• Review: Big Jambox

    The original Jambox is a best-of-breed bluetooth speaker by Jawbone that combines a stunning mesh design with surprisingly loud sound & long battery life in a tiny package. The new Big Jambox pushes the envelope into unexpected territory for the evolution of the Jambox brand; less portable, bulkier & heavier. With this in mind, can the Big Jambox live up to the standard of its kin? And can a bluetooth speaker —any bluetooth speaker— be worth a bone-crunching $359? I think so, and here's why.

    The Anywhere Speaker

    Here's a snapshot into my daily routine; I get up in the morning, pick up my phone off the nightstand, then I go make myself breakfast, which usually involves a brewing coffee in the kitchen. After that, I'll go sit on my apartment verandah, in the unforgiving Queensland sun, sip my coffee & try to get rid of the morning stares. After I'm done, I'll head back inside to my desk, sit down on my crappy office chair and start work.

    Now, why the hell am I telling you all this? Because in the morning I also like to listen to a podcast (usually Tech News Today) to catch up on the morning's tech news. I don't want to have earphones jammed in my head the whole time. So, therein lies the dilemma; how do you have a speaker setup that covers at least 3 different zones in an apartment? Well, as far as I can tell, there's a few options:

    1) Spend an stack of cash on a Sonos setup. You use a Sonos remote, or app (which also works with AirPlay from your phone) to move the audio from room-to-room

    2) Spend quite a lot of money on Airport Express units & speakers for all of those areas. You use AirPlay from your phone to move audio from room-to-room

    3) Have iPhone/iPod speaker docks littering your house.

    4) Get a battery-powered bluetooth speaker. When you move, you pick up the speaker and carry it with you

    Call me ghetto, but I'm all in favour of the last option. No fiddling with your phone as you move, you just leave it in your pocket, and carry this little musical doodad with you from place to place. It's great.



    So, as you can probably tell, I really, really liked the original Jambox. I thought it was a simple, elegant solution to portable music & podcasts at home. However, there are some flaws, which grated on me after coming from near-daily use from about the last 12 months:

    - After 12 months, I still can't tell from sight alone which is the front of the device. Drives me mental.

    - It's not quite loud enough to fill a room. When you max out the volume, it also actually shakes and moves around slightly, because of the battery-assisted bass (for real; the Jamboxes use the heft of their battery as a sub-woofer). I've had my Jambox commit suicide off a bookshelf after half of a Beastie Boys album.

    - There's only 3 physical controls; the multi-function button, and volume up & down. So if anyone wants to skip a track, or pause the music, you can't do it unless you have your phone. If you're hosting a party & using a Jambox, be prepared to have your phone out a lot.

    Go Big or Go Home

    This brings me to the big Jambox! Oh the big Jambox. It takes almost every flaw of that original design and kills it dead. It also makes it bigger. Like, quite a bit bigger.

    Unboxing



    Jawbone do a lovely job of boxing up their gadgets. It really is a pleasure analogous to opening up a new Apple device. Accessories in the box include an AC charger (more on this later), a USB cable & a headphone stereo cable. All match very nicely with the Jambox itself.

    Design



    Honestly, I think the Jamboxes are unparalleled in speaker design at the moment. The whole unit is gorgeous, decked out in a white micro-drilled metal mesh. The mesh also contains a subtle wave pattern, that only really becomes apparent close up, or if the light hits it in just the right way. The ripples are incredibly subtle, and are just lovely to look at. There are 3 patterns to choose from; the white wave, the black hex, and the red dot design. The edges are now made of a glossy plastic (compared to the original Jambox, which was bedecked with an AppleTV-esque elastomer rubber material)

    The bottom of this unit also now comes with 8 dedicated feet which hold the Jambox a mere millimeter or two off the surface. I think is a big improvement, because it mitigates the unit shaking around at louder volumes -- a problem common in the original.

    Also a slight improvement is the front-facing badge. The 'Jawbone' badge on the front tells you which side is the front without compromising the beautiful design, though it is not quite as minimal as the original's unadorned aesthetics.

    A slight ding on the big Jambox compared to the original is that this one can't really safely be sat in a 'portrait' orientation like the original. I mean, it technically can, but it shakes about, and also the feet stick out the side. I wouldn't recommend it.

    Size

    I've been looking around trying to come up with an equivalent sized object I can compare the Big Jambox to, because the name is somewhat misleading. Sure, it's big for a bluetooth speaker, but that doesn't mean it is not portable. If I had to pin it down, I'd say it's roughly the size of a box of tissues, while the original was the size of a large coffee. It is definitely heavier too, weighing in at about 1.2kg.



    Controls



    The physical controls have been extended from the original multi-function button & volume up/down to include a set of next/previous buttons, and a play/pause button.

    These physical controls also work with 3rd party apps (like Instacast & Spotify, my listening apps of choice). Also interesting to note, they also work with the custom implementation of back/next too. So with Instacast, the 'next' button is actually a fast-forward 30 seconds button. (Call me a filthy ad-skipper, but I hear a lot of Squarespace sponsorships during the day. After my 3rd one for the day, at that point I think they're doing more harm than good.)

    There's also a couple of hidden functions too, that lead me to believe they've thought a lot about how to improve the device. For example, if you continiously hold down the volume button up, you get a gradual increase, marked by an audible 'tic-tic-tic' noise. If you hold down the volume down button, you get two 'tic-tic' noises, and then the volume instantly goes down to zero. Small touches like that make me appreciate the work that's gone into this device.

    The circular multi-function button on the top can fulfill a variety of sources. By default, pressing it gives you a spoken-word assessment of the battery's state by the lady whose voice lives inside the Jambox ('battery is about full', 'battery is under a quarter', she announces cheerfully).

    Connecting devices

    Connections still happen through Bluetooth, but now a single Big Jambox can support two simultaneous connections at once. This might be a good feature, but when you're dueling with someone at a party as to what song is playing, maybe it's not as great as you think.

    I also found some wonkiness with the dual connection. For example, I had a friend who was playing music through their Android phone. The simple act of me navigating the menus in Spotify on my iPhone would prompt the music to stop on their device, which was kind of weird.

    You can certainly also connect any device with the headphone cable, which provides a higher quality connection.

    Overall, I think the only thing missing from here is a direct AirPlay connection. I think that probably would've driven the price up even higher though.

    Ports



    Ports on the big Jambox include a power button (changed from a sliding switch), a sync button, a headphone jack, a micro-USB port & a dedicated AC charging port. This marks a change from the original Jambox, which charged via the micro-USB connector. I believe that they've changed it to crank up the voltage so the whole unit (and it's much bigger battery) can charge in around the same amount of time — a full charge takes about 2.5 hours. However, if you're on holiday, and all you've got is a micro-USB cable, it can still charge with that too — it just takes longer (I tested it with an 10W iPad AC charger). On battery life, the unit is rated for 15 hours. I got about roughly 12-13 the first week I used it, which was mostly made up of bluetooth streaming.

    Finally, the dedicated sync button on the side also makes it much more straight-forward to sync phones without knowing the hidden trick of holding the power switch to sync the old one.

    Software

    One of the features which had given Jamboxes quite a reputation is Jawbone's dedication to carrying on with firmware upgrades for speaker. "I'm just plugging in my speaker so I can update to the latest software" was not something I anticipated saying 5 years ago, but here we are.

    There are some genuinely appealing features to switch on under the hood though. For example, you can change the turn on/off effects & voices if you don't like them, or switch them out for some alternatives. Updates also brought a solution to the original Jambox's tendency to verbally, and repeatedly, announce when the battery was about to run out, a fact not entirely appreciated by myself when I'm in another room. Sleeping. At 3AM.

    Customisation of the multi-function button on top of the Jambox is a pretty nice addition too, with owners of an iPhone 4S able to summon Siri from their Jambox with a long press of the button.

    Incidentally, the whole unit also functions as a big giant speakerphone, and I must say it is much more able than its smaller counterpart in this area. Calls came across loud and clear, and people reported my own voice quality improved as well. The Big Jambox also functions much more effectively as a omni-directional speakerphone compared to the directional nature of the original Jambox. Calls can also be hung up from the action button, which is a nice touch.

    LiveAudio is also another feature that came via firmware updates, and while I can't say all music benefits from the pseudo surround-sound effect, a good chunk of the tracks I played sounded a lot more three-dimensional, and benefited from the additional stereo separation; especially the ones they recommend on iTunes. Lots of people would get a kick out of it though, and it is kind of amazing. Honestly though, it was kind of a novelty for me with regular music, and I soon switched it back off after giving it a go for a day.

    Sound

    I'm not really a great judge of this, but I really thought the sound coming from the Big Jambox was very impressive given its diminutive size. This speaker could easily fill a room, and easily eclipses the original without breaking a sweat. I'd feel confident in slinging this in a backpack for a party, BBQ or park outing, and knowing that it will be loud enough that everyone can hear the tunes.

    If I had to knock the audio, it would be because it does lack the oomph of a bass kick from a larger powered stereo. Sometimes, particularly with bass-heavy music, I was left wanting a little more from the performance. However, out of a variety of genres I tested, that was really my only gripe. Incidentally, podcasts sound great.

    Overall

    $359 is a lot of money. Once you get up into this price bracket, you've got quite a few options up your sleeve - most notably the Sonos:3, the Bose SoundLink or just another hundo more for the B&W Zeppelin Mini. However, I think the Big Jambox is really worthy of a look, if only for the option to be able to take it anywhere with you. I can't stress enough how cool it is to have a stereo that'll work anywhere you want it to. You'll probably also find some uses for it outside of music streaming too; I took a bunch of phone calls on it, and also used it for gaming & olympics watching on the iPad.

    The Big Jambox has built on the lofty concept of the original in all the right ways. We've got used to portable devices, and now we've got affordable portable audio, big enough and loud enough to complement (if not outright replace) a traditional speaker setup. I'd find it very hard indeed to go back to a tethered stereo after my time with the Big Jambox.

    You can find the Big Jambox in the Apple Store Online for AU$359.95.

    --

    James Croft runs Go Make, a business helping education with technology in a post-PC world. He's on Twitter, Google+ & even LinkedIn from time to time.
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