Review: Aliph Jawbone Jambox Wireless Bluetooth Speaker + Speakerphone
Like earlier products from Aliph, a company known for its sometimes great Jawbone series of Bluetooth headsets, Jawbone Jambox ($200) is a wireless audio accessory designed to appeal so much to the user's eyes and ears that its high price tag -- firm up front but certain to fall months later -- isn't the most important consideration. Pitched at iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch users, this boxy little speaker is promised by Aliph to fill even large rooms with sound while requiring only roughly 6" of length, 2.25" of height, and 1.55" of depth. Additionally, like several other recently-released $200 wireless speakers, it uses Bluetooth to connect with your iOS or otherwise stereo Bluetooth-ready device, and arrives on the market just before units supporting Apple's new AirPlay streaming standard.
Yet when you decide whether to actually purchase one of these tiny, rubbery, and somewhat inexpensive-looking speakers, it’s impossible to ignore what $200 can buy these days. XtremeMac’s similarly wireless, better-equipped Tango TRX can be had with change left over, while Soundfreaq’s slick rival SFQ-01 and Soundmatters’ similarly diminutive foxL v2 are currently peer-priced. Wired speakers with similar sound quality and sizing can be had for $75 or less. So why is there a premium here?
Some of those dollars go to designer Yves Behar, who sought to make the Jawbone series fashionable in ways that prior Bluetooth headsets were not—a cool plastic aesthetic he subsequently applied to a new series of adult toys. But what works for an earpiece or a vibrator doesn’t necessarily translate to desktop speakers, which weren’t short on style before Aliph came along. Jambox has a rubber top and a rubber bottom, with a wraparound metal grille that’s been bent with a repeating pattern; like the latest Jawbone earpieces, you pick the color and texture combo that most suits your aesthetic tastes. Our editors were divided on whether Behar succeeded with Jambox’s looks. We all agreed that the ones that looked the best were the most neutrally-designed, black with a Jawbone-like split-diamond texture or gray with a hex texture, but if you’re looking for something a little off-kilter, there are options for you, too: a blue speaker with an eye-shaped repeating pattern, and a red one with dimples. We’ve seen them all and impressions have ranged from “good” to “eh,” none “great.” It’s also worth noting that in person, the metal on our gray unit didn’t look anywhere near as angular as it did on the company’s web site, but that was probably for the better in making it actually blend in to its surroundings. Sharper edges would have been too eye-catching.
Each unit has three top buttons—two for volume, one primarily to indicate the remaining power—while the right side includes an illuminated power switch, a line input, and a micro-USB charging port for the integrated rechargeable battery. Aliph bundles audio and twin USB cables, one short, one long, with a wall power adapter and a black carrying bag. Everything is slick. The audio cable is designed to wrap flat, the carrying case is form-fit with magnetic clasps, and all of the pairing and power indications are spoken aloud by a charming female voice. To its credit, Jawbox is a fully-realized product with enough polish to deserve a general recommendation on design alone. You mightn’t like how all four of them look, but you’ll like one, and that’s enough.
Unfortunately, the sonic experience is only acceptable given the form factor, and decent for the price. As Jambox measures a little larger than the aforementioned foxL v2 in each dimension, there’s not a lot of room inside for speaker hardware, so Aliph has used two small drivers to try and approximate the entire sonic range, plus a foxL-style bass radiator for added low-end warmth. The company ships Jambox with the volume cranked up so that your first impression will be “wow, that’s loud!,” fulfillment of its marketing that the system reaches 85 decibels at peak, which it notes is somewhere between a “motorcycle” and a “rock concert.” But that’s silly. Ignore Aliph’s claim that it “fills even the largest rooms;” it just doesn’t. This is a small-sized speaker with the ability to sorta fill a small-sized room with low-fi sound.
Set to normal volume, safely listenable from a couple of feet away, Jawbone is a midrange-heavy speaker with just enough treble and bass to sound “good enough,” thankfully lacking in noticeable hiss or interference under most circumstances. Songs sound respectably clear given what the two speakers are being asked to do, but the low-end is at best restrained, and stereo separation is extremely limited. At its loudest, which is to say with an iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad broadcasting at its top volume with Jambox turned up to its peak—these controls are separate—Jambox tends to distort the mids and bass in some tracks. This isn’t a surprise given the system’s size, but it’s not really impressive, either.
What Jambox offers as an advantage over bigger speakers such as Tango TRX and SFQ-01 is something that only Soundmatters’ foxL can also do: bring wireless music from your iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad to virtually any space, no matter how small. Freed of larger speakers, a wired dock, and the requirement that a power supply be tethered to its back at all times, Aliph’s unit can be placed in a bathroom, on any shelf, or on a kitchen counter where there’s no outlet to be found. Your iOS device can sit in a different room 33 feet away, even through a door, and still be heard. Jambox needs to be recharged every eight or ten hours of active playback, growing if you turn it off when it’s not in use, but the fact that you could use it to wirelessly bring iOS music into a room that might otherwise trigger Apple’s moisture sensors is a real plus. Future AirPlay units will do the same thing with superior sonic fidelity, but they’re not yet actually available for purchase.
When paired with an iPhone, Jambox also works as a speakerphone. It’s one of the extremely rare accessories capable of bringing up the on-iPhone top-of-screen battery life indicator so that you can generally monitor its charge without pressing its circular top button. With an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4, that same button can also be held down to initiate voice command mode, useful for making calls or starting music playback, and though there’s a brief lag between initiating the mode and being able to issue commands, Jambox otherwise worked well as a speakerphone. Callers told us that the clarity and tone of our voices were almost identical to the iPhone 4’s integrated speakerphone, but we were a little louder to them—seemingly due to higher gain—and they were louder to us because of Jambox’s bigger speakers. We didn’t experience any problems with the Bluetooth connectivity, apart from an odd high-pitched tone when the iPhone and Jambox re-paired after one period of disengagement, and the unit can be paired with more than one device at once, so long as you’re willing to manually re-select Jambox from the Bluetooth settings screen of devices that weren’t the last one connected. Aliph says that these multi-point connections are “enabled by MyTalk,” an upgradeable firmware system that lets you customize the voice prompts and other features of Jambox over time; hopefully it will use MyTalk to make the unit even better in the future.
Overall, we’d place Jambox on the fine edge of our B and B- ratings, right between our “general” and “limited” recommendation levels, falling to the lower B- because of the $200 asking price. It’s inescapably too high and not, as yet, being discounted anywhere—the way Aliph’s new releases have historically been sold before dropping sharply. At $150, this would have been a much easier accessory to recommend broadly, as it wouldn’t be in contention with audio systems such as Tango TRX and SFQ-01 that sound so much better and offer more features for the same or fewer dollars. But for two bills, it’s just too expensive for the sonic performance it offers, particularly in light of AirPlay solutions that are just around the corner. Consider Jambox if you put enough of a premium on design and small size that you’re willing to make compromises on audio quality to achieve them; Soundmatters’ foxL makes a different set of compromises that are roughly equally compelling with highly similar functionality. Until their prices fall, the choice of one over the other will come down to your preference for style over substance.