Jawbone Jambox: Little Bluetooth Box, Big Sound–and It’s a Speakerphone, Too

By  |  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.

 
4 Comments


Read more: , , ,

4 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Cerm Says:

    I refuse to believe that anything producing audio transmitted by A2DP could possibly sound good. I've tried a number of different headphones, and they all sound like they playing 96Kbps MP3 files to me. Perhaps you don't notice it as much when you're using a small stereo speaker (which naturally collapses the stereo image) versus headphones (which are discrete to each ear). However, if you're not going to be carrying the speaker on your person anyway, why not just use a 3.5mm cable?

    I understand why bluetooth headsets exist; a wire dangling from your head can get tangled on stuff, and sound quality is not important for voice calls. Sound quality IS important for music, and bluetooth just doesn't cut it. And for a speaker, which is just going to be sitting around anyway (so no risk of tangling), a wired connection will provide superior sound quality, and enhanced battery-life.

    I look forward to some future day when audio can be transmitted wirelessly and not sound horrible. It's not even a bandwidth issue, because bluetooth is fine in that regard. It's more a matter of battery power and processing power, and the current bluetooth spec prioritizes those over sound quality to a degree which makes it unpleasant for music.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    The Jambox sounded surprisingly good to me (when the files were at a decent bitrate). But as I mentioned, I did have some Bluetooth connectivity problems. As I've written before, if someone came up with cables today as a replacement for wireless, we might all consider it an amazing breakthrough…

    –Harry

  3. DFrakes Says:

    Mike: It all depends on the components involved and how they use the technology. I've heard some very bad Bluetooth audio quality, but I've also heard some very good audio over A2DP.

    Harry: The Jambox and FoxL are actually siblings — the Jambox is based on the FoxL.

  4. Mike Cerm Says:

    That's a great line! It's also extremely true. For years, my brother was plagued by Wi-Fi drop-outs in one room in his house. I tried different brands of routers, different cards and dongles for his PC… never could get it working consistently. Finally, we drilled some holes and ran CAT-6 out there. It cost like $15 (and took an afternoon), but now you can use the internet and the microwave AT THE SAME TIME!