- Decent sound quality
- Well built
- Relatively light
- Weak battery life
- Too much noise bleed
- Not cheap
- Hands-free calling
- 6-hour battery
- Dual mic
- JBL Signature Sound
What is the JBL Soundgear?
The JBL Soundgear doesn’t look like anything that’s come before it. It’s what you’d get if you crossed a portable Bluetooth speaker with a wearable. In fact it kind of feels like someone at JBL HQ said, “I hear wearables are in now, lets bung some speakers into a wearable.” Hey presto, the Soundgear was born.
The idea is that you wear it around your neck to listen to audio without earphones or headphones, so you can hear what’s going on around you. This means you can have hands-free calls, thanks to the built-in dual mics, but also enjoy movies with more power than slim TV speakers or tablets can offer. Plus you can walk around the house so it’s a multi-room speaker setup for music too.
In reality does it offer more than a decent set of headphones at that price would give you? Or a soundbar perhaps? Can it justify the price tag, and would it be better to strap a speaker to your face?
The JBL Soundgear looks odd but it feels gorgeous. It’s got weight to reassure you of quality. Despite the rigid build, this does fit around most necks – bodybuilders who work the neck three times a week aside. The buttons are well placed, feel high quality to the touch and work perfectly.
The problem is the materials. This is a solid device. Placing a solid unit onto your collar bones, where there is a lot of exposed nerves, is fine for a while – but you notice it after a while. When watching a movie, and especially if you’re in a hot room, it can get a little uncomfortable. That said, some headphones can leave you with aching ears and sweaty lugs too.
JBL has made the weight balanced and well distributed for maximum comfort. But no matter how well you balance something, it’s still hard on your body. Perhaps since this is a totally new wearable, the factor of it being foreign to your body also adds to the discomfort. You can forget about it once in a while, getting lost in a show or movie, but it often reminds you again that it’s there right on that collar bone.
The inclusion of rear ports also allows for decent bass performance in a unit that surprisingly doesn’t vibrate onto the wearer. Again, an impressive design feat by JBL that’s to be commended. You can’t fault JBL for not really thinking this through on most levels – except the need for a little padding perhaps.
The main feature of the JBL Soundgear is those speakers it plonks on your shoulders. This is like having a good quality stereo Bluetooth speaker but right next to your ears. That means that you can still hear what’s going on around you as well as listening to whatever is coming out of your speakers.
What’s that good for? Primarily it’s a good way to watch TV or movies without suffering the poor quality of TV speakers. This also means you can turn the sound down so you’re not disturbing others in the room so much. Theoretically, at least.
This setup is also useful for making and taking calls. The dual mic is really impressive for clear calls where the person at the other end won’t even notice you’re essentially on speakerphone. That means hands-free movement while taking a call and hearing what’s going on in the room. Who would do this, and when, isn’t so clear.
The JBL Soundgear is Bluetooth connected so it’ll work with pretty much anything from your phone to your laptop. The included wireless audio transmitter lets you can plug anything into the feed using an Optical cable – great if your TV doesn’t have Bluetooth. This is brilliantly versatile, so even if you just use it as a Bluetooth speaker that follows you round the house it’ll save you a bundle on multi-room audio systems.
JBL knows how to make a speaker system. That much is apparent with the JBL Soundgear. The audio quality, despite being in such a small unit, is excellent. Bass performance, thanks to quad transducers, is really impressive. This does make for a full-on movie experience akin to that you’d expect from a soundbar. Except this also lets you take calls, play music and move about anywhere you like.
All that power was always going to cost you though and it’s battery life that suffers. You get about six hours on a charge, if you’re lucky. It’ll get you through a few evenings of TV. Charging is via micro-USB (not USB-C) and it’ll be back to full in about two hours. It’s not ideal, but to get high quality weighted speakers in a unit that’s light enough to wear, the battery needs to be sacrificed.
Back to sound quality. The bass is excellent, the voice clarity is fantastic, making it ideal for movies. However the two aren’t balanced quite right. Unless you have it above a certain volume you can lose voice clarity to the other background noises. Get it louder and that levels out nicely. So if you plan to use this politely with another person in the room, think again. To be fair, JBL didn’t market this as a personal audio space, but that might be something to think about when making the follow-up.
For simplicity of use, the JBL Soundgear is really excellent. From connecting the Bluetooth to setting up that wireless audio transmitter, it all just works. Connections are super fast and once you’ve set it up the re-connect is rapid.
Why buy the JBL Soundgear?
This is the real question. Like for any new gadget category, it can seem to sit between other products without there being a need. Remember when the iPad first arrived? Everyone who had a laptop thought it was a waste of time, until they used one. The Soundgear can’t be compared to the iPad, sure, but it is a new category that could prove useful.
Right now the JBL Soundgear offers an alternative to poor TV and tablet speakers. It’s a mobile Bluetooth speaker that may remove the need for a multi-room audio set up. And it’s an excellent hands-free calling kit – presuming you don’t mind others listening in. So if you need a soundbar, a speaker and a hands-free kit you could save money and effort by simply buying a Soundgear.
However, at that £200/$268 price, you could get a decent pair of headphones with hands-free calling and then you also have the advantage of private listening. Sure, you might not be able to hear background noise as well, which JBL touts as a big feature on the Soundgear. But unless you’re out driving or running, do you really need that?
Ideal for calls but perhaps a little too specific and uncomfortable for most.