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Case of the bad firmware upgrade: Jambox

When Jawbone upgraded the firmware on the Jambox, its snazzy, compact Bluetooth speaker, it was supposed to improve the sound. For many people, however, it didn't. Read this cautionary tale.

Red flag: Users complained that Jawbone's 2.0 firmware upgrade for the Jambox had a negative impact.

I admit it. I enjoy a good firmware upgrade.

There's nothing like a software fix to make you feel better about your device, especially if it adds new features while eliminating bugs. But not every firmware upgrade is good. Sometimes things go horribly wrong. Which is what happened recently when I updated Jawbone's little Jambox Bluetooth speaker to version 2.0.

The update gave me something called LiveAudio, a "technological breakthrough" that would let me experience my music, games, video "like never before"--as if I was, "on stage, in the action, hearing it live." Furthermore, this immersive, three-dimensional listening experience brought "incredible depth, detail, and unprecedented spatial realism to everything from mp3s to special binaural recordings."

Based on the promo material, I expected a lot; I wanted in on the 2.0 LiveAudio action. Wanted it bad.

Well, little did I know, but as part of the upgrade I was getting another enhancement that was allegedly designed to improve the sound. Thanks to a new "audio tuning algorithm," I would experience "less distortion at high volumes." Wow, I thought, Jawbone's taking the Jambox's best feature--that that for a tiny, portable Bluetooth speaker it manages to play pretty loud and sound OK--and making it even better. Psych.

Alas, once I turned on the upgraded Jambox, I was immediately unimpressed. My spunky little guy didn't sound so spunky. In fact, it sounded like the volume was cut in half. And it turned out I wasn't the only one who was miffed. Judging from the message-board posts I read, many people who installed the upgrade felt the same way.

"Very important!" one poster warned. "Do not upgrade or sync your Jambox to get the new firmware. The upgrade totally kills the volume level on this previously awesome speaker."

Not all reviews for the upgrade were bad. In fact, CNET senior editor Donald Bell received a Jambox with 2.0 software preinstalled and came awayfeeling pretty good about the upgrade and the new LiveAudio feature.

He wrote:

The best part of this news, though, is that the upgrade is genuinely worthwhile. Counting myself as a professional audio snob who has heard some dreadful audio spatialization effects grafted onto all sorts of devices, this LiveAudio thing really does bring a genuine and substantial improvement to the Jambox's audio quality. Beyond the typical DSP shenanigans involved in tricking the ear into hearing a wider stereo field, Jawbone is also employing crosstalk cancellation filters to optimize the effect.

Was Donald wrong? No. In all honesty, the guy's got more audio chops than me and knows his stuff. But we tested the speaker in different environments with different material.

If you're sitting in a quiet room with the speaker placed at the optimal distance (3 feet away from you), you can get decent results with the right listening material. I, on the other hand, stuck the speaker on table outside with a slight breeze blowing and I could barely hear it. My 12-year-old nephew, who owns a Jambox himself, commented, "That thing sounds like crap. What's wrong with it?"

As Donald said in his post--and the LiveAudio Web page also notes--you can turn off the new LiveAudio feature by holding down the volume up and down and go back to your speaker's "old" sound with the higher volume. That's a good thing, but it also really exposes the volume flaw.

Whether there's a happy ending to this story or not, I don't know yet, but I did just get an e-mail from Jawbone saying that a new firmware upgrade (2.1) is coming next week that addresses the complaints "some" users are having about the volume.

The note's a little convoluted, but the new update appears to include some tweaks to the audio tuning algorithm or at least it allows you to turn it off in an advanced settings menu. Anyway, here's the skinny:

In the 2.0 update, we included a new audio tuning algorithm that cleans up distortion at high volume levels for a loud, clearer, distortion-free sound. As a result, certain songs and types of music may be perceived to be softer, even though the measured volume is the same as before. The perceived difference in volume has to do with the "flavor" of the audio tuning...When the new JAMBOX Software 2.1 update is released in about a week, users will be able to turn the audio tuning algorithm on and off in Advanced Settings in MyTALK. When LiveAudio is on, you can enjoy an immersive sound experience. And when LiveAudio is off, you can enjoy the same sound that Jambox originally shipped with, or enable the new tuning algorithm for a clearer, distortion-free sound."

I'll let you know how it all works out next week. In the meantime, feel free to note any ugly firmware upgrade stories you've had in the comments section below. On a positive note, at least my Jambox unit is working and didn't get bricked.