For a long time, I flatly refused to own a Bluetooth headset. They were expensive, the sound quality was mediocre, and the available designs were unattractive, ranging from “wannabe telemarketer” to “hey, I’ve got a Happy Meal toy stuck in my ear!”
But for every product category, a standout product always emerges and becomes the new benchmark against which all other similar products must be measured. For Bluetooth headsets, the bar was officially set in December of 2006 when Aliph introduced their first Jawbone headset. It was attractive, with a perforated metal surface that looked more industrial than toy-like, and it incorporated noise-canceling technology developed for DARPA. And while still priced at upwards of $100, it was nevertheless less expensive than many competing headsets at the time. The Jawbone became my first Bluetooth headset. It’s been nearly three years now since the Jawbone was introduced, and Aliph has not rested. They are now on the third generation of the Jawbone headset — the Jawbone Prime — and Aliph is intent on persisting as the gold standard for Bluetooth headsets. Does the Jawbone Prime do service to its pedigree, or does it come up short? Find out after the jump.
At first glance, it would be difficult to distinguish the Jawbone Prime from the previous-generation Jawbone 2; the dimensions appear to be basically identical, both being a svelte 2.10 x 0.60 x 0.90 inches, and weighing less than half an ounce. Upon closer inspection, however, the differences become more apparent.
The Jawbone Prime has ditched its predecessor’s raised-diamond texture, replacing it with something like a series of helices in relief, creating several rows of elongated divots. I personally didn’t find this new texture to feel any better or worse in day-to-day use, so whether or not this is an improvement is really a matter of your own aesthetic judgment. Another noticeable change is that, rather than the continuous surface of the Jawbone 2, the texture on the front face of the Jawbone Prime is interrupted by a line running the width of the device, denoting the physical separation between the two buttons hidden under the surface. While this change may not be useful to Jawbone veterans, new users will likely appreciate it, as it does take some time to learn where the buttons are really physically located. This separator makes it apparent where one button ends and the next begins, solving one of the ease-of-use kinks of the previous model.
There are also some differences in the Jawbone Prime in terms of included accessories. The bits you’d expect are in there, such as the USB charger, and the AC to USB adapter, but the selection of fitment accessories has changed. Aliph has started moving towards the “new fit” earbuds, which modify the standard round earbuds by appending a small loop of rubber on one end and a slight point on the other. These twist-to-fit earbuds obviate the need for an earloop, and are now included in small, medium, and large sizes. The standard earbuds are also included in three sizes, but only two earloops (one standard, one “premium”) are provided. As with any inner-ear gadgets, how they fit depends entirely on the shape of your ears. My wife seems to be able to wear the new style earbuds without issue, but I personally have had a hard time getting a proper “seal” with them, so I have continued to use the earloop. Additional earloops in other colors, styles, and sizes can be purchased from Jawbone’s online store for $15 each. Jawbone 2 owners, be aware that you can also purchase a 3-pack of the new fit earbuds from Jawbone’s store for $10, so if you just want to go loop-less, you can do so on the cheap.
Aliph has also decided to go beyond thinking of the Bluetooth headset as a purely utilitarian device, inviting us to consider it as a fashion accessory. In addition to the standard black, silver, and brown of the Jawbone Prime, Aliph has introduced the Jawbone Prime Earcandy Edition, available in such colors as Drop Me A Lime (green), Frankly Scarlet (just on the pink side of red, pictured in this review), Lilac You Mean It (purple), and ‘Yello! (you guessed it, yellow). These colors are quite vibrant, and certainly a departure from the muted and business-like tones of most other Bluetooth headsets. The target audience for these seems to be women, but it’s certainly not unthinkable that some men might be interested in these colors. I have to ask though, if the point of the Earcandy Edition Jawbone Prime is really to make the Jawbone Prime a fashion accessory, why not just make the faceplate swappable? I would think that the truly fashion-conscious would want their headset to match their outfit on any given day, so why not make that an option?
Regardless, the Earcandy Edition headsets are identical to the regular Jawbone Prime headsets in terms of features and functionality, so there’s no penalty for choosing any particular color.
Not a lot has changed spec-wise between the Jawbone 2 and Jawbone Prime, but the changes made are certainly worth noticing:
- Bluetooth Profile 2.1: provides better battery life when used with devices that support it (such as the iPhone 3GS)
- Acoustic Voice Activity Detector (AVAD): provides supplementary noise reduction when the voice activity sensor isn’t touching the user’s face
- Enhanced wind noise reduction: provides better elimination of wind noise
- NoiseAssassin 2.0: this update to the original NoiseAssassin technology delivers an order of magnitude improvement in the noisiest environments (6 to 9dB)
I tested the Jawbone Prime against both of its predecessors in a range of scenarios in order to see not only how the Prime itself performed, but to get an idea of how the technology has progressed, and whether or not one should consider upgrading if one is an existing Jawbone user.
In order to test the speaker (incoming audio) portion of the headsets, I connected each to my Mac Mini over Bluetooth, and set it as my audio source. I then played a few songs in iTunes, and compared the quality of the audio I received. The audio sounded flat in all three — very good for a headset that’s not designed for music, to be honest, but you wouldn’t want to use any of them for anything other than phone calls. Overall the original Jawbone sounded a little more tinny than either the Jawbone 2 or the Jawbone Prime.
To test the mic itself, I called my landline and recorded a message with each of the headsets paired to my iPhone 3G. I turned off noise reduction on each of the headsets in order to eliminate that as a variable in the comparison. Overall, they all sounded as good as the audio straight from my iPhone’s mic, though with occasional wireless interference such as static or very brief dropouts if I got too far from my iPhone. I really couldn’t tell much of a difference between the three in this test, and to be sure, every one of them sounded at least as good as any other Bluetooth headset I’ve ever heard.
Again, I paired each headset to my iPhone, and recorded messages that I called in to my landline, but this time from a moving car with the radio on. This is probably representative of the most typical use of the headset, and thus the most crucial test. All three fared very well, but it was pretty easy to tell which was the original Jawbone, because the noise reduction simply was not as good. The Jawbone 2 and Jawbone Prime were close to identical, but the Prime edged out its older brother by doing a slightly better job in reducing noise. While audio from both devices was intelligible, it was harder to tell when the Jawbone Prime was actively canceling outside noise, which is impressive.
Loud music test
It’s unlikely that one is going to take a call when it’s so loud that one can barely hear oneself talk, but what if you did? I tested this by repeating the above tests while standing directly in front of a stereo speaker that was loud enough that a normal person standing next to me might have difficulty hearing what I was saying. The recording from the original Jawbone was a bunch of noise, it was clear that the noise reduction was having a hard time, and was overcorrecting. The Jawbone 2, while far and away better than the Jawbone, still had some noticeable difficulty separating my voice from the music. And while even the Jawbone Prime could not provide a completely noise-free call, it did a better job than I would have expected; I could understand easily 90% of the recording. It’s worth noting that every one of these headsets did a perfect job of blocking out noise when I wasn’t talking — standing in front of the speaker and saying nothing, there was only silence on the other end of the phone. The only problems came when I spoke, and bits of the music (possibly in the same tonal range as my voice) leaked through. Again, this was an extreme case, and I can’t imagine anyone trying to make or take a phone call in that sort of din, but if I had to, the Jawbone Prime is the headset I’d want to have with me.
For this test, I replaced the speaker in the previous test with a fan, and tested it at various speeds and angles relative to the headset. To be perfectly honest, when it comes to wind performance, the original Jawbone blows almost as much as the fan did. I really couldn’t hear anything other than wind if there was more than a passing breeze on my headset side. The Jawbone 2 fared much better, but as seems to be the pattern here, the Jawbone Prime came out on top. It wasn’t flawless, by any means — get enough wind at the right angle, and it becomes pretty hard to hear — but those times were the exception, and let’s be realistic, even if you’re driving in your car with the windows open or the top down, you’re not going to have that kind of wind blowing directly on the headset.
The Jawbone Prime is, in just about every way, an improvement on its predecessors. I find the battery life to be more than sufficient for regular use, and the noise reduction features are unparalleled. Really, the only reason you might not want to choose this headset over anything else out there is if you already own the Jawbone 2. While it certainly outperforms the Jawbone 2, the performance gains in the Jawbone Prime don’t become truly apparent until you start getting into decent amounts of wind or ambient noise. And if you’re already happy with your Jawbone 2, shelling out the $130 (suggested, though you can find it for less if you look) for the Jawbone Prime may not seem too appealing.
Ultimately, the Jawbone Prime is easily one of the best Bluetooth headsets you can buy, and with the addition of the Earcandy Edition, there’s a color for just about everyone.