Company: JBL/Harman Multimedia
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, and iPads except iPod shuffle 3G
JBL Micro II + Micro Wireless Rechargeable Portable Speakers
While we called out the Jawbone Jambox two years ago as overpriced and sonically underequipped, there was no question that the small, boxy $200 speaker landed in what's known as a blue ocean -- a segment of the market where there wasn't a lot of direct competition. After repackaging Soundmatters' pioneering small Bluetooth speaker foxL in a more stylish Yves Behar-designed enclosure, Jawbone aggressively marketed the Jambox in an increasingly diverse range of colors and textures, winning fans who were less concerned about the sonic performance for the price than its clean looks. Major and minor speaker makers alike took notice, and rushed various small wireless alternatives to market, trying strategies ranging from "same price, better performance" to "lower price, similar performance" and "lower price, lower performance." Having covered many earlier and in some cases superior options in prior reviews, we're taking quick looks today at seven new Jambox alternatives, all less expensive than Jawbone's basic model. The prices range from $59 to $150, and though their shapes, features, and performance vary considerably, any one will save you at least $50 relative to the Jambox, and several markedly outperform it, too.
All of today’s speakers have several things in common. They’re all built primarily as Bluetooth wireless speakers with support for Bluetooth 2.0 and newer devices, which is to say that they’ll work in wireless mode with all iPads, all iPod touches and iPhones except the original models, and even the latest seventh-generation iPod nano—reliably at 30-foot distances, sometimes longer. Each has an auxiliary 3.5mm wired option if you needed it. Every speaker comes with a charging cable and has a rechargeable battery built in, with a run time of roughly 4 and sometimes more hours, though longevity is dependent on the volume level you pick. And finally, they’re all super portable: though their shapes are different, each could be placed in a purse or backpack with ease, though there’s variation in the resilience of the materials chosen by each developer, so some will emerge more unscathed than others.
The last of the Jambox alternatives we look at today are the smallest and least expensive options in the bunch—speakers so conceptually simple that they’d be easy to ignore from a less impressive audio manufacturer than JBL. Micro Wireless ($59) is the Bluetooth version of Micro II ($39), an otherwise nearly identical speaker shaped like a 3.25”-diameter hockey puck with a 1/2” tall, D-shaped ring grafted to the top, presumably for attachment to a bag or belt loop using a self-supplied hook. Both of the Micro versions we tested were made from black and silver plastic, with a single ported 40mm audio driver at the center, a micro-USB port on the bottom, an audio out port on the right side, a volume knob on the left side, and a power/pairing button at the upper left, next to the D-ring.
A 12”-long 3.5mm audio cable is built into each Micro, wrapping around the perimeter for storage, with the plug resting in a rear recess. On Micro Wireless, you may never remove the gray plug and cable, but on the wired-only Micro II, it’s colored orange, and serves as the only way to get music from your device into the speaker. Adding a little fanciness for the higher price, Micro Wireless has an extra metallic silver ring on its face and a gray anti-slip rubber ring on its back, while the regular model has an almost purely black front and an orange-ringed back; JBL also offers Micro II, but not Micro Wireless, in a white and orange version. Each Micro speaker includes a soft fabric carrying pouch and a USB cable for recharging its five-hour integrated battery.
As should be obvious, plenty is conceptually being given up here relative to the Jambox. Neither version of Micro includes a microphone, so you can’t use them as speakerphones. Rather than 2.1 stereo speaker arrays, JBL doesn’t even attempt to offer stereo separation or a separate bass driver—the aforementioned audio out port on the side lets you daisy-chain speakers together if you want additional but still monaural sound. And Micro’s styling is only a little more interesting than purely functional. Apart from the two color options for Micro II, and the top D-ring, there’s not much that makes these little speakers stand out visually.
But sonically, Micro II and Micro Wireless are winners. Despite occupying roughly half the total physical volume of the Jambox, both Micro versions can put out roughly as much sonic volume as Jawbone’s speaker, with similar bass and noticeably superior treble quality. Because of JBL’s crisper high end, songs pop coming out of the Micro speakers in a way they don’t from Jambox, but they don’t sound anemic on the low end, or any weaker in overall clarity. And while you can get better high-frequency performance from the Micro speakers if you prop them up on something such that the drivers point towards you rather than up in the air, they sound very good in either orientation. Users looking to buy both models can plug a Micro II into Micro Wireless, achieving much better overall sound and volume than a Jambox at less than half the price.
There really aren’t any serious knocks against either Micro II or Micro Wireless for their $39 and $59 asking prices. Individually, each system sounds much better than you’d expect from a budget speaker of its size, making the very most of a single 40mm driver, with plenty of power and more than respectable frequency response. They both look nice, remove the need for users to worry about replacing batteries, and include the cable and case accessories people would expect. All JBL could have done better would have been to include a hook-style attachment for the D-ring, and possibly make the D-ring portion out of metal rather than metallic plastic. Those small issues aside, these are excellent overall options for their prices, worthy of our A- ratings and high recommendations.