Jawbone’s Jambox is already one of the best loved miniature portable Bluetooth speakers out there, and we’re here to add to the praise: this is a great piece of kit for anyone who wants to take out the headphones and pump up the volume far more than what the iPhone or iPad’s dinky build-in speakers allow.
But it’s more than just a great speaker. It’s the very distillation of the great design that has sprung up in the accessory space in direct response to the way Apple has redefined the way we look at computers, from pieces of assembled technology to experiences. If you were looking for just one gadget to pick up and show a friend how Apple has revolutionized design outside of its, the Jambox would be a good contender.
One of the things that I find most fascinating about Apple is not necessarily their products, but the way that company has transformed the way people think about technology and design even if they couldn’t even point to Cupertino on a map.
If you happen to be a science-fiction dork like me, you might be aware of the Wold Newton Family, an extremely influential piece of universe building undertaken by Riverworld author Philip Jose Farmer in the 1970s. According to Philip Jose Farmer’s fiction, back in 1795, a small radioactive meteorite landed in Wold Newton, England that caused a series of genetic mutations that eventually led to many of fiction’s most cherished super-strong, super-smart or otherwise super-human characters, including Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain, Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sam Spade, Phileas Fogg and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The idea is that this radioactive meteor caused an evolutionary leap in a number of humans which then trickled down through their genetic lines.
In design terms, Cupertino is the Wold Newton, Apple is the meteor and if an iPhone or iPad is our Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes, the Jawbone Jambox is our Doc Savage or Phineas Fogg. In the last ten years, we have seen an evolution in the way companies think about gadget design and it is all through Apple’s almost radioactive influence.
When I look at the Jambox, what impresses me most about is is how it looks like nothing Apple would ever design, and yet it is imbued with all of Apple’s methods, its way of thinking about a piece of technology as more than just the sum of its parts, but an experience designed for an actual person.
In look, the Jambox is a six-inch, colorful and playful rectangle made of glass-infused polycarbomate and a stainless steel grill, traced through with rippling honeycombs. The top and bottom of the box are made of soft, pleasing rubber. There are only three controls on the top of the device: a plus sign (volume up), a minus sign (volume down) and a circle, (Bluetooth connect) which manage to evoke the design of a vintage NES controller. On the side, there’s only a single on/off switch, a microUSB port for charging and a 3.5mm jack for devices without Bluetooth. And just look at how it’s packaged.
The overall appearance somehow perfectly distills the playful design aesthetics of vintage Nintendo imbued into a LEGO style block, and this is no accident: from the very moment you turn on the Jambox, the system sounds of the device powering up, or raising or lowering volume, or connecting to an iPhone or iPad feel like they share a common DNA with the 8-bit sounds that would have accompanied an old NES booting up back in the 1980s, but without any of the preciousness. They feel playful without being nostalgic, and wholly part of the intended experience of using a Jambox. It’s a speaker that isn’t just meant to be played, but played with. It’s a gadget you just immediately want to pick up.
As a speaker, the Jambox sounds great, but not as great as a dedicated high-end dock or speaker system. But that’s not the Jambox’s niche, and it knows it. Everything about its design suggests a gadget you pull out at a picnic, or a small party, or in the car, or just to show your friends. The bass is fantastic, and the audio is clear and loud, but it’s not trying to do miracles: it’s not meant for the dissection of audiophiles. The Jambox isn’t trying to be the best speaker around, but your favorite speaker, and at this, it succeeds.
The Jambox is not without its issues. It technically works as a speakerphone, but not very well, we’ve found, and people we called using it often complained that we sounded too low. The Jambox also, without an LED display, defaults to voice alerts, which you’ll rue the second time it starts shouting in the middle of the night that it is low on battery. You can turn these alerts off by downloading Jawbone’s software from their home page, but the vocal alerts are so misguided, they really should come turned off by default.
Quibbling, there’s also the problem with Bluetooth, which doesn’t elegantly allow you to juggle devices and pair multiple iPhones and iPads without going through a whole set-up process again. After a week of having our Jambox, we found that we preferred to connect it using the enclosed 3.5mm cable whenever we didn’t absolutely need to use its wireless capabilities, just for the sake of being easier to use. Given the finnickiness of Bluetooth audio, we especially bemoan the absence of AirPlay support in the Jambox.
At the end of the day, though, the Jambox’s faults can’t overshadow the experience of using one. It takes what is usually the most boring part of music — the gear that physically produces the sound — and makes it into a fun conversation piece that manages to be the physical embodiment of all that is joyful about kicking back and kicking up some tunes. In the year since it’s debuted, we’ve seen a lot of Jambox competitors, but we still haven’t seen one that puts its thumb so firmly on the rhythmic pulse of what is fun and joyful about music.
Product: Jawbone Jambox.
Pro: An incredible experiential design, not just in looks, but in the way it sounds. Great battery life. Fantastic presentation. Sounds great in small to medium rooms. One of the few gadgets you just want to pick up and play with.
Con: No AirPlay. Defaults to voice alerts, which are obnoxious. Pretty expensive.
Verdict: A fantastic speaker that isn’t just meant to be played, but played with. Still the reigning champ..