Review: JBL Voyager Home Audio System With Portable Wireless Speaker
For years, Harman Multimedia has operated Harman Kardon and JBL as separate audio brands, even though they've shared certain key engineers and designers. While it would have been easier to limit only one brand to selling Bluetooth speakers, Harman instead uses JBL to launch value-focused products and Harman Kardon for fancier and typically more expensive alternatives. That quick explanation may help you better understand the reason why JBL's Voyager ($250) and Harman Kardon's Esquire ($250) are being offered at the same price point: Voyager is one of JBL's more expensive and distinctive Bluetooth speakers, while Esquire is one of Harman's least expensive and simplest. Whether either model is right for you will depend on the type of audio experience and features you're expecting for a fairly premium price point.
To oversimplify these two speakers, Voyager looks like a circle and Esquire like a rounded-off square, close in width while varying considerably in all other regards. Voyager is around 8” in front diameter and 4.5” deep, tapering to a 4.5” rear circle, while Esquire is roughly 5.8” square with a 1.25” depth. While Voyager initially looks a lot bigger than Esquire, they become more comparable once you note that Voyager’s core can pop out. Just press on the front JBL logo and Voyager’s center detaches, becoming a 5.2”-diameter, 1.3”-thick puck.
What’s interesting is that Voyager’s puck is extremely similar to Esquire in functionality: apart from a smaller number of controls and one-half Esquire’s 8-10-hour rechargeable battery life, they do the same things, using twin front-firing audio drivers and noise-canceling microphones to operate as speakers or speakerphones. The Voyager puck’s two drivers are 1.5” in size with 14 Watts of power, versus Esquire’s 1.75” and 20-Watt total speakers, seemingly giving the latter an edge. But in practice, they sound very close to one another, and both can perform a bit beyond Bluetooth’s standard 33-foot broadcasting distance before the wireless signal begins to break up. Both portable units can be recharged using included micro-USB cables, using five white lights to indicate their remaining battery power.
Unlike Esquire, there’s more to the Voyager story. The 8”-diameter docking station comes with a wall adapter, using magnets to gently lock the puck in place, then expand its audio performance. JBL includes a 3” subwoofer with its own 15 Watts of power, seamlessly transitioning from two-driver to three-driver modes within a second of docking. While the subwoofer dock is made primarily from clear plastic with painted metal grilles, it is a study in class just like classic Harman Apple speaker designs such as the iSub and SoundSticks, revealing a silver and white core with alternating fabric and metallic surfaces. A black version is also available, substituting translucent black plastic for the white model’s clear frame.
At this point, one might ask why Esquire, lacking the dock, would be worthy of the same price tag as Voyager. Apart from the extra battery power, the answer is substantially in Harman’s choice of materials. On the front of the rounded square is a distinctive pill-perforated face that feels plasticky, yet solid and resilient, enabling a metallic Harman Kardon logo to sparkle in the center. Esquire’s sides evoke the original iPhone, including a polished chrome front edge, sandblasted aluminum edges, and a matte black plastic bottom that enables the unit to stand upright on a table. On the back is a leather surface that adds to the impression Esquire is expensive, or at least supposed to look the part. Black, white, and brown versions are offered, each with the same silver aluminum edging, but with color-matched front, back, and bottom edge pieces.
Harman also packs Esquire with some small frills. It has seven buttons, including trivial play/pause and microphone mute buttons not found on the five-button Voyager, and an aux-in port on its right edge versus the one found only on Voyager’s base. A zippered travel case, a micro-USB cable, and a unique three-port wall adapter are included in the Esquire package, the latter with separate iPad, iPhone, and Esquire recharging ports. Oddly, the travel case doesn’t include a pouch for the wall adapter, which is handy enough that you’ll actually want to take it with you on trips. EU wall blades are also included in the package for international use, further emphasis of Esquire’s “made for travel” focus versus Voyager’s “desktop first, travel second” design.
As excited as we were to hear Esquire in person, the reality is that its sonic performance is below par for a $250 speaker — even one made with the sort of nice materials found here - and noticeably behind Voyager. Both units are indeed stereo speakers, with the ability to properly perform left- and right-channel audio modestly beyond the edges of their faces, but Esquire’s shallow frame and lack of a dedicated bass driver restrict its ability to perform truly low notes. On its own, Esquire sounds extremely close to Voyager’s unassisted central puck, delivering only a little extra volume and a hint of additional mid-bass, neither enough to justify the unit’s larger size. When Voyager is fully assembled, the added bass really helps its audio to sound fuller and more natural, though we wouldn’t call either system “great” by $250 speaker standards. They’re both too midrange-focused, with too little treble due to their lack of dedicated tweeters, and each strains its small speakers to the point of flatness when attempting to completely fill a small room with sound.
We were surprised to find that the two units were nearly identical in speakerphone performance, a signature feature of Esquire that’s underadvertised on Voyager. Callers told us that we sounded clearer and more intelligible during calls made through both speakers than we did with the speakerphone built into the iPhone 5s itself — rare praise — and interestingly said that they’d give the edge to Voyager if they had to pick one as superior. That said, Esquire is designed to support group conferencing, and can be laid on its leather back for multi-person calling.
From where we stand, Voyager is clearly a superior Bluetooth speaker relative to Esquire, offering virtually all of the same functionality plus an attractive, sound-enhancing docking station for the same price — the reason it merits our strong general recommendation. You give up a bit of battery life and the fancier wall adapter in the process, but very few people will care given all that they gain with Voyager. By contrast, Esquire’s more deluxe materials are its biggest selling point; it is underpowered relative to dozens of $250 (and lower-priced) portable speakers we’ve tested. If it had offered more impressive sound fidelity or had sold for less, it would have been more appealing. As-is, it’s worthy of our limited recommendation, a pretty good speaker that will appeal more on looks than on sound.