August 24, 2012, 2:00 PM — Let's face it: The audio ability of most smartphones and tablets is pretty bad. You can, of course, hook up a pair of headphones or earbuds, but what if you want to share the sound? Or simply don't want to isolate yourself by shutting out the rest of the world?
Different sizes and sounds. From left to right: Back row -- Big Jambox, Sound Kick. Front row -- Jam Wireless Portable Speaker, Logitech Mini Boombox, Matrix One.
In that case, you need a speaker -- preferably, one that can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth and that can be easily carried from place to place.
There are a variety of mobile speakers now available, many of which have been recently introduced. In this roundup, I look at five speakers that cover a range of sizes and prices, from the $50 Jam from HMDX to Jawbone's $300 Big Jambox. Because they connect to your device via Bluetooth rather than a specific mobile OS, they should work with any recent phone or tablet.
No matter what the size or price, all five have several features in common. Besides their Bluetooth connections, all are portable and are powered by rechargeable batteries. Each offers a certain number of controls on the unit itself, including (but not confined to) on/off, forward (to the next track), back (to the last track), play and pause. One of the speakers, the Sound Kick, even has a smartphone app that lets you control it remotely.
In addition, three out of the five (the Big Jambox, the Logitech Mini Boombox and the Matrix One) also work as speakerphones should you get a call while you've got your music playing.
The following reviews are ordered according to cost, from the least to the most expensive. With this wide a selection, at least one of these speakers should suit your needs -- and your budget.
2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 in. Weight: 9.6 oz. Price: $49.99 (direct), $47-$54 (retail)
The HMDX Jam comes packed, suitably enough, in a glass jam jar -- a nice visual pun.
Jam Wireless Portable Speaker
As befits its low $50 price, the Jam is a simple, straightforward device. It is small and somewhat conical, and comes in six different colors, with a black band circling top and bottom.
The actual speaker is on top of the unit; around the lower rim there are volume buttons, a play/pause button, a light that indicates when Bluetooth is active, a line-in audio jack for headphones, a USB port for charging the unit (it comes with a rather short USB cable) and a battery status indicator. There is an on/off switch on the bottom.
I had no problem pairing it to my Galaxy Nexus smartphone, despite the fact that the instructions that came with the Jam, while clear on how to operate the device, didn't have any explanation on how to pair it. Since this also involves typing in the 0000 key code that many Bluetooth units no longer demand, some explanation might have been useful, especially for less savvy users.
According to the company, the unit will last about four hours on a charge.
Unlike its more costly cousins, the Jam doesn't do anything other than play audio. The sound wasn't bad at all for something this small and inexpensive, although it didn't have quite the bass range of the Matrix One or the crispness of the Logitech Mini Boombox. It can certainly pump out the volume; if you're looking for something that will get the neighbors banging on the walls, this could do it.
Unfortunately, probably because they are packing so many electronics in so limited a space, smaller speakers such as the Jam and the Matrix One tend to have a slight electronic hiss underlying the audio which, while not that distinguishable at louder volumes, can sometime be heard during quieter moments. It is most obvious when you stop the audio feed, just before the sound cuts off completely
In addition, when you turn the Jam on, it lets you know it's alive with a loud and rather unpleasant three-beat sound that can't be adjusted.
All that being said, if you're looking for an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker for a youngster, or want something that you can throw into a suitcase for a quick trip, the HMDX Jam could be the right speaker for you.