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External speakers: Getting quality sound out of small devices, a review of the Bowers & Wilkins MM1 and the Jawbone Jambox

Whatever device you have, chances are, your stock speakers are underpowered and underwhelming. Speaker quality simply isn’t a high priority on cutting edge devices because typical consumers value portability and size over sound quality and bass; and unlike a display, that can be made both high quality and small (think Retina display, Super AMOLED), speakers can’t be made smaller without sacrificing quality and volume.  But external speakers give you the best of both worlds–they let you rely on small, portable internal speakers when portability is a primary concern, and let you plug in to some power when you have an itch for some bass.  Read on to find out more about two of the best options out there, the feature heavy and super portable Jawbone Jambox and the ear-meltingly awesome Bowers & Wilkins MM1 powered computer speakers.


Setting expectations: Readers of my prior hardware reviews know that I like to set realistic expectations before jumping in, often asking “does the device deliver on its promise?” Surprisingly, the marketing teams for both Jawbone and B&W paint an accurate picture of what to expect right on the box.
  • Jawbone Jambox: The front of the box has a  fun 80’s art style boombox painted on the front. Like a boombox, the Jambox is a portable source of big bassy sound; but unlike the boombox of yesteryear, the Jambox is ultra portable–the size of two candybars–and supports modern bluetooth connections.
  • Bowers and Wilkins (“B&W”) MM1: The front cover of the MM1 box promises elegance–a glossy photo of the black and chrome MM-1 speakers connected to a similarly black and chrome iMac.  And that is exactly what you get with the B&W MM1, the design is thoughtful–the materials are high-class and the speakers feel substantial–and the sound is broad and precise–having a full range, but with crisp delivery at each interval.

 

What you came for–the Sound:The clarity of the sound that you are going to get from your speaker is going to be directly dependent on the size of the driver (the cone-like structure in the speaker).  A larger driver produces deeper sounds best, while a smaller driver produces higher sounds best. The larger B&W MM1 speakers are big enough for have larger and smaller drivers for distinct deep and high sounds.  The Jambox compensates for its small drivers by using a new system of producing deep bass–a flat structure called a moving-wall passive bass radiator.

  • Jambox: Like an 80s boombox, the Jambox can deliver on volume and pump out some impressive bass for its size. In testing, the Jambox’s volume power was good enough to be heard in a large room and in an outdoor setting.  Pure volume power is important with the Jambox because it is a portable device and you are going to lose volume when in open spaces. I used to have this problem all the time when trying to play music in my beat up old convertible; no matter how loud I turned up the volume when the top was down, the music seemed to get lost in the wind. Beyond volume, the Jambox’s sound quality is impressive for its size.  The Jambox uses stereo acoustic drivers for a fuller sound and a proprietary moving-wall passive bass radiator to get an impressive amount of bass out of such a small package.
  • B&W MM1: The sound that emanates from the MM1 speakers is unparalleled, it is the difference between hearing and feeling sound–like an orgasm in your ear (eargasm?).  When I tested the MM1 speakers connected to my television, it felt like  a completely new experience: I watched the opening credits to Law & Order Los Angeles and realized how bassy and moving  they were; I watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother and the dialogue between the characters sounded alive; and when I watched the music video-esque movie “Sucker Punch” it was like I was literally in another world (the music plays a crucial part in the plot of the movie, but more importantly, the trance-like musical tracks put the viewer in a state that coincides with the plot–really an out of the world experience). When I tested the MM1s connected to my BB Playbook to listen to music, I could hear instruments and rhythms that I didn’t before know existed in the track: I tested a song with deep bass and pointed highs–Bjork’s “Army of me”–and the MM1 speakers reproduced the spectrum of sound clearly and distinctly; and I tested a song with a variety of instruments–the Across the Universe cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”–and I could hear a myriad of instruments distinctly (guitar, flute, drums, harmonica etc.)
Features: 
  • Jambox: Because the Jambox was meant to be portable, a lot of its design is mobile focused.
    • The Jambox base is rubberized so it will stay in place in constantly changing and different environments.
    • The Jambox supports wireless A2DP Bluetooth connections and, while included and available, doesn’t require cord carrying.
    • A neat collapsible carrying case is included.
    • Some devices allow the user to monitor the battery of the Jambox from the phone or tablet.
    • To keep pairing simple, the Jambox has a user friendly voice guide that walks you through the steps and also gives status updates.
  • B&W MM1: Because the B&W MM1 speaker are stationary, many of its features revolve around providing quality music. But the B&W MM1s are designed with subtle features that make its use simple and clean as well.
    • The MM1 speaker housing is made out of premium materials–spun aluminum and black cloth.
    • Portions of the band around the right speaker function as power and volume buttons.
    • The underside of the speaker has notches for wire management.
    • A digital signal processor is built in so music can processed in real-time.
    • Connections: 3.5mm analog mini-jack or USB connection.
    • Ergonomic remote. (*it is worth noting that I can’t seem to get the battery cover to stop falling off)
Final Notes: The Jambox is $179.99 on Amazon. It is stylish, ultra-portable and bluetooth capable, making it the ultimate travel companion for your device.  It will give you sound that is a hundred times better than anything you can get out of your phone or tablet speakers and will even throw in some bass too. With that said, the B&W MM1’s are really the ultimate showstopper in the home or office setting.  The sound is a million times better than anything any of your current speakers will produce.  That is why, not surprisingly, they go for $499.95 on Amazon. While I can’t tell you if these prices are worth it for you, I can tell you that if you do decide to pick one of these up, your ears will not regret it.
*Note: Jawbone and B&W provided test units for this review
6 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. Nice review :).
    In my experience, sounds transmitted via Bluetooth doesn’t sound good. It’s as if it was down-sampled. Is this the case with the Jambox?

  2. The statement “it is the difference between hearing and feeling sound–like an orgasm in your ear”

    Very interested in the MM1 however can you tell me if you played audio via Bluetooth pairing. I suspect so.

    One more question does the MM1 work off of battery charge like the Jambox. IE taking the speakers outside to listen to music for a couple hours.

  3. Good review but they some pricey speakers!

  4. Great review. I was already considering the Jawbone…seriously considering now. Looks like it would fit my use/needs perfectly…

  5. I love using the Jambox speakers with my BlackBerry and PlayBook. But the PB went with different Bluetooth technology and I never could get it to pair with the PlayBook. Though they do sound great with the wire.

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