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Upon unboxing the Jabra Freeway Bluetooth in-car speakerphone, we were taken aback by the device's physical and visual bulk. Measuring about 4.75 inches wide, 4 inches deep, and a solid 0.5 inch at its thickest, the Freeway dwarfs many of the our favorite speakerphones such as the Motorola Roadster or BlueAnt S4, and is closer in size to your average GPS navigator.
Part of the reason for the Freeway's bulk is that it houses not one but three speakers, which it uses in concert to create what Jabra calls Virtual Surround sound (more on that in a bit). The fabric-covered speaker grille that covers those three speakers takes up about half of the Freeway's top surface area. Just above the speaker are two buttons mounted flush with the device's chassis that activate the FM modulator and voice command system, and on the leading edge is a large phone button that manually answers and ends calls--this is also where you'll find the status LED. Touching the Jabra logo does nothing. Just below the speaker grille are buttons for speaker volume up, volume down, and muting the microphone.
Along the right edge of the chassis are the power switch and the Micro-USB port. Here is where you can use the included Micro-USB cable and 12-volt USB power adapter to charge the device. Battery life is rated as a combination of 14 hours of talk time and 40 hours of standby. Flipping the Freeway over reveals the rear wire clip that is used to attach the speaker to your car's sun visor.
Upon powering up the Freeway, we were greeted by the system's almost too cheery female voice-prompting system, which instructed us in the intricacies of pairing the speakerphone with a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Essentially, the process consists of the standard steps of enabling Bluetooth connectivity on your phone, searching for the Freeway in the device menu--listed as Jabra FREEWAY v1.60.0--and pairing with a four-digit PIN of 0000. Once it's complete, the Freeway's cheery voice prompt system congratulates you on a successfully pairing. Meanwhile, if your phone supports the Bluetooth Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP), your handset will be prompting you to share your contacts with the Freeway. However, the address book sync is primarily so that the Freeway can announce the names of incoming callers. Actually initiating a call uses your phone's voice dialer, but we'll get back to that as well.
A speakerphone for audiophiles
We tested the audio fidelity of the Jabra's three-speaker Virtual Surround setup by making a series of voice calls and listening to audio podcasts and a bit of music. Normally, we're pretty underwhelmed by the audio quality of the monaural setups of the Bluetooth speakerphones, although, after all, we're trying to make phone calls, not kick out the jams. But the Jabra Freeway's audio quality was surprisingly robust. Podcasts sounded incredibly lifelike, particularly the baritone male voices, which usually are done no favors by tinny, hollow-sounding speakerphones. Even music playback was impressive, particularly of acoustic tracks. Extreme highs and bass suffered when playing music like rock or hip-hop at the loudest volume level, but it wasn't intolerable at moderate volume. On the other hand, the mere fact that we found ourselves bothering to evaluate the music playback quality of a visor-mount speakerphone is impressive.
We were also pleased with the way the Virtual Surround setup added a spatial fullness to the sound emanating from the Freeway. You won't be fooled into thinking that you're listening to a fancy actual surround-sound setup, but it is stereo sound, and when the Freeway is visor-mounted, the sound does seem to be coming from around your head, rather than from above it.
For those who would like to take advantage of the car's stereo for audio output instead of the Freeway's speakers, Jabra has included an FM transmission function. After starting transmission with the FM button, the Freeway will scan for an open frequency on the FM band and announce it with its spoken prompts. Simply tune your car's stereo to the same frequency to hear any audio or calls through your car's speakers. If that frequency doesn't work for you, tap the volume-up button to have the system rescan and announce a new, clearer channel. This is a great feather in the Freeway's cap, but with such good internal speakers, we didn't really need to use the FM transmission very much.
Voice command and motion sensitivity
Incoming calls can be answered or rejected without touching the Freeway. Simply say "answer" to accept or "ignore" to reject the call. The rest of the voice commands, however, will still require a tap of the voice button on the Freeway's surface. These commands include "redial" and "call back," which dial the last outgoing or incoming call, and "phone commands," which fires up your phone's voice command system, if available, for dialing callers by name. The "battery" command prompts the Freeway to speak its battery charge level and estimated remaining talk time; the "play music" command fires up audio playback on a paired A2DP audio streaming device; and the "pair new phone" command does exactly what you'd think it does. If you can't remember these, there's also the "what can I say" command, which prompts the Freeway to list available voice commands.
The Freeway is equipped with a motion sensor and, after sitting motionless for a period of time, will assume that you've left the vehicle and put itself into standby. It'll also do this if it goes a period of time without a phone paired. When you next get into your vehicle or otherwise move the Freeway, it will sense the motion and power itself back up, ready to pair with your phone again. Of course, you can also power the Freeway on and off with the power switch if you wish to transport it, in a backpack, for example.
If your car exhibits high levels of wind and road noise or you find yourself straining to hear calls on your current hands-free setup, this is the speakerphone for you. It doesn't boast the extensive level of voice command that we appreciated in the BlueAnt S4 and it's not nearly as portable as the Motorola Roadster, but the Jabra Freeway makes good use of its bulky design by providing what's likely the best aural experience that we can recall of this generation's Bluetooth speakerphones. We'd be willing to use the Freeway as a small desk speaker for listening to certain genres of music or spoken-word podcasts, that's how much we enjoyed the full sound of the Freeway's three-speaker setup.