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Jabra Solemate Max review: Jabra's slick Solemate Max stumbles on price

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Back in 2012, Jabra released the Solemate, a compact Bluetooth speaker with a distinct, footwear-inspired design and decent sound for its size.

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7.2

Jabra Solemate Max

The Good

The <b>Jabra Solemate Max</b> delivers good sound and battery life and has a strong feature set and excellent design. It's also water-resistant, has built-in speakerphone capabilities, and is well suited for outdoor use with a convenient carrying handle integrated into the unit.

The Bad

We expect a little better sound from $400 speaker; separate AC adapter required for charging (no charging via Micro-USB).

The Bottom Line

The Jabra Soulmate Max is a likeable wireless speaker with some strong selling points, but it simply doesn't justify its current $400 price tag.

Now the company is serving up a supersize version of the speaker called the Solemate Max ($399). Like the original, the Max has been cleverly designed to resemble a sneaker, complete with a carrying strap that looks like the loop on the back of some athletic shoes.

At 5.8x13.8x5.8 inches (HWD), it's really quite a bit bigger than its little brother, and on the inside sports two woofers, two tweeters, and a rear bass radiator. The earlier model weighed 1.34 pounds while the Max tips the scales at 6.18 pounds. It seems sturdily built and is shock, dust, and water resistant.

Obviously, due to its increased size, the Max plays much louder, offers much fuller bass, and just sounds bigger and richer overall than its smaller predecessor. My only gripe with it is that while it sounds good for a compact Bluetooth speaker, it isn't quite as clean sounding and detailed as it should be considering its $400 price.

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The Solemate Max features a water-resistant design and built-in carrying handle.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In other words, this should really be priced closer to $300, particularly when you consider that Bose is selling its impressive and more compact SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III for $300 and SoundLink Mini for $200 (there's also the UE Boom at $200 and TDK Life on Record A33 Wireless Weatherproof speaker for around $160). True, the Bose speakers don't have as many features as this Jabra does, but extra features don't necessarily carry all that much weight for many buyers of these types of speakers.

Design and features
I liked Solemate Max's design, and the treaded rubber base helps keep it from moving around when you play it at higher volumes. It's also cool that the bottom or "sole" of the unit has a groove in it where you can store an auxiliary cable for connecting non-Bluetooth devices.

On this model, the rubber handle comes in quite handy because it's a little awkward to hold the speaker by its sides when you pick it up -- using the handle and holding the speaker down by your side makes it easier to transport.

Jabra Solemate Max portable Bluetooth speaker (pictures)

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I like the way Jabra has done the button layout. As with the smaller model, the power switch is on the side, and a male voice tells you the speaker is on and when it's paired with your device. On the side is where you'll a find a USB port for charging mobile devices along with an audio input and a Micro-USB input. That Micro-USB port is on hand for PC connectivity (you can connect the speaker to your computer via this digital connection), but not charging; you have to use the included AC power adapter to recharge the Max's internal battery.

For those who like to have transport controls (pause/play, skip forward/back) on the their Bluetooth speakers, the Max has those controls on top of the speaker, as well as well volume controls.

You get NFC tap-to-pair for devices that support that feature, and more importantly, there's a built-in speakerphone. A dedicated call answer/end button can be found on top of the unit next to the transport controls.

Personally, I don't think NFC offers anything because once you've paired your mobile device with the Solemate Max, it will remember that device and automatically pair if you have Bluetooth enabled on your smartphone or tablet (or computer). The more important extras are the speakerphone and USB charging, which is good to have if the device you're using for streaming music needs a boost.

Performance
In the grand scheme of Bluetooth speakers, the Jabra Max sounds quite decent. It plays louder and offers fuller sound than many of the more compact models on the market. The only problem is when you're dealing with a speaker that costs $400, your expectations are raised, and for some folks the Max will fall a little short.

Where exactly does it come up short? Well, I think it could sound a little cleaner and more natural, with better detail. Using it for a few days, I found that it seems to sound best at somewhat higher volumes -- but not maxed out. Say, at about at 60 to 70 percent of top volume. That's where the bass is punchiest without losing its shape. Like a lot of these speakers, the midrange (vocals, acoustical material) comes across well, but I wouldn't categorize this as a forward-sounding speaker. In fact, it accentuates the bass and sounds a tad dull.

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The bass radiator on back helps augment the low end.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Crisp, clean sound can be a lot to ask for a Bluetooth speaker, but I've heard models in the same price range or less that deliver as good or better sound -- for example, Bose's SoundLink III, which is more compact and sells for $300. It doesn't have the water-resistant design or expanded feature set of the Solemate Max, but it's equally well built and sounds a bit more dynamic and clean, though it, too, has its limitations.

In testing the speaker, I played tracks from music services such as Spotify and Beats Music, some iTunes tracks, plus lossless music that I streamed from a Samsung Galaxy S4.

Jabra has a free app called Jabra Sound that I tried on an iPhone 5S. It works with songs in your iTunes Library but not music services and has some Dolby Digital Plus processing that widens the soundstage and makes the speaker sound a little bigger (the Max still lacks stereo separation, as all these compact Bluetooth speakers do).

When you engage the Dolby processing, I felt the music sounded less natural and a little thinner in the low end. So you seem to gain something while also giving something up. Overall, the Dolby mode just didn't do all that much for me, but some people may feel differently.

As far as battery life goes, the Max is rated at a fairly impressive 14 hours (similar to the Bose SoundLink III). Naturally, your battery life will vary according to how loud you play your music, and if you keep it at more moderate levels, you should do better than 14 hours.

I also didn't have any complaints about the speakerphone, though I think Jawbone's Big Jambox performs a little better as a speakerphone.

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A view of the ports on the side along with the power switch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
The only real strike against the Jabra Solemate Max is its high price tag. To put it bluntly, it just doesn't sound like a $400 speaker.

That said, it does have a lot going for it. It delivers decent sound and battery life, has a strong feature set and excellent design. While it's meant to work as both an indoor and outdoor speaker, I personally favor it as an outdoor speaker. By that I mean its rugged, water-resistant design and meatier bass make it more appealing for outdoor use, where the volume and girth of your music can be more important to the listening experience as sound disperses in an open environment.

As a result, if you are looking for a speaker that you plan to take outside a fair amount, the Solemate Max is certainly worth considering, especially if its price comes down.

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7.2

Jabra Solemate Max

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 7Value 6