Review: Jawbone Big Jambox Wireless Speaker
After releasing several impressive Bluetooth headsets, Aliph rebranded itself as Jawbone and released Jambox, its first Bluetooth speaker system. Roughly the size of two stacked sticks of butter, Jambox was based upon Soundmatters' earlier foxL, but with an improved industrial design by Yves Behar. Thanks to its small size, aggressive marketing, and the support of Apple Stores, the $200 Jambox took off, despite the fact that it was seriously overpriced given the quality of sound it produced. So this week, Jawbone released a sequel called Big Jambox ($300), and it lives up to the name: for better or worse, it's just a larger and more expensive version of the original 2010 model. If you were part of the price-no-object market targeted by the original Jambox, but hoped for something larger, Big Jambox might make sense to you. Otherwise, you'll probably be left scratching your head.
The basic pitch with Big Jambox is simple: Jawbone packs two active and two passive speakers into a metal and rubber box that’s currently sold in “red dot,” “graphite hex,” and “white wave” versions, each using a distinctively patterned speaker grille introduced with the original Jambox. Rather than docking with your iPod, iPhone, or iPad, Big Jambox wirelessly streams music using Bluetooth 2.1, easily pairing with up to two iOS devices, and optionally serving as a speakerphone for iPhones. Six buttons are on the top, now including play/pause and track controls alongside the prior volume buttons and circular “talk” button, this time oddly labeled with a “J.” Jambox’s side power and pairing switch has been replaced by dedicated power and pairing buttons, and similarly given a dedicated wall power port alongside the original Micro-USB port and 3.5mm audio input. Both of the unit’s smallest sides are capped with hard rubber, matching circular rubber feet on the otherwise metal bottom.
Though it’s not obvious in photographs, a major change to the prior industrial design is worth emphasizing. Big Jambox has expanded Jambox’s textured metal grille, now wrapping it around the top and bottom rather than the left and right. Viewed from a distance, this seems like a smart move, but up close, it really allows components and seams inside the unit to show through in an unattractive way—this was the first complaint raised by a female viewer when our unit was taken out of its package. A box is evident surrounding the top-mounted buttons, and all of the front and rear speaker drivers peek through the grille on certain angles. This turns out to be one of two detractors from the otherwise stylish body.
Jambox Big is bundled with three accessories: a wall power cable, a Micro-USB cable, and an audio cable, all packaged inside a nicely designed cardboard box. Like Jambox, Big Jambox can run off rechargeable battery power—this time for up to 15 hours—and therefore continues to qualify as “portable” in one sense of the word. However, despite Jawbone’s “take it with you” marketing, Big Jambox actually feels like it was meant to be set down in one location and largely left there. This version weighs 2.7 pounds and, unlike its predecessor, is actually uncomfortable to carry around for any length of time. We felt like we were awkwardly toting around a heavy perforated metal milk carton that was unpleasantly rough to the touch on most of its sides. It doesn’t come with a carrying case, either. The original Jambox avoided these issues with a rubberized top and bottom, as well as a packed-in carrying sleeve.
Jawbone’s less than ideally considered transition from small to large is the single most glaring issue in Big Jambox. While the original 6” by 2.25” by 1.5” version stood out because small direct competitors were both few and obscure, the new 10” by 3.5” by 3.1” model has plenty of similarly-sized wireless rivals, all priced more aggressively, and most were more thoughtfully designed for portability. Competitors such as the $100 Soundfreaq Sound Kick and $150 Logitech Wireless Boombox both were designed to be slender, and could go anywhere in common bags. Big Jambox’s size and shape both defy that.
Big Jambox’s single biggest asset is its sonic performance for its size, and even then, the words demand qualification. Said most positively, Big Jambox is a good-sounding audio system when judged in isolation, generating bass-heavy sound at regular volumes, and reaching peak amplitudes that rival larger systems—these are the key justifications for its physical depth. It also has a few sonic tricks that will impress some users. Every time it’s turned on, it emits a “bloop” of a test tone that shows off its bass power, a feature carried over from the original Jambox. Voice prompting guides you through pairing, and warns you before the battery runs out, nice touches that humanize the user experience. Only the “Bluetooth signal dropped” sound, a weirdly sad warble, struck us as off-putting. You can avoid it by turning Big Jambox off before turning off Bluetooth on your iOS device.
New to Big Jambox (and available as a firmware update to the original model) is a software-based audio processing feature called LiveAudio. Holding down both volume buttons at the same time activates this optional spatialization feature, which isolates different elements in songs and makes them appear to come from the unit’s front and back. The effect is immediately apparent, and in initial flipping back and forth, appears to make songs sound “clearer.”
Yet unlike SRS WOW, Bongiovi DPS, and similar spatialization features built into other audio systems, LiveAudio’s effects are not so universally positive across songs that we’d want to leave the feature turned on at all times: it drops the volume level slightly, adds echo effects, and also appears to be screening out some sonic frequencies, sometimes for the better, other times not. During testing, we found that we preferred to leave it off more than on, but experiences will vary depending on a user’s specific tracks and preference for filtering. It’s not a bad feature, but not a major selling point, either.
Big Jambox has advantages and disadvantages when it’s compared directly against wireless portable rivals on its default, non-LiveAudio setting. Straight out of the box, it performs music with a very reasonable balance of highs, mids, and lows, using two 1.75” active full range drivers and twin 3.5”-wide box passive bass radiators to replicate most of the sonic spectrum with respectable clarity. While Big Jambox doesn’t have dedicated tweeters to reproduce the highest highs, and consequently doesn’t feel as crisp as it could, the other drivers do well enough with mid-treble, midrange, mid-bass, and bass frequencies—particularly the latter two—that it’s hard to complain too much about Jawbone’s choices, beyond to say that the company could also have included tweeters for the price. That said, Big Jambox doesn’t sound worse than other portable units we’ve liked or loved; it’s just “differently abled.”
The rub is that Big Jambox also doesn’t sound tremendously better than less expensive rivals at regular volume levels, either. Placed alongside the Wireless Boombox, Logitech’s $150 unit actually has clearer highs than the $300 Jawbone model at low and medium volume levels, thanks to its dedicated tweeters. And Soundfreaq’s much smaller $100 Sound Kick similarly holds its own at small-room listening levels, so despite the fact that audiophiles will certainly note that Sound Kick’s frequency response isn’t as wide, the price gulf with Big Jambox is massive.
The only areas in which Big Jambox really outperforms these rivals are in high-volume output and speakerphone functionality; to Jawbone’s credit, comparatively few Bluetooth portable speakers we’ve tested offer those features. And while we’ve tested many $200 to $300 speakers that outperform Big Jambox at every volume level, they rarely sport battery-powered portability, wireless capabilities, and speakerphone features. iHome’s iW1 is just one such option: attractively designed and comfortable to carry around when running off of battery power, it offers the same peak volume level as Big Jambox with slightly more bass, while including Apple’s more expensive AirPlay wireless technology instead of Bluetooth. However, it’s twice as tall as Big Jambox, and doesn’t have speakerphone support.
Big Jambox’s speakerphone performance is fine rather than great. Holding down the circular “J” button for roughly three seconds triggers Voice Control or Siri just as expected, and calls made directly from an iPhone transfer over to the speaker by default when they’re paired. Callers described Big Jambox’s microphone as roughly on par with the iPhone 4S’s, rendering our voice in a manner that was not noticeably louder or clearer. While callers noted that voices sounded a little more treble-heavy, they were surprised that the added treble didn’t improve intelligibility; they also noted a little microphone feedback when the speakerphone was used at high volume levels. Both sides noted slight static in the audio signal during calls, and on the Big Jambox side, voices sounded softer and actually a little less treble-heavy than through the iPhone 4S’s built-in speakers. The differences weren’t huge, and most users won’t care, but the speakerphone functionality isn’t Big Jambox’s greatest strength.
Like the original Jambox, there’s no doubt that Big Jambox will have fans, and Yves Behar’s industrial design remains as distinctive as the unit’s combination of features. Considered solely on its positives, this is a good enough speaker that no one would laugh it out of a room: it can produce loud, bass-rich sound—the sine qua nons of speaker marketing—and the boxy, interestingly textured shape will appeal to some people, particularly those who place greater value on a speaker’s looks than its performance for the price. However, all of our speaker-savvy editors agreed that the price tag is ridiculous given the audio quality—the key reason for our limited recommendation—and what Big Jambox has gained in sonic power has been offset by size, weight, and an off-putting hand feel that dramatically reduce its portability. Our advice would be to consider it solely if you love the way it looks enough to pay a steep premium for design; otherwise, you can do better for $300, and most people will be sonically sated by models at half the price.