Is the Jawbone JAMBOX the ultimate portable speaker-phone?

 

I was anticipating great things from this little speaker, but have been somewhat disappointed when using it as a speaker-phone; although I suspect it wasn’t all the fault of the speaker. I blame the Bluetooth spec, and the marketing team for over-hyping the advantages, and not explaining the disadvantages. As a portable speaker, it is excellent.

I bought it to do three things

  1. Provide better audio volume/quality from my laptop/phone when travelling - to watch videos/music via the high-quality EDR bluetooth connection.
  2. For use as a speakerphone on VoIP conference calls (Microsoft Lync or Skype) from my PC.
  3. For use as a speakerphone via bluetooth on my mobile in the case when I can’t get a reliable VoIP connection

One of the key limitations of the device is it will only work in one of 3 modes at any one time, and it isn’t always easy to tell which of the two Bluetooth modes it is in.

The 3 modes are 

  • Plugged in via audio jack (mic disabled)
  • Bluetooth A2DP speaker mode (mic disabled)
  • Bluetooth Headset/Handsfree mode

The quickest way to get it working is simply to plug in the audio cable - but that disables the microphone, so it is then only useful as a speaker.

Speaker mode

You can connect to it as a pair of Bluetooth headphones using A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile 1.2) - for high quality audio, but that also disables the microphone. I think this is because A2DP is a unidirectional mode only supporting audio from PC to speaker.

As a speaker, connected over bluetooth to my mobile phone or a Hama Nano Bluetooth USB Adapter it works very well. I can’t really hear any difference between the quality of a wired or bluetooth connection when using in headphone/speaker mode. It is however difficult to get it into this mode - as you typically have to disable the headset mode on the phone or PC to get it to drop into headphone mode.  If I have both enabled, it seems to always want to default to headset mode - and media doesn’t come through.

Headset mode

You can also connect to it as a Bluetooth headset or hands-free-device using HFP/HSP (Hands-Free Profile 1.5Headset Profile 1.1) - and that enables the mic, but the problem with this mode is the high-quality audio I was expecting degrades to the level of a bad GSM connection on a noisy street corner!  Ok - so perhaps it isn’t that bad, but my Plantronics Voyager Pro headset sounds significantly better. I think HFP and HSP define the interactions between the speaker and the handset, but in themselves they don’t have any impact on the audio stream - I guess in both cases it is the 64kb/s CVSD or PCM is designed around the need for transport over GSM connections.

This is fine when you’re using it over a mobile phone - because the bandwidth of the audio signal isn’t degraded much; but compared to a good quality VoIP connection over Microsoft Lync or Skype - it is terrible. (That said - if you’ve ever tried a call from someone in Europe on a cellphone with bluetooth to someone in the US on a cellphone with bluetooth - you may as well be using a wet string and two cups…)

The base Bluetooth version is v2.1 + EDR. EDR increased transmission speeds from 0.7Mb/s in v1.2 to 2.1Mb/s providing the potential for higher quality audio - but I guess that neither HFP 1.5 or HSP 1.1 takes advantage of this increased bit rate to improve the audio quality. I think the additional bandwidth is only used for A2DP.

This is where I don’t understand why the available extra bandwidth is only available in a unidirectional link. I assumed (without checking) before I bought it that the HDR would be available for bi-directional connections - but from what I’ve seen, it looks like there’s no high-bandwidth bi-directional profile in the Bluetooth spec. Geez. Why?

Win7 bluetooth challenges

Getting working PC bluetooth connectivity has been a real pain. I couldn’t get A2DP from the bluetooth module installed in my laptop, so started by adding a Rocketfish Micro Bluetooth Adapter from BestBuy. That paired, but wouldn’t connect. So I ripped out the embedded bluetooth module from the laptop to prevent conflict - but still no joy. My 3rd try was the Hama Nano Bluetooth USB Adapter from Amazon.co.uk - and finally that seems to work most of the time (becuase this came with Toshiba bluetooth drivers, avoiding the Microsoft Windows 7 tools), but it still occassionally has trouble connecting reliably.

Jambox conclusion

Anyway… with that said - as a portable Bluetooth or wired speaker - it works well; and as a bluetooth mobile phone speakerphone - it is a little better than a standard handset used as a speakerphone. 

Amazon.com Jawbone Jambox
Amazon.co.uk Jawbone Jambox

As a VoIP speakerphone the only high-quality solution I could come up with is to use it in A2DP or wired mode; and connect an alternative mic to the PC - then configure the VoIP app to use both devices. The inbuilt mic on my laptop works but isn’t good in a meeting, or if I’m typing on the keyboard.

The mics on the Logitech C910 or Logitech C920 webcams also work pretty well; but the best quality solution I have to hand is the Phoenix Audio MT201 Solo Mic

The Pheonix Solo is a high quality desktop USB mic, with built-in echo cancellation, noise supression and voice level compression; along with an audio jack for connection to a speaker out the back. So with the Solo plugged in via USB and the Jambox connected through the audio jack on the back of the Solo - you have an excellent solution (albeit not as compact as I was hoping for).

Alternative bluetooth speakerphone

There’s a similar device on Amazon with slightly better reviews (and is half the price) - the Monster iClarityHD Portable Bluetooth Speaker; however I can’t tell from any of the reviews if the speakerphone performance is any better. The marketing is similarly hyped (Ultra-Clear Noise-canceling Bluetooth Speakerphone for Hands-free Calls and Video Chat). Here’s a video review of the Monster as a speaker.

I suspect the reality is that the speakerphone quality is just as bad - because I think both are limited by the same bluetooth issue. The reviews I’ve read that compare the two generally suggest that the Jawbone Jambox is ahead on sound quality (but doesn’t go as loud).

Wireless vs Bluetooth

I think the holy grail would have been if Jawbone had put a USB soundcard in rather than just a battery charger - then you could actually use it as a wired VoIP speakerphone, with bluetooth to a cellphone as a backup, and you’d also get the Bluetooth A2DP speaker capility all in one device.  I don’t believe anyone makes one of these (yet) - but if anyone wants me to review one - get in touch.

Back in the space of wired VoIP speakerphones, I heard @Graham_Walsh talking about how impressed he was with Polycom speakerphone, so asked which one 

This is the device Graham was talking about: Polycom CX100 (Amazon.com/ Amazon UK).

In the same range as the Pheonix Audio Solo mic I’ve been using for years is the Pheonix Audio Duet, also sold by Plantronics as the Plantronics Calisto 420 (Amazon.co.uk P420 / Amazon.com P420) although Plantronics may have tweaked the firmware… not sure.

Have I missed something in this review? Or is my understanding of the limitations of Bluetooth accurate? If anyone comes up with a Jambox-style device which also provides a high-quality USB-connected speakerphone in a similarly sized box - I’d love to know.