JBL has been in the audio business for a very long time--since the 1940's, in fact--and all that experience really shines through in the JBL Radial speakers for iPod. The company eschews the traditional iPod "brick" speaker, but the unusual spacey design of the Radial does nothing to hinder the sound coming from the iPod. In fact, we think it improves the digital sound overall. It's expensive at $299.95, but your ears will thank you.
The design of the JBL Radial appears to be modeled after the On Time, which was released at CES this year. The iPod--any dock-connecting iPod will do--sits center-stage under the arc of a speaker creating a futuristic circle. The 10.5-by-12-inch (height by width) "iPod stage" certainly draws attention to itself as well as to the iPod.
The Stargate-esque design won't appeal to everyone, but it's not entirely unattractive. Volume buttons rest on the front edge of the iPod stage and are the only controls located on the unit itself. An included RF remote--in a stylish angular design--comprises the rest of the controls. There are only six buttons, but four of them serve different purposes depending on the mode you select. The volume controls alternately serve as Menu and Enter, while fast-forward/rewind can also scroll through menu options. The mode and play/pause keys are static.
If you turn the 2.5-pound Radial around, you'll find the master power button as well as a variety of ports: auxiliary line-in, S-Video, USB (for computer syncing), and DC-in. JBL includes a power adapter cable and brick, a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm audio cable, and a compatible USB cable. Alas, this thing does not run on batteries.
iPod dock fittings are not included, though there is a sheet of what JBL terms "masking film for white color iPod adapters" with the black speaker. (These are just black stickers that cover white adapters to make them match the unit.) We wish JBL had thrown in an S-Video cable, considering the price of the speakers.
When you plug in your iPod and turn the Radial on, you'll immediately understand why the unit is one of the higher priced iPod sets. JBL packs the Radial with four aluminum-domed full-range drivers and one low-frequency neodymium driver. Translation: excellent, detailed sound with a thumping low-end. Everything from alternative rock to classical to hip hop sounds lovely on these speakers. The high-hats in Nirvana's grunge track "Come As You Are" were crystal clear and sparkly, and Nina Hahn's Bach Concerto sounded sublime--there's no other way to put it. Bass-heavy hip-hop and dance tracks sounded rich and full, yet were not overpowering on the low end. The speakers also get exceptionally loud, and thanks to their unusual shape, sound fans out to every corner of the room.
All in all, the JBL Radial even seems to improve the compressed digital sound coming from the iPod. JBL claims this has to do with its proprietary OCT (Optimized Compression Topology) technology. We don't know about that, but one thing's for certain: this system provides an excellent listening experience.