Finding a decent-sounding wireless speaker in a sea of cheap, tiny wireless speakers is now officially a trick. Everyone seems to have one, be it something from a brand name you recognize like Sony, Bose or Logitech, or others you maybe don’t, like Kinivo, Spracht or Satechi.
When Michigan-based HoMedics offered to send me its $39.99 HMDX Jam for review, my first thought was “Really? A rechargeable wireless speaker from a company that sells foot massagers, scales, paraffin baths and garment steamers?”
But sure enough, if you poke around HoMedics’ homepage, you’ll find a link to what the company calls its HMDX Audio “portable audio solutions.” The HMDX Jam doesn’t appear there yet — it was just released on June 11 — but it’s clearly an HMDX product, and one that’s likely to catch your eye at first simply because of its bright, colorful packaging.
Since it’s called the HMDX Jam, you assume a musical connotation, but the speaker also comes packed in a plastic “jam jar” with a screw-on metal lid (very clever, HoMedics). And the company’s having some fun with the name, offering it in six “flavors” that correspond to the stuff you actually scrape across toast: Strawberry, Grape, Blueberry, Blackberry, Apricot and Apple. The press release says it’s available nationally at various portable electronics retailers, so think Best Buy and Kohl’s, as well as HoMedics mainstay Bed Bath & Beyond.
Out of the jar, the Jam nestles comfortably in the palm of one hand yet feels substantial — it weighs just over half a pound, and measures 2.5 inches x 2.5 inches x 2.5 inches. The design is reminiscent of a large votive candle holder, cylindrical and tapering from bottom to top.
The black plastic mesh speaker cover lies flat along the top (again, about 2.5 inches in diameter) with a tiny silver circle labeled “HMDX” in its center. Audio thus projects up and out, allowing you to place the Jam just about anywhere, say the middle of a room, without worrying about where the speaker’s facing.
I tend to play music through my MacBook Air and iTunes connected to a portable hard drive and a library of lossless-encoded songs. The Jam can be connected to an audio source either wirelessly via Bluetooth or through its headphone-sized Line In jack if your audio source isn’t Bluetooth-enabled. Near its bottom rim, it also has a USB connector for charging — it comes with a short USB cable and the rated battery life is four hours, volume buttons surrounding a play/pause button, a Bluetooth connection indicator and on its bottom side, a power switch.
The base itself is a rubber ring that clings to solid surfaces (without actual adhesive). The grip is fantastic, and the Jam won’t slide around at all, even on surfaces at slight angles, though the rubber tends to snag — and since it’s colored black, show particulates.
When you first turn it on, the Jam emits a very loud G-G-G sound (an octave down, then back up). It’s startling if you’re not prepared, and there seems to be no way to adjust the startup volume, even if you click the manual volume up/down buttons on the Jam’s side. When I say loud, I mean loud enough that my sheltie jumped up and did a cartoon “wuzzat?”, and my wife was clearly annoyed sitting across the table while I was testing it.
The Jam’s Bluetooth capabilities also seem a little wonky at times. The device gave me a hard time while initially attempting to pair it with my MacBook Air. I usually pick up new Bluetooth devices by clicking through the Bluetooth options in OS X’s menubar (in the upper right corner) and using “Browse Device…” But for some reason, each time the computer found the Jam and attempted to pair, the connection failed “due to lack of resources.” When I alternatively opted to “Set Up Bluetooth Device,” the device finally connected and emitted a loud pairing sound.
Like most of the Bluetooth devices I’ve owned, once pairing occurs, there’s still a pause between the time you start audio playback on the source device and the moment the audio actually kicks in. With the Jam, when I clicked “play” in iTunes, I’d see a spinning ball for a second or two, then the track would start playing without audio for a few more seconds, then the Jam would kick in with a loud beeping noise and then I’d finally hear the actual song.
The beeping noise is on par with the startup sound, and is also not adjustable. Worse, when you stop playback and the Jam switches to passive mode, it plays that annoying beeping noise again. I understand the desire to convey to users what’s going on since there’s no display panel, but signaling with startling noises you can’t disable or turn down is probably a bad idea — and besides, there’s a Bluetooth indicator on the Jam’s side that blinks at different rates to indicate connection status.
How does the Jam actually sound listening to music? Surprisingly good for a speaker that costs less than the price of a modest dinner out for two. HMDX didn’t send along technical specs, so I can’t tell you about stuff like its frequency response range or its impedance rating, but I’d describe it as bass-heavy with the sort of decent albeit midrange-attenuated sound you’d expect from any budget-priced speaker this small.
If you turn it up, it fares better than most, easily filling a mid-sized room (say a college dorm or bedroom, which is the market HoMedics seems to be targeting). Crank it up and the music distorts, as you’d expect it to, so no, it’s definitely not going to cut across party chatter or be much use in noisier outdoor areas, say sitting under your favorite tree next to a busy street or across the way from the local car wash.
That said, the audio was prone to occasional Bluetooth idiosyncrasies, e.g. random popping and crackling — sometimes significant — during playback. I’m not sure whether to blame the Jam or just Bluetooth itself, since I’ve had this problem with other wireless speakers as well as wireless audio headsets. I should note that it wasn’t a distance/range issue, occurring as close as one foot from both my laptop or iPhone 4.
I also noticed significant electronic noise (think fax machine connection sound) at low volumes in my review unit. It wasn’t audible with the volume up while listening to something busy (like ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”), but it’s easy to make out with the volume turned down, or just listening to something with thinner instrumentation, say Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations.
I tried moving the device around (it remained connected to about the rated 30 feet range) and switching to my iPhone 4 to see if it might be a laptop-related issue, but neither had any impact on the noise, so it’s either an issue with the Bluetooth connection, or possibly a design problem with the device itself.
Another head-scratcher: I tried, repeatedly, to get the up and down volume buttons on the Jam’s side to register, to no avail. The play/pause button worked fine, stopping and starting the music reliably, but for some reason the volume buttons remained unresponsive.
HoMedics is definitely on to something from a design standpoint with the Jam: It’s compact, attractively made, generates above average audio for a speaker this size and the battery lives up to its four-hour playback rating — those points ought to make it the ideal $40 wireless speaker.
But it’s held back by some fairly significant flaws: the startling power-on and audio pairing/signaling sounds, the Bluetooth clicking/popping, the nonfunctional volume buttons and the continuous (if low volume) electronic noise during playback. It’s hard to recommend the Jam with the latter deficiencies, and all I can say is that I hope HoMedics is working on a version 2.0 that addresses these issues, because I really wanted to like this thing.