AirPlay devices typically command a premium. If you want a speaker system that uses Apple’s wireless music streaming platform to seamlessly integrate with your iTunes library and your iOS devices, you’ll usually have to cough up between $300 and $600 for something with quality sound.
But I’ve tested a device that proves “AirPlay” and “cheap” aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s JBL’s budget-minded OnBeat Air; it streams music from iTunes and iOS devices over Wi-Fi, sports a 30-pin dock for charging an iPhone, and even has eye-catching design. And the best part: it’s only $200.
Sure, it lacks the braggadocio of the ultra-luxe B&W Zeppelin Air, and its speakers, while plenty loud, won’t be blowing any clothes off either. But it’s still one of the cheapest and easiest ways to take the AirPlay speaker plunge.
JBL did a great job on the OnBeat’s compact design. At just about two pounds, it’s easy to carry, and both the plastic-grilled base and the adapter are small enough to fit in a messenger bag. The docking options are a little awkward: All modern iOS devices fit smoothly in an adjustable docking arm, which has a 30-pin connector at its base. Once docked, iPods and iPhones can swivel horizontally. An iPad will dock vertically, but it can’t swivel due to its size, so you have to watch videos in portrait mode if you’re docked. Non-iOS users get a little love with an Aux In jack on the back of the speaker.
Getting it set up for AirPlay streaming requires some IP tinkering in the browser, but it’s quick and relatively painless. In fact, once the OnBeat was registered on the network, I didn’t have to futz with the master settings again. The OnBeat did drop its network connection about once per day — a frustratingly common occurrence with AirPlay devices — but re-syncing with a button press was easy. Playback was near-instantaneous, and streaming music across the network worked just like every other AirPlay device; you set the OnBeat as your playback speaker in iOS/iTunes, select your tracks and start streaming.
As far as sound, I judged it to be “pretty OK.” That isn’t the warmest endorsement, I realize — in the bookshelf/desktop speaker realm, it’s outclassed by bigger AirPlay noiseboxes like Altec Lansing’s inAir 5000, and even JBL’s own Bluetooth-powered OnBeat Xtreme. Put simply, the OnBeat Air just doesn’t have the range or bottom end of these nicer devices. What it does offer is passable sound for a small room setup.
The trumpet blasts of Portishead’s “All Mine” sound clear, if a little thin, and the unmistakable rumbles of Inception‘s dream worlds were present, but shallow. Even EQ presets and signal processing can’t prevent the OnBeat from getting a little muddy at high volumes, which basically puts its sweet spot in the low-to-medium volume range. This was perfect for half-watching episodes of Parks and Rec in the kitchen while prepping dinner. My plans for a headbanger’s ball, however, had to be shelved.
The OnBeat Air is best suited for people who want to add Apple’s brand of wireless streaming to a small space. It works fine in an apartment kitchen, a study, or a home office. It’s a budget-minded AirPlay device from the ground up, which definitely limits its range from an audio perspective. AirPlay virgins looking for a mid-level speaker take note — the OnBeat is relatively cheap, easy to use, and offers “good enough” sound for casual listening. Just don’t expect it to be the life of your next party.