Pricing a Bluetooth speaker at $299 is risky business, even for Jawbone. Is bigger, better enough to justify it?
The most appealing aspect of the original Jawbone Jambox is its surprising ability to push big sound relative to its diminutive size. Other battery-powered wireless speakers might be louder or less expensive, but only Jawbone manages to foster a supreme balance of acoustics, portability, and design from such a convenient little package. As such, it's long been my go-to portable speaker, even with its rather steep $199.99 price tag.
So, what the hell was Jawbone thinking with today's announcement of the Big Jambox? A product that's six times larger by volume, more than three times heavier, and $100 more expensive than the best-selling original when it goes on sale in the US on May 15th (pre-order now). Why mess with a winning formula?
The Yves Behar wave, hex, and dot relief textures are even more stunning at this new size
Pricing a Bluetooth speaker at $299.99 is risky business, even for Jawbone — a company notorious for selling its original Jambox speaker for $199.99. At this price, Jawbone has a brief window in which to make that emotional connection so critical to the premium end of the buying spectrum. And boy does it deliver.
The Yves Behar wave, hex, and dot relief textures carried over from the original Jawbone are even more stunning at this new size. The Big Jambox is now completely wrapped in a perforated steel mesh. The elastomer rubber used on the top and bottom of its smaller sibling now only covers the end-caps and should provides Big with a bit of protection against falls. Our white review unit looks absolutely fantastic, so striking that Jawbone should have exposed it with the same transparent retail packaging it uses for its Up fitness band. A real missed opportunity in my opinion — the opaque cardboard covering Big Jambox simply can't invoke the same passionate response as the real deal.
"Big" says more about its size relative to the original Jambox than the competition
Out of the box the Big Jawbone speaker measures 10.25 x 3.25 x 3.75 inches and weighs in at 2.7 pounds making it an absolute beast next to the 5.94 x 1.57 x 2.24 inch / 0.77 pound original. Having said that, Big Jambox is still small — compact enough to be grasped with a single hand. The "Big" in its name says more about its size relative to the original Jambox than the competition. At launch, Jawbone will also sell a small travel case with a handle and slots for the AC block, cables, and Big Jambox.
Big shares the 3.5-mm analog input, Micro USB jack, built-in 360-degree echo-canceling microphone, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR radio, and the big spongy buttons of its sibling. It also carries over the ability to download apps, a variety of customizable voice alerts, and a programmable DSP that enables a switch to Jawbone's binaural LiveView listening mode at the push of a button (more on that later). What's new is a push-button power switch replacing the up-down toggle, a dedicated charging port and pairing button, and a series of eight rubber feet along the bottom to help reduce vibration. Jawbone includes an AC wall charger, 60-inch Micro USB Cable, and 36-inch 3.5mm cable in the box.
Along the top you'll find the same volume up, down, and multi-function Talk (now labeled with a "J") push-buttons, in addition to three very handy new controls for Play / Pause, Previous / Rewind, and Next / Fast-forward. Each button is distinctly shaped to match its function making them quick to decipher.
Of course, things have changed on the inside as well. Big's acoustics originate from a pair of 2.25-inch neodymium drivers of proprietary design, and two opposing passive bass radiators centrally located in the front and back of Big's 10-inch airtight enclosure. Big also packs a much larger 2,600mAH rechargeable lithium ion battery that bumps the 10-hour rating on Jambox to 15 hours for Big (or 12 hours according to the packing materials) — less if you prefer your music, games, or films loud and thumpy (more on that later).
What's missing from Big Jambox is notable: Wi-Fi and AirPlay.
The obvious challenger at this price and size is the $299 Sonos Play:3, a proprietary Wi-Fi speaker that lacks a battery or Bluetooth in its 10.6 x 6.3 x 5.2 / 5.71 pound chassis. That makes Big about half the weight and a third the size of the entry-level Sonos. On the AirPlay front, Big will compete directly with the $299 rechargeable iHome iW1 speaker. The iW1 is about 50 percent larger by volume and twice as heavy.
A spacious sensation of swirling audio not unlike Princeton's metaphorical fly
So, it looks great, but how does it sound?
Before answering that question, we should return to a feature that Jawbone introduced to Jambox back in October of 2011: LiveAudio. The software update was the first commercial implementation of BACCH 3D sound on a speaker. Developed in the 3D3A lab at Princeton University, 3D sound creates a three-dimensional audio image by manipulating the level and time that sounds hit the left and right ears. It then filters the audio to reduce crosstalk. In its perfect implementation, 3D sound lets you sit in front of two loudspeakers and locate the position of each audio source, be it a choir member, or instrument in a band or orchestra. It's not surround-sound, it's positional 3D audio accurate enough to create the illusion of a fly circling your head. Jawbone's Jambox implementation of LiveAudio was more gimmick than anything. While noticeable, you had to sit directly in front of the speaker at ear-level and at a range of about three to five feet to experience the sensation. Not so with Big.
LiveAudio experienced on the Big Jambox is something that must be heard to be believed. The Cars's Moving in Stereo is one song, in particular, that exploits the feature rather dramatically, resulting in a spacious sensation of swirling audio not unlike Princeton's metaphorical fly. Of course, the acoustical gymnastics only work if you're in front of Big, but with a range of three to ten feet it's far more forgiving to your listening position than the original Jambox. You can easily switch LiveAudio on and off by simultaneously pressing the "+" and "-" buttons on top of the Big Jambox. Although LiveAudio tends to reduce the overall volume of most tracks, I find myself leaving it enabled most of the time for the perceived stereo separation and boost in detail.
Only select tracks take advantage of 3D audio. Fortunately, Jawbone maintains some rather eclectic Spotify, MOG, and RDIO playlists to show off the feature, and even offers a LiveAudio logo free of charge to qualifying artists.
Big had a good start to the critical listening phase of the review, handling the swelling introduction and lazy cymbal crashes of So What by Miles Davis with aplomb. The track benefits greatly from the positional audio effects of LiveAudio. Then Miles kicks in with that horn, the bass lands, and my preference immediately switches to the much fuller sound of the Sonos Play:3 I used as a reference, making the Big Jambox sound shrill by comparison.
Big's treatment of Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat was overly thin even with LiveAudio turned off. And I Got A Story to Tell by The Notorious B.I.G. was scandalously flat on the B.I.G Jambox, unable to match the incessant baseline recreated by the Sonos. The audition finished with a bass-heavy club edit of Strobe by Deadmau5 which sounded, well, awful by comparison with the much larger Sonos.
At this point, after just a few songs, I realized that for the same money the Play:3 was a superior compact wireless speaker. Unfortunately, the Play:3 is far less portable due to its size, lack of Bluetooth, and lack of a battery. As such, the comparison isn't entirely fair to the governing laws of physics.
I'm a big fan of the original Jambox not because it's the best sounding $199 speaker but because it produces great sound from such a tiny package. From that same perspective, the Big Jambox is an excellent little Bluetooth speaker that goes anywhere. It's certainly a vast improvement over the palm-sized Jawbone Jambox in terms of audio quality, though it loses some portability in the process.
There's a perfect storm of trends in consumer electronics that's driving the recent interest in battery-powered Bluetooth speakers: 1) a preference for ultra-thin laptops, tablets, smartphones and even televisions that results in a lack of space for decent speakers, 2) the near ubiquity of Bluetooth in portable electronics, 3) the rise of streaming audio and video services, and 4) high-speed wireless data that lets you store your media in the cloud for access from anywhere. And while personal headphones can overcome the poor audio of modern devices, they also isolate the listener. Portable Bluetooth speakers are ideal for anyone who desires better sound, untethered mobility, and the ability to share audio with others around you.
Even as an owner of a Sonos whole-home wireless audio system, there are many occasions where a battery-powered Bluetooth speaker is exactly the kind of flexibility I need: picnics in the park set to a Spotify soundtrack, impromptu iPad movies or smartphone gaming sessions for the kids wherever they may be (outside, in the car, or holed up in the basement of some extended family member), or a decent audio solution that can be tethered to the TV in a business hotel room or holiday vacation home. While the original Jambox and speakers of its ilk can serve some of these needs, Big Jambox provides both a bigger and better payload.
Jawbone says the battery on the Big Jambox will last up to 15 hours - "up to" being the important qualifier. The first test on a full battery yielded more than seven hours of audio playback while using Big under a variety of scenarios including Bluetooth speakerphone (one hour), Bluetooth gaming (30 minutes), Bluetooth music (five hours), and tethered to a TV (one hour) over its 3.5-mm audio jack. A second test, yielded much better results: 13 hours in total while listening primarily to music streamed over Bluetooth from Spotify and Nokia Music. It's easy to imagine reaching that 15 hour pinnacle had I limited playback to NPR podcasts fed over Big's 3.5-mm jack at about 10 percent volume. My preference for a strong kick drum and booming explosions while gaming certainly affected overall battery performance in my initial test.
Pressing the circular Talk button (labeled with a "J") on top of Big speaks the battery status in human-friendly words. Big Jambox automatically announces "battery is under a quarter full" when it drops below 25 percent, followed by "recharge battery now" just before shutting off. The Talk button can also be used to accept incoming phone calls when Big is paired to your smartphone. Press it again to hang up. Press the Talk button twice and Big Jambox redials the last number called.
iOS users have the unique ability to see the speaker's remaining power next to the Bluetooth indicator — no app required. Android owners can download the free Jawbone Companion app to see the battery level and to configure Big to interrupt music and announce calendar events — it'll even automatically call any phone number associated with the meeting at a touch of a button.
Big can handle two concurrent Bluetooth device connections, thereby allowing you and a friend to simultaneously DJ the Big Jambox party. It remembers up to eight paired devices. Pairing is activated by the dedicated Pairing button at the end of the unit (Big automatically enters pairing mode the first time you turn it on).
Connect Big over Micro USB to your Mac or PC to download AudioApp from the mytalk.jambox.com site in order to personalize the voice that announces battery life and caller ID. There are 10 voices available ranging from breathy (The Bombshell) to nerdy (Classic Arcade). You can also download the DialApp to customize the Talk button and to change settings like announcements or the name of your device.
Big Jambox works fairly well as an occasional Bluetooth speakerphone but it's certainly not ready to replace the Polycom SoundStation in the executive boardroom. While plenty loud, the experience of listening to cellphone quality audio over a Bluetooth loudspeaker is irritating, at best. However, it can come in handy when the grandparents want to check in with the grandchildren.
Gaming with the Big Jambox is a special treat, adding a healthy shot of immersive sound to the experience. Pairing my iPad with Big and playing AirSupremacy ups the fun with visceral explosions felt deep inside the chest.
There are many occasions where a battery-powered Bluetooth speaker is exactly the kind of flexibility I need
Big Jambox offers the best balance of design, sound, and portability
Coming into this review I had a hard time believing that a Bluetooth speaker could possibly be worth $299.99. But who amongst us could have predicted the meteoric rise of the $199.99 Jambox responsible for literally dozens of imitators. Nevertheless, at this price Jawbone has positioned its Big Jambox against the well regarded Sonos Play:3 which offers better overall sound. The only AirPlay speaker available at this price is the poorly reviewed iHome iW1 rechargeable. Of the three, however, Big Jambox offers the best balance of design, sound, and portability. It's also a vast improvement over the palm-sized Jawbone Jambox in terms of audio quality, though it loses some mobility in the process.
Maybe I'm blinded by the brilliant white of the Yves Behar design, or maybe it's the surprisingly full sound from a relatively small speaker of such impeccable build quality. Whatever it is, a $299 purchase price for the Big Jambox is not only possible, it's also highly probable in my case as it fills my need for social audio on the go.
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