You may have already gathered that we're fans of the Jawbone Jambox -- seeing as how it appears in our Holiday Gift Guide -- but does a miniature portable speaker, even one that pumps out 85 decibels, deserve a $200 price? How about that battery life? We've spent weeks now with the little Bluetooth speaker that could, throwing it at every scenario in sight, and after the break you'll find a full review with all the upsides and downsides.
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Jawbone Jambox unboxing and hands-on


Design

Shortly after we posted our original hands-on, we were informed that the Jambox concept isn't remotely new -- it's quite literally an evolution of the Soundmatters foxL v2 with a Jawbone cherry on top. (Update: Read how the two stack up right here.) Part of that is Aliph's trademark noise cancellation technology, but another part is pure industrial design, as the Jambox joins its Jawbone brethren in springing from the mind of Yves Behar. It's a coffee table conversation piece if we've ever seen one, as the six-inch-long Jambox is not obviously a speaker at first sight -- merely a small rectangular box completely enveloped by a delightfully textured one-piece mesh grille, with solid chunks of rubber at top and bottom. When light hits it from just the right angles, however, you can just make out a pair of drivers inside. At about the size of two Nintendo Wii Remotes stacked together, it's not something you'd fit in an average purse, but you could definitely pop it into a shoulder bag, backpack, or a large jeans pocket.

The top plays host to three tactile buttons made of solid rubber, two of which are simplistic enough to leave little question about what they control -- the minus symbol lowers volume, the plus symbol raises it, and the circle is the standard multifunction key you'll find on many a Bluetooth headset. Holding down the plus key raises the volume one step at a time, while holding down the minus immediately mutes. Tapping the circle connects the Jambox to a pre-paired phone or reports the unit's current battery life if already paired; holding it down activates any additional MyTALK software you've installed, such as voice dialing. (Read more about MyTALK here.) On the left, you've got a three-way power switch, which (when held in the top position) activates pairing mode, a 3.5mm auxiliary stereo minijack to connect directly to alternative audio inputs, and a micro-USB port for charging and software updates.

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Jawbone made much out of the rigidity of its glass-infused polycarbonate structure and stainless steel grille during an early briefing, and sure enough they make for a rock-solid product here, pleasantly weighty and well-protected from accidental damage. We dropped it twice from four feet onto hard linoleum and noticed neither ding nor audible difference, and pressing lightly on the grille (as a curious child might) didn't dent it in. The Jambox also managed to vibrate itself off a shelf and onto our MacBook Pro's finicky trackpad. Not only did the rubberized Jambox survive unscathed, it also "fixed" the occasionally unresponsive trackpad without causing any cosmetic damage to the MBP's unibody construction. The rubber edges protrude enough for protection and allowed us to set the unit on its back to generate a touch more bass, and also add plenty of grip if you feel like pumping a Jambox-filled fist.

Performance... as a speaker

When you switch on the Jambox for the first time, it leaves a first impression like nothing else: the device roars to life with a deep, guttural rumble that you can feel in your bones. (When you turn it off, it fades away like life in a video game.) The booming intro isn't necessarily representative of the speaker's overall performance -- more on that in a sec -- but it never ceased to surprise how much sheer sound the Jambox produces at max volume.

We ran the Jambox through a gauntlet of tests, ranging from smartphone Pandora sessions all the way through movies, games and carefully ripped lossless audio pulled direct from a discrete PC sound card, and the verdict was clear: the Jambox isn't a magical treasure chest of audiophile bliss, but it is a pretty potent portable speaker that sounds great. Clear mids made our favorite singer-songwriters sound fantastic, while booming lows brought out the best in the synthetic squawks and explosions in our games, and the highs... well, at lower volumes, they were pretty good too, but you'll also hear plenty of distortion with the box cranked up.

The problem -- but also part of the cool factor, don't get us wrong -- is that the Jambox's audio is a very localized, directional phenomenon. Even a stiff, airtight enclosure and moving-wall radiator won't help it override the laws of physics. Even at its best, it sounds like your favorite band is trapped in a tiny box, their sound attempting to escape. The bass has fantastic oomph and the audio plenty of clarity and depth when you're holding the Jambox in your hand, pointed at your face, but it won't fill a large party room (or function terribly well outdoors, as we learned camping out for Black Friday) and still sound like something worth listening to -- and the close-set speakers don't provide much stereo separation to speak of, either. If your social get-together is a bit smaller and less audiophile-centric, though, the battery life may last you all the way through. From a full charge, we were able to stream Pandora over Bluetooth at maximum volume (a worst-case scenario) for five full hours before the box gave up the ghost, and managed well over sixteen hours in mixed testing with a variety of sources and settings.

...as a speakerphone

We wish that we could say the Jambox was a Jawbone Icon that you can share, but that's sadly not the case. It's definitely got some serious noise canceling algorithms in there -- we placed it next to a running faucet without a caller realizing -- but we have to wonder if they filter out too much, as even with little to no noise in the background folks kept asking us to speak up. They complained our volume was too low and our words often got cut off with the unit sitting on a nearby table, and only volume improved when we brought the unit up to our face. (Things were worse still with the Jambox facing away from us -- don't expect to use it in your workplace conference room.) When we switched to a Jawbone Icon under the exact same circumstances, callers had no trouble at all, so we have to chalk this one up as a Jambox fault.

Wrap-up

So if the Jambox isn't going to replace a good pair of headphones, loudspeakers or speakerphone, what good is it for you? Why, it's the perfect way to augment anything you'd share that doesn't have decent speakers of its own. Plugged into a bedroom TV, connected to an iPad or typical laptop -- or any phone you'd care to name -- there is absolutely no comparison between the Jambox and the drivers these devices ship with. And if someone doubts the potency of your purchase, you won't have to belabor the point -- just casually hand them the Jambox and let them feel for themselves.

Thomas Ricker contributed to this review.
Jawbone

Jambox

Pros

  • Powerful sound belies tiny size
  • Good battery life
  • Stylish, durable design

Cons

  • Mild distortion
  • Iffy as speakerphone
  • Pricey
Summary

Engadget Podcast 220 - 12.03.2010