Review: Jawbone Mini Jambox Wireless Speaker
Once known as Aliph, a small San Francisco company hit such home runs with its initial products -- Jawbone wireless headsets -- that it rebranded itself with the Jawbone name to launch a series of speakers and fitness accessories. Since then, Jawbone has become a design and marketing machine, rolling out everything from the Jawbone Jambox and Big Jambox to the Jawbone Up fitness tracker. Apart from its Bluetooth headsets, which we generally really liked, each new Jawbone product has followed a similar pattern: they look neat and work pretty much as expected, but their performance isn't proportionate to their asking prices. That's once again the case with Mini Jambox ($180), another premium-priced small speaker that's outgunned by $80-$100 competitors, relying on aesthetics and marketing to win fans.
Measuring 6.06” wide by 2.28” tall and 0.96” deep, Mini Jambox is just a little wider than the Jambox, identical in height, and around 0.6” shallower—the only volumetric difference you’d be likely to notice before placing them immediately next to one another. The bigger change this time around is a material swap: Jawbone now produces each Mini Jambox from a single piece of aluminum, cutting one of several hole patterns into the front, matching that pattern with an etched version on the back, then leaving spaces on the top and sides for rubber controls, end caps, and ports. Nine different colors are currently available, five with an identical circular grid design and the other four with waves, diamonds, or facets. This is a wealth of variations by small speaker standards, though customers will be challenged to find a personally appealing texture and color combination.
Though our editors’ opinions varied on whether the new design is aesthetically better or functionally smarter than its predecessor, we were certainly impressed by the industrial engineering behind Mini Jambox. The mostly metal body feels solid, looks positively saturated with color, and manages to house almost all of the functionality found in the original Jambox within a smaller enclosure. On the other hand, Jawbone has offset Mini’s fancier housing by dropping several pack-ins from the box. The company bundled the original Jambox with a carrying case, two USB charging cables, a wall adapter, and an audio cable. This time, there’s a single USB cable, one audio cable, and nothing else. As a result, customers are getting less for the same price, and have no way of protecting a speaker that’s easier to scuff or mar than its predecessor. Jawbone is offering a $179 leather speaker case—yes, that’s right, $1 less than the Mini Jambox itself—through partner Killspencer.
It’s worth a brief mention that Mini Jambox’s otherwise cool industrial design has a potentially serious practical issue, depending on the surface you’re using it on. The prior Jambox used a fully rubberized but smooth bottom surface that could “walk” a bit on a similarly smooth table during certain songs. We found that problem to be worse with this model. When we went to play Ten Cent Pistol by the Black Keys on Mini Jambox, the speaker literally began to rotate on its own whenever bass notes kicked in, nearly falling off the edge of the smooth-finished surface it was on. Jawbone’s decision to use four tiny slit-like feet to stabilize this unit provides inadequate reinforcement under some conditions; it’s hard to believe that the company didn’t know this was a problem before shipping Mini Jambox to customers. If your desk or nightstand has a matte texture, Mini Jambox should be OK, but we were concerned with how it performed on a smooth glossy surface.
The bigger issue with Mini Jambox is the same as its predecessors: sound quality for the price. Once again, Jawbone is using a three-driver array—two active drivers and one passive radiator—which was almost exotic back in 2010, but has been widely employed in small speakers since then. As a result, Mini Jambox is easily matched or trumped on sound by numerous $80 to $100 competitors, most notably including id America’s just-released $80 TouchTone and JBL’s well-established $100 Flip, both of which offer richer, louder sound despite selling for much lower prices. In short, Jawbone’s decision to thin Mini Jambox has predictably reduced the bass performance relative to Jambox, though the company has adjusted the sonic signature with additional treble to compensate for the loss.
We noted in our December 2010 review of the original Jambox that it was a “midrange-heavy speaker with just enough treble and bass to sound ‘good enough,’ ” saddled with limited stereo separation and a tendency to distort mids and bass at higher volumes. Placing Mini Jambox right next to Jambox, we noted that the original’s somewhat muddy warmth was replaced with a sharper, treble-forward sound that’s less lifelike, but also a bit clearer. Mini Jambox also appears to be optimizing the speaker output on a moment-by-moment basis, such that it delivers extra bass when there’s nothing high-pitched to worry about. Listen to a song introduction that’s purely bassy and the systems won’t sound terribly different, but when other instruments kick in and compete for the drivers’ attention, the Jambox sounds markedly warmer than the Mini Jambox. Their peak volume levels are the same: not enough to fill a small room, but fine for near-field listening.
Speakerphone performance is pretty good rather than great. Two test callers disagreed on whether the Mini Jambox was better than the Jambox, which we noted back in 2010 was almost identical to the then-new iPhone 4, but louder. In direct comparison tests with the original Jambox and the iPhone 5s, the Mini Jambox was described by one caller as a little less intelligible than its predecessor and the iPhone 5s, while the other caller found them to be similar, except for a reduction in echoing interference in the newer model. Both callers agreed that the iPhone 5s’s integrated microphones sounded at least as intelligible as the Mini Jambox’s mic, if not better overall.
A few small frills are worth noting. Jawbone has upgraded this model to Bluetooth 4, removed static from the voice prompting, and now rates the battery life at around 10 hours versus the prior model’s 8- to 10-hour mark. The prior side power and pairing switch has been replaced by an illuminated power button and dedicated pairing button, similar to the company’s Big Jambox. None of these tweaks fundamentally changes the prior Jambox experience, but they’re all little improvements, and welcome.
Nearly three years after the original Jambox debuted, Jawbone’s Mini Jambox is entering a changed market—one where similarly-sized and sonically superior options are now commonly available at lower prices. It would be very easy to describe Mini Jambox as an $80-caliber speaker in a $130-caliber enclosure sold for $180, but that doesn’t do full justice to what Jawbone is offering here. Mini Jambox is a compact, visually striking speaker designed to appeal to people with big pocketbooks and relatively little interest in optimizing the audio quality they receive for the dollar. Some listeners will prefer the original Jambox to this and actually save money in the process, others will like the smaller Mini and feel glad to spend the extra cash for its shiny metal enclosure. Our advice would be to put fewer dollars towards a better-sounding speaker from another company, but if you’re lured in by the look of Mini Jambox, you’ll only be somewhat disappointed by the bass, the peak volume level, and its susceptibility to damage. Overall, Mini Jambox is worthy of our limited recommendation and B- rating.