Jawbone’s Big Jambox Wireless Speaker: It’s a Big Jambox!

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Back in 2010, Bluetooth headset maker Jawbone entered the speaker business with the Jambox, a just-about-pocket-sized, battery-powered Bluetooth speaker that sounded far bigger than it was, and doubled as a speakerphone. According to the company, it’s now the best-selling speaker in the U.S. And now Jawbone is following it up with one of the most clearly-named tech products in recent memory, the Big Jambox.

Yup, it’s the Jambox only more so — a larger wireless speaker designed for parties (indoors or outdoors), weekend trips and other listening scenarios that demand more oomph than the earlier model, which was intended mostly for solitary listening.

The new model sells for $299.99, a $100 premium over the original. Jawbone is taking pre-orders now, and says that units will be available from it as well as retailers such as the Apple Store and Best Buy on May 15. The company provided me with a unit for review.

The Big Jambox may be big, relatively speaking, but it’s still engineered for portability, and in looks and features, it’s a near-twin of its diminutive cousin. Measuring 10″ by 3.1″ by 3.6″ — roughly half a shoebox — and weighing 2.7 pounds, it comes in white, black and red versions, all in classy, textured cases created by design god Yves Behar. (They remind me of vintage transistor radios more than they do competing speakers.) Eight rubber feet help the speaker stay put when the audio blasting from it might otherwise lead to it wobbling around on a table or other surface.

As with the small Jambox, the new model automatically goes into Bluetooth pairing mode when you turn it on for the first time; it also has a dedicated pairing button for later use. I easily paired it with an iPhone 4S, an iPad 2 and an iPod Touch and was up, running and streaming music across the room from them in minutes. It can connect to two devices simultaneously, a handy feature when multiple partygoers want to share their playlists off their gadgets. And if you want to avoid the possibility of audio hiccups — which I’ve experienced occasionally whenever I’ve streamed music over Bluetooth to any device — you can use the line-in connector and bundled audio cable to hook up any device via a virtually goof-proof wired connection.

The only reason for Jawbone to build a portlier speaker was to give it the ability to comfortably fill large spaces with music or other audio even when it’s competing with other noise, and the Big Jambox, which contains two active drivers and two opposing passive bass radiators, is capable of doing just that. I kept turning the volume up and found that it still sounded good even at volumes which the smaller version couldn’t compete with.

In fact, I’m still not sure just how loud the Big Jambox will go: I kept my finger on the volume-up button until the music I was playing got severely distorted and my cat bolted from the room.

With the new model, like the old one, the technology that Jawbone calls LiveAudio creates a dazzling multidimensional effect with tracks recorded using binaural techniques, as if some of the sounds were coming from specific locations nowhere near the speaker. (Jawbone offers playlists that show off the effect at its site.) LiveAudio also gives some non-binaural recordings a startling 3D quality; with others, I didn’t notice any change. When it worked, I didn’t have to seat myself smack in front of the speaker to get the sensation, as I did with the smaller Jambox; it would, however, presumably get drowned out at a noisy bash.

You can toggle LiveAudio on and off by pressing the volume-down and volume-up buttons simultaneously.

Like the first Jambox, the new one’s most obvious application is music, but it works with audio of all sorts, including video and game soundtracks. Use the audio-in jack, and you can even turn it into a miniature speaker bar for TVs with wimpy built-in sound.

One of the principal attractions of using a phone or tablet with a Bluetooth speaker is the opportunity to pump music and other audio through the sound system from up to 33 feet away, using your gadget as an ultra-powerful touchscreen remote control. (Jawbone also offers a free Android app, the Jawbone Companion, that can “whisper” reminders of upcoming meetings over the Big Jambox.) But the speaker also has play/pause, previous and next buttons on its top. And the talk button lets you answer calls, using the Big Jambox as a speakerphone. (Jawbone thinks that some companies will buy units for conference rooms.)

The included AC adapter lets you use the Jambox plugged into the wall, but it also charges a sealed-in battery that can provide up to 15 hours of untethered listening, according to Jambox. The speaker also has a USB connector, but it’s not for charging purposes — instead, it lets you install software upgrades and MyTalk applets that provide options such as the ability to change the voice which the speaker uses for various notifications such as alerting you that it’s in pairing mode.

If you like the basic Jambox concept, I think you’ll immediately gravitate to either the Big Jambox or the standard-sized model rather than dithering between them. I’m more smitten with the little guy: it sounds really nice for its size, and it’s so dinky that there’s no reason not to make it one of your standard traveling accoutrements. But if you want a more versatile speaker that’s still wire-free and compact enough to go almost anywhere you do — and which is stylish rather than merely utilitarian — the Big Jambox is a big deal.

[Correction May 1, 2012: the original version of this article stated that LiveAudio did not work over a live-in connection. That was true for the original Jambox, but not this model.]