JBL continually creates some of the most beautiful loudspeaker systems on the market and has done so for more than 50 years, but of among the company's new arrivals for the holidays, one particular speaker stood out: the JBL OnBeat Venue Lightning, or LT.

Two of Apple's newest, top-selling products -- the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini -- are unfortunately incompatible with most current accessories and speakers, thanks to that tiny 8-pin hole at the bottom of those devices called the Lightning dock connector. JBL was among the first to adapt to the next-generation micro connector and design an all-new speaker dock around these specs just in time for the holiday push. The OnBeat Venue LT was the result.

JBL was kind enough to send out an OnBeat Venue LT unit so we could test the device during the all-important Christmas and New Year's holidays, where the ability to play quality music for guests and partygoers is of the utmost importance. 

Now that this speaker has enjoyed thorough use, we can finally deliver our verdict. In this review, we'll break down each of the elements of the OnBeat Venue, including its design, specs and performance, and give it a grade at the end.

Design

The OnBeat Venue LT definitely lives up to JBL's high standards for speaker design. The speaker is black, slick and gorgeous to look at, and the Lightning dock is cleverly hidden until needed. You simply press the JBL logo in the center console and the 8-pin dock will emerge.

The speaker is relatively portable -- as in, it's not too heavy and is easy to move from place to place -- but the speaker cannot play without connection to a power source. The OnBeat Venue LT must be plugged in to play, which is unfortunate. I would happily buy AA batteries if I could take and play this speaker on-the-go.

Luckily, the speaker compensates for this design flaw in other ways.

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Specs

This JBL speaker may be relatively small -- the OnBeat Venue LT only measures about 16 inches across and 5 inches wide and deep -- but it packs a great deal of power.

With 30 watts of amplification provided by two JBL full-range transducers, the OnBeat Venue LT can truly fill any room with sound. With a 80 dB signal-to-noise ratio and a frequency response up to 20 kHz, this small speaker is equipped to handle any kind of audio and make it sound silky smooth at nearly every volume.

As far as sound options go, the JBL OnBeat Venue LT has buttons on the top for boosted bass, an Movie EQ mode for an extra-wide sound field to complement any playing video media and a toggle to switch between various connectivity options, from the Dock to Aux input to Bluetooth.

Bluetooth connectivity can be established over any audio player that uses the technology, but to "guarantee the best possible listening experience" over Bluetooth, the OnBeat Venue LT has built-in HARMON TrueStream and Slipstream port technology, which promises "clear highs and kids, plus great-sounding bass with low distortion."

If you don't want to play your music through iTunes, JBL also offers a free, downloadable application called JBL MusicFlow, which lets you customize playlists and edit mixes and settings, but mostly, it just makes your album artwork look good in the dock. My one true gripe with the application, however, is that the OnBeat Venue LT is built specifically for the iPhone 5, and yet this application is not scaled for the iPhone 5's 4-inch screen.

But the application isn't the speaker experience, so let's dig into that.

Performance

I had a chance to use the OnBeat Venue LT during arguably one of the most important weeks for entertaining guests, including the days spanning from Christmas to New Year's. Our apartment had many guests during this time, and all of them remarked on how well the speaker system looked and sounded.

Most people were impressed by the speaker's big sound despite its unimposing frame and its ability to easily pair with anyone's iPhone in the room. 

However, with this extended usage, we did notice a few hiccups in its overall performance.

While playing music over Bluetooth, many songs would skip at the very beginning, but the connection seemed stable otherwise. However, there were noticeable sound issues in playing bass-heavy songs: Lows would become highly distorted to the point of muted, especially with the volume up. With the volume on medium-high, the bass from a few songs was enough to automatically lower the total volume from the speakers themselves and would sometimes not revert to normal when heavy bass from the song subsided.

Using the OnBeat Venue LT over Bluetooth worked about 85 percent of the time, but on a few random occasions, the speaker simply shut off by itself. It didn't just stop playing the music; it shut off. On one occasion, when streaming music from Pandora via iPhone, sound became horribly garbled, much like it did when we would max out the volume. Oh, by the way, maxing out the volume doesn't really work too well, unless the song has barely any bass in it. For some reason, too much bass in certain songs gives the speaker a conniption.

However, for the most part, you won't be playing this speaker on full volume -- you simply won't need to. The OnBeat Venue LT gets plenty loud, and, when it's working, the sound is beautifully clear. It really does fill any room, which makes it quite impressive for a speaker of this size.

Verdict

The OnBeat Venue LT is another beautiful speaker from JBL, and it's a great way to celebrate the release of the new iPhone 5 and iPad Mini, both of which feature the new 8-pin Lightning connector.

The ability to dock your iPhone 5 or iPad Mini is great, but speakers are all about looks and performance. The OnBeat Venue LT has the looks, and as far as performance goes, it's about 80 percent there. Sound plays at an incredible caliber despite the speaker's actual size, but it tends to distort when it gets too loud or too bass-heavy. Furthermore, it's a drag that the speaker needs a wall outlet to play; as portable as it is, its design is still grounded in this way.

At $200, the OnBeat Venue LT isn't cheap, but it's certainly useful. It's a great dock and an even better music speaker, providing high-quality, accurate sound for the most part. However, it's hard to ignore the the battery-friendly OnBeat Micro, which can dock your iPhone 5 on the go for $100 less.

In all, if you need a dock to hold, charge and play audio from your iPhone 5 or iPad Mini, you could do much worse than JBL's OnBeat Venue LT. It just depends on how loud you want your music to be or how bass-heavy; if those two factors matter greatly to you, the OnBeat Venue LT may not be your answer, but JBL has plenty of other speakers that can satisfy those needs.

Pros:

+ Sleek design with few, powerful controls

+ Great, clear sound that can fill any room

+ Works with any Bluetooth-friendly audio player

+ Provides options to maximize audio for bass and video-watching

Cons:

- Needs a power source to work

- Sound becomes distorted at high volume, bass levels

- May randomly shut off without prompt

- Occasional issues in streaming audio over Bluetooth, especially over third-party apps like Pandora

- JBL MusicFlow app doesn't use the full iPhone 5 screen -- despite the OnBeat Venue LT's emphasis on iPhone 5 friendliness -- and adds very few useful options otherwise

JBL OnBeat Venue LT Grade: B-

 

(Special thanks to Alex Denti from Burson-Marsteller, and Damian Sandone for his photography of the JBL OnBeat Venue LT unit.)