Review: Aliph Jawbone Prime and Earcandy
Having previously reviewed both Aliph's original Jawbone and its sequel, known as Jawbone Earwear 2008, we're certainly impressed overall by the noise-cancelling technologies the company has incorporated into its Bluetooth headsets. This year, Aliph released Jawbone Prime ($130), an iterative update to the award-winning 2008 version of Jawbone that makes positive and negative tweaks to the earlier formula. We aren't going to restate most of what's in our review of last year's model; rather, this review will focus only on the major differences between them.
From a cosmetic standpoint, Aliph has made five small but noteworthy changes to the 2008 Jawbone for Jawbone Prime. First, last year’s diamond-textured outer skin has been replaced with one that’s textured with eye-shaped ovals, for better or worse; second is that an indented line has been added to that textured surface to clearly delineate Prime’s two integrated buttons. Third, the previously limited color range has been expanded to include seven different color options, including three “Prime” colors and four bright “Earcandy” ones. Fourth, the silicone eartips now have bulging loops designed to keep Jawbone Prime in your ear without use of one of the included optional earhooks; fifth, the hooks have been reduced from four to two, while the eartips have been expanded from three to six, including three tips with loops and three without. Apart from the colors and button-distinguishing line, we prefer the look of the older design to the newer one, and find the earhooks to be very useful in keeping both models in place. A comparison photo shows the new model in silver and the old one in black, below.
Aliph continues to include a wall charger and USB charging cable with Jawbone Prime. The headset remains the same physical size (2.0”-long by 0.5”-wide), and the same 10-gram weight, as well as the same 4.5-hour approximate battery life and eight days of standby time. Bluetooth 2.0 has given way to Bluetooth 2.1, of potential battery benefit only to iPhone 3GS users, and once again, the unit has only a single thin slit light that flashes white when there’s a wireless connection and red when there’s not, or Jawbone is being powered off. A button closest to your head deactivates Aliph’s “NoiseAssassin” noise-cancellation features, and can be tapped in-call to toggle through six preset volume levels; on the iPhone 3GS with iPhone OS 3.1 or later, it can also activate Voice Control. The second button, near the light, turns Prime on and off.
The good news: Jawbone Prime remains one of the strongest noise-cancelling headsets on the market. Turn NoiseAssassin off and callers will hear what they often hear through competing headsets—a lot more ambient noise competing with your voice—so practically, you’ll want to keep it on. Aliph has upgraded NoiseAssassin, it says, to improve its ability to combat wind noise, as well as to filter your voice so that callers can understand what you’re saying. Incoming audio volume levels sounded very similar from unit to unit. Prime exhibited less static when multiple Bluetooth devices were on in a given area; both perform when at 30-foot distances from the iPhone.
The bad news: in our testing, Jawbone Prime’s outgoing voice quality results were not as impressive as the prior model’s. Whatever Aliph has used as its wind-reduction technology this time appears to be too aggressive, as we have noted both in calling and in being called that Jawbone Prime users now drop out completely for words at a time when wind is blowing heavily, and sound a little less natural versus the prior model when wind is not blowing at all. The 2008 version of Jawbone enabled us to be heard while walking directly into a moderate wind, even as the sound competed with our voice; Prime by contrast made our voice disappear at times. We also noticed that the new version initially has a pickup period where it renders the user’s voice with a nasal tone until it adjusts to the full range of its sound. It really seems like Aliph went a little overboard this year.
That having been said, the other noise-cancelling technology appears to be extremely similar, so when wind isn’t a factor, both headsets do an equally great job of screening out ambient noise. We were able to carry on conversations with both the 2008 and Prime model even as music was blaring from speakers immediately nearby; as we’ve noted in prior reviews, the Jawbone family can filter out low rumbles and other noises as well or better than anything else we’ve heard, enabling users to carry on conversations under extremely adverse sonic conditions.
Overall, Jawbone Prime may not be up to its predecessor’s levels of outgoing call performance for wind, but it is one of the best noise-cancelling headsets on the market. We’d pick the 2008 model over Prime without any question—it’s less expensive these days, sounds better for callers, and apart from the new version’s color selection, looks better to our eyes. But as between any Jawbone and competing Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested, the ambient noise filtering capabilities of Aliph’s products are second to none. If the company can get its wind filtration to perform as well as its other noise cancellation functionality, it’ll have a superstar on its hands in 2010.