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iPod speakers are a dime-a-dozen. There are big ones and small ones; black ones and red ones; some with alarm clocks, and many with built-in docks. As one might expect, you don't have to look hard to find models with integrated FM--and even AM--radios, but if you must have cutting-edge tech, HD radio with iTunes Tagging is where it's at. Among the handful of models offering this feature is the JBL On Time 400iHD, a tabletop speaker dock with JBL's signature space-age design. At $300, the On Time is anything but cheap, but the plethora of features and excellent FM radio reception may make it worth it for some.
The JBL On Time 400iHD looks like a scaled-down spaceship with its oblong footprint and tapered ends. The unit measures 14 inches long by 5 inches deep by 3 inches tall, so it's neither the most compact tabletop unit we've come across, nor is it too large to fit on the standard nightstand. A gray, cloth speaker grille, which conceals two Phoenix transducers, wraps around most of the shiny black body. The front panel has a 3-inch monochrome display that is backlit in bright blue, while the back edge houses inputs for the power adapter, the line-in cable, and the radio antennas (two FM and one AM are included). An iPod dock and a glut of buttons take up the top of the unit. The tactile keys are raised and easy to press, though the speaker is slow to respond at times, and we think the snooze "bar" could stand to be about twice the size that it is.
In addition to controls on the unit itself, JBL includes a remote that can control the full array of functions. A mode button (indicated by a music note icon) lets you switch between auxiliary line-input, iPod, AM, and FM. In iPod mode, you can use the remote to start and stop playback, skip through tracks, and navigate among the player's menus. The remote may also be used to access the speaker's menus and adjust settings such as the display or date and time. When listening to another audio source, control is limited to volume and power, while FM or AM radio mode lets you scan the band as well as access and adjust presets.
Two of the On Time 400iHD's features are of particular interest: the alarms and the HD radio. First, you can set and control up to four alarms, and you can choose a wake mode (iPod, FM, AM, or buzz) for each one individually should you desire. Also, alarms may be set to go off once, daily, only on weekdays, or only on weekends, which is a nice touch. As for the HD radio functionality, there's no denying it's pretty cool. An HD station can have two spots on its frequency (99.7 and 99.7-2, for example), which means you have a greater variety of content as the stations tend to play different content on each (R&B on one and classic hip-hop on the other, say). Also, HD radio sounds better, although we're not sure we'd say it's CD quality. The On Time 400iHD includes an HD scan button, which makes it easy to find stations in range. It has a couple of limitations, though: you can't set presets or wake up to the secondary (-2) frequencies.
Performance is a bit of a mixed bag for the JBL On Time 400iHD. First off, the buttons on the unit and on the remote are not always responsive. Also, audio quality in iPod mode is not as great as we would expect from a $300 unit. Overall, music sounds clear and reasonably warm, but bass and high-end sparkle are lacking. The unit could use some EQ enhancement options, if you ask us. On the plus side, radio reception is excellent, and HD radio sounds just great. Also, we love the RDS capability, which lets us see the artist and song name on the screen. The iTunes Tagging, whereby song information is saved to your iPod, then communicated to iTunes, works a treat as well, though there is a lag between the tags being stored and then being sent to the iPod. Also, not all songs have a one-click buying option in iTunes, instead sending you to an album page where you can look for the track.
In the end, we're willing to sacrifice the stellar sound quality--it is, after all, only a tabletop unit--for the alarm clock features and HD radio functionality. The fact that there just aren't many HD options in iPod speaker docks works in the On Time 400iHD's favor.