Jawbone Jambox

There are lots of small/portable speakers aimed at everything from computers to smartphones - but let's be honest, most of them are junk.

Some background...

Batteries vs. AC?
Some of them are worse than the built-in speakers of newer SmartPhones and laptops, and some... well despite their low price, they just aren't worth buying at all.  Many are un-powered, which means they won't be very loud, and will drain the battery of any portable gadget that much faster.  Some are tied to a wall socket (which is fine for PC speakers).  Some take normal AA or C batteries.  That'S great in a way, since you can always buy batteries in a pinch - but it is also a pain to keep replacing (or even charging) them.  Some speakers come with an AC adaptor and work with batteries.  If you're really lucky, it has a built-in rechargeable battery.

Form Factor and Portability vs. Sound Quality Trade-Off
Many of the PC use speakers are too big to be truly portable.  Many smaller speakers are portable, but the sound is worse, and it's more likely for them to be unpowered.  

Wireless vs. Wireless Audio
Almost all of the devices on the market require a wire from the headphone jack of your device.  This can be a pain on something like an iPad where you want to hold it and watch a movie.  This is a double-pain if the device has to be tied to a wall socket and an audio cable to your device.

There are basically two types of wireless audio:
  • AirTunes/AirPlay - Used by Apple's AirMac Express (AirPort Express overseas), AppleTV, and some other supporting software.  This works over TCP/IP (hence WiFi).  This requires software support, and that your devices be on the same network.
  • Bluetooth - This is a more compatible, lower-level standard, but requires hardware support and a finicky pairing process.
AirTunes is a nice technology that can theoretically work across the internet, and should not be forgotten - but it's basically only supported by the AirPort express, which has to be plugged in.  Even if a vendor implemented support for it on their portable speakers, at present it would work only with Apple devices.  Basically, at present, AirTunes is more appropriate for a home audio system than for portable devices in general.

Also, of course, if you only support wireless, then you have two problems: 1. Users will have to pair in order to use the device, even if they just wanted to use it for a moment.  2. The speakers will only work with devices that support BlueTooth - which might leave out older iPods, etc.  

Enter Jambox:
Jambox Features:
  • Very small - can be easily held in one hand, or carried in a purse or laptop bag.
  • Supports both wired audio and Bluetooth Audio.
  • Also has a microphone and supports use as a speakerphone.
  • Comes with an AC adaptor, contains an internal rechargeable battery, and can charge by USB.
  • Very solid build quality - very little change of it breaking easily. 
  • Comes with good quality accessories: Two USB cords (Long and short), charger, audio cable, and even a nice case.
  • Software Upgradable: Currently this mainly means you can change the voice used for the audio prompts.
  • Great Sound Quality - This is perhaps most important.  
More about the Sound Quality
The first thing to be said is that one can't expect a small battery powered portable speaker to have the best sound in the world.  It's just not physically possible for it to compete with larger speakers.  Also, at a retail price of 17,000 yen, the Jambox isn't exactly cheap, but it's far from expensive by speaker standards either.  Having said that, both the sound quality and volume are absolutely amazing given the size.  It's even more amazing that the unit can run on battery for up to a claimed 10 hours while pumping out that kind of sound.

Real-World Use
We don't write our reviews based on tech-specs, but by testing out the products ourselves in real-world usage scenarios.

Pairing: Pairing with Mac OS X (10.70 and the original iPad was simple enough.  Pairing with Android also worked without any hitches.  With Windows 7 we had to try several times, but it eventually worked.  The annoying thing is that the Jambox can by default only remember one paired device - meaning you need to re-pair every time you want to use it with another device.  While the pairing is easy enough that this isn't a big deal, it is enough of an inconvenience that we tended to just use the Audio cable when using it with our laptop.  Upon visiting Jawbone's MyTalk web site, we we able to change an advances setting to allow it to remember up to two devices - but it will only allow streaming from one at a time (more about this later).

MyTalk: Mytalk is Jawbone's software update/configuration site.  If you plug the Jambox into your computer via USB, you can visit the MyTalk site in order to change settings.  We have a bit of a problem with requiring this site, since it means that if JawBone ever goes out of business (or you don't have an internet connection!), you won't even be able to change settings anymore.  The major thing you can change at the moment is the voice used for the voice prompts.  There is only one Japanese voice, and it is not even loaded by default on the units sold in Japan - that is a major faux paus.

iPad Usage: The only thing required to pair the unit was to go into Bluetooth section of the Settings app, turn Bluetooth on, and select the Jambox.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way to turn the Bluetooth audio on/off on the iPad without going back into the settings menu every.single.time. - which quickly becomes tedious.  The easiest solution is just to turn the Jambox off when you don't want to use it with the iPad.  The main problem with this strategy is that if you want to use the Jambox with another device (like a laptop), then you still have to leave it on and manually turn off Bluetooth in the iPad settings.  On the other hand, the positive side is that the iPad's connection is immediate and rock-solid.  We never had it disconnect or got any other type of error.

Laptop usage: Mac OS X is a little more temperamental we got error messages on numerous occasions saying that there was an error while using Bluetooth audio, and providing only a "stop using device" button.  There should be an "ignore" or "keep trying" button.  What's more, instead of popping up a dialog that interrupts your work, they could have just put a red X over the Bluetooth icon in the menu bar and had it keep trying to reconnect in the background.  Luckily, these errors only happened when connecting to the Jambox after having been disconnected - admittedly something we did more in testing than you are likely to do in real life.  Although sometimes it took a couple of tries to get connected - once connected and playing music, it works beautifully with no issues.

We did notice that sound quality dropped noticeably when using a Bluetooth mouse at the same time, though we haven't investigated that issue any further at this point in time.

Obviously, since the unit is portable anyway, the audio-jack option is useful with laptops, which tend to sit on the table (or bed..).  With something that you hold, like the iPad, the Bluetooth option is appreciated.  

Overall Impression
Despite the minor bluetooth glitches mentioned above, with a device this portable and versatile, the usage scenarios are seemingly limitless.  We can immagine it used not only around the house, but as something to bring to the park for picnics, something to put in your laptop bag to use for teleconferences at work, and even something to bring on business trips of vacation to use for watching movies in the hotel room.  Obviously, there are times when headphones or larger speakers are more appropriate - but we feel this product really fills a sweet spot in the market.  Unlike many products where there is buyer's remorse, we truly feel that people who buy this product will have buyer's delight!