bySean Hollister||December 28th 2010 at 7:01pmDecember 28th 2010 7:01 pm
Two portable speakers clamber into the ring, each boasting big, beautiful sound for their diminutive size. Both cost $200. Both have the same technology inside. The Jawbone Jambox and the Soundmatters foxL v2 with Bluetooth each want to be your wireless audio wunderkind, blasting music and taking Bluetooth calls. At best, you're only going to buy one. Which speaker should you choose? Following our Jambox review, we got our hands on a foxL and put the two head to head, and after the break you'll see which one came out on top -- both literally and figuratively.
foxL v2 with Bluetooth
Powerful sound belies tiny size
Superb audio quality at lower volumes
Mild distortion at high volume
Middling battery life
Staring at the outside of both speaker shells, it's a little hard to believe that they're practically the same -- the Jambox appears to be a solid pastel brick of colored rubber and metal, while the foxL, covered in glossy black , is obviously a speaker. Peel back the Jambox's stainless steel grille, however, and take a close look at the drivers inside, and you can see both they and the "BassBattery" not only look like those in the foxL, they're the exact same size and placed in precisely the same spots too. In fact, putting the units side by side, it's not hard to imagine a foxL completely fitting inside a Jambox case, although Jawbone claims to have stiffened the internals somewhat with a glass-infused polycarbonate frame.
The main visible differences between the two are the placement of ports and buttons, and how they rest on a surface -- where the Jambox stands straight up on a solid rubber base, the foxL only has a pair of small rubber feet and a pop-out stand for balance, both of which angle it about twenty degrees upward. The foxL's slender base makes it a bit more pocketable, but not nearly as stable blasting tunes, as the unit tends to noisily shuffle around on top of hard surfaces during use. (Soundmatters actually includes a tiny foam mat for this very reason.) In terms of build quality, the foxL's mesh grille and metal frame are stiff, while the Jambox's tend to slightly give, though both felt equally durable -- the only exception is the foxL's stand, which appears to be cheap plastic. It's probably worth mentioning that the foxL's glossy surfaces make for quite the fingerprint magnet, too.
Whereas Jawbone makes the controls as minimalist as possible, foxL's are kind of all over the place -- the power switch and volume buttons are on the back, there are charging and 3.5mm jacks on either side, and we actually had to consult the manual to find the context-sensitive Bluetooth button -- it's actually buried underneath that tiny LED in the front. Still, the extra jacks add flexibility to the foxL, as you can charge it from either a mini-USB cable or the included wall wart, and the second 3.5mm mini-jack can drive an external subwoofer if you happen to have one lying around. The foxL's even got a pair of slots for camera straps on either side, so you could theoretically hang it from your neck like a jam pumpin' gangsta chain. (No, we didn't test that out.) It's also nice to see that the foxL's screws are readily accessible -- if or when the Jambox's lithium-ion battery ever dies, you'll have to send it back to Jawbone for replacement, but it looks like you might be able to swap the foxL's battery out.
Of course, none of the above comparisons matter if the foxL can't hold its own when it comes to quality sound... but we were surprised to find that in most every test, the foxL came out on top. Though neither the Jambox nor the foxL do terribly well at maximum volume, introducing unwelcome distortion into our movies and tunes, the foxL v2 generated noticeably richer and fuller audio, and a wider soundscape too. With Jawbone's product, it always felt like our favorite artists were trapped in a box, their sound trying to escape, but the Soundmatters device reduces that feeling by providing a smidgen of stereo separation, and from better exposed speakers that get that sound out in the open. The foxL also produces a bit more bass at lower volumes, which adds some depth to tunes, but you can't turn it up quite as loud as the Jambox before the music gets too distorted to comfortably listen to.
If the foxL generally sounds better, than what did Jawbone actually add to the equation? Three things: Bluetooth know-how, updatable firmware... and a bit more battery life, too. The latter is the clearest win for the Jambox, as it lasted roughly 40 percent longer in our maximum drain test -- running at full blast, streaming Pandora over Bluetooth, the Jambox lasted five hours, while the foxL v2 managed only three and a half. The Jambox also has about five extra feet of Bluetooth range, as we could walk that much farther from our connected phone before audio became distorted. If you're looking for a portable speakerphone, though, the foxL's definitely a better one, as though Jawbone's NoiseAssassin noise-canceling algorithms were indeed far better at squelching unwanted sounds (completely muting a running faucet such that our caller couldn't tell it was there) it also had trouble picking up our voice unless it was directly in front of our face, while the foxL had no such trouble. With Soundmatters' unit, we were able to move about the room unhindered without raising our volume once, even as those listening to us through the Jambox continually begged us to speak up. Sound quality on our end was slightly improved with the foxL as well.
To tell the truth, we're plenty pleased with the Jambox and foxL v2, and it's only in close comparison between the two that we were able to detect where one or the other came out on top -- both are potent, portable replacements for crappy in-built speakers, and honestly, neither makes for a terribly good speakerphone -- though the foxL definitely has a leg up. If you already bought one or the other, the grass really isn't greener enough on the other side of the hill to warrant another purchase, but if you've got $200 burning a hole in your pocket, the choice will depend entirely on who you're trying to impress. The Jambox has an unmistakable cool factor that makes it the life of the party, pumping out jams nonstop, but if you're playing for an audience with critically attuned ears, you can't beat the original.