The JBL On Air Wireless is a $350 Internet-connected FM radio alarm clock that features Apple AirPlay functionality. It's the first device I've personally tested with AirPlay, and now that I own an iPad 2 I was anxious to get started testing the unit.
Though its price is certainly much higher than we would have liked, the JBL On Air Wireless is an overall above-average-sounding speaker dock. Its AirPlay features are mostly unique in the current market, save for newer products like the iW1 from iHome (which we have yet to review). Of course, another logical alternative would be the Sonos Play:3, not for AirPlay functionality--it doesn't have any--but for its capability of streaming music from any Mac, PC, or NAS. The iHome iW1 and the Sonos Play:3 are both $50 cheaper than the JBL, to boot.
Design and setup
The JBL On Air Wireless' most eye-catching feature has to be its oddly shaped, circular speaker that domes around the iPod dock, LED screen, and control buttons. The silver grille feels tough and is complemented by a circular snooze button cut out of the same material placed at the apex of the curve.
A color LED screen rests at the center of the device, and shows a large digital clock when the JBL On Air Wireless is switched off. It's quite bright, but, luckily, the setup menu offers dimming options. The screen acts as a liaison for all the device's features. Unfortunately, some of this requires text entry, which without a keyboard is a tedious task. However, items like Wi-Fi network passwords are stored, even if the dock loses power.
The entire interface doesn't feel quite as snappy as we would have liked. Button response seems to lag slightly. It's by no means a deal breaker, but definitely takes a bit of getting used to--especially for the impatient user who wants to fly through menus.
All of the onboard buttons are represented on the included remote control. The remote is slim and light, but its buttons have enough tactile feedback for a satisfying response.
Because of its unique shape, the JBL On Air Wireless isn't exactly the most practical piece of electronics. It's not easily portable, nor does it support any kind of rechargeable battery apparatus. For its steep $350 price tag, we really wish the JBL's design lent itself to more versatility.
In addition to standard features like FM radio and presets, the JBL On Air Wireless features customizable alarms that can wake you using the FM radio, the buzzer, or an iPod as a source.
You can also bring your own source via the Aux input, located just behind the iPod dock.
The full-color LED screen really does pop, and we especially liked the large digital clock display that broadcasts when the system is idle.
There's also a USB port around back, but unfortunately it's only used for updating the system's firmware. We think this is a huge missed opportunity, because of the pervasiveness of USB drives and devices. We would have loved an option to bring your own storage.
Getting AirPlay to sync was an overall painless experience. Since iTunes 10 has AirPlay built into the software, any PC, Mac, iPhone, or iPad on the same local network running it can stream audio wirelessly to the JBL.
Once the AirPlay mode is selected on the JBL On Air Wireless, it shows up listed when you click the AirPlay mode button on any of the aforementioned platforms. It certainly adds a new dimension to music listening, since it provides a mostly mobile (within range) atmosphere. We really enjoyed moving around the apartment using the iPad 2 as a virtual DJ.
Overall, we were impressed with the range of sound the JBL On Air Wireless was able to pump out. While there aren't any specific bass or treble controls, the speaker does a great job in terms of audible range. Bass output was rich and powerful and only rarely did any distortion emanate from the speaker. Stereo separation is difficult to achieve (and some similar items on the market can't do so and still have a sleek aesthetic), but the JBL's unique speaker design actually helps with accomplishing separation.
At the end of the day, it'd be easier to recommend the JBL On Air Wireless were it at least $100 cheaper. But given its current $350 price tag, the only people we could advise to even entertain the idea of purchasing one would be those who absolutely must have the latest and greatest AirPlay-compatible hardware.
It's unfortunate that a detail like price is what has us thinking twice about the JBL On Air Wireless, but in such a budget-conscious society as we currently occupy, items like the On Air Wireless simply aren't practical.