Portable Bluetooth speakers: Big Jambox, Bose SoundLink, Nokia Play 360 compared

More and more of us are storing or streaming music on our mobile phones and as the summer outdoor season starts you may be considering a wireless speaker solution. I had the chance to take a look at three speaker options and ended up purchasing a pair for my own entertainment.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

The summer is quickly approaching and as we get ready to celebrate graduation, hold parties on the back patio, spend time at the beach or campsite, and enjoy time outside with family and friends it is a good time to find a wireless speaker setup that lets us share our music from our smartphone or digital media player. I had the chance to spend some time with the Big Jambox, Bose SoundLink, and Nokia Play 360 systems and coming up with a clear winner was not easy. You can check out these three speakers in my image gallery along with a short video demo of each embedded below.

Image Gallery: Check out photos of the three wireless speakers evaluated in this review.
Image Gallery: 3 speakers in retail boxes
Image Gallery: Controls on the Big Jambox

I still have a Zune HD, but only use it for occasionally listening to music when I run and instead I rely on music playing from my smartphones for my music needs. I have content loaded locally and also stream through streaming services, including Slacker Radio and Spotify. I have wired and Bluetooth headsets for listening to music and podcasts while I commute, but also have an original Jambox I picked up for listening to music at my desk and using it as a speakerphone. In the summer, I have even used the original Jambox to play audio from a DVD player as movies are projected on a wall through a projector for big movie family entertainment.

I heard plenty of great things about the new Big Jambox from Jawbone, but wanted to also compare it with other speakers before making any judgements on the speaker system. Bose sent along their SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker and Nokia provided a single Nokia Play 360 Wireless Speaker so I had three options to test. There are other similarly priced wireless models available too, such as the Sonos Play:3, but I wasn't able to secure any others for testing at this time.

The Competitors

Big Jambox

I own a few Jawbone products, including the original Jambox, Icon headset, and UP fitness band, and expected a solid product in the Big Jambox. I have been quite happy with my original Jambox and never really thought to myself that I needed more volume or a larger speaker, primarily due to the way I use it as a desk speaker, speakerphone, and amazing travel companion to enjoy music in hotel rooms. Jawbone took what was great from the original Jambox and then improved on it with the Big Jambox.

Like the original, Jawbone does a great job with packaging and the Big Jambox box comes packed in a solid box with information on the contents, specifications, usage scenarios, and more. The box top half is colored to match the speaker inside, the Big Jambox is available in red, white, and black. I was sent a red one, Red Dot to be exact, for evaluation. After you open the box and take out the speaker you will see a tray with the words, "Wait, there's more LIFT", and underneath you will find a wall charger, 60" USB cable, and a 36" stereo-to-stereo cable inside. The cool thing is that the cables and charger are all colored to match the speaker, in this case red for my eval unit. The stereo-to-stereo (3.5mm plug) cable is also a flat durable cable that appears to prevent tangling. Unlike the original small Jambox, there is no carrying case included with the Big Jambox. You can purchase it as an accessory for $49.99.

Specifications for the Big Jambox include the following:

  • Battery life up to 15 hours of continuous play (tapping the J button tells you status)
  • Built-in Microphone (IEEE 1329 Type 1-compliant speakerphone)
  • Proprietary acoustic drivers
  • Proprietary duel passive bass radiators
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR (33 feet range)
  • Dimensions: 10 x 3.6 x 3.1 inches and 2.7 pounds

The Big Jambox is encased in colored metal grillage, with each color having a different pattern, with solid rubber/plastic material on each end. The right end five buttons/ports, compared to three on the original Jambox. On the Big Jambox these serve the following functions (from top down); power button and LED indicator, pairing button, line in port, microUSB port, and DC in. The first time you turn on the Big Jambox it will go into pairing mode and then after that you simply use the pairing button to pair with another device. You can pair up to eight devices and a very slick feature is the ability to switch back and forth between two paired devices at the same time. Thus, you can play music from one person's phone and then quickly play from another phone in a dueling DJ party atmosphere.

Jawbone provides you with a wall charger that connects to the DC port to fully charge the speaker in about 2.5 hours. I understand you can also use the microUSB port to charge up the speaker, but it takes a LONG time and during my testing I honestly couldn't wait as long as it took to charge it up.

On the top you will find six buttons that serve the following functions (from left to right); J/Talk button to control the microphone and speakerphone function (only when connected via Bluetooth), play/pause button, previous track, next track, volume down, and volume up. If you press and hold the volume up and volume down buttons at the same time then you can toggle the LiveAudio function off and on. The talk, play/pause, previous, and next track buttons only work with a Bluetooth connected device and not through any device connected via line-in. I find these music control buttons to be a major advantage over other speaker solutions because you can leave your phone plugged in safely tucked away from the speaker and not have to worry about turning on the display, unlocking the phone, and then fiddling with the media player just to control audio playback. To tell how much battery life remains, you simply tap the J button when you are connected, which is also a very nice touch.

With a Bluetooth enabled device and connection you can use the Big Jambox as a speakerphone thanks to the internal microphone and integrated functionality. You can use the talk button to answer/end calls, activate voice dialing capability on your supported phone, switch between calls, mute/unmute calls, and redial the last number. I like using my original Jambox as a portable speakerphone, especially since phone speakers are all pretty weak now, and the Big Jambox improves that experience with more available volume.

LiveAudio is also much more obvious and easily experienced on the Big Jambox. On my original Jambox I can tell LiveAudio is working when playing some songs, but the "sweet spot" for enjoying this experience is pretty limited. The Big Jambox extends that "sweet spot" and in my testing I kept LiveAudio on most of the time. LiveAudio is designed to give you depth and more detail and does depend on the content you are enjoying. You can definitely tell a volume difference with LiveAudio off, but thanks to the already big sound I actually prefer LiveAudio enabled most of the time.

Since this is an audio product from the folks at Jawbone, you will also find it supports MyTalk. This means you get easy updates to the speaker software, customizability options, and added features. As an older geek, I enjoy having the Classic Arcade audio app on my devices, but it is also fun to switch to Baseball mode in the summer.

Bose SoundLink

I have a set of Bose outdoor speakers mounted on my outside wall that provide great sound for parties on my large concrete patio and thus thought their SoundLinke Wireless Mobile speaker system would be a great alternative to the Big Jawbone. The SoundLink speaker comes in a large box with the speaker system, 3.5mm stereo cable (for line-in audio), and wall charger. Like the Big Jambox, you have to use the wall charger to charge up the speaker system.

The Bose SoundLink is available in black or silver with different color covers in two different materials. These include black, red, or purple nylon or burgundy or tan leather. The speaker with the leather cover is $50 more than the nylon model. I was sent a black nylon speaker to test out. The front cover/flap magnetically secures to the front of the speaker and when close the speaker turns off. To enjoy music you pull the front cover down and wrap it around so that it forms the wide base to prop up the speaker.

Specifications for the Bose SoundLink include the following:

  • Battery life up to 8 hours of continuous play
  • Proprietary speaker technology
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR (33 feet range)
  • Dimensions: 5.1 x 9.5 x 1.9 inches and 2.9 pounds

The line-in, microUSB, and DC ports are found on the back of the speaker. The microUSB port is used to connect the speaker to your computer for updates to the software that are designed to ensure Bluetooth compatibility with newer devices. There are six large buttons on top of the Bose SoundLink to control the following (from left to right); power on/off, auxiliary input selection (line-in), Bluetooth selection, mute, volume down, and volume up. You press and hold the Bluetooth button to put the speaker into pairing mode. There are no buttons on the speaker for controlling your music so you must use your phone or device for song selection.

There is a small black status indicator area just above the speaker on the front (hidden behind the flap when closed) that helps you understand what is selected on the speaker. In this area, you will find white indicators for Aux, Bluetooth, power level, and mute enabled. The source indicator (Bluetooth or Aux) will flash twice when maximum or minimum volume levels are reached. If you press and hold the power button, then you can see the power remaining. Don't pay attention to the battery icon, but the color is what tells you the remaining charge (70% or more, 20-70%, or less than 20%).

You can connect up to six devices with the SoundLink. You can, of course, clear out the memory if you want to replace one of the six devices you have with a new one. Only one device can be connected at a time.

The Bose SoundLink sounds excellent and I was pleased to hear it play at a quality I expect from Bose. I honestly could not really tell much of a difference between the Big Jambox and Bose SoundLink, in terms of quality and volume. I did find the LiveAudio to be quite good on the Big Jambox though, but as I mentioned the audio level is decreased in this mode.

Nokia Play 360, summary table and my pick for best speaker »

Nokia Play 360

I was trying to find at least three wireless Bluetooth speaker systems to test out and think the Nokia Play 360 is another great option to consider. I was sent one speaker to test, but think two of them paired together would have served as a better comparison since a single one is too quiet for outdoor summer usage. It is the only speaker system I tested with NFC functionality and I didn't think it would be that valuable to even consider. However, after putting my T-Mobile SIM back into my Nokia N9 I discovered that NFC in an accessory like this is revolutionary. I didn't have to turn on Bluetooth, visit any settings page, or anything to pair the speaker to my N9; I simply tapped the N9 on the top of the speaker and was up and running.

The Nokia Play 360 arrived in a rather small box that includes the speaker, a carrying case, pre-installed and removable BL-5C battery, microUSB charger, 3.5mm stereo cable, and Quick Guide. You can purchase the Nokia Play 360 in black (what I tested), white, and blue.

Specifications for the Nokia Play 360 include the following:

  • Battery life up to 20 hours of continuous play
  • Proprietary speaker technology
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR (33 feet range)
  • aptX-enabled for high quality Bluetooth stereo performance
  • Dimensions: 4.33 x 4.88 x 4.33 inches and 1.13 pounds (each speaker)

Audio comes out of the top of the Nokia Play 360 and seemed best when used inside a room rather than outside where the sound goes up and away from the listener. It is definitely the lightest speaker of the group and it was nice to see a handy carrying case in the box. I also love that I can use a standard microUSB cable to charge up the speaker system. You may also like the replaceable battery option for extended listening periods. Given that I have a few spare BL-5C batteries in my drawers this speaker system could have a longevity unmatched by others with integrated rechargeable batteries.

When you have two of them, you tap them together and they associate with each other via NFC and then connect via Bluetooth to serve as right and left channel stereo speakers. NFC is implemented to help with the pairing process and while it does save a couple of steps, Bluetooth pairing on some of my devices (in particular Windows Phone) is already so easy I don't see NFC as a required technology yet. It was cool that I could tap my Nokia N9 on the speaker to disconnect it though and do look forward to further rollout of NFC in such accessories.

On the front of the Nokia Play 360 you will find small volume up and down buttons at the top and a large Bluetooth connection/pairing button on the bottom. The Bluetooth button also has an indicator light around it to show you the status of your connection. On the back bottom area you will find the power button, microUSB port, and line-in port. I did not find any way to tell if I reach maximum or minimum volume, but after you keep pressing you can tell when it stops increasing or decreasing.

Inside, sound was excellent from the Nokia Play 360 and I would definitely consider getting a pair of these since buying them as a pair ends up costing the same as the other two portable speaker solutions I looked at for this comparison. I would love to try out the stereo wireless connection mode with two speakers and may have to do that soon. Some readers pointed out that the Nokia Play 360 speakers support aptX for Bluetooth audio, which gives them the edge in wireless quality. Check out this SlashGear article that talks about some of the latest mobile phones with aptX support and how much better it is for streaming audio.

Similar to the functionality of the Big Jambox, you can easily switch between multiple devices to stream music from your friend's phone to the Nokia Play 360 as well and have a party with all sorts of music from different sources rotating through control of the music.

Unlike the Big Jambox, you cannot use the Nokia Play 360 as a speakerphone. The Bose SoundLink also cannot serve as a speakerphone. This is not a major concern for me since I use a Bluetooth speaker in my car and already have the original Jambox of other speaker needs.

Comparison Table

Audio quality and performance is often subjective and depends on the listener so your take on these speakers may be different than mine. This table summarizes my thoughts on the three speakers I tested.
Jawbone Big Jambox Bose SoundLink Nokia Play 360
Volume High High Mid (for one speaker)
Speakerphone function Yes No No
Weight 2.7 pounds 2.9 pounds 2.26 pounds (for two)
Battery life (hours) 15 8 20
Price $299.99 $299.95 $298 for two

Is there a clear winner?

I thought the Bose brand would win out here and while it does sound great and is a fairly portable option with high quality, the comparatively short battery life, need for their charger, and heaviness had me placing this speaker in third place. You hear stronger bass from the SoundLink than with the other speakers so if you are a fan of heavier bass in your audio then this may be the option for you.

The Nokia Play 360 actually surprised me with the range of music highs and lows and I honestly found the audio output to be the best from the Play 360. As I stated above, the aptX support in these speakers may help account for part of the high quality experience. My wife listened to all three speakers and also told me she like the Nokia Play 360 ones the best. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to try out two of them with the stereo functionality, but I did just order a couple of white ones from Amazon and will be trying them out before this coming weekend. I love the long battery life, great sound, light weight, option to take just one of the speakers on a trip, option to place the speakers in an optimal position for stereo playback in my office, fact I can charge via microUSB (eliminating another charger when I travel) and fact that Nokia is using a future technology (NFC).

The Jawbone Big Jambox is the best solution if you want something that lasts a long time, sounds great, is easily upgradeable, lets you control your music from the speaker, and gives you the flexibility to use it as a speakerphone. I have the original Jambox and like that for speakerphone usage and honestly don't think I would use the Big Jambox much for this function. While music does sound good, you have to be in the "sweet spot" to get the full LiveAudio experience and that is not going to happen if you are wandering around a party. The Big Jambox does a great job with treble and pushes out decent bass. It is easy to pick up and carry to the party and has a battery life nearly double that of the Bose SoundLink.

In summary, these three are all great speaker systems with different strengths. I like that they all have a line-in option since you can actually then use these speakers with your home audio system to extend it for improved sound too. I personally chose the Nokia Play 360 for my own usage, but you may have different priorities and all three are good options.

Other reviews

I read a few other reviews after I wrote mine and note that those who looked at both the Bose SoundLinke and Big Jambox leaned towards the Big Jambox as well.

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