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New Jawbone Bluetooth Headset

Tue Jul 1, 2008 - 6:35 AM EDT - By Andre Kibbe

Overview

Update: The New Jawbone in Black is now in stock in the TreoCentral Store! It wasn't in stock at the time the review was published. So grab one while you can! ;-)


While many Bluetooth headsets are well regarded, the Aliph Jawbone's reputation precedes it. The Jawbone's combination of first class industrial design and high-performance noise canceling made it a critic's darling from the get go. It wasn't uncommon to see glowing reviews of other headsets contain phrases like, "It's no Jawbone, but . . .". User reviews were a bit more mixed, but the general consensus was still well above the average headset.

But the Jawbone definitely had room for improvement. There were three common complaints: an ill-fitting ear cushion, an uncomfortable-to-unusable earhook, and the rather larger overall size of the device. Aliph has addressed all of these issues in the New Jawbone (sometimes called the Jawbone 2) while upgrading the noise canceling technology in the process. Since the original model is still on the market for two-thirds of the price, is the New Jawbone worth the premium? Let's take a closer look.


What's in the box

Once we get past the box, which looks like an industrial design project in itself, we see that Aliph has included:

  • The Jawbone headset
  • A USB charging cable with a magnetic dock
  • A wall charger that connects to the USB charging cable
  • Two replacement earbuds: one large, one small
  • Three replacement earhooks: two large, one medium

The charger configuration is particularly laudable. I've griped many times about the trend with expensive headsets of eliminating the USB option. Here, the wall charger output and charging cable are good old-fashioned USB, not the mini or micro variety, so you have the option of charging by computer. Kudos to Aliph.


Design

It's easy to be cynical when a headset is anointed with a line like, "Designed by [insert name of European industrial designer]." But let's face it, whatever Aliph is paying Chief Designer Yves Behar, they're getting their money's worth.

The New Jawbone reduces the device size from the original by nearly 50%, in all three dimensions. The newer 2" x .5" x .5" size is unremarkable compared to the current crop of rival headsets, but considering how many people swore by the first Jawbone in spite of its rather large profile, the shrinkage is no small feat.

The outer surface is distinctly different, replacing the older model's perforated pattern with a beveled diamond arrangement. Virtually invisible when the headset is off is a tiny sliver in the center diamond, which is the indicator light. The device has no visible buttons or fixtures to disrupt its sleek contouring — hence the small sliver for the indicator — but the usability takes a hit for this aesthetic elegance. The talk/power button is directly behind the indicator, so when you press down to power it, your thumb obscures the light that confirms the device is on.

The talk and multifunction buttons, for invisibility's sake, are basically pressure points on the rear edge and center of the device. When you press down, there's not much tactile feedback, and it's hard to distinguish between a creak and an actual click. It takes a slight amount of getting used to, and requires more pressure than I would like.

The new earhook is greatly simplified from the overdesigned original. I can't compare the difference in comfort between the two, since I never had the chance to use the old Jawbone, but I found the current earhook extremely comfortable. Ditto for the ear cushion. The default ear cushion's size and traction, combined with the device's light weight (.35 ounces), made it very easy to wear without the earhook — something I'm generally insecure about doing with most headsets.

The centerpiece of the Jawbone's hardware technology is its Voice Activity Senor (VAS). This is a contact microphone designed to better separate the speaker's voice from ambient sound, and it does just that. The initial drawback is that you have to get used to wearing the headset so that the VAS maintains steady contact with your cheek. This is another aspect that takes some getting used to. On my first few calls I had people asking me to repeat things more than they normally do. Once you get a sense of how to mount the headset for proper cheek contact, it's pretty easy to maintain the habit.


Setup and Usability

The Jawbone's four-hour talk time may not be impressive, but the mere 50 minutes needed to charge the device certainly was. 35 minutes charges the headset to 80%. Standby time is rated at eight days.

The headset goes into auto-pairing mode when powered on for the first time. Since I first tested it on the Samsung Instinct, I had to manually pair it with the Centro, done by holding down the talk and NoiseAssassin (multifunction) button simultaneously and entering the four-zero passcode. The dual-button pairing isn't intuitive, but isn't difficult either. It took about a minute to set up.

As mentioned, the lack of visible buttons is great for aesthetics but suboptimal for usability. The volume control function is the device's biggest annoyance. When the NoiseAssassin function is on, the Jawbone manages the volume level automatically in relation to the surroundings. I found the level too low for my taste.

You can adjust the volume manually by turning NoiseAssassin off and cycling through the volume levels, as opposed to using a volume rocker. Adjusting the volume in the middle of a call is not fun ("How's this? Can you hear me now?"). Fortunately, once you get a decent volume, you can turn NoiseAssassin back on, and the auto-adjustments will be relative to the newly set level.


Sound Quality

Three words: Believe the hype. I can't compare it with the original, but the New Jawbone is hands-down the best sounding headset I've reviewed, beating my previous favorite, the Jabra JX10. Anyone who's tried a few noise canceling headsets knows that not all noise canceling is created equal, and some (like the Motorola H12 I tested) are noise canceling in name only.

However Aliph's NoiseAssassin algorithm works, it just does. Between the contact sensor and the noise canceling, the effect is especially noticeable on your own voice as you speak into the headset. I called my other line from a particularly noisy Starbucks, and was astounded to hear how much of the background music was filtered out when I checked and listened to the voice mail. The outgoing sound was by far the most impressive feature, but the incoming sound was well above average in its own right.


Conclusion

I wish I could have had experience with the original Jawbone as a reference point, in order to say definitively that the New Jawbone is worth the extra $40. But if I had one choice in a headset right now, the New Jawbone would be my first and only consideration. The size is just right, and the sound quality blows away any of the dozens of two dozen headsets I've tested in the last year.

The awkward button controls take some of the shine away from the device. If simplicity of operation matters as much or more to you than sound quality, the submerged buttons have a bit of a learning curve that might give you pause. But for me, the noise canceling, ergonomic comfort, and aesthetic grace of the headset were too good to let a couple of buttons get in the way.





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Criteria 

Rating

Design 5
Usability 3
Sound Quality 5
Cost/Benefit 4
Overall
(not an average)
Pros
  • Gorgeous design, with no visible buttons
  • Noise canceling that actually works as advertised
  • Chargeable via wall or USB
  • Extremely comfortable to wear
  • Cons
  • Unintuitive volume control
  • Status light is on talk button, and cannot be seen while pressing it
  • Voice sensor must maintain contact with cheek


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