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GadgeTell Review: Jabra Solemate Max

Sections: Accessories, Audio, Communications, Mobile, Portable Audio, Reviews, Smartphones, Speakers

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At CES 2014, you couldn’t turn your head without seeing some booth showcasing portable Bluetooth speakers or headphones. There are so many of them out and available now. While it makes it easier for consumers to own one, manufacturers have their work cut out in terms of standing apart from the competition.

I was excited to stop by Jabra’s booth at CES, since jabra had just released the Solemate Max. I’ve been a long-time user of Jabra Bluetooth earpieces, and the company’s recent foray into personal audio products has been rather impressive. But the Solemate Max has what this listener loves.

Powerful speakers wrapped up in a clean, aesthetic design, with a handy-dandy grip for carrying? Yes, please! Unfortunately, the noise and bustle of CES makes it a terrible environment for listening. But from the bits I was able to clearly hear at Jabra’s booth, I knew I was already in love.

Design & Connectivity

The Jabra Solemate Max has rugged aspects, making it an ideal outdoor companion. While it’s not proofed, it surely will resist water, dust, and even some shock if you happen to drop it. The color scheme and styling make it equally good for indoor, outdoor, professional, or casual use. I particularly like how Jabra chose a color other than black.

As much as I like the look, I can see that it’s not something that would color-coordinate with every room as a permanent-yet-portable fixture.

The dimensions are good. You can grab the top one-handed to pick it up, even if your hands aren’t the largest. Otherwise, the rubber-grip handle is specifically designed for the purpose of grab and go. It’s well-built, as I’ve yanked on it pretty hard and it takes it like a champ. Although the handle sticks out, it doesn’t look weird. It seems strange, but I guess it’s not.

Jabra Solemate Max handle

Now that’s a handle!

When it comes to carrying it around, the Solemate Max is heavy, but not heavy-heavy. I wouldn’t want to carry it around all day, but to and fro is fine.

It’s definitely heavy enough to stay put wherever I set it down. The weight and durable construction let you know that this speaker is not cheap (price is a different matter) and is built to last. It’s pretty solid.

The top of the speaker, where the track controls are located, has a quarter-inch lip all the way around. Not only does it add some visual depth, but now I have a place to toss some stuff without them slipping off. Phone, wallet, keys. Maybe loose change or small USB cables (Nomad ChargeKey). A short drink. Maybe not a big deal to some, but I sure do love it.

The track controls are a lot better than what the Max’s smaller siblings have. The layout is clearly marked, looks good, and works even better. Jabra even kept the dual-purpose button for phone calls and announcing the battery level too (high, medium, low, also accompanied by a colored flash of the battery LED).

Jabra Solemate Max cable

Iconic Solemate tread and cable

Speaking of announcements, the Solemate Max does makes a startup and shutdown sound in addition to the battery announcement. They’re short, not terribly loud, and not so annoying either.

When the Bluetooth connects to a device, the speaker also announces a simple “connected” in a pleasant male (can be switched to female) voice. It’s not nearly as amped up like the announcements of the Solemate Mini. All of these noises can be toggled off so you don’t have to hear it every day (with the speaker off, press and hold the volume-down button while switching it on).

The ports on the right side are labeled and pretty self-explanatory. There’s a standard USB port for charging out (5V/1A), Micro USB port for connecting to PCs/laptops for audio, auxiliary port, power switch, LED indicator lights, and the NFC panel. I especially like the use of an actual switch for turning it on, instead of the typical press-and-hold type of button. Feels good, what can I say?

The included 3.5mm audio cable, tucked away in Jabra’s signature sole, is an upgrade over what the other Solemate models have. It’s flexible like a length of paracord. The plugs are L-shaped and ridged, making it easy to find a solid grip when plugging and unplugging. They’re also skinny enough to be able to fit through most smartphone or tablet case cutouts.

Is it handy? Yes. Sure, going Bluetooth all day is easy, though I don’t necessarily need the wireless connection when I’m watching a movie in a cozy corner somewhere. With the Bluetooth off, the speaker saves on battery life and can continue playing longer.

Sound Quality

The Solemate Max can play performances by the Westminster Cathedral Choir at max volume (speaker and mobile device both, simultaneously) without making me cringe. This ability is absolutely amazing and quite possibly unparalleled within its price and size range.

Many other speakers can’t handle the rise and swelling of these voices at maxed volumes. They tend to flatten out at the top, suffer some seriously crinkly-synthetic sounds, or turn terribly sharp and shrill instead.

Jabra Solemate Max track control

They got the track and volume control right

The Jabra Solemate Max delivers this wonderful sense of space, as the Westminster Cathedral choir’s voices dip and soar. It showcases some amazing depth within the soundstage, an aspect that some other speakers can’t capture as well. At least, specifically, with the choir.

Despite the beforementioned, the Solemate can and will distort with volume. However, it’s very genre- and recording-dependent, also with instruments taken into consideration. As I listen to Awolnation’s Megalithic Symphony, with both volumes maxed, the Solemate Max develops distortion only on some songs. Yet most of the album, Thirteenth Step, by A Perfect Circle, needs the volume lowered two or three clicks.

The way the Max distorts, specifically, is that parts of the music will bleach (vocals), turn piercing (cymbals, hi-hats), or lose defining edges (drums, guitars). Two clicks down on my smartphone brings the volume down to about 85%, which is usually all that’s needed to correct the situation. But, by science, is it still loud. You’d expect this speaker to be physically larger for the decibels it produces.

The Jabra Solemate Max has tight image focus and delivers an accurate feel for the size of each instrument. Things like cellos, pianos, and kick drums sound big, while snare drums or violins sound smaller by comparison (naturally). You get some really fantastic imaging with the instruments on the stage, underscoring the audible performance.

While listening to some lounge-type jazz, I can close my eyes and imagine the vocalist a few feet from me, piano and drums slightly back behind, and then the trumpet further away and off to the side. The music feels real and alive, as if I wouldn’t be surprised to turn around and see the members right there in my sunroom, instruments and all.

I have no complaints regarding hi-hats or cymbals. They sound pleasingly crisp and defined. On occasion, these highs get a little loose when played in rapid succession. In these rare instances, the cymbals do sound closer to “ssssssss” than “ssshh”.

The highs integrate well with the mids and lows, giving the Solemate Max an open and lively feel. The speaker’s dynamics perform well, in that I can hear the reproduction of small details. There is a big range that captures both the loudest and softest sounds, so the gentle and silky strings aren’t drowned by the muscle coming from the lows.

Guitars and mid-range instruments have fantastic transparency, in that the texture of the instruments can be heard. The striking of strings is picked up and then followed by lush music throughout the mids. Complex male vocals come without sounding grainy, synthetic, or unbearable at higher volumes.

Jabra Solemate Max ports

Notice the ports and the slight angle up from the base

The bass delivers without being overly powerful, which makes the Solemate Max a favorite choice for watching movies with. The bursts of strength from the lows can almost feel surprising.

A great example is “Here Come the Bastards” by Primus, off the Sailing The Seas of Cheese album. I can hear the richness of bass guitar, yet the lows are pretty balanced with the mids and the highs.

The drums that come out of this speaker are tight, punchy, forward, yet not completely in your face. The lows are close to being pretty balanced with the highs and mids – maybe a touch more emphasis. Leftfield’s song “Afro Left”, from their album Leftism, and “B.O.B.” from Outkast’s album Stankonia, each feature some fantastic and catchy drums. The Solemate Max captures the details and nuances of each drum hit and decay.

Cranking up the volume brings a subtle rumble that can vibrate some surfaces. Even so, the Solemate Max showcases excellent control while still delivering palpable low-end energy that reaches for deep and boom. Listening to “Diesel Power” off of The Fat of the Land, you can hear The Prodigy’s hard-hitting beats that won’t turn thick or muddy.

Battery Output

The Jabra Solemate Max features a USB port with a standard output of 5V at 1A, which is good for most smartphones and gadgets. Forget about trying to recharge a tablet; larger devices/phablets might cull a trickle.

The USB charging is available only when the speaker is on, making it a bit difficult to determine the kind of standalone battery output one can get. Part of it is used up by Solemate Max, and whatever energy is distributed out is affected by the battery’s efficiency rating.

Jabra Solemate Max table

Ideal listening spot, where nothing color-coordinates

I checked with Jabra, who said that the internal battery capacity is 2200mAh. It sounds puny for such a speaker, and the energy amount is definitely on the small side for gadget-charging.

But I suppose it works in a pinch to keep the music device alive and flowing. But when it comes to completely untethered, Bluetooth wireless playback, don’t be fooled by the battery capacity.

The Solemate Max delivers marathon performance on that 2200mAh battery. With the total volume being between medium and maximum overall, this speaker has lasted me more than 24 (cumulative) hours before I’ve had to recharge it. I don’t know if the manual has a misprint for the expected uptime or what, because this is the norm for my Solemate Max.

The speaker will play longer with lower volumes, and even longer than that while using the cable instead of Bluetooth wireless. Jabra totally kills it in terms of battery life, sending much of the competition to the corner of shame. In essence, the Solemate Max can (most likely) party longer than you or me before fatigue and sleep dominate.

Voice & Bluetooth

Jabra’s powerful microphones in the Solemate Max pick up voices easily. During phone conversations, I’ve been told that my voice comes in clear and distinct, even when I’m about four feet away from the speaker. It’s sensitive enough to pick up background voices of others (kids) around me, but it keeps non-verbal noise at a minimum (TVs).

The Bluetooth signal remains solid up to around 30 feet, and then starts to break intermittently past that point. It can also push through a wall and a floor at this range, with nary a skip or spit. But within 20 feet, the Solemate Max hasn’t experienced more than a few Bluetooth-related pauses or hiccups for me. Such interruptions can occur frequently with quite a number of other Bluetooth audio devices.

Verdict

The Jabra Solemate Max is like 10-pound bag crammed with 16 pounds of awesome. The sound quality and volume that comes out of this speaker is absolutely incredible, especially for the size. This speaker is big enough to capture the attention of people around it, and ruggedly portable enough for it to tag along everywhere: beach, pool, patio, backyard, campground, garage, sekrit fort, etc.

If you want loud, you got it. The Jabra Solemate Max is powerful enough to flood rooms, carry throughout an entire 2-story home, or fill outdoor areas with pleasant music. Despite the decibels, the audio remains sharp, detailed, and as distortion-free as they come. Whether you’re watching a movie or listening to your favorite albums, the Solemate Max makes those performances feel tangible and right in front of you.

Some may not really prefer the slate-gray color design. I happen to like it, especially during a time when so many speakers still opt for black. Appearances aside, the main decision regarding the Jabra Solemate Max is likely going to be price. Some may think it shouldn’t be so expensive for the overall quality, or that it should deliver more for the cost.

I feel that once you’ve spent a day (unlikely you’ll need more to make up your mind) with the Solemate Max, the issue of price evaporates. It’s built well, has versatile connectivity and strong Bluetooth, charges gadgets, and lasts a solid 23+ hours for wireless playback. If you happen to catch it on sale, you’ll just be that much more thrilled at owning the Jabra Solemate Max. Worth. Every. Penny.

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