There are other ultracompact wireless Bluetooth speakers that sound better for the money, but the Jawbone Mini Jambox is the best-sounding wireless speaker in the micro size class.
The Jawbone Jambox became one of the first big-name portable Bluetooth speakers when it debuted in 2011. Jawbone supersized it the following year and introduced the larger, more expensive Big Jambox. And now the company is going the other way: the new Mini Jambox is, as you can guess, a Bluetooth speaker that's about half the size of the original. In fact, the $179.99 rechargeable isn't much larger than an iPhone.
In addition to its tiny size -- the Mini is just 58x154x24.5mm (HWD) and tips the scales at a mere 9 ounces -- the Mini Jambox features a standout design. Unlike many of the "meh" Bluetooth speakers flooding the market, the Mini Jambox looks and feels great: the body is a single aluminum enclosure, housing stereo drivers and a passive radiator. It's available in nine different versions, a mixture of different colors and varying grille styles ("purple snowflake," "graphite hex," and the like.)
Make no mistake about it. This is first and foremost a lifestyle product. In shrinking down the original Jambox, Jawbone's engineers have created a wireless speaker that's designed to be carried around with you wherever you go, a constant audio companion to your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
The question is, of course, does it sound any good? Well, that depends on what you're comparing it with. There are certainly other small speakers in this price range that sound better and can play louder (the Bose SoundLink Mini and UE Boom, for example). But at the same time you'd be hard-pressed to find a speaker that's as tiny as the Mini Jambox that sounds as good.
You'll find the standard Bluetooth speaker features onboard -- charging via Micro-USB, line-in for wired audio sources, and built-in speakerphone capabilities. Topside buttons provide Play/Pause and volume controls, and the Mini includes the same speech cues and "LiveAudio" sound-processing mode found on the other Jambox models.
To add the LiveAudio, Jawbone requires you to head to its Web site and create a MyTalk account and install the Jawbone updater. You can then update your Jambox Mini with LiveAudio and also upload one of several character voices that spice up the voice prompts. I went with Bombshell (female voice), then switched to Mobster (male voice), and later Hero (also male). It's a shame all the voice options aren't loaded onto the device, but that would require the device to have additional memory.
As for LiveAudio, it's a mode that widens the sound stage but is really only worth using with special LiveAudio tracks. You can engage and disengage LiveAudio by holding down both volume buttons at the same time on the device. When using LiveAudio with standard tracks, the speaker plays at a lower volume, which is not good considering the speaker can only play so loud, and often you'll want to get as much volume out of it as you can.
I did try the speaker with a few LiveAudio encoded tracks -- Bear Mountain's "Faded," for example -- and you do get a more spacious sound stage that starts to resemble stereo sound (the problem with all these tiny speakers that have their drivers so close together is that you're basically getting mono sound despite their claims of stereo sound).
Like all other Bluetooth speakers, the Mini Jambox is compatible with nearly all smartphones and tablets, capable of streaming any audio from those mobile devices. (Up to two devices can be paired with the Mini Jambox at once.) But iOS users get a bonus, thanks to the Jawbone app. In addition to letting users remotely control the Jambox's options, the app provides one-stop access to streaming services and playlists on Rdio, Spotify, and iTunes. (An Android version, sans iTunes support, is also available.).
I didn't find the app all that useful but I did use it to rename my review sample to DC MiniJam.
As for battery life, Jawbone is promising 10 hours of streaming time on a full charge of its integrated lithium ion battery. Your battery life will vary according to how loud you play your music. In my tests, I didn't have a problem playing the speaker for a full day at work, which can be closer to 9 hours than 8. (In case you're wondering, I don't get overtime pay, but I do get to play around with a lot of gadgets.)
I've listened to a lot of these tiny Bluetooth speakers, and at best they tend to sound OK, meaning, not awful. I don't think the Mini Jambox sounds great, but it does sound good for its diminutive size. I compared it with the original Jambox, and it sounds cleaner and it played as loud or even slightly louder. It offers some bass and can fill a small room with sound, but it also has its limitations, so don't expect the world from it.
If you put the speaker in the middle of a table in the middle of a room, it can end up sounding fairly thin. To get more bass out of the speaker, it helps to place it near a wall or in the corner of a room to get some reflection.
As with a lot of these little speakers, you're going to listen to some tracks and think the speaker sounds decent, and listen to others and be less wowed. The Mini is strongest in the midrange and does well with vocals and acoustical tracks; with simpler tracks that have fewer instruments playing simultaneously, it sounds best. When you get into more-complicated tracks where a lot of stuff is going on at once, things start to get mushed together and just don't sound great. There's only so much you can do with all the digital trickery (Digital Signal Processing or DSP) that goes into making as tiny a speaker as this sound respectable.
The Sallie Ford tracks I listened to sounded pretty good; her gritty voice came across clearly. It helps if you don't stray too far from the speaker -- I tended to listen from about 6-12 feet away.
However, when I went to play hip-hop and techno tracks the speaker showed its limitations. It can only play so loud and deliver so much bass. There's just not a whole lot of oomph here, though there is more oomph than you get from many tiny speakers, so it's all relative. The other good news is the speaker doesn't rattle or move around when you do play bass-heavy tracks.
Despite its limitations, I was impressed by how much sound Jawbone was able to get out of a speaker this size. I was also impressed that its engineers were able to improve on the sound of the original while shrinking the speaker down. It works well for casual listening (don't expect it to power a party). I also used it with an iPad to watch some movies and it works great for that. I had it on the nightstand next to my bed (near the iPad) and its sound is definitely a nice step up from the sound you get from the internal speakers on a tablet or smartphone.
Speakerphone performance was good -- no problems there -- and my connection when streaming from both an iPhone and an Android smartphone was mostly steady. I had a few dropouts (Bluetooth doesn't transmit very well through your body so you can sometimes end up blocking the transmission), but I found the connection pretty reliable and the range pretty good. I had no problem streaming from up to 30 feet away. And after pairing with the speaker once, as long as Bluetooth was enabled on my smartphone, my phone automatically reconnected to the speaker as soon as I turned the speaker on.
I've dinged Bluetooth speakers in the past for costing too much. For instance, I thought the Deck by Sol Republic and Motorola cost about $50 too much. And I'll say something similar about the Jambox Mini -- it's flat-out pricey at $180, especially when you can now get perfectly decent tiny Bluetooth speakers for $100 or even $50. It should cost less than $150 (and probably a bit less than that). I also think Jawbone should have included some sort of protective cover like it did with the original Jambox.
However, I do think the Mini's design is superb (though the Deck does some fun things with LEDs and colors, the Deck's design is all plastic). Also, I can't think of a micro speaker that's as small as this that sounds better. Better-sounding speakers like the UE Boom and Bose SoundLink Mini weigh more, and while they're relatively compact, they aren't nearly as lightweight or slim as the Jawbone Mini.
So what it comes down to is how much of a premium you want to pay for a very slickly designed tiny wireless speaker that sounds impressive for its size but not as good as competing products that cost slightly more (or significantly less in some cases). All I can say is that while the Mini Jambox may not sound superb, it's the best-sounding micro Bluetooth speaker I've encountered. Take that for what it's worth.