Review: Aliph/Jawbone Jawbone Era Bluetooth Headset
Every year, Aliph updates its Jawbone Bluetooth headset family with at least one if not two new versions that are substantially similar to what came before, but with little differences -- generally positive, but sometimes negative. The original 2007 Jawbone offered groundbreaking ambient noise filtering, which was followed up by a thinner and cooler-looking sequel that's come to be called Jawbone 2008 -- the best member of the family, ever after the 2009 Jawbone Prime hit the market a year later. We skipped reviewing the company's shorter but chunkier 2010 model Icon -- the stubby little guy in the photos below -- and now Aliph's back with Jawbone Era ($130), yet another iteration.
As with other recent Jawbones, Aliph sells Era in four different styles, now restricted to black and silver versions with organic dot or boxy tear-shaped texturing on the outwardmost side. The other surfaces are matte-finished with deliberately geometric, boxy tapering lines rather than the prior versions’ curves, capped by one of eight included silicone rubber eartips. There’s also a flexible, detachable and repositionable earhook in the box, as well as a tiny self-sealing carrying bag, short micro-USB cable, and a wall charger.
As is typical of the Jawbone series, every one of the pieces looks nice, and we’d go so far as to say that Era is the sharpest-looking member of the family to date. It’s a hair lighter than Prime, and compromises really nicely in size between the prior-generation Icon and Prime models, improving upon their texturing. Era also incorporates a major design improvement from Icon: an interior power switch. Combined with a clear interior power indicator, Era is really easy to turn on and off, unlike earlier models that had hidden buttons that were all too easy to accidentally depress and hard sometimes to use for pairing.
A few other tricks, including double-shaking the unit’s integrated accelerometer for pairing, double-tapping its side for call answering, and depressing its now obvious rear-mounted button for spoken voice battery power indications or ending calls, are all welcome additions this time, too. Holding down that button to activate voice dialing also works like a charm, as does an on-iPhone screen battery life indicator meter, found in prior versions as well. This time, five and a half hours of continuous battery life are promised, with a 10-day life on standby, up from 4.5 hours and 9 days respectively on Prime, a small but nice boost.
On the other hand, the shrunken sizes of the new charging cable and earhook—both carried over from Icon—won’t appeal to all users. Jawbone Prime’s cable was a lot longer and easier to use with computers; this one’s a little stub. And the new earhook is possibly the smallest and thinnest one yet for a full-sized Jawbone. A ball joint lets it pivot, which is nice, but if you have large ears, you mightn’t be able to use it at all without discomfort. Without the hook, which was just barely large enough to fit our ears, we found Era to be too unstable to use reliably for long periods of time; all of the silicone eartips are included in an effort to make Era stick inside your ear canal on its own, which it might or might not do. (It didn’t for us.)
What we really liked about Era was NoiseAssassin 3.0, the company’s latest generation of ambient noise reduction technology, as well as the overall sound quality most callers reported during our testing. They noted a considerable improvement in filtering of background noise, mentioning that Era was much quicker to start screening ambient noise and generally considerably better at creating a realistic, intelligible rendition of our voices. The dropoff in outgoing sound quality and “nasal” sound we noted in Jawbone Prime was effectively erased with Jawbone Era, and we found Era a little clearer and louder on our end for calling, too. It should be noted, though, that not all of our callers agreed that Era was superior to Prime—at least, in our first round of tests. At some points, one caller described Era as being comparatively tinny and echo-prone, with Prime having a flatter but more understandable rendition of voices. Prime stayed consistently good but not great sonically throughout both rounds of tests, while Era went from being great to okay to great again, depending on the call and caller. The newer model was superior on the whole, but inconsistent at times, an issue we’ve seen with other Bluetooth headsets.
There was also a noticeable improvement in Jawbone Era’s overall snappiness and quality of user experience, quite possibly due to a new dual processor chipset inside. Incoming callers are announced using a voiceover, reading the telephone number aloud, and Bluetooth 2.1 support—a carryover from Prime and Icon—now includes “Simultaneous Multipoint,” so that the headset can be paired with two live audio connections at the same time. This makes toggling between different devices easier for the user than before.
One other major change from Jawbone Prime to Era was foreshadowed by Icon: support for A2DP music streaming from compatible iPhones. Era works immediately out of the box as both a telephone calling earpiece and a receiver for wireless audio, merging the left and right channels together into a single decent stream. Fidelity and bass are both weak, but the fact that it works without any setup—and quickly whenever you want it—is appreciated. As with Icon, Aliph includes support for apps and updates to Era, enabling certain third-party software to stream audio directly to the headset, as well as replacement of the integrated spoken voice with six different options, plus language packs. The hit on battery life while using streaming features is heavy—the 5.5-hour promised life is closer to a maximum, not the minimum if you’re toggling between calls and music—but for those who are willing to keep Jawbone Era on the charger all the time, it’s a fine addition.
Overall, Jawbone Era represents yet another iterative step forward for Aliph, making refinements to a formula that has been largely the same since the release of the Jawbone 2008 model, with little bumps and gaps in the road along the way. Though the $130 price tag is still steep, and we’re no longer entirely thrilled with the ear mounting and charging solutions included in the package, Jawbone Era generally surpasses the 2009 Prime model by at least a little in most other regards. While we wouldn’t call it worthy of our A-level high recommendation because of some of its inconsistent performance in real-world use, Jawbone Era is certainly amongst the best Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested, and worthy of consideration if you’re willing to pay top dollar for style, sound, and features.