Technology Tuesday: Jawbone Jambox

Last week, we looked at a relatively inexpensive gadget that produced surprisingly good sound for the price. This week, we’ll evaluate just the opposite: An extremely expensive gadget that produces surprisingly mediocre sound for the price.

With more and more ways to stream music from a portable device or laptop, you often want more than just a pair of earbuds or headphones to stream the likes of Turntable.FM, Spotify, Google Music, Apple iCloud, and of course your local tunes. A commenter from last week waxed nostalgic for a decent “boombox” type of portable speaker:

What I find even more alarming is that communal music listening experiences revolving around such devices no longer exist. When I was growing up in the late ’80s, whenever there was a group of teenagers gathered at least one person had a radio and we rocked out man. A few months ago I was at a skatepark and saw 3 or 4 teenage buddies roll up and start skating. They all had their respective earbuds in and they skated in silence. That’s just…weird…

It was with this excitement, being able to rock out to tunes from my mobile phone, that I looked forward to getting my hands on the Jambox.

What Exactly Is It? A light (under 1 pound), small (about 2.5″ x 6″) portable speaker made by Jawbone that can stream music via Bluetooth or 3.5mm headphone jack and charge and update software via micro USB with a built-in microphone for calls.

Cost? The Jambox will set you back about $199 regardless where you buy it. I’ve been searching for deals for quite some time and never seen a discount off of this MSRP. I was able to get BestBuy to honor this coupon for 10% off & had $60 in Reward Zone certificates and a $25 Best Buy Gift Card.  So at right about $100, I figured it was time to make the dive.

The Good

Call Quality: Jawbone knows a thing or two about call quality. They make a line of Bluetooth earpieces that have very good noise cancellation and sound quality. But, like the Jambox, are relatively expensive and if you’re photographed using one, you have to fear being identified as a BTDB and finding yourself HERE. Anyways, I used the Jambox in the car for several days and made many phone calls. The clarity was great and when asked, the other person reported not knowing I was even using a speaker phone. Unlike many other portable speakers, the Jambox is the only one that I’ve found with this feature. Calls immediately take precedence and flawlessly answer. When calls are through, the music quickly fades back to the appropriate volume.

Rugged, Well Designed: This is a really well made device. Despite being under a pound, it feels extremely sturdy with its solid stainless steel grille and rubberized feet. The three buttons on top are encased in rubber and seem very well protected in case of accidental coffee spill in the car. Overall, it looks great and comes in four cool colors: The red that I bought, black, silver and blue. The packaging is fantastic with a “door” opening up with all the needed accessories neatly on little shelves and labelled with a sticker which easily pulls the cord or accessory out and unwraps it without any twist-ties or other aggravating packaging. It comes with a nice carry case as well.


[Jambox Retail Packaging]

Updateable Firmware and “Apps” How many speakers have you ever bought that can improve over time? Well, the Jambox can do just that. Jawbone can tweak their algorithms and sound software to improve the overall performance of the speaker. I actually had an update available when I connected my Jambox with the provided USB cable and installed the Jambox software. The “LiveAudio” enhancement, according to Jawbone: “Enables a spatial listening experience previously only available through headphones for binaural recordings. It’s a processing feature that applies crosstalk cancellation features to produce better and deeper imaging, letting artists better create emotional connections with their audience”.

While it is nice to be able to update speaker software, customize the “voices” that offer commands and instructions, and even enable such things as one-touch calling to a favorite number from the call button or enable several other applications, the most important thing is overall sound quality to begin with.

So how is that sound?

The BAD

My expectations were high based on price and a few previous reviews I had read. So with a 60-minute play queue on my phone featuring a wide range of music, I eagerly turned the Jambox on. In a nice little touch, the speaker rumbles some low bass signalling it is ready to rock when powered on. Unfortunately, that’s about as exciting as this listening experience got.

I kept fiddling with it and skipping songs thinking something must be wrong with one of my settings or the songs in my playlist. Despite having the volume maxed out, it hardly felt like I was getting much punch at all. Now I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, but I did want more than could be accomplished with a cheap $30 pair of desktop speakers.

Remember that LiveAudio enhancement I just mentioned? (Oh, and by the way, I tried not to laugh when typing the horseshit line, “produce better and deeper imaging, letting artists better create emotional connections with their audience.”) The LiveAudio actually decreases the overall volume, so I was relieved to read that thinking that must be what was limiting my enjoyment of the speaker. So I disabled this “enhancement” and while the volume did marginally increase, it was still far from pleasing me.

Frankly, driving down the road at high speeds with the drone of the highway and sounds of my car & heater competing against the Jambox, it was about an even match with neither the sound of driving nor the Jambox overpowering each other.

In addition to the limited volume, I couldn’t ever get my ears to hear anything other than sound coming from a tiny speaker the size of a deck of cards. Again, I wasn’t expecting clear stereo separation or whole room filling sound, but I did want to hear more than what the Jambox can give which was relatively flat, lifeless sound that seemed “trapped”.

Bottom Line

The Jambox is well made, well packaged and may be good in some situations like watching a movie on an iPad with a couple of people or watching a sporting event on Slingbox. However, listening to music, especially in louder environments when more volume is needed, the Jambox will disappoint. It simply doesn’t have the quality of speakers or the “oomph” to kick out tunes that you can rock to.

Even with my discounts driving my final price to about $100, I still felt that that was well overpriced so I ultimately returned it. At the full retail of $199, I couldn’t even fathom someone thinking that was a reasonable price.

So sorry tallboycan, this isn’t the “boombox” we were looking for, we’ll keep our eyes out!

How about you readers? Have any suggestions for portable speakers that can easily move from car to home? Have you tried listening to the Jambox and what are your opinions?

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Hidden Track Technology Tuesday
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4 Responses

  1. (BTDB…….ha ha!)

    Anyway, I’ve had my eye on this for quite sometime. Though everytime I’m in BestBuy or other place that sells it, it is so loud that I haven’t been able to really hear what the thing sounds like. I was skeptical b/c of the size…glad I read your review….think I’ll pass.

  2. Damn, I was hoping this would be good too. I’m still miffed that there’s such a void in the boombox category these days. This is what I want in a boombox type device:

    1. very-good to very, very-good sound. I’m not a stick up my butt audiophile pain in the ass when it comes to sound, but it needs to kick it and kick it right.

    2. a good knob for volume. Did you hear me electronic companies? I said a knob. Not those annoying + and – buttons!

    3. A high quality, long lasting built in rechargeable battery unit. Oh and it should have a graduated indicator of battery charge remaining.

    4. An AC plug (duh). But it should be retractable. Why is the vacuum the only flippin device with a retractable power cord? A great idea that has never moved beyond the vacuum for some inexplicable reason.

    5. An easy to use AM/FM radio (with about 4-5 presets).

    6. A flip up handle. Simple.

    7. An ipod dock that charges the ipod.

    8. And that’s IT. No other bells and whistles needed. OK, maybe have 2 other models available: 1 with a cd player for people like my mom and another with satellite radio, if that’s your thing. But that’s it. I mean it! It doesn’t need to connect to wi-fi or pandora or the itunes store or facebook or have a remote control or be able to turn the lights on in my house. It doesn’t need to look sleek, have no visible buttons/controls or look like R2D2’s mutated cousin. But it DOES need to rock the hell out, be easy to use, and be able to tune in a baseball game on a sunny afternoon.

    9. Oh, and it needs back lit buttons too.

  3. Wait, you tested it in the car? That’s not really its ideal environment.

    I love the Jambox. Dare I say it’s changed my life. I’ve got domestic ADD, running all over the house, porch one second, cleaning the bathroom the next, and I bring it with me everywhere. The sound quality is exceptional for its size, the only downside being that the position of the speaker makes a big difference, especially with LiveAudio off, so it helps to have it positioned at head level. I also work for many months at a time on the road, living out of hotels, and this kills laptop speakers.

    Granted, when I turn on my true hi-fi stereo system, it sounds worlds better than the Jambox, but, again, it’s far better than the laptop when I want the sound closer to me.

    Right now I’m listening to the Vegas ’96 Hood with the LiveAudio setting and it sounds (relatively) fantastic.

    Carry on . . . December ’11 has long since passed and it’s May 2012 and we’ve got new fish to fry and a hot summer ahead where we try to become better friends to everyone around us.

  4. thanks for the comments Johnson…

    I guess I could never get beyond the limited volume and the seemingly “small” sound. Jawbone just released the Big Jambox which triples the size but supposedly has incredibly improved sound. I can’t wait to listen to that one.

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