Jawbone Big Jambox Wireless Speaker and Speakerphone Review
Steve Withers jams to Jawbone's big new box
Along with the growth of audio docks aimed at iPods, smartphones and tablets, a new type of product has started to gain popularity. The wireless speaker, as these products are known, tend to offer many of the features of the traditional audio dock but without an actual cradle for the device itself. Instead the connection is made wirelessly using Bluetooth, AirPlay or something similar; although these speakers often have additional physical connections as a backup. The speaker also tends to have a rechargeable battery which allows for both mobility and flexibility in terms of placement.
Jawbone have already had success with their Jambox wireless speaker and the Big Jambox does exactly what it says on the tin, offering a similar product - only bigger. The Big Jambox is about four times larger than its namesake, allowing for an increased speaker size but still retaining Bluetooth connectivity and a speakerphone functionality. The Big Jambox also includes Jawbone’s LiveAudio spatial sound feature, which uses digital signal processing to give the audio a more immersive element. Once you throw in a designer chassis, an upgrade platform and a rechargeable battery, you certainly have an attractive package, although at £250 it had better deliver in the sound department. Let’s find out...
The Big Jambox is certainly well designed, with an attractive and well-built chassis that offers a choice of red, white or charcoal finishes. Overall the speaker has a robust and solid feel and, despite its name, it isn’t too big which makes it easily transportable. There is a rechargeable battery, which adds to its flexibility, and we found that for normal music listening it had a life of around 12 hours. There are some basic connections on the side (a micro USB port and a 3.5mm analogue audio jack) and along the top are some large rubber control buttons.
The Big Jambox has some nice touches such as announcing its status and the micro USB port means you can connect it to Jawbone’s MyTalk platform, thus allowing you to upgrade and personalise the speaker. The Big Jambox has a microphone built-in for use as a speakerphone and it has Bluetooth v2.1 with the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) protocol. The speaker proved easy to pair with any of our Bluetooth devices and whilst the audio was acceptable we would have liked to see Jawbone include the newer aptX protocol for better sound quality. The inclusion of WiFi or Airplay would also have been nice features to have.
In terms of audio performance the Big Jambox is a competent speaker and could produce a reasonably clean sound but its small size meant there was a lack of any real stereo separation. As a result, the audio often had a mono feel to it and it was very dependent on which volume setting you choose. If you went too quiet, the bass tended to swamp the mid-range but if you went too loud then the bass threw in the towel and the sound became harsh and strident, resulting in an uncomfortable listening experience. We tended to find that it worked best in the smaller rooms where we could choose an optimum volume level.
When we tried the LiveAudio feature, initially the audio felt more open with a greater sense of stereo separation, making the Big Jambox sound less mono. However you quickly realised this was achieved at the expense of dynamic range and thus details were lost. Things got worse as soon as someone started to sing, their vocals becoming buried under the other aspects of the audio that are being over emphasised. There was certainly no sense of a three dimensional sound field and with the majority of your music collection it will smother the vocals and create a muddied mess.
The Big Jambox by Jawbone will appeal to those looking for cool design, flexibility, mobility and a wireless capability. It has some nice features but there are also some obvious ones missing and in terms of pure audio performance it falls short, making it hard to justify the £250 price tag.
Design and Setup
There’s no denying that the Big Jambox is an attractive looking device and it includes the same Yves Behar designed white wave, graphite hex and red dot relief textures originally seen on the smaller Jambox. However the Big Jambox is completely wrapped in a perforated steel mesh and the hardened rubber that covered the top and bottom of its smaller sibling, now only covers its ends, giving the Big Jambox a robust and rugged feel. At the base there are eight rubberised feet that provide the Big Jambox with a stable platform, regardless of the surface it’s on. Overall, the build quality of the Big Jambox is very good and it has a well-engineered and machined feel to it.
As its name suggests, the Big Jambox is larger than its sibling, measuring 25.6 x 9.3 x 8 cm and weighing in at 1.23 kg. However, despite its larger size, Big Jambox is still relatively small and is compact enough to be carried in your hand, which is useful for a wireless speaker with a rechargeable battery. The reality is that the Big Jambox is only really bigger than its predecessor and there are certainly bigger devices available from the competition. Still this makes the Big Jambox suitably mobile and to aid this, Jawbone also sell a small travel case for the speaker that includes a handle and pouches for the various accessories.
In terms of connections, there is a 3.5mm analogue input jack on the right hand side, along with micro USB port and a jack for the power adapter. Included with the Big Jambox are a power adapter, which allows you to run the speaker from the mains or recharge the battery, a 1.5m micro USB cable and a 0.9m analogue audio cable. The USB port is for connecting the speaker to a PC or Mac, thus allowing you to upgrade the firmware and customise the speaker with apps, all via Jawbone's MyTalk upgrade platform. The 3.5mm analogue audio jack allows you to connect the Big Jambox to audio devices without Bluetooth or to use as a backup. Of course the main reason behind using the Big Jambox is to listen to music wirelessly and, as such, there is Bluetooth v2.1 built-in. There is also a 360-degree echo-cancelling microphone too which allows you to use the Big Jambox as a speakerphone.
Along with the connections on the right hand side, there is also an on/off button and a button for pairing the Big Jambox with another Bluetooth device if it doesn’t do so automatically. To turn the Big Jambox on you just press and hold the on/off button, the speaker will make a noise to show it is on. To turn it off, you just press the same button and the Big Jambox will make another noise as it powers down. Along the top of the speaker there are big shaped rubber buttons for basic controls such as volume up and down, play/pause, previous and next. There is also a multi-functional talk button labelled with a ‘J’, which presumably stands for jawboning on the phone. To activate the LiveAudio feature you need hold down the volume up and down buttons simultaneously and to mute and unmute the built-in microphone you press the play/pause button. In both cases the Big Jambox announces what mode it is in.
On the inside, the Big Jambox sports a pair of proprietary acoustic drivers and two opposing passive bass radiators centrally located in the front and back of its airtight enclosure. In addition, the Big Jambox has multiband compression to reduce distortion as appropriate and a loudness compensation algorithm which automatically adjusts the highs and lows to balance sound at different volume levels. The Big Jambox also packs in a much larger 2,600mAH rechargeable lithium ion battery that delivers around 10 to 15 hours, depending on what you’re listening to and at what volume. Finally, there is the previously mentioned LiveAudio, which is essentially a digital signal processing designed to give the sound a more three dimensional aspect and a greater sense of immersion. We’ll see...
In terms of features, the most important is the Big Jambox’s wireless capability and for this purpose it is Bluetooth v2.1 compliant. The range is about 10m and it supports Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) and the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, among others. When you first turn on the Big Jambox, it will automatically enter pairing mode and announce this over the speaker. To pair just go to the Bluetooth settings on your smartphone, tablet, computer or other device and connect to BIG JAMBOX by Jawbone. If for any reason you are asked for a passcode, just enter “0000”. To enter the pairing mode thereafter, hold the pairing button until the LED flashes red and white.
Once connected you can use the Talk, Play/Pause, Volume, Previous and Next buttons if you want to or you can select tracks using your connected device. You can also connect any device with a headphone jack or line out using the provided 3.5mm audio cable. However you can only use the volume controls as the Talk, Play/Pause, Previous and Next buttons only work when a device is connected wirelessly. The Big Jambox also has a simultaneous multipoint capability, which means you can connect two Bluetooth devices at the same time and it can remember up to eight paired devices.
If you connect the Big Jambox to your Mac or PC using the micro USB port, you can access Jawbone’s MyTalk platform. This allows you to download the latest software, features and apps, as well as customise your Big Jambox. You can use the AudioApp to personalize the voice that makes the various status announcements, there are 10 voices available ranging from sexy (The Bombshell) to retro (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.
The Big Jambox also includes a built-in microphone (IEEE 1329 Type 1-compliant) which means that it can be used as a speaker phone. To answer and end a call you just press the Talk button and to mute and un-mute the built-in microphone, you just press the Play/Pause button. If you press the Talk button twice, the Big Jambox will redial the last number called. The speakerphone feature worked quite well and can be useful for making group calls with friends or family. However, whilst the sound quality from a mobile phone connected over Bluetooth is reasonable, you probably wouldn't want to use it for long periods of time, especially at high volumes.
Jawbone claim a battery life of up to 15 hours in their marketing but as is usually the case this is a bit optimistic and largely depends on what you are listening to and at what volume. It takes about 2.5 hours to charge up the battery and in normal use for music listening over Bluetooth we got about 12 hours from the built-in battery. If you listen at high volumes, listen to a lot of drum and bass or use the Big Jambox for other activities such as gaming audio or as a speakerphone, then the battery life can be less. By pressing the Talk button the Big Jambox speaks the battery status and it automatically announces when the battery charge drops below 25 per cent, as well as telling you to recharge the battery just before shutting off. If your device uses iOS, there is a useful ability to see the speaker's remaining power next to the Bluetooth indicator without downloading an app. If you use an Android device you will need to download the free Jawbone Companion app, which will then allow you to see the battery level, among other things.
Finally the Big Jambox includes LiveAudio, which uses BACCH 3D sound technology to give the audio a more three dimensional and immersive feel. Jawbone’s marketing claims that the use of LiveAudio will add spatial realism to everything from MP3 recordings to binaural recordings, allowing you to even enjoy the latter without headphones. The technology behind LiveAudio was developed at the 3D3A lab at Princeton University and is designed to use a crosstalk filter between the two speakers to ensure that the left ear only hears the left ear cues and the right ear only hears the right ear cues, resulting in a truly three dimensional audio experience. That all sounds great in theory but will it hold up in practice, time to start the listening tests.
The Big Jambox promises a lot and has a price tag to match but the reality is that the audio it produces is decidedly underwhelming. It is certainly a competent speaker and it can produce a reasonably clean sound but its small size means there is a lack of any real stereo separation. As a result, the audio often has a mono feel to it and, despite its name, sounds are obviously emanating from a small box. The Big Jambox is also very dependent on which volume you choose, if you go too quiet the bass tends to swamp the mid-range but if you go too loud then the bass throws in the towel and the sound becomes harsh and strident, resulting in an uncomfortable listening experience. You need to find that happy medium at which the bass is supportive and the high end isn't too shrill.
In fairness, the Big Jambox is designed to be mobile and so for listening on a desk or in your bedroom, the results can be quite pleasant, as long as you watch the volume. We found that the mobility of the Big Jambox was quite useful and when moving from room to room around the house, the speaker provided an acceptable audio quality. We tended to find that it worked best in the smaller rooms where we could choose an optimum volume level but in larger rooms, or outside, the sound quality quickly diminished as we raised the volume. Listening to many of our favourite recordings at this optimum volume level, we found that the audio performance was reasonable but easily overshadowed by similar products from Bose and LG.
The use of Bluetooth to connect your device to the speaker wirelessly is also a nice feature but the performance is limited by Jawbone's decision to not include the aptX Bluetooth protocol. This is a strange decision, especially at this price point, because most speakers and docks include this protocol these days and it offers superior sound quality compared to Bluetooth that uses the standard A2DP protocol. This difference is audio quality could be demonstrated by connecting the same device to the Big Jambox via both Bluetooth and the 3.5mm audio jack. In direct comparisons there was a slight improvement when using the cable, which would suggest that the Bluetooth performance could have been improved if the better protocol had been used.
When we tried the LiveAudio feature the results were something of a muffled mess and generally we found it to be unlistenable. Initially the audio feels more open, with a greater sense of stereo separation, making the Big Jambox sound less mono. However you quickly realise this is achieved at the expense of dynamic range and thus details are lost. Things get worse as soon as someone starts to sing, their vocals becoming buried under the other aspects of the audio that are being over emphasised. There is certainly no sense of a three dimensional sound field and given the explanation of the technology you wonder how it could it could ever be applied to the Big Jambox when the speakers are so close together. It is possible that the feature might work better with binaural recordings but certainly with the majority of your music collection it will smother the vocals and create a muddied mess.
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Wireless Speaker & Speakerphone
Jawbone Big Jambox
Suggested price: £260
Reviewed 3rd August, 2012 by Stephen Withers
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