Jawbone’s Big Jambox may be the only speaker you’ll ever need (review)

It’s big. It’s boxy. And it can power tunes cordlessly for 15 hours.

Jawbone unveiled the Big Jambox today, a large wireless speaker that improves upon its popular and smaller older sibling in practically every way. With the Big Jambox, Jawbone continues to cement itself as an innovator in the oft-forgotten realm of audio devices, and it has crafted a device that’s even more useful than the original Jambox.

It’s funny how much companies can change in the span of a year. In 2010, Jawbone was only known for its Bluetooth headsets, but it changed things up last year with the Jambox wireless speaker — which quickly turned into a runaway success — and the Up fitness wristband. Unfortunately, a widespread defect forced Jawbone to offer full refunds for the Up shortly after it launched (sales still haven’t resumed), but that’s not slowing the company down.

I had a chance to jam out with the $299 Big Jambox over the weekend. And after testing it with plenty of tunes from Air, Gorillaz, Screaming Females, and a plethora of bombastic movie scores, I think it’s safe to call it another potential hit for Jawbone.

The Big Jambox sounds so good that it could end up being the only speaker many consumers need for music and movies. And since it’s portable — weighing in at 2.7 pounds with a built-in battery that lasts for up to 15 hours of music playback — it’s also one of the most useful speakers on the market.

(Of course, the Big Jambox doesn’t fully replace the need for a real home theater system, or a fancy bookshelf setup for music. But it’s ideal for consumers who don’t want to deal with the complicated setup and exorbitant expense of other solutions.)

The Good: Great sound, looks, and utility

Jawbone Big JamboxWhile the original Jambox did a fine job of filling a small room with sound, its diminutive stature limited its capabilities in large living rooms and outdoors. You can have a cute dorm room jam session with the original Jambox, but with the Big Jambox, you can hold a party that will truly annoy your neighbors.

At first glance, the Big Jambox merely looks like Jawbone’s first speaker made larger. It has the same boxy Yves Behar design and steel mesh grill. But under the hood, things are dramatically different. The Big Jambox sports two active neodymium drivers and two bass radiators (in the front and rear). The device’s enclosure is also entirely sealed, which increases power and volume efficiency.

The Big Jambox also sports a decent amount of computing power, which drives a multiband compression feature that removes distortion, and a loudness compensation algorithm. All of this means that you can play the Big Jambox at high volumes without any distortion — something that even more expensive speaker setups can’t offer.

Just like the first Jambox, the new version can play audio from any Bluetooth-enabled device with a range of 33 feet. Of course, there’s also a 3.5 millimeter line input for non-wireless devices. The Big Jambox also adds some very useful on-board buttons, including a dedicated Bluetooth pairing button, as well as buttons for controlling music playback. And after countless reports of the original Jambox dancing itself off of tables, Jawbone has wisely decided to add rubber feet to the Big Jambox.

Unlike the original, this Jambox can support multiple Bluetooth devices as once, so you and your friends can all take turns DJing at parties.

Jawbone Big JamboxI threw practically every musical genre at the Big Jambox and still came away impressed. It excelled at mid- and high-range notes, which made it ideal for Air’s unique soundscape and most electronic music. The Big Jambox had some trouble with extremely low-frequency notes, which are typically handled by external subwoofers, but it was nothing deal-breaking.

LiveAudio, Jawbone’s 3D audio technology, comes pre-installed on the Big Jambox, and it does a surprisingly great job of making audio sound more expansive. The software emulates left- and right-channel separation, so music that takes advantage of stereo positioning sounds especially good. I tested out LiveAudio on the original Jambox, but the Big Jambox can do a lot more with the technology thanks to its larger size.

The device is also well-suited for movies and TV — at least, if you’re not willing to set up a decent surround sound system. Unsurprisingly, the Big Jambox pumped out sound richer and louder than the built-in speakers in my plasma TV. Sound quality in HDTVs has actually gotten worse as sets have become thinner, so practically any external speaker setup would be an improvement.

Jawbone also touts Big Jambox’s “Type-1″ speakerphone compliancy, which means it passes a certain baseline of quality for enterprise use. I still use the original Jambox as a speakerphone today, and the Big Jambox improves upon it by allowing for group conference calls. Its omnidirectional microphone is positioned on top of the speaker, which makes it perfect for placing in the center of a table for group calls.

While the Big Jambox sounds great, its best feature is the ability to continue sounding great pretty much anywhere. Unlike traditional speakers that rarely ever move, the Big Jambox’s large battery and light weight makes it the perfect speaker for any room. It can move with you from the living room, to the kitchen, and even outdoors, without being chained down by wires.

The Bad: No Airplay, Wi-Fi, price may be tough to stomach

Above: The original Jambox atop the Big Jambox

For some reason, consumers always seem to skimp on audio technology. Far too many people live with the iPod’s crummy white headphones, and only certain audiophiles (like this writer) will invest in a killer home theater setup. At $299, the Big Jambox may be too expensive for the typical consumer, though I’d wager that once they see how useful it can be, they won’t mind the cost.

Jawbone is also holding steady with the original Jambox’s $199 price, which means the Big Jambox is a pretty great deal considering how much better it sounds for $100 more.

It’s also surprising that Jawbone didn’t upgrade the device with Airplay (for potentially better sound quality from iOS devices) and Wi-Fi functionality, though I honestly didn’t miss either since Bluetooth worked well enough. Both of those technologies also could have cut into the Big Jambox’s playback time — Bluetooth was always designed as something for low-power devices.

The Lowdown: A surprisingly killer wireless speaker

I’ve been testing out several wireless audio products over the last few weeks, and the Big Jambox ranks among the leaders. It’s gorgeously designed, sounds fantastic, and is one of the most useful devices I’ve reviewed.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to test out the Sonos Play:3, which is the Big Jambox’s direct competitor at $299. But the Big Jambox stood up well against my Audioengine 2 computer speakers, as well as my home theater setup (a Harmon Kardon receiver with Onkyo speakers + sub). That alone tells me that Jawbone has crafted something special.

The Big Jambox will be available on May 15 for $299, with pre-orders starting today.

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