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JBL OnBeat Air review: JBL OnBeat Air

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The Good The JBL OnBeat Air features Apple AirPlay wireless streaming in a fairly compact iPhone/iPad audio dock that swivels, holding the device in portrait or landscape position. It offers decent-enough sound for its size and has a pass-through USB connection for computers so you can sync a docked iPod, iPhone, or iPad with iTunes on your computer.

The Bad The iPad can't be rotated to landscape mode when docked, and the speaker sounds a bit thin.

The Bottom Line The JBL OnBeat Air is a decent (though not great) compact speaker dock for iOS devices that's currently one of the more affordable AirPlay speakers on the market.

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6.7 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6

A few months back I reviewed the JBL OnBeat iPhone/iPad audio system and thought it sounded pretty decent but had one significant flaw: while the OnBeat's swiveling dock can hold an iPhone or iPod Touch in either vertical (portrait mode) or horizontal (landscape mode), this doesn't work for iPads. The dock is roomy enough to hold an iPad, but only vertically -- a bummer if you want to watch video.

I'm telling you this up front because, well, the OnBeat Air is basically the same product as the OnBeat, with identical sound quality, but with one key added feature: support for wireless AirPlay streaming from any of Apple's compatible devices, including the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and even any Mac or Windows PC running iTunes.

While this product isn't nearly as good as the much larger JBL OnBeat Xtreme, which costs a pricey $500, the OnBeat Air will appeal to folks who want to have an iPad speaker-stand on the nightstand so they can listen to music or, more importantly, watch video.

Like its bigger and better-performing brother, the OnBeat Xtreme, this model has one of those designs that you're either going to love or find a little off-putting. The front looks a little like the top of a woman's formal dress and the chrome around the dock makes a heart shape.

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The OnBeat Air's dock accommodates and charges iPads in a vertical position only, but you can swivel iPod Touches and iPhones into a horizontal position. Sarah Tew/CNET

While the OnBeat Air seems fairly well built, it does feel pretty light, and can be picked up easily enough, which some will view as a good thing. It's just not a luxurious, high-end product like the OnBeat Xtreme, but it does cost much less at around $200, so you can't expect it to be.

The OnBeat Air features a 30-pin Apple dock that, as usual, recharges docked devices. As noted above, the dock rotates so you can put your iPhone, iPod, or iPod Touch in portrait or landscape mode for movie-watching, but a docked iPad needs to stay locked in the vertical position. JBL throws in adapters for iPads and iPhones that make your specific device sit more securely in the dock.

The dock works with the original iPad, the iPad 2, and the third-generation iPad (aka new iPad), but because of the way Apple placed the port on the bottom of the iPad 2 and iPad 3, it always feels a little iffy when you're sliding it into the dock, and it often takes a couple of tries to get everything to line up properly. It's not a huge problem, but it's noticeable.

It should also go without saying that the speaker looks very different depending on what, if anything, is docked in it. I preferred the look when the iPad was docked; an iPhone or iPod Touch looked comparatively out of place.

The OnBeat Air doesn't have Bluetooth for wireless streaming like the OnBeat Xtreme, but it does offer AirPlay support and a few extras in the features department. AirPlay audio streaming, in case you don't know, is available through iTunes on both Mac and Windows computers and works for nearly all audio applications on iOS devices.

Before I dig into the AirPlay feature a bit more, let me highlight some of the other extras. For starters, there's a composite video output so you can run video from your docked iPad, iPhone, or iPod, to your TV using an optional cable. Alas, that video connection is composite, which means the video quality will not be terribly good (think VCR-quality at best).

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