When it comes to iPod mini stereo systems, JBL has a thing for circles. The company's On Stage products look like iPod docks surrounded by circular speakers, and its latest creation, an iPod clock radio called the JBL On Time, deifies your iPod with what can only be described as a speaker halo.
Unlike the plain-jane styling of the less expensive iHome iH5, the "retro future" design of the On Time is not only distinct, but it's apt to make a fashion statement when placed on a nightstand. Our review sample was white, but the On Time also comes in black to give you more flexibility when matching your decor--and your iPod, of course. JBL says a silver version is also planned, but no release timetable has been provided. Like other iPod speaker systems, this one comes with a variety of sleeves to make sure your iPod--whatever model it is (except dock-less early generation models and Shuffles)--rests snugly in the integrated dock.
When your iPod is in the dock and the On Time is plugged in, your iPod will draw power from the clock radio and recharge its battery. Switching from listening to your iPod's tunes to the AM/FM radio requires simply pressing the button labeled with the musical note icon. We found setting the alarm to be easy enough--you can choose to wake to your iPod, to the radio, or to a buzzer--and the display is amply proportioned and easy to read. Nice touches include backlit buttons, the ability to dim the LCD both automatically and manually (and even tweak its contrast settings), and a well-placed snooze bar on top of the unit. We also appreciated the line-in connection on the back of the unit, which would allow you to connect other audio devices, even the iPod Shuffle and early-generation iPod models that aren't dockable. A subwoofer output is also available for an optional minisubwoofer, and another port replicates the connector on the bottom of all dockable iPods. That means you can use the USB or FireWire cable that ships with your iPod to connect the On Time to your Windows PC or Mac and sync to your heart's content.
You get five presets for your favorite radio stations, but no remote is included, so you'll have change stations and make any volume adjustments from the unit itself; all iPod navigation is done via the iPod's scrollwheel. Considering the system lists for $250, we felt the lack of some sort of remote was a bit of a disappointment. Not a deal-breaker, but other competitors, such as the Tivoli Audio iSongBook and the aforementioned iHome iH5, offer a remote option.
As far as the sound goes, it is acceptable though far from great. On the plus side, the On Time's side-firing speakers radiate sound and don't sound boxy, as some tabletop radio systems do. Because of that design, you shouldn't enclose the unit; it should sit on a table of sorts and be left out in the open to project outward. But even with an open setup, don't expect the On Time to match the sound of some of the higher-end iPod speaker systems, such as the or the . The On Time's sound is mostly midrange, with a somewhat brash top end and a limited bass.
Again, to the average listener, the system will sound pretty decent, but we ran it against the i-Deck, which sounded significantly better. On 2Pac's rendition of Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight," the JBL's bass didn't hold together at higher volumes and sounded thin by comparison. Duke Ellington's "Piano in the Foreground" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" sounded a little constricted and nasal, as if we were listening to them through cupped hands.
All that said, the JBL On Time sounds quite a bit better than the sub-$100 iHome iH5 and clearly is the better overall system. Tivoli's more expensive iSongBook is also a clock radio--and it's portable--but the On Time will give you bigger and arguably better sound. Bottom line: if you're looking for audiophile sound, look elsewhere. But if you're seeking a reasonable-sounding iPod-friendly clock radio that has a very distinct look, the On Time is clearly worth considering. Hopefully, its price will dip below $200 because it makes more sense in the $150-to-$200 range.