Though they are portable devices, the iPod and the iPhone can make wonderful sources for headphone-free music when connected to speakers. Of course, wading through the glut of iPod-ready tabletop speakers on the market today takes patience and know-how, especially if you have an iPhone, which requires a unit with magnetic shielding for optimal performance. Luckily, well-established audio device companies like JBL are providing more and more models with that feature, such as the JBL On Stage 400P. This $250 tabletop speaker dock is the largest of the On Stage line and bests its smaller siblings in sound quality. If you're looking for a cheaper alternative to Bose's SoundDock, this is a good place to start.
The JBL On Stage 400P looks like a scaled-down spaceship, with its oblong footprint and tapered ends. The unit measures 15 inches long by 7 inches deep by 4.3 inches tall, so it's rather large by On Stage standards. Still, it is by no means massive and would fit easily into a dorm room or office setup. A gray, cloth speaker grille, which conceals one 45mm Atlas and four 25mm Odyssey transducers, wraps around most of the shiny black body. As the 400P does not include extras such as an alarm clock or FM tuner, its overall look is quite simple, with nothing but a small JBL logo stamped into the front panel.
An iPod dock takes center stage on the top side of the On Stage 400P, and JBL includes five clear, snap-on adapters for the various iPods and the iPhone. The unit is compatible with all docking iPods, as well as the Shuffle and other MP3 players, thanks to the inclusion of an auxiliary line-in port on its back edge (JBL includes the necessary stereo patch cable). The back side also features a power button and a DC input for the included power cable. Although the speaker does not have a battery power option, it will charge any docked iPod, even when switched off.
Additional features are scarce, to say the least. The On Stage 400P offers integrated tactile volume buttons, which are situated next to the iPod dock. JBL also includes a small plastic remote that offers full control of playback from up to about 20 feet away. (It operates on the IR spectrum, so you must be in direct line of sight with the device for it to work.) The remote consists of the full array of keys: menu, back, up/down navigation, track FF/RW, play/pause, mute, and volume up/down.
The JBL On Stage 400P doesn't offer many features on the surface, but behind the scenes, it packs in a digital amplifier and digital-sound-processing (DSP) technology. No doubt both of these features contribute to the impressive audio quality offered by the speaker. In fact, we were surprised by the amount of low-end thump produced by the unit; bass response is very good, especially for a speaker this size. Highs weren't particularly shimmery in testing, but the clarity and detail is definitely there. The midrange seemed slightly deficient, perhaps not quite as warm as we prefer. Still, overall sound was good, and it remained balanced across a variety of genres. The On Stage 400P is a good "everyman's" speaker dock, making it a solid--and cheaper--alternative to the Bose SoundDock.