Company: Native Union
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPads, iPhones + iPods
Native Union Switch
Following JBL's late 2012 release of the blockbuster $100 portable speaker Flip -- a 6.25" tall and roughly 2.75" wide tube -- the biggest problem rival developers now face is coming up with something more compelling at a similar price: apart from its comparatively modest five-hour battery life, Flip blows away the $200 Jawbone Jambox (and its now numerous clones) in every other regard. So Native Union has its work cut out for it with the release of Switch ($150), a boxy alternative that measures 7.75" wide by 2.75" tall and 2.7" deep when laid on its side. Switch doesn't outperform Flip, but it's a very good speaker and speakerphone in its own right, and less expensive than the Jambox, besides.
Like many of Native Union’s earlier accessories, Switch is built from plastic coated in a finger-pleasing soft touch rubber, blending seamlessly with fully rubber pads on two sides. The smaller of the rubber pads hides a button with five white LEDs, indicating the unit’s current battery charge, while the other rubber pad is marked inconspicuously with FCC and similar agency certifications. When Switch is standing on the former pad, it’s an upright tower with a beautiful circular volume knob at the top; when on the latter pad, the volume knob is off to its side, and music is properly separated into left and right audio channels.
While its upright and side mounting options are extremely similar to Flip’s, Switch benefits from Native Union’s more minimalist design sensibilities. A multifunction power button hides inside the oversized volume knob, with a thin white and red bar light alongside it to indicate power and pairing status. These controls and lights are simpler and more handsome than JBL’s, though Switch lacks for a dedicated call answer/end button akin to Flip’s; the power button can be clicked or held for this purpose. A rubber port cover hides two audio and two USB ports on Switch’s back, the former for aux-in/line-out purposes, and the latter for power in and power out.
Those USB ports lead to two Switch advantages over Flip and most competitors. Native Union’s internal battery lets you listen to music for 14 hours, make calls for 16 hours, or partially refuel a connected iPhone with a self-supplied USB cable. Though no wall adapter or carrying case are in the package—arguably misses—the company includes a nylon micro-USB cable to recharge Switch from any USB port, a process that takes around four hours.
Volumetrically larger than both the Jambox and Flip units, Switch rests inbetween them in terms of audio performance. In wide orientation, Switch offers true stereo separation that goes a little beyond its nearly eight-inch box, cleaner bass and treble than the Jambox, and at least as much volume. All of this would be impressive at a lower price than the Jambox, but for the fact that the same things can be said about Flip, which is more than a bit smaller yet packs highly similar sonic capabilities into its compact tube-shaped frame. Flip is a little stronger in the treble department, and Switch is slightly better at bass thanks to a three-driver speaker design, but they’re otherwise extremely close to one another: neither is going to fill a medium-sized room with music, but both sound very good on a desktop or from several feet away.
Both Switch and Flip eclipse the Jambox as speakerphones, as well. Each one lets you make and receive calls that are louder and at least a little clearer than an iPhone operating in speakerphone mode, at least on the user’s side. While neither speaker’s built-in microphone has as much ambient noise-canceling capacity as the triple-mic iPhone 5, they’re each reasonably easy to understand in normal indoor speaking environments.
Should you consider buying Switch for $150 when Flip is so similar for $100? That’s a matter of personal choice. Users looking for the ultimate in value and power within a small form factor should steer towards Flip, which for the time being is as impressive as a small speaker can get. However, Switch’s boxy design, longer run time, and solid bass performance make it worth considering as a viable alternative to the Jambox, particularly given its lower price. Native Union has another good speaker on its hands here—if you can find it for a lower price, give it even more serious consideration.