Jabra Solemate review (second-gen)

The Jabra Solemate is a portable Bluetooth speaker, back in its NFC-capable second-gen form. It might look more like a luminescent character from Pacman spliced with a Dr Martens sole but its design - which, as the name suggests, takes its cues from shoe soles - gives it a distinctive look.

Bluetooth speakers are saturating the market right now which makes that decision on which to buy all the tougher. Is Jabra onto something special and, daresay, sole-inspiring with its latest Solemate or does it command too much cash for it to be worthy?

What's new?

When we first took delivery of the Jabra Solemate we were perplexed as to what made it the "second-generation" model. Nothing on the packaging indicated so and, indeed, the model number remained the very same as the 2011 original Solemate.

The differences are slight, but all important: Solemate second-gen comes with NFC for touch-based connectivity; introduces a new Jabra Sound app with Dolby enhanced sound; is available in more colour options, not just black or white; and doesn't include a mains charger, instead opting for USB-based charging.

It's that last point that also helps to cut the price right down from the £150 of the original to £130 (RRP). You get more for less, so smiles all round. However, the original model can be picked up for almost half its original RRP online now, so unless a vibrant colour - choose from red, yellow, blue or the less-vibrant grey finishes - is an absolute essential the second-gen model has a lot of convincing to do.

Design

In terms of look and feel nothing about the latest Jabra differs from the older model. It's still got that quirky shoe-inspired sole, a rubberised base that has trainer-like treads. The point of this, just like actual shoes, is to amp up the grip so the product can sit on all manner of surfaces when out and about. If you're a festival-goer camping out, then a little mud and unlevel surface will be no bother for the Solemate. Or hook it up - literally - via the fabric loop positioned to the side.

On the underside there's an included shoelace-esque 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cable included that merrily sits within the design. This can plug into the port on the side of the product if you want a wired input, but Bluetooth via usual means was our preference. The microUSB port for charging the product lives just next to this 3.5mm jack, alongside the on/off/Bluetooth switch. 

Other controls feature on the product's top, with a trio of buttons set to adjust volume or accept calls should you wish. These are of a decent size, rubberised, and work independently from your smartphone or connected device to give a two-tier volume control method.

The Solemate is small and lightweight enough at 610g to carry around just about anywhere. It's not going to break anyone's back, but it's a little heavier than some of the competition out there due to dual tweeters and a woofer on the inside. This trio of output points is there to push the sound which, obviously, is the point of such a product.

Sound quality

Sole-inspiring? Too big for its boots? We're sure there are plenty more puns afoot. But rather than our poor comedy ramblings what you really want to hear about is just how good the Solemate's audio output is.

As ever with a small-scale Bluetooth speaker the answer to that will come down to your expectations. On the plus side the Solemate can bang out plenty of volume and without distortion. We've been using it to test all kinds of music and it's a definite boost compared to standard laptop speaker output - something that's come very much in handy during the process of moving house and having no proper system set up. 

The inclusion of a woofer in the build does mean there's some bass presence, but if you like music laced with the low-end frequencies then you're not going to get proper hi-fi or subwoofer output from the Solemate. It just isn't possible or audible at this scale, so that's the product's biggest limitation.

Even so the well-rounded sound quality will give those vocals and melodic guitar licks the boost they need considering the device's diminutive scale - and there's enough bass to catch wind of those kick drums and bass guitar hooks.

However, the sound is most prominent to one side because of the way the speakers face within the design. Not a massive problem, as such, but not the omni-directional sound innovation of products such as the Ultimate Ears UE Boom.

App enhancements

To get the most out of Solemate there's a free Jabra Sound app available for download. Anyone can download it, but you can only use it if you have an activation code which comes included in your Jabra product's box. So don't lose that.

The app really just collates useful features you could source from elsewhere in the one location. It will pool your on-device music, but you can also access YouTube for playback, or open a graphic equaliser to tweak the sound. It's that last part we like the most but, again, something like iTunes desktop already does this and for free.

Commentary quirks

One amusing - or downright annoying, depending on your point of view - quirk of the Solemate is its voice notifications. "Solemate is connected," rings out an American accent as the device pairs via Bluetooth. And we had no issues with Bluetooth or NFC connections via laptop or smartphone.

When the battery runs low you'll also be alerted by voice so you know to plug in and charge up. And when switching off a pitch-down bass sound makes that abundantly clear. All fun, but not always necessary and there's no way - that we could see anyway - to switch such voice alerts off.

If you want to listen to other peoples' voices, as in via hands-free, then this is also possible. But just like the original model it's the product's weak point and doesn't return a strong voice signal. We doubt you would use the Solemate for this much, but if you intended to then just forget about it.

No battery blues

Lastly there's battery life. We've had many hours of output from the Solemate - it can cater for a full day in the office from a single charge when not cranking out the volume, so generally we're really pleased with it.

But as this is the second-generation device we're perplexed why it still runs Bluetooth 3.0, not the latest 4.0 with its even better power efficiency. That would help both speaker and paired device to last all the longer and should really be featured here.

Verdict

We rather like the second-generation Jabra Solemate. It's small, portable, has ample battery life and in addition to its distinctive design can pump out clear and loud audio. Don't expect too much bass, though, as the small scale hinders how well it will perform with the low-end frequencies.

The Solemate's score largely hangs on its price point which, while it does undercut the original model's position, is still over the £100 mark. And we've failed to locate the blue or yellow models for the RRP - instead the asking price tends to be more. As such we would forego a yellow colour finish and NFC in and nab the original model which is now available for around £79, a price point that would also see us award a higher score. The fact there's so much choice in the portable Bluetooth speaker market now - something like the Divoom OnBeat 500 delivers more bass for less cash - is a bit of a sticking point for the Jabra.

But it's not up to us to tell you how to spend your money and if you're after a portable Bluetooth speaker with ample audio output and a distinctive design then the Solemate certainly delivers. However it does feel like an echo of the original product in almost every area, hence its score also echoing the review of the original model from back in 2011.



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