Review: JBL Jembe Wireless Speakers
We've been on a Bluetooth speaker reviewing tear over the last several days, covering dozens of new models that are all being released in time for the 2012-2013 holiday season. Two days ago, we looked at small portable all-in-one speakers; yesterday, we covered several distinctive designs that did more than just stream music, and today, we're looking at three "new" models that add Bluetooth wireless streaming to previously-released wired, multi-component speakers. The least expensive is JBL's Jembe Wireless ($99), based upon the earlier $60 Jembe. Since this speaker system is first and foremost for computers, with iOS wireless compatibility as an afterthought, we're not going to dive too deeply into it, but it may appeal to some users looking for multi-component Mac or PC speakers and the ability to quickly play music from Bluetooth devices.
The appeal of Jembe Wireless can be summed up in two words: “simple” and “affordable.” Although the $60 wired version is obviously less expensive, JBL’s $99 asking price places this system very close to the entry level for a two-speaker Bluetooth audio solution. It’s particularly appealing considering that it comes from a major manufacturer and features an aesthetically appealing design—a simplified variation on the Weave theme JBL introduced recently across a wide variety of pricier audio products.
Each speaker looks like a small roughly 5.3” tall by 4.1” diameter matte plastic bucket with V-shaped perforated metal speaker grilles in the front and back, tapering down to a 3.3” circular base. Concentric circles are stacked on the speakers’ tops, doing nothing on the left speaker while constituting a dial-style power and volume knob on the right. An RCA-style port is on the rear of the left speaker, connecting to a cable that’s permanently attached to the rear of the right speaker, enabling them to be separated by roughly 60 inches. The right speaker also has a female 3.5mm cabled audio port permanently sticking out of its back, and a separate port for attachment to an included wall power adapter. A 3.5mm audio cable is included for wired connection to a computer or other audio source.
One thing that’s interestingly missing from Jembe is any sort of manual input selection control. Instead, whenever the system turns on, it automatically goes into a discoverable Bluetooth pairing mode, thereafter signaling that it’s paired by turning a small light on the right speaker from white to blue. When it’s paired, all you need to do is press play on your wireless device, and music starts playing through the speakers without any effort—moreover, you can pair multiple devices, and Jembe will automatically re-pair with the last device it streamed from. Also noteworthy is that JBL doesn’t stop Jembe from performing music through both its wireless and wired inputs at the same time, a possible convenience if you’re using it as a computer speaker and want to play a song through your iPhone, iPod, or iPad instead. Jembe Wireless also aggressively manages its power, automatically turning off when it’s left unused for a brief period.
There’s not much nuance to Jembe Wireless’s sound, but it’s generally solid, and more powerful than many speakers offered for the same $100 asking price. JBL doesn’t talk much about the drivers inside the speakers, but they sound like roughly 1.5” full-range drivers, inexpensive but reasonably well-tuned, and capable of putting out just enough midrange-heavy, semi-bassy sound to handily eclipse whatever speakers desktop computers and monitors already have inside. Regardless of the volume level—except at the bare minimum, where treble nearly disappears—you’ll hear respectable mid-bass, a little treble sparkle, and enough midrange detail in your songs not to feel that anything major is missing, but when compared against more expensive speakers, the clarity and range are only okay. The peak volume is enough to fill a small room, but JBL stops Jembe Wireless from going as loud as its volume knob suggests it might, in order to prevent more than the modest bass distortion you’ll hear at top listening levels. There’s no subwoofer here, but thanks to the shape and ventilation of the speaker enclosures, Jembe Wireless does as well as a $100 audio system can at approximating dedicated bass hardware without possessing it.
The single biggest flaw with Jembe Wireless is the quality of the Bluetooth audio playback. While the wireless signal is strong, and doesn’t experience traditional drop-out, it has notable but brief hiccups—akin to little drops of water coming out of a faucet that’s supposed to be turned off—after tracks change or resume from paused playback. It’s unclear at this point whether the issues are iOS- or speaker-related, but we experienced some odd stop-stall audio issues on both the iPhone 5 and new iPod touch. They’re not show-stoppers, but imperfections that do detract from the experience when you’re manually stopping or starting new tracks.
That issue aside, Jembe Wireless is a very good budget speaker option for computer users who want to easily add Bluetooth iOS steaming to their audio mix. By removing any need for buttons or special configuration, JBL has made this system incredibly easy to use as a single-point or two-source audio system, and it produces big, properly stereo separated sound that’s more than acceptable for the relatively low price point. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned audio dribbles, Jembe Wireless would be a slam dunk, but as it is, it’s just a little shy of our high recommendation level.