Review: Aliph Jawbone Earwear (2008)
Aliph's original Jawbone received one of the most difficult B ratings we ever issued to an accessory. Much hyped and unquestionably impressive from a technology standpoint, the first Jawbone was a wireless Bluetooth headset with breakthrough noise-cancellation abilities, but suffered from two serious issues: an uncomfortable design and a high price tag. Retailer discounting eventually helped solve one of those problems, and now Aliph has taken care of the other one in a brand new version with the same name: Jawbone ($130), known alternately as Jawbone Earwear or Jawbone with Noise Assassin. Simply put, the new Jawbone is the best Bluetooth headset we've yet tested with the iPhone -- the first one ever to receive our high recommendation -- and only two things stand in the way of it being a complete replacement for every other option we've seen.
The 2008 version of Jawbone preserves the unique shape and general styling of its predecessor, using a gently curved black, mostly glossy plastic body that in no way looks geeky or sci-fi. Whereas the prior 2.2”-long Jawbone was quite wide by the standards of its competitors - 0.9” versus 0.4” for Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Headset—and not capable of being worn without a supporting earloop, the new 2.0”-long by 0.5”-wide version also shaves off so much thickness and weight that some users will be able to wear it without one of the four included earloops. Weighing 10 grams to the prior version’s 19, it also has a matte diamond external texture that is attractive, while not attracting as much attention as the still classy but glossy larger exterior of last year’s model. Two additional colors, silver and rose gold, are planned for availability but were not in stores at press time.
Buttons and indicators have become more subtle without compromising on functionality. The prior model’s cool but full-width power/status light has been replaced with a much smaller but still easily visible version that hides inside one of the diamonds on the unit’s face. It flashes white every 11 or so seconds, alternates between red and white when pairing, and goes red when turned off. As before, Aliph hides the unit’s only two buttons behind its front facade: the power and talk button is to the right of the light, while the “Noise Assassin” noise-cancellation activation and deactivation button is to the left. When held briefly together, they activate manual pairing mode, which is initiated automatically the first time you turn the Jawbone on. We found it extremely easy to pair the first time, and with the instructions, easy to re-pair subsequently. Learning to press the correct button while the headset is being worn takes a little bit of effort; a slight tactile difference would have helped.
Aliph’s new earloop and earbud design is exactly what the earlier version should have been. Jawbone previously came with four rubber and metal loops that were supposed to keep the earpiece stable on your ear, but many users—including us—found that we could never get it to stay where it was supposed to be. This year’s loops are dramatically simplified, two with plastic and metal, the other two with leather-coated plastic. The one that came pre-installed on Jawbone fit perfectly right out of the box, and provided exactly the stability we had expected before. Similarly, whereas the prior model came with four oddly shaped rubber eartips and one standard circular one, the new Jawbone includes three rubber tips of varying sizes. Again, the medium one pre-installed fit perfectly right out of the box; larger and smaller ones are there for users who need them. The company still includes a wall charger and separate USB charging cable in the package, this year’s are gray, smaller, and nicer than last year’s black versions, with the cable possessing a magnetic clasping system to keep the earpiece in place for charging, and the wall charger using blades that flip closed for travel. Complete charge time is a very reasonable 50 minutes, with an 80% charge in 35 minutes.
Performance improvements range from noticeable to trivial, with only one decrease as an offset. In the “noticeable” category is Jawbone’s transition from Bluetooth 1.2 to 2.0 technology—the prior version appeared at a time when most other companies were switching to the newer 2.0, which enhances sound quality and in some cases battery performance when connected to a Bluetooth 2.0 device such as the iPhone. We noticed that callers sounded better to us—more natural, with better representation of the sound frequencies that make up voices. Additionally, when we switched between both units, we noticed fewer interruptions in the newer version’s incoming audio signal; it just sounded like a more stable connection.
In the “trivial” category is the performance of Aliph’s noise cancellation technology, which callers repeatedly told us sounded basically the same as the earlier model, perhaps a tiny bit better. We tested both Jawbones side by side, switching between them in noisy and quiet environments. In quiet environments, users couldn’t tell the difference; in noisy ones, they gave a small but “basically the same” edge to the newer model.
To put that in perspective, however, the Jawbone remains at the absolute top of its class in eliminating ambient sound. Last year, we noted that we could stand right next to a powered-on outside air conditioning unit and still have a conversation without the caller even knowing what was going on; in noisy environments, the difference in performance between Jawbone, Apple’s same-priced Headset, and most competitors was in Aliph’s favor. This year, we put the new Jawbone up against our other favorite in-car accessory, Bluetrek’s SurfaceSound Compact, in a convertible with the top up and down. It’s worth mentioning that SurfaceSound has impressive echo cancellation and noise reduction capabilities for an in-car Bluetooth speaker system—callers have consistently told us that we sound very good to great when talking on it. With the car’s top up, they said the same about the new Jawbone by comparison, praising the Jawbone’s fuller-frequency and clear rendition of our voice while noting that SurfaceSound stuck to a limited array of frequencies that rendered voices highly intelligible, but not as lifelike.
Then we switched to convertible mode. At 35 miles per hour, callers could hear us on both units, but saw the Jawbone developing a small edge; at 50mph, SurfaceSound became impossible to use or be heard through because of wind noise, and Jawbone remained usable with what one caller described as a 1:1 signal to noise ratio. We were still audible, but not in a way that was pleasant for the listener—just acceptable. On our end, Jawbone’s closer proximity to the ear made it much easier to hear what the caller was saying; there was no doubt that Jawbone would be our pick for top-down driving. The prior model was good in this regard, but in our experience, constantly required adjustment to keep it in the ear and near the face.
The one and only way in which the 2008 Jawbone falls short of its predecessor from a performance standpoint is in battery life. Last year’s model offered 6 hours of talk time or 120 hours of standby time; this year’s promises “over 4” hours of talk versus “over 8 days,” or 192 hours, of standby. Given the change in physical volume, it’s no shock to see that battery life has suffered, but you are getting less for the dollar in this regard than in Jawbone’s top competitors—half the talk time of Plantronics’ Voyager 520, for instance. The difference is attributable to Jawbone’s noise reduction technology, which requires more power, can be turned off to add additional power, and frankly is worth the impact it has on battery life if you’re in anything except quiet environments when you’re using the headset.
But is it worth an added price? Voyager 520 retails for $100 and is available for as little as $50—pricing that’s not uncommon for Bluetooth headsets—while the new Jawbone retails for $130. That’s $10 premium over last year’s version, despite the diminished talk time and the arguably small improvements to sound quality. In our view, the new Jawbone is worth its price; Aliph’s size, comfort, and cosmetic enhancements alone make the new version worth considering, while the improved Bluetooth 2.0 stability is another plus, and the battery and price issues aren’t trivial, but aren’t show-stoppers either. If you’re looking for the world’s best Bluetooth headset experience, start your search here, and consider other options only if extended talk time or your budget are major factors.