Review: Mini Jambox Speaker Is the Jambox, Halved

Jawbone's newest Bluetooth sound system is more perfectly pocketable.

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Jawbone’s Jambox, which debuted in 2010, wasn’t the first itty-bitty Bluetooth wireless speaker. But it was a breakout hit, and thereby created a category. Scarcely a week goes by when I don’t learn of yet another new speaker most easily described by saying “It’s kind of like the Jambox.”

Last year, Jawbone expanded the line with a product it called the Big Jambox. It was — aren’t you glad you have me here to explain these things? — a big Jambox. And now the company is introducing a third model, the Mini Jambox, available for pre-order starting today. You’ve already figured out that it’s smaller than either of the two other versions.

Except it’s not quite that simple. You can’t just keep shrinking a speaker system, at least if you care about how it sounds. The smaller it gets, the bigger the risk of compromising the audio quality. At some point, you end up with something that’s not enough better than the not-so-hot speakers built into smartphones and tablets to be worth the trouble.

So the Mini Jambox isn’t just a shrunken Jambox. It might more accurately be called the Half Jambox. The Jambox is 6″ by 1.6″ by 2.8″ and weighs 12 oz.; the Mini Jambox is 6.1″ by .96″ by 2.3″, and weighs 9 oz. It would look more or less like somebody took a Jambox and sliced it lengthwise, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s ensconced in a unibody aluminum case rather than the Jambox’s plastic, giving it a decidedly more luxe look.

The Mini Jambox isn’t radically more portable than the standard Jambox — or arch rival Beats Pill — but it’s petite enough to make a difference. At best, those other two models are pocketable only in the sense that it’s possible to cram them, uncomfortably and obviously, into a pants pocket. The Mini Jambox is still one of the larger, thicker objects you’re likely to carry on your person, but it goes into shirt pockets and pants pockets with room to spare.

(In fact, I wondered if I could listen to it while it rode in my shirt pocket, as I sometimes do with my iPhone. Turns out that’s only a good idea if you’re O.K. with the vibration from your music being transferred directly into your chest. I felt like I was defibrillating myself.)

The Jambox and Mini Jambox both retail for $180, taking price out of the equation. They sport many of the same features, including an option called LiveAudio, which adds a 3D effect to some sound — particularly special binaural recordings — and the ability to double as a speakerphone. Both run for around 10 hours on a charge, which can be provided over USB cable or via an included wall adapter.

So when I learned about the existence of the Mini, I wondered at first why anyone would opt to buy the bulkier, less posh standard Jambox instead. After I listened to the same music and movies on both, piped wirelessly from my iPhone 5 and iPad, I understood why the Mini is joining the earlier model rather than replacing it.

The Mini pleased my non-audiophile ears, though as usual I was accepting of the fact that bass wouldn’t sound fantastic — no pipsqueak speaker like the Mini Jambox, the Jambox or the Pill can boom like a bigger model. But the Mini seemed to sound as good as it does because it doesn’t let you crank up the volume to a point that would distort the sound. The audio maxed out at a quieter level than the Jambox (and the Pill, which let me choose to play music so loud that my ears hurt and my wife expressed concern on behalf of the neighbors). Some audio also had a less roomy, dimensional effect than with the other two models.

I’m a fan of the earlier Jamboxes’ 3D-sound LiveAudio feature, but aside from listening to a few samples during a visit to Jawbone’s office, I wasn’t able to try it on the Mini. It’ll be enabled by a new Jambox app for iOS, available starting today, which will also aggregate music from iTunes, Rdio and Pandora into one playlist. (There’s an Android app, too, but it doesn’t have the playlist feature yet.)

For personal listening by one or two people, the Mini Jambox should be fine in most environments. The one instance in which it wasn’t for me was when I watched The Princess Bride on my iPad with the sound diverted to the Mini Jambox while an electric fan blared elsewhere in the room. Inigo Montoya sounded like he was whispering. With the standard Jambox or Pill, I could hear him fine, even without turning the audio up to the maximum level.

In a funny way, the Mini Jambox is a 2013 version of what the original Jambox was in 2010: A Bluetooth speaker that aims to be so intensely portable and personal that you’ll take it nearly anywhere. Even though the original version is the same size it always was, it now feels like a model you’d choose if grab-and-go mobility wasn’t quite as important and multiple people might be listening at once. Still, the distinction between them isn’t all that striking, and I suspect that most people will opt to spend their $180 on the smaller, sexier Mini. I’ll be curious to see if Jawbone keeps both versions around indefinitely.

As always with Jawbone products, the Mini does its best not simply to exude style — it was designed by industrial design guru Yves Behar — but to help you express your own style. It’ll come in nine colors and five different patterns, and remarkably, Best Buy plans to sell every variant in its stores.