One of the big beefs people have with all of Apple's latest 2012 releases — including the iPhone 5, iPad Mini, fourth-gen iPad and most new iPods — is that the company switched from the tried and true 30-pin dock connector to the new Lightning connector. That meant any and all iPod and iPhone accessories you'd accumulated over the years were incompatible with the new models. Finally, though, various accessories that are Lightning enabled are trickling onto the market; the compact JBL OnBeat Micro is one of the first speaker docks we've seen that works with the iPhone 5 and the new iPod Touch without the need for a pricey adapter.
The step-up OnBeat Mini can also accommodate the iPad Mini, while the Bluetooth-enabled OnBeat Venue LT has support for the iPad Mini as well as the fourth-generation iPad with Retina display (and presumably future full-sized iPads). Unfortunately, of course, the docks aren't compatible with older iPhones, but the OnBeat Micro includes a handy USB port for backward compatibility (more on that later).
Truth be told, we liked the Micro more than we thought we would. It's designed to sit on a desk or nightstand, and it delivers pretty big sound for its compact size. It also charges your iPhone or iPod Touch, and has a few other extras — an extra USB charger and the option to go portable with battery power. Both of these add some value and make the price tag seem more palatable.
Design and features
JBL has been making this type of compact speaker dock for iPods and iPhones for a while, starting with its doughnut-shaped On Stage products. This speaker is actually a little bigger, and has some heft to it: pick it up and it's not as lightweight as you'd think, weighing in at 571 grams. Still, it'll fit easily on a nightstand or next to your computer on a desk.
Since it has an audio input, you can use the Micro as a PC speaker (or to play audio from any other device, such as an Android phone or older, 30-pin Apple device). Yeah, there are two drivers inside the unit, which technically makes it stereo, but they're so close together that the speaker offers barely any stereo separation, so it's essentially a mono speaker. JBL's digital processing helps widen the soundstage a bit, but digital processing can only do so much.
The OnBeat Micro accommodates Lighting-equipped iPhones and iPod Touches.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Around the back, next to the audio input, you'll also find a USB port for plugging in and charging other mobile devices. Using that USB connection, you can stream audio from another device. For instance, we plugged in an iPhone 4S using a 30-pin cable and were able to charge the phone or play music from it through the speaker. We also connected an iPad Mini, and it, too, was able to output audio through the speaker or get charged.
That's a caveat: once you plug a cable into the USB port, you cannot play music from your docked iPhone or iPod Touch, though the device in the dock will charge. The same is true if you have a cable plugged into the auxiliary input.
We should also highlight of couple of design elements that some folks might find a little troublesome. First, unless you have an ultra-slim case on your iPhone, you'll most likely have to remove it in order to dock your device on the Lightning "post".
The other small issue is that the Lightning connector on the dock has a little play to it: without a device attached, it stands upright, which makes it easier to connect your iPhone. But after you connect your device, you then lean it back it into the dock — the post tilts back — where it sits at a slight angle, resting against a piece of rubber.
It's all fine, unless you start moving the dock around and suddenly see your iPhone tilting forward in the dock disconcertingly. Presumably, you won't move the dock around that much, although, as noted earlier, you can insert four AAA batteries into the hidden compartment at the base of the speaker and go mobile. Those batteries will deliver about five hours of power, which is OK, but not great. Ideally, of course, the dock would have an integrated rechargeable battery, but that would add another to the price tag, if not more.
As for missing features, some people like the idea of a built-in clock (the Philips DS1155 has this feature, though no dedicated alarm). Also, there's no pass-through port for connecting the dock to your PC for data syncing, although at this price, you wouldn't necessarily expect it.
The OnBeat Micro sounded better than we thought it would. It plays pretty loudly for its size, filling a small room with sound. As with a lot of these smaller speakers, it tends to be strongest in the midrange, and it sounds best when playing acoustic material from about a metre, which is why it makes for a decent desktop speaker. But we played some techno and hip-hop, and there's enough bass here to deliver a little kick. And that may be the most surprising thing about it: it doesn't sound too thin.
You can crank the volume, but at higher volumes, it does sound a little strained, so we stuck to more modest level — about five out of 10 on the volume scale — and ended up with a better listening experience.
We compared the Micro with the Philips DS1155, which you can find for slightly less. While the Philips was fine, the JBL sounded better, with fuller, clearer sound and more bass. That said, the Philips design is a little bit snazzier, though it doesn't have the option to switch to battery power.
We'd never been terribly impressed by JBL's earlier On Stage speaker docks, so our expectations were pretty modest for the OnBeat Micro. And maybe it was because we weren't expecting too much that we came away pleasantly surprised with the Micro. It plays a lot bigger than its size would indicate, and its sound is quite decent for a compact speaker dock as long as you don't try to crank it too loud.
Its connectivity (USB port, auxiliary input) and battery-powered options come with a few caveats, but ultimately make this speaker more versatile. It may not be perfect, but the OnBeat Micro makes for a good little desktop or bedside speaker and charging station, and we have no problem recommending it.