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JBL OnBeat Venue LT review and giveaway

JBL has been making the OnStage line for a while now. I still use an older model for my ancient iPod photo (remember that gem?). The Venue LT I tested has a pop-out Lightning dock, however, and the oomph of a larger system. I've always been impressed with JBL's audio gear, but the Venue LT provides you with plenty of connections in a sleek package for a reasonable price.

Design

I'm always amazed at how small JBL can make its speakers without compromising the volume of the sound. While the Venue isn't tiny, it is dense (meaning the magnets driving the speakers are heavy), and shaped so that it feels like a big bullet in your hands. A big, heavy, plastic bullet. Despite being plastic, the build quality is very good.

The Slipstream bass ports, as with all proper sound ports, are designed to help pump up the sound and are aimed towards the back. There's a thin fabric stretched across the plastic grill, which protects the speakers. If you're doing to be moving this around a lot, note that the fabric isn't protected behind plastic or rubber, like some speakers.

Still, that lack of protection is what makes the Venue so sleek. That sleekness comes with a small price, however. Up top are the buttons and indicator lights. The volume buttons are not lit, and several times I was perplexed as to how to turn the volume down (even though I know left = down). Without paint to accentuate the plus/minus signs, you'll need a lot of light to see them. Frankly I don't tend to put my speakers under a spotlight, so this because a bit of a problem. Similarly, the power, EQ buttons and audio routing button are hard to read, though they are poorly backlit, so you essentially will need to memorize the buttons on the top of the device. That's not terrible, but it's a design choice that makes an impact on the actual use of the device. Don't compromise function over form if you can help it!

One nice feature of the Venue's design is a pop-out tray for the Lightning port. If you're just using the Venue as a speaker, not as a dock, you'll appreciate the fact that you can hide the tray entirely -- although the little gray rubber nub (where your iDevice would rest its back panel) would remain a curiosity.

One problem with the tray is that the Lightning port itself can only plug into devices with no case -- at least, none of the minimal cases I tried would work. Despite the fact that the port has a bit of swivel, it seems to be made so that any case which adds width to the bottom of your device, even up to an inch away from the port itself, will prevent a secure connection. So be aware of that. I don't use a case with my iPhone 5, so it wasn't a huge deal.

While Bluetooth is probably the easiest way to connect your device to the Venue, the Lightning port also charges your iDevices, and quite rapidly from what I saw. You can also connect through a 3.5mm auxilliary audio port, but since the Venue is designed to power down after a certain period of time of no sound, you won't be able to set up an Airport Xpress-based speaker system. I found myself having to get up and power on the JBL if I forgot to keep playing audio on whatever I had plugged in.

That doesn't happen with the Bluetooth or dock, but one unit I tested did have a slightly annoying feature of relaying all of my system audio to the Bluetooth speaker. So if I was charging my iPhone and got a text, I got a very loud text through the speaker. I've been told that some of the issues I was having (like volume being set very loud when first plugging in) were abnormal, and another unit seems to be working better.

Finally, the Venue LT is not designed to be an outdoor speaker. It must remain plugged in to AC, and there's a small round port on the back for the external AC adapter, which also has a nice big transformer brick attached. I was thankful that the plug wasn't a wall wart, however, and is long enough to likely be tucked under something.

Function

As a speaker the Venue is outstanding for a couple of reasons. While I'm not a big fan of those pre-set EQ buttons, they definitely punch up the presence of the audio -- even if it's just boosting the bass and treble a tad. The real beauty of the Venue, however, is its support of high-quality AAC streaming over Bluetooth, and the use of Harman TrueStream technology. According to Harman-Kardon, TrueStream is "Bluetooth hi-fi" -- and compared to some other Bluetooth speakers I've heard, it works well. Not only that, but it's very fast to connect and allows you to "store" up to 8 devices at a time.

Back to the actual sound of the speakers, however. JBL is notable for making loud stuff, and also somewhat reviled for having a "too bright" sound. That is, it tends to accentuate the highs and not the lows, and that leaves a muffled mid-range sound as well. There's plenty of clarity, thanks to the highs, but I would say the mids are not as present, which lends itself more to pop and less to, say, folk music.

But man is this thing loud. Part of the reason I had to get another unit was because I would plug in my phone and the sound (as there's no volume indicator) would actually hurt my ears! I have learned not to put my face directly in front of the speaker. Still, this thing is designed to be loud, and I cannot fault it for that. I have little doubt that this speaker, not two feet in length, could fill a rather large room with sound. It's a little crazy how loud this thing gets, and JBL's signature orange pads on the bottom were doing a good job of keeping the speaker on a table while I stress-tested it (and probably woke up my neighbors). Perhaps that's where the name Venue comes from.

Bottom Line

If you are in the market for a loud speaker dock, the JBL OnBeat Venue LT is a good deal, retailing for about $200. The outstanding Bluetooth implementation and the pop-out dock are great selling points, and extremely useful if you need them. If you are an audiophile, you might be somewhat disappointed by the mid-range sound. If you intend to have this plugged in all the time using the aux input, you will also be annoyed that it powers down. I'm also hoping JBL rethinks the button lighting on the top of the device.

But even with those relatively minor flaws, this is a very good purchase, possibly the best in its class. JBL makes a great product (and stands behind it), and I suspect you can find this unit pretty much anywhere. If you need volume and a place to charge up your Lightning device all wrapped into a sleek and unassuming package, the Venue LT is a perfect choice. If you just need a speaker with great sound and several connection options, I still recommend the Venue highly. At this price point, I doubt you'll find much better sound.

Giveaway!

And we're giving one of these suckers away to a lucky TUAW reader.

Here are the rules for the giveaway:

  • Open to legal US residents of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 and older.
  • To enter, fill out the form below completely and click or tap the Submit button.
  • The entry must be made before August 30, 2013 11:59PM Eastern Daylight Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • One winner will be selected. One will receive a JBL OnBeat Venture LR with a value of $199.95.
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.

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