In recent months we tested a number of portable speakers. Especially the wireless Bluetooth speakers manage to raise some eyebrows around the office from time to time, but they're so expensive that we can't really recommend them without any reservations. Jabra's Solemate, which we are reviewing today, also isn't cheap, but it does get everything right.
With the increasing popularity of digital media, portable music players, smartphones and tablets it's no surprise that manufacturers are investing heavily in personal audio accessories. There are tons of Apple-compatible devices with docks for iPods and iPhones, but even if you don't own one of those hip products there is an increasing amount of choice out there.
It could have something to do with Apple, that recently switched from its 30-pin dock connector to the new 9-pin Lightning connector. Consumers were faced with having to buy adapters or new docks, but the manufacturers of said products also had to make some decisions.
A number of them, in part due to the Apple dock issue, have chosen to shift their focus to speakers that don't need a dock. Bluetooth makes it possible to link any audio device, not just Apple, that supports the A2DP profile. While it doesn't offer the same level of sound quality a wired connection has, at least the Bluetooth standard won't change overnight, and backward compatibility is not an issue. A Bluetooth 4.0 device works fine with a Bluetooth 2.1 product.
Furthermore, an increasing number of devices support better audio codecs that can be used within the A2DP profile. The standard one is SBC (small band codec), that even non-audiophiles can hear is inferior in quality compared to a wired connection. It's also possible to instead use mp3 or aac coding and that's also the case more often. The challenging part is to figure out which devices support which codecs, manufacturers rarely specify this. That's unfortunate, and hopefully it's something that will change in the future. We would particularly like more clear information about what we think is the best Bluetooth audio codec, Apt-X.
The Jabra Solemate, the subject of this review, does not support Apt-X, but does use qualitatively better codecs. When combined with the devices we used for our tests - an iPhone 4, a Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray, and a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet - the sound quality was clearly better than if SBC was used. That's not the only positive quality of the Solemate, however.
With a price of £153 this certainly isn't a very affordable Bluetooth speaker, even if it's cheaper than the smaller Jawbone Jambox. It's also cheaper than the larger Logitech UE Boombox that costs £170. Out of these three the Jabra Solemate is our favourite, for a number of reasons.