Let's face it: The audio ability of most smartphones and tablets is pretty bad. You can, of course, hook up a pair of headphones or earbuds, but what if you want to share the sound? Or simply don't want to isolate yourself by shutting out the rest of the world?
Different sizes and sounds. From left to right: Back row -- Big Jambox, Sound Kick. Front row -- Jam Wireless Portable Speaker, Logitech Mini Boombox, Matrix One.
In that case, you need a speaker -- preferably, one that can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth and that can be easily carried from place to place.
There are a variety of mobile speakers now available, many of which have been recently introduced. In this roundup, I look at five speakers that cover a range of sizes and prices, from the $50 Jam from HMDX to Jawbone's $300 Big Jambox. Because they connect to your device via Bluetooth rather than a specific mobile OS, they should work with any recent phone or tablet.
No matter what the size or price, all five have several features in common. Besides their Bluetooth connections, all are portable and are powered by rechargeable batteries. Each offers a certain number of controls on the unit itself, including (but not confined to) on/off, forward (to the next track), back (to the last track), play and pause. One of the speakers, the Sound Kick, even has a smartphone app that lets you control it remotely.
In addition, three out of the five (the Big Jambox, the Logitech Mini Boombox and the Matrix One) also work as speakerphones should you get a call while you've got your music playing.
The following reviews are ordered according to cost, from the least to the most expensive. With this wide a selection, at least one of these speakers should suit your needs -- and your budget.
2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 in. Weight: 9.6 oz. Price: $49.99 (direct), $47-$54 (retail)
The HMDX Jam comes packed, suitably enough, in a glass jam jar -- a nice visual pun.
Jam Wireless Portable Speaker
As befits its low $50 price, the Jam is a simple, straightforward device. It is small and somewhat conical, and comes in six different colors, with a black band circling top and bottom.
The actual speaker is on top of the unit; around the lower rim there are volume buttons, a play/pause button, a light that indicates when Bluetooth is active, a line-in audio jack for headphones, a USB port for charging the unit (it comes with a rather short USB cable) and a battery status indicator. There is an on/off switch on the bottom.
I had no problem pairing it to my Galaxy Nexus smartphone, despite the fact that the instructions that came with the Jam, while clear on how to operate the device, didn't have any explanation on how to pair it. Since this also involves typing in the 0000 key code that many Bluetooth units no longer demand, some explanation might have been useful, especially for less savvy users.
According to the company, the unit will last about four hours on a charge.
Unlike its more costly cousins, the Jam doesn't do anything other than play audio. The sound wasn't bad at all for something this small and inexpensive, although it didn't have quite the bass range of the Matrix One or the crispness of the Logitech Mini Boombox. It can certainly pump out the volume; if you're looking for something that will get the neighbors banging on the walls, this could do it.
Unfortunately, probably because they are packing so many electronics in so limited a space, smaller speakers such as the Jam and the Matrix One tend to have a slight electronic hiss underlying the audio which, while not that distinguishable at louder volumes, can sometime be heard during quieter moments. It is most obvious when you stop the audio feed, just before the sound cuts off completely
In addition, when you turn the Jam on, it lets you know it's alive with a loud and rather unpleasant three-beat sound that can't be adjusted.
All that being said, if you're looking for an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker for a youngster, or want something that you can throw into a suitcase for a quick trip, the HMDX Jam could be the right speaker for you.
2.5 x 2.5 x 2.0 in. (2.5 in. when opened) Weight: 2.8 oz. Price: $79.99 (direct)
From the first, you know that the Matrix One is meant to be portable; it comes with a small travel bag along with a lightweight USB cord that doubles as a wired connection. (Unfortunately, the instruction leaflet is so portable as to be nearly illegible; I had to find a magnifying glass to read the tiny print.)
The Matrix One is a round white ball with silver and red highlights; the top is slightly recessed with a silver bar over it. One very different aspect of the device is that you don't simply turn it on -- you twist the two halves, and it pops open like a small accordion (this apparently enhances the bass sound).
The controls for the One are a bit awkward -- mainly because they're so small. A tiny rocker switch acts in several capacities; you raise the volume by pushing it to the right and holding it, and lower the volume by pushing it in the opposite direction. In order to go to the next track or the previous track, you move it to the right or left and immediately release it. To pause and play you push it straight in.
There is also a separate power switch with separate positions for Bluetooth and line-in connections. According to the company, the battery should last for up to 14 hours on a charge.
I was actually surprised at the sound I got from the Matrix One. The audio wasn't as full as what I got from the Logitech Mini Boombox, but it had a fairly good bass, especially considering the device's small size, and was quite loud and full enough for a small room (say, a hotel room).
As with the other very small speaker in this roundup, the Jam, I could hear a few seconds of static between the time I paused the audio and the time it cut off altogether. However, in the case of the Matrix One, it wasn't nearly as audible; I had to put my ear right down to the speaker to hear it, and most users will probably not notice it at all.
As a speakerphone, the Matrix One will do in a pinch. It announces a call with a rather quiet series of tones; you push the rocker switch to the side to pick up. (The first time, I pushed the rocker switch in and accidentally hung up on the call.)
From my end, the audio was slightly muddier than what the Mini Boombox provided, although I didn't notice any breakup at all. On my caller's end, the sound was a bit tinnier and what she described as gravelly, although when I turned the device so the mic was facing me, she said that the quality was almost equal to that of the Logitech speaker.
All in all, I became rather fond of the Matrix One. The sound isn't quite up to some of the more expensive speakers in this roundup, and the controls could be a bit easier for adult hands to use, but it's incredibly portable and perfect for throwing into a backpack or suitcase.
2.3 x 2.8 x 4.6 in. Weight: 8.0 oz. Price: $99.99 (direct), $80-$127 (retail)
The name of the Logitech Mini Boombox has, for me, rather unfortunate connotations -- I remember the days before personal mobile audio products when decidedly un-mini boomboxes deafened many NYC subway riders -- but otherwise, it's a nice little portable audio system.
Logitech Mini Boombox
The review unit came in black with the sides in red; there is also a model that is white with a black top, and one that is completely black.
Except for an on/off switch, mini-USB connection and Aux input in the back, all the features are accessed by touch controls on top of the unit -- they are illuminated by red LEDs and aren't visible unless you touch the top once. They let you go back to the previous track, go forward to the next track, pause/play, or raise or lower the volume. There's also a control that either pairs the Mini Boombox with your Bluetooth device, or answers a phone call, turning it into a speakerphone.
Unfortunately, while this is rather neat effect -- and could be useful at night or in darkened rooms -- I found it a bit inconvenient on two levels. First, it means that you have to touch the top twice in order to perform any function. Second, it would have been a lot better to have physical buttons that you could feel as well as see.
A small LED on the front lets you know how the battery life is doing; it shows blue when it's charged, red when it's starting to get low, and blinks red when it's nearing the end of its life. According to the company, the battery should last up to 10 hours on a charge.
For its size, I found the sound of the Mini Boombox surprisingly rich and clear, ideal for a nearby desk or bed table. As with the other, smaller speakers, there is very little stereo effect (not surprisingly, considering how close the speakers are to each other), and there is the expected distortion when it gets loud -- but on the whole, I was quite impressed, especially considering the size of the device.
As a speakerphone, the Mini Boombox is satisfactory, but not something you'd want to use regularly. It interrupted the music when the call came in with a series of tones that sounded a bit like the theme from the old Twilight Zone TV show. On my end, the voice of my caller was quite strong and clear, but occasionally broke up -- not enough to really interrupt the conversation, but still noticeably. The caller at the other end reported that my voice was tinny and a bit fuzzy; there was also a slight echo.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Logitech Mini Boombox for anyone who wants a small portable speaker for a smartphone or other mobile device. While it's not quite as handily designed as the Matrix One, it is compact and very lightweight (at 8 oz., it's even lighter than the Jam), and offers fine sound quality. At $100 list, it's a good buy.
10.5 x 4.2 x 1.6 in. (2.5 in. when open) Weight: 1.6 lb. Price: $99.99 (direct)
The Sound Kick is more in the ballpark of Jawbone's Big Jambox than of the smaller speakers in this roundup. Made by SoundFreaq, a company that concentrates on audio products, it is an excellent speaker for home or office use.
The Sound Kick is a little different than the others in form factor and approach. Like the Big Jambox, it is rectangular, but it is narrower and lighter. Like the Matrix One, the Sound Kick has a moving part; in this case, you pull out its "Extension Chamber," a rectangular section a little under an inch wide that acts like a pop-out stand and increases the speaker's bass response.
SoundFreaq also includes its own stereo technology, called UQ3, which helps the stereo effect of music by, according to the company, enhancing the perceived stereo separation. While the technology didn't have quite the radical effect that the Big Jambox did, it certainly did improve the sound, making it sound fuller and allowing it to reach impressive volumes.
Most of the controls are on the top of the case: forward and back buttons, pause/play, pair (to pair with a Bluetooth device), a button that turns the UQ3 on and off, two volume buttons and the power button. A light on the front of unit lets you know when it's on, pairing, or changing modes.
I had a bit of trouble with the forward, back and pause/play buttons at first -- I kept pressing them harder and harder without any apparent reaction. It took me a while to realize that the problem wasn't that they weren't sensitive enough -- but that they were very sensitive, and a mere touch was enough to make them work properly. After that, I had no issues with them.
Unlike the other speakers in this roundup, which can be powered via USB or AC, the Sound Kick comes only with an AC power cord. However, it does have an outgoing USB port that lets you charge a wireless device using the Sound Kick's battery, as long as that battery is sufficiently charged (according to the company, you get about 7 hours of use per charge) and/or the volume is below about 60% or so. There is also a 3.5mm line-in jack if you want to listen to a wired device.
SoundFreaq offers apps for iOS and Android devices; I tried the one for Android, and while it has a few advantages -- for example, it allows you to remotely access the volume and mute features of the speaker, and to turn the UQ3 on and off -- it accesses your music files in a rather haphazard manner. You're better off with your favorite music app.
Soundfreaq's Sound Kick is an impressive piece of technology, offering really good sound at a reasonable price. Its emphasis is obviously on being a speaker that you can transport if you need to rather than something to carry around casually. Although, at 1.6 lb., it's certainly light enough to carry in a backpack or messenger bag without much of an issue, it's not as compact as, say, the Jam or the Matrix One, and can't be used as a speakerphone. But for fine portable audio at a reasonable cost, this is a good buy.
10.0 x 3.1 x 3.6 in. Weight: 2.7 lb. Price: $299.99 (direct and retail)
Jawbone has made a name for itself as the manufacturer of stylish and good-quality audio products, including its Bluetooth headsets and its Jambox portable speaker. Recently, the company added a larger, higher-end version of the Jambox, which it calls, logically, the Big Jambox.
The Big Jambox looks like a larger version of its Jambox speaker, and in many ways it is. Similarities between the two include not only a boxy, bright design, but the ability to act as a speakerphone and to be programmed in a variety of ways through the Jawbone website. The Big Jambox comes in three colors: Graphite Hex (black), White Wave and Red Dot.
And like its cousin, Big Jambox is portable -- well, somewhat. Unlike the Jambox, it is a bit too large for casual transport; it measures 10 x 3.1 x 3.6 in. and weighs 2.7 lb. -- fine for carrying around the house or to the backyard, but it's going to make a considerable dent in your backpack. For true mobility, if you're looking for a Jawbone speaker, you'll want to go with the original Jambox.
Raised controls on top of the device include talk (for the speakerphone), pause/play, go forward and back, and raise and lower the volume (via "+" and "-" signs). Other controls on one side include a power button, a button to pair the unit, a 3.5mm stereo input, the charging/power port (according to the company, you get about 15 hours of battery use on a charge) and a micro USB port.
This last allows you to connect the speaker to Jawbone's website, where you can add one of several apps and/or voices to the unit. For example, you have a choice of several voices (and "personalities") to announce when a call is coming in or when you are turning various features on and off; you can also install software that lets you voice dial.
Much of this is available on the original Jambox. What the Big Jambox adds is even better sound. I was extremely impressed with the audio; it was full, rich, and brought a real sense of immediacy to music that I didn't get with the other speakers reviewed here.
One of the ways that Jawbone enhances the sound is with a technology it calls LiveAudio. According to Jawbone, this processes the audio in a way that you hear sound on a wider platform; as though it is coming from beyond the speaker. When I heard it during a demonstration by a Jawbone representative, it was certainly impressive, and it worked well when I tried it at home -- for a limited number of recordings. Other times, I found that it deadened the vocals slightly, and I got better sound when I turned it off. (You can turn LiveAudio on and off by holding down the "+" and "-" keys simultaneously.)
Whether or not I used the LiveAudio technology, the sound was really impressive. It could hit high volumes without distortion, the bass levels were fine without overwhelming the rest of the sound -- in short, this is a great speaker.
As a speakerphone, the Big Jambox came through with flying colors. When a colleague called my smartphone, the music was interrupted by a sound vaguely like a telephone ringer, and the unit's "voice" told me the number that was calling. I took the call by hitting the talk button on top of the unit. The voice quality on either end was at least as good as with some commercial speakerphones I've experienced. Neither of us had problems hearing the other, and there was no perceptible echo.
The Big Jambox is not an inexpensive speaker, to say the least. Its $300 pricetag is high compared to similar products -- and if the Jambox (which costs $100 less) is anything to go by, you can't expect the price to drop anytime in the near future. But if you want a speaker to carry around the house, yard or office, and price isn't an object, the Big Jambox is an excellent choice.
Two of the products here, the SoundFreaq Sound Kick and the Logitech Mini Boombox, cost the same, but are actually very different. The Sound Kick is the better speaker, offering a rich, full stereo sound in a sharp-looking case -- and, in fact, is the one I would recommend if you want fine audio at a reasonable price. The Mini Boombox doesn't have auditory quality of the Sound Kick, but it is more compact (and, as a result, easier to drop into your backpack) and includes the ability to act as a speakerphone, which the Sound Kick does not.
Of the others, I would recommend the Matrix One if you want a small mobile speaker to carry around with you -- it's very lightweight and compact, and offers good sound for the price. The Jam is heavier and doesn't have quite the same sound quality, but it is sturdy and the least expensive speaker in this roundup, and might do well for a child's room.
Finally, if you want a really good portable speaker to carry from room to room, and price isn't an object, check out the Jawbone Big Jambox. It's an impressive piece of technology.
Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter ( @BarbaraKrasnoff).
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