If you’ve been following our reviews lately, you’ve seen us praise JBL for its spirit of experimentation over the past few years. Last time, we reviewed JBL’s monstrous Bluetooth Boombox. This week, we’re looking at something on the other end of the spectrum: the SoundGear, a personal speaker that you can wear around your neck. We were excited to try this new type of audio device but, after testing, a bit disappointed by what we heard.
The SoundGear is closer to a “personal speaker” than a headphone — you might call it a “neckphone.” It’s very much self-contained, and ships with nothing more than a USB charging cable. The SoundGear is U-shaped and contoured so it rests comfortably on the shoulders at the back of the neck — it’s only slightly flexible, so users must reach all the way to the back of the head to slide it forward to put it on. The SoundGear is a little hefty at 350 grams, but that weight easily disappears on the shoulders. Aside from its unusual form factor, the SoundGear has a generally clean and attractive appearance, with a fabric grille mounted on top a soft-touch plastic base. Controls are located at the tips of each of the SoundGear’s wings — power and pairing on the right, and track/volume controls on the left — and all function as expected. JBL advertises six hours of battery life for the SoundGear, and we got about that much in our testing.
As tech geeks, we had high hopes for the sound of the SoundGear. Sure, it’s unconventional, but we’ll try anything once. The SoundGear uses four 31 mm drivers in a ported enclosure; the speakers are located right below the ears and fire upwards. When using the SoundGear, music seems to be coming from behind and below the head; we didn’t expect magic, but we had hoped that some trick of design would make the sound less easily localized. JBL says that the SoundGear features its “signature sound”, but on this one we have to disagree. We’ve heard sound from JBL’s consumer and pro-audio gear, and the SoundGear simply doesn’t feel like a member of the family. Its sound is very mid-forward, with somewhat disappointing bass response despite its large ports. Vibrations of the bass can be felt through the shoulders, but the SoundGear simply doesn’t extend that low and, if pushed too hard, can sound buzzy. The SoundGear doesn’t sound bad, but set expectations appropriately — the SoundGear won’t provide a hi-fi experience.
We tried the SoundGear in a variety of different use cases that JBL seems to recommend. We wore the SoundGear while baking cookies for our office holiday party, at our desk while working, and even while gaming in a virtual reality headset. We noticed that it’s not as much of a “personal” experience as its form factor might suggest — those around us could hear the speaker just as much as we could. To the SoundGear’s credit, though, this form factor does deliver on the “personal sound zone” promised by JBL — when you’re wearing the SoundGear, the speakers are always the same distance from your ears, and with the same positioning, which is vastly more convenient than having to carry around a speaker or deal with headphones at times when you don’t want to be completely isolated from the sounds around you. In addition, having the drivers so close to your ears did enable us to listen at lower volumes, which is always a good thing.
JBL is one of a few manufacturers trying out the “neckphones” form factor. Bose and LG have neck speaker offerings and, though we have not yet heard them, it will be interesting to see if these become popular in the future. If the SoundGear is to succeed, we think it needs some tweaks to its acoustic design. In its current form, the SoundGear is less of a personal sound experience than simply a “C”-shaped speaker that you can wear around your neck. In our testing, we found that there are definitely advantages to this type of device over headphones, portable speakers, or traditional speaker systems that we think make it worth pursuing. We were not wowed by this experience, but we do hope there’s a sequel.
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