By Harry McCracken | Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 6:00 am
Aliph–the maker of those stylish, noise-reducing Jawbone headsets–is announcing its first product that isn’t a headset. It is, however, something with close technological ties to its other products: a small stereo speaker system which connects via Bluetooth to phones, computers, and other devices, and which doubles as a speakerphone. It’s called the Jawbone Jambox, and it’s a really interesting alternative to the tinny speakers that are built into gadgets.
The $199 Jambox is 5.9″ by 2.2″ by 1.6″–not pocket-sized, but close, and certainly briefcase-friendly. It comes in four colors (“Black Diamond,” “Blue Wave,” “Red Dot,” and “Gray Hex,” each with its own grille design, and all with a rather classic look (by design guru Yves Behar) that reminds me of vintage transistor radios. (If anyone had made Bluetooth speakers in the 1950s, they would have looked like this.) The case houses tiny stereo speakers and a rechargeable battery that Aliph says is good for up to eight hours.
The Aliph folks envision the Jambox being used in several scenarios: for music listening either in one place or on the go, for movies and games, and as a portable alternative to something like a Polycom speakerphone. I tried the Jambox with a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air, an iPhone 4, and an iPad, and for the most part I had a very good time–especially when I used the iPad on my lap to play games, with the Jambox pumping out audio from a nearby table. (There’s nothing Apple-specific about it, incidentally–it’ll work with any Bluetooth device.)
As with decent speakers of all sorts, audio that’s bad in the first place, such as music encoded at a low bitrate, can seem worse on the Jambox than it does over built-in speakers–the fact the crummy sound is crummy is more obvious. But when the quality of my source material was good, the Jambox sounded really good–on a par with considerably bigger, bulkier iPod docks. And despite its petite size, it’s capable of producing thumping bass and enough volume to prompt people in other parts of the house to ask you to turn it down a bit.
The unit’s speakerphone feature worked well for me, too. It passed the obvious test: The people on the other end didn’t know they were on a speaker until I told them so.
While it won’t fit in your ear, the Jambox is in many ways a close cousin of the Icon headset. The user interface for pairing the speaker with a phone or other device is identical. Like an Icon, the Jambox supports Aliph’s MyTalk service, which lets you download software updates and applets. And both Jamboxes and Icons speak to you to alert you to information such as the battery’s current level.
The only serious issues I had with the Jambox involved its Bluetooth connectivity. The gizmo supports A2DP (so it can play any audio produced by a Bluetooth-compatible item) and Multipoint (so it can pair up with multiple devices at once), and promises a range of at least thirty-three feet. But Bluetooth has never been the world’s most robust technical standard, and I occasionally found that devices couldn’t connect to he Jambox even though they were paired and in the same vicinity. Unpairing and then repairing them did the trick. (It also has a nice old-fashioned stereo input jack for wired connections.)
In an era in which many manufacturers cut costs by leaving out accessories, the Jambox comes with all the trimmings. There’s a travel-sized AC adapter, two USB cables (a long one for wall charging and a short one for laptop connections), a cool flat stereo cable that doesn’t tangle, and a folding, magnetized fabric case. As well as being sold by traditional tech merchants such as the Apple Store, it’ll be available from alternative retailers such as boutiques; the latter group will sell it in a special custom shoebox, the most imaginative product packaging I’ve seen since the days when Corel’s Painter came in a paint can.
The luxe design, lavish presentation, and thoughtful extras helps make the Jambox’s $199 pricetag feel more reasonable than it might otherwise. (Then again, the closest competitor I know of, Soundmatters’ Foxl, costs the same.) This isn’t going to be an impulse purchase for most people, but it packs a major upgrade in sound quality into very little space. I think frequent business travelers are especially likely to find it appealing–if you spend much time living and working out of a hotel room, it can substitute for your stereo system back home and your speakerphone from the office. And it’ll do both jobs with a touch of class.