Review: Westinghouse Digital Unplug Bluetooth Sound System
While we called out the Jawbone Jambox two years ago as overpriced and sonically underequipped, there was no question that the small, boxy $200 speaker landed in what's known as a blue ocean -- a segment of the market where there wasn't a lot of direct competition. After repackaging Soundmatters' pioneering small Bluetooth speaker foxL in a more stylish Yves Behar-designed enclosure, Jawbone aggressively marketed the Jambox in an increasingly diverse range of colors and textures, winning fans who were less concerned about the sonic performance for the price than its clean looks. Major and minor speaker makers alike took notice, and rushed various small wireless alternatives to market, trying strategies ranging from "same price, better performance" to "lower price, similar performance" and "lower price, lower performance." Having covered many earlier and in some cases superior options in prior reviews, we're taking quick looks today at seven new Jambox alternatives, all less expensive than Jawbone's basic model. The prices range from $59 to $150, and though their shapes, features, and performance vary considerably, any one will save you at least $50 relative to the Jambox, and several markedly outperform it, too.
All of today’s speakers have several things in common. They’re all built primarily as Bluetooth wireless speakers with support for Bluetooth 2.0 and newer devices, which is to say that they’ll work in wireless mode with all iPads, all iPod touches and iPhones except the original models, and even the latest seventh-generation iPod nano—reliably at 30-foot distances, sometimes longer. Each has an auxiliary 3.5mm wired option if you needed it. Every speaker comes with a charging cable and has a rechargeable battery built in, with a run time of roughly 4 and sometimes more hours, though longevity is dependent on the volume level you pick. And finally, they’re all super portable: though their shapes are different, each could be placed in a purse or backpack with ease, though there’s variation in the resilience of the materials chosen by each developer, so some will emerge more unscathed than others.
Conceptually and cosmetically similar to Brookstone’s Big Blue Live, Unplug ($100) is the first Bluetooth speaker system from Westinghouse Digital, a brand that has previously been known mostly for TVs. Nearly identical to the Jambox in width but about 1/2” taller and 3/4” thicker, Unplug borrows a design concept we liked in Soundfreaq’s otherwise incomparable Sound Step Recharge—a specially vented, very large bass driver—here found atop two front-facing drivers, firing upwards, with a thin, pill-shaped hole running through the middle of the front and back. Black or white versions are available, each packaged with USB and audio cables, a wall adapter, and a soft drawstring carrying case. An integrated 10 hour lithium-ion battery is inside.
There are certain elements of Unplug’s design that we liked a lot: the very solid metal front grille, the overall shape and footprint of the speaker, and the use of fairly elegant capacitive controls on the top for volume and play/pause controls. We weren’t as excited about the rear placement of the on/off switch, or the use of a sort of cheap-looking metallic plastic back that nonetheless matches the style of the front grille, and we were actively disappointed by the quality of the soft touch rubber top surface, which began to discolor and scuff the first time we placed it in a bag, and clearly isn’t capable of resisting predictable in-bag hazards. The drawstring carrying case is clearly included for a reason.
Westinghouse uses its larger size to deliver audio that surpasses the Jambox in amplitude, while roughly matching it in clarity at most volume levels. While neither system is sonically phenomenal, Unplug’s 65% volume level is equivalent to the Jambox at 100% volume, boasting ever-so-slightly better treble and similarly modestly less obvious bass at that amplitude. However, when Unplug goes up to 70% or 75% volume—seemingly its sweet spot—it sounds both louder and clearer than the Jambox, with slightly more powerful bass and treble, then begins to experience bass clipping thereafter, noticeable at around the 80-85% level, and obvious at its peak, which is loud enough to be dangerous for near-distance listening. Despite its small size, Unplug has the ability to be heard from across the room, though it’s not quite up to snuff sonically with top peer-priced alternatives such as JBL’s Flip or Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick.
One area in which Jambox has Unplug beat is in speakerphone performance. Callers reported that Unplug’s microphone sounded muffled and distant by comparison with Jambox’s, even though the latter isn’t a particularly excellent option for making telephone calls. On the user’s side, Unplug is a little clearer and louder than Jambox, but the differences aren’t as major as with its regular speaker performance.
The most obvious difference between Unplug and Jambox is in pricing. Like Brookstone, JBL, and others, Westinghouse has delivered an audio system that outperforms the Jambox for music purposes at half the price, leaving only speakerphone and aesthetic considerations, plus the aforementioned very small size differences as differentiators. While Unplug isn’t a pure knockout, and small industrial design and microphone improvements would have made it a stronger option, the $100 price tag and good audio performance are both reasons to give it serious consideration if you like how it looks. It’s on the fine edge of B+ and B ratings, falling into the latter because of its use of scuffable rubber and plasticy faux metallic surfaces. Some additional design polish could go a long way towards making this a great purchase.