, charging dock with a full-function remote for operating an iPhone or iPod Touch and can even be used to play video in portrait mode if you want to sit six inches away to watch a video. Based on the performance of my Bose SoundDock when plugged into an Airport Express and when streaming music to it, I thought this would deliver at least competitive performance. 

That proved not to be the case. While like the Bose, there are no tone adjustments, Bose doesn't need them. The JBL On Air does. It needs lots of adjustments. The low end is just not there at all. If you want to hear thumping bass or just the elegance of the strings of a bass viol in a symphonic or jazz piece, this isn't it. I'm sorry to harp on this comparison with the Bose SoundDock but I'm not even comparing this JBL to the SoundDock 10, just the smaller portable, battery powered unit. The Bose simply has it all over this and perhaps it's an unfair comparison, but as the two are close in price and footprint, I expected similar sound and just did not get it. More annoyingly is the fact that even at moderate volume, the JBL distorts. In fact, I have an ancient GE AM transistor radio from when I was a kid and this effort from JBL reminded me of that kind of sound, minus the crackles until of course, I turned up the volume. 

The JBL performed in this substandard way when using AirPlay and when using the dock connector, so we can't lay off the crummy sound on their implementation of AirPlay technology. I actually think they got that right. It's their amp and speakers which needed more thought than someone saying, "Yeah, that will do". That is in fact, the impression I got when listening to the On Air. It was cobbled together as a "that will do" project. 

I have heard some of those $30-$50 dock sound systems and clock radios at Costco which sound as good as this does, so the $350 premium price really started to sting a bit as I listened to this monstrosity. I did not get to test-listen one before buying it. They are that new and yes, this is the Burmese tiger pit for the early adopter. It is good to ask about return policies in all situations but especially when buying something which relies on individual taste. Fortunately, I was dealing with an excellent vendor and had no problem returning the On Air for a full refund. 

I like JBL and always have. I have one of their "three mushroom" computer sound systems plugged in right now and it's fantastic. It was $120 and it blows away the On Air in every way and has a subwoofer which lets me feel the big strings in Pachelbel's "Canon". If only they had built that kind of sound into the On Air. It is difficult to imagine JBL getting something they do so well so totally wrong as they did here, but even at $50, I think I would have to pass due to the distortion factor. At $350 I'll spot them the fact that this is not very portable. It remains tied to a brick power supply. Presumably a $400 cordless version might be in the works but unless it is improved drastically, they need not bother. As much as I like JBL, it's rather painful to have to enter a negative review but it is fully merited in this case. 

Others are getting it right, also at high prices. This is new, cool tech and everyone wants to get a new product to market and capture those initial "gotta have it" dollars. Based on the On Air, I would say that the smart money will wait for a second generation to come along after some of the big names have broken their screwdrivers. Apart from looking cool, I can't really think of anything good to say about this product. But I have a hand-painted French mustard jar on my desk I use to hold pens and pencils and it looks cool too. It was $10, full of good mustard, not $350, full of hype.  


Recommend this product? No


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