By Andrew Liszewski
I’ve found there’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to finding a set of compact, portable speakers that don’t sound like they’re made of cardboard. And it’s a rule that everyone is already familiar with; you get what you pay for. So let’s get this out of the way right now. Aliph’s Jawbone JAMBOX portable Bluetooth speaker is not cheap. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush here. At $199.99 I’d say it easily qualifies as expensive.
That being said though, it’s also easily one of the best sounding portable speakers I’ve ever heard. And while it obviously can’t compete with even a half-decent home stereo setup, if you’ve been hunting for something that’s easy to transport and sounds great, I think you’ll be suitably impressed by what Aliph has cooked up. Read my complete review after the jump.
Right out of the box, before you even fire it up for the first time, the JAMBOX gives you the impression of being a well-designed and well-built piece of tech. Thanks in part to its built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a stereo pair of proprietary acoustic drivers, the speaker has a really satisfying heft to it. And the outer housing doesn’t disappoint either. It’s wrapped in a patterned metal grill with a rubber finish on the top and bottom which not only makes it easier to grip and carry, but also prevents it from vibrating, rattling around or sliding off a table or other hard surface.
Picking it up for the first time is particularly satisfying if you’ve used other cheap, compact speakers that often feel overly light and tend to give you the impression you’re in for a tinny ride. The JAMBOX is just the opposite. It feels like it’s going to sound great, and for the most part it doesn’t disappoint. Which is kind of surprising because the JAMBOX really is very compact. In the above photo you can see it sitting next to an iPhone for a size comparison, but I’ve heard it compared to a couple of stacked Wiimotes which should give you a good idea of how small it is.
On the top of the JAMBOX you’ll find three buttons molded into the rubber finish. The plus and minus are self-explanatory and are used to control the volume. (I could do without the beep sound every time they’re pressed though.) While the round button serves as a ‘Talk Button’ like on Jawbone’s Bluetooth earpieces since the JAMBOX can also be used as a serviceable speaker phone. It doesn’t quite have as sensitive a mic as dedicated speakerphone hardware, but a few people sitting around it at a table should be easily heard by the callers on the other end of the line. The Talk Button can also be used to get a verbal cue of the remaining battery life, but like with the Jawbone earpieces, the JAMBOX’s battery life also shows up as an icon at the top of the iPhone’s screen.
Aliph claims the JAMBOX can keep rocking for up to 10 hours, but keep in mind that your mileage may vary depending on what you’re listenting to. If you enjoy high-pitched MIDI tracks turned down really quietly you’ll probably have no trouble eeking out 10 hours. But if you crank something with a bit more bass, it’s going to easily gobble up the battery life a lot quicker than that. But even if it got only half the 10 hours they claim it will, I would still be impressed.
The rest of the minimal controls/ports are located on the side of the JAMBOX and include the power switch which glows/blinks red or white to indicate the charging or Bluetooth connectivity status, a mini USB port used for charging and software/firmware updates and a 1/8-inch stereo mini jack for connecting an audio source that doesn’t have Bluetooth or doesn’t support A2DP. Otherwise the JAMBOX has a really nice minimal design akin to Aliph’s other Jawbone products. And if you don’t like the bright blue finish of our review unit, there are more subtle color options also available.
Included with the JAMBOX is a USB wall adapter with folding prongs making it extra compact, and a 60-inch and 12.5-inch USB to miniUSB cable. The shorter being ideal for when charging the speaker off of your computer, with the longer being better suited to reaching a wall outlet when needed.
While A2DP Bluetooth is obviously the easiest and most convenient way to connect your iPhone or audio source to the JAMBOX, outside of smartphones there’s a not of lot of media players that are Bluetooth equipped. So Aliph also includes a 1/8-inch stereo mini cable, but they didn’t cheap out which is pretty awesome. It’s actually one of those flat-cable tangle free designs which are also easy to roll up. Gold star Aliph!
And last but not least, since the JAMBOX is primarily designed to be portable, they’ve even included a simple case which folds flat when not in use. But it also does a more than adequate job of protecting the speaker, particularly that metal grill on the outside which is prone to getting dented or dinged when it’s inside a bag or something. It would have been nice if the case could also accomodate some of those cables, but that’s not a complaint.
But industrial design and fancy accessories aside, anyone willing to spend $199.99 on a portable speaker is only going to care about one thing; the sound quality. And when it comes to small speakers like this, the JAMBOX is surprisingly capable. And I do mean surprising. When you first switch it on it roars to life with a startup sound that really does take you by surprise, particularly if you’re holding it because you can really feel the JAMBOX shake. The bass is produced by a “proprietary passive bass radiator” which means Aliph isn’t really willing to share its secrets, but according to their reps at CES it actually shakes and vibrates the heavy battery inside to boost its bass performance, and it works.
Aliph claims the JAMBOX has an output capacity of 85 decibels, which is apparently just below the level where hearing damage starts to occur and earplugs are recommended. From our tests it’s more than capable of providing enough audio to fill a large room or office, even with a murmur of activity. And for the most part it doesn’t sound like the drivers or speakers are being pushed to their limits in order to make the speaker sound as loud as possible. The only time I heard even a little bit of distortion was when things were particularly bass-heavy, like when I threw some Daft Punk its way. But I feel that outside of a review situation where I’m being very discriminate about the sound quality, most people would find little to complain about. In fact given its miniscule footprint, I’d be tempted to recommend this to people over a dedicated home stereo setup if they were hesitant about cluttering up their living room.
It’s also very, very easy to use. Obviously Aliph has been in the Bluetooth business for a few years now with their headsets, and syncing the JAMBOX to my iPhone was dead easy. You turn it on, you get a little voiceover telling you it’s going into pairing mode, you activate Bluetooth on your iPhone and in a few seconds it’s connected. A painless process. Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to test it with other A2DP hardware, but I suspect any problems wouldn’t be attributable to the JAMBOX.
So yeah. If you’re looking for an alternative to your smartphone’s crappy built-in speaker but don’t want it tethered to a dock, or don’t want a clunky stereo setup on your desk, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a better alternative than the JAMBOX. Yes, you’ll be paying a premium for it, probably even more than what you paid for your subsidized smartphone, but I can assure you in this case you definitely get what you pay for. As usual I’m sure the audiophiles out there will find plenty to sneer and turn their noses up at when it comes to the JAMBOX’s sound quality, but I can be pretty picky too, and I’m thoroughly impressed at what this little box is capable of.
+ A truly compact speaker that’s not only easy to travel with, but also sounds surprisingly great. Audiophiles probably won’t be chucking their stereo setups to the curb after getting one, but most people will find this a great substitute given its tiny footprint.
+ Well-designed and well-built with a satisfying heft to it.
+ Easy to connect and pair to A2DP Bluetooth devices.
+ Rechargeable lithium-ion battery is rated for (an optimistic) 10 hours of use.
+ Includes speakerphone functionality that’s actually quite usable.
+ Update-able firmware facilitates new features or functionality down the line.
– At $199.99 it’s expensive as far as compact speakers go, but you definitely get what you pay for.
– Carrying case can’t accomodate chargers or other cables.
– Volume + and – buttons beep when pressed which is something I personally find a little annoying.
Jawbone JAMBOX – $199.99
If you have any questions about the Jawbone JAMBOX you’d like answered, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll try to respond to them as best I can.