Looking a bit like a mix between a crashed alien spaceship that you might find in Area 51 and a whiplash collar, the JBL Soundgear is an odd portable Bluetooth speaker. It definitely is unique in its design but yet it fills a really nice niche. Headphones are great when you are on the go or want to have some privacy when you are on the phone. And speakers are great at home but they are tied to a room or specific location. The JBL Soundgear merges these two features and even creates its own space. And, my wife loves the Soundgear, so much so, I haven’t been able to test it much. (*Disclosure below.)
When I first unboxed the JBL Soundgear I thought “wow, this is a strange speaker.” It is curved and designed to fit around your neck. I actually haven’t seen too many designs similar to this out in the market. But I was intrigued. What kind of an experience would it be? How is the sound? Would people around me hear what I am listening to? When would I use the Soundgear and how would I use it?
Interestingly, the JBL Soundgear sort of fits between a portable speaker and a pair of headphones. It’s both of these, but yet at the same time, neither of the two. It’s got its own “space” (emphasis on space here). In essence, it is a portable speaker that follows you in your personal space, providing directed audio to your person, but at the same time allowing you to still be a part of your surroundings. To explain this a bit more, when you wear headphones, you are completely isolated from all of the things going on around you – at least from a sound perspective. And, as I said previously, there are times and places where this is appropriate, particularly if you are in a public space like outside or in an office. However, in the privacy of your own home, I feel that the JBL Soundgear is perfect. You may want to listen to music or a podcast or even watch a movie, but you also want to keep an eye…er…ear on things happening around the home. And with the Soundgear, you can do just that.
The Tech Specs of the JBL Soundgear
Before I dive into the actual usage and impressions of the JBL Soundgear, let’s geek out a bit on the specs. JBL is a producer of some stellar speakers. As I mentioned in my previous review of the JBL Boombox, I have a bit of a history with JBL dating back to the 1980’s. Their sound quality and engineering have not diminished over the years. In fact, I feel it has become even more fine-tuned.
Also, there are actually two versions of the JBL Soundgear: the JBL Soundgear and the JBL Soundgear BTA. The only difference being that the BTA version includes a Bluetooth transmitter which you can connect to a tuner or TV and stream directly from a non-Bluetooth audio source. The BTA unit uses aptX Low Latency which reduces potential audio delays. AND, if you have two Soundgears, you can pair them both simultaneously to the BTA unit so you can share the sound.
Here are the important specs and features of the JBL Soundgear:
- 6-hour battery life
- 2-hour charge time via micro USB
- 800mAh polymer Li-ion battery
- Dynamic frequency response range of 100Hz – 20kHz
- 96dB sensitivity
- 32-ohm impedance
- Weight of 350g (0.77 lbs)
- Four 31mm drivers (two on each side) rated at 2 x 3W
- Dual Mics with echo-canceling technology
- Bluetooth v4.0
- Ability to pair multiple Bluetooth devices & switch between them
So what does all of that mean? Well, it translates to a device that you can pair via Bluetooth and use most of the day to listen to audio, have phone calls, play video games, etc. all while still keeping an ear on things around you.
Just a few quick notes about the BTA unit. You can connect analog stereo line-level signals as well as stereo digital signals. The digital signals must be in the PCM format. On TVs, you can use the line outputs or the headphone output. As mentioned, you can connect 1-2 Soundgears to the BTA unit (but not more than two). And, you can even use the BTA unit to connect other aptX (low-latency) speakers or headphones to the BTA unit. While connecting two Soundgears is great (and something I have NOT tested), there is a possibility that you may have a slight echo if you have the Soundgears close to each other due to a delay.
Here’s what you get in the box with the JBL Soundgear BTA:
- Soundgear headset
- BTA unit
- Micro USB charging cable
- 3.5mm audio cable
- Digital optical S/PDIF audio cable
- Manuals & warranty cards
Setting Up the JBL Soundgear
The controls are on the sides of the JBL Soundgear itself. On one side you have the power and Bluetooth buttons (as well as an indicator light).
On the other side are volume controls as well as a Play/Pause button which also functions as the Answer/Hang-up for phone calls. On that side, there is also the micro USB port to charge up the Soundgear.
On the BTA unit, there is a Power/Pairing button, an indicator light, a switch to toggle between AUX and S/PDIF audio, and ports for the 3.5mm cable, the S/PDIF cable, and a micro USB cable for power.
The Soundgear itself goes around the neck and rests on your shoulders. The Soundgear is slightly flexible to fit around most neck sizes but I found it doesn’t have that much flexibility. And, if you pull it open or wider too much, you could damage the Soundgear so be careful when you do flex it.
To turn it on, you simply slide the power button on the side of the Soundgear. When it powers on, you will hear tones indicating it is on. The first time the Soundgear is powered up, it automatically goes into Bluetooth pairing mode. At this point, you simply will select the Soundgear in your device’s Bluetooth panel.
The BTA unit will also automatically enter pairing mode once it is powered on. Remember, you can connect the BTA to a USB port on a device like a TV or audio component, or you can power it via a wall USB wall plug. Also, you don’t have to use the BTA unit. You can simply pair the Soundgear with a smartphone, tablet, computer, or device that has its own Bluetooth connectivity. If you do use the BTA, be sure you flip the switch to the appropriate audio cable connection you are using (AUX or digital/SPDIF).
The volume control buttons can also act as a means to control the music. Quick presses on the volume buttons will adjust the volume. If you press and hold the Volume Up/Down buttons for about 3 seconds, you can skip or rewind. For phone calls, you simply use the main power button: press once to answer, press and hold for 3 seconds to mute, and press once to hang up an active call.
If you want to pair another device to the Soundgear, once the Soundgear is powered on, simply press and hold the Bluetooth button for about 3 seconds and it will enter pairing mode. Then just select the Soundgear from your device’s Bluetooth connection settings.
The LED lights will indicate various states of the Soundgear. Here’s a quick chart that shows those lights.
And that is pretty much it in terms of setting the Soundgear (and BTA unit) up. It’s pretty straight-forward and easy to do. The buttons on the Soundgear are slightly raised so that you can easily find them with your fingers (since it’s pretty hard to actually look for the buttons). Once you understand the layout, you can do all of the functions via touch.
Using the JBL Soundgear
So this is the most important part of this review, using the Soundgear. As I said, I have only used the Soundgear a bit when I initially received it. But after that, my wife basically stole it and took it over completely. In my book, that is a sign of a good product because while I love tech, my wife can take it or leave it. In this case, she took it. Literally. (The around-the-neck photos are actually of my daughter.)
My initial impressions using the Soundgear are quite positive. I found the setup to be easy and once I started playing music from my iPhone, it was quite impressed with the quality of the highs and lows and how clear and crisp everything sounded. At regular volume, the sound was great, coupled with the fact that I could still have a conversation with my kids while using the Soundgear. At high volume, you still get great sound, and the ability to hear things around you. I didn’t notice any distortion, even at high volume.
I must say, it was a bit odd walking around with the Soundgear around my neck and hearing fantastic audio. The Soundgear itself is not heavy, and you barely notice it. But the great thing was, not having something plugged into my ears yet having the sound “follow” me around. It was strange at first, but after a while, I liked it! It was like having a virtual sound bubble that floated around my head but still “open” enough to hear other sounds outside of that bubble.
After my initial tests, the Soundgear disappeared, only to magically reappear around my wife’s neck or charging on her desk. So that is where my testing ended, for the most part. I can, however, comment on how someone “outside” of the sound bubble hears (or doesn’t) the audio coming from the Soundgear. My wife has used it in bed to watch movies on her iPad. And while she kept the volume at a level that she could comfortably hear, I must say, I could barely hear it if at all. Of course, dialogue is different than music, but for movie or TV show dialogue, I barely heard anything (and I was just a couple of feet away).
She also used it around the house. Again, spoken audio was barely noticeable (she likes to listen to podcasts) until she was practically next to me. (I do know that when I played music really loud, you can hear it outside of that sound bubble, so it isn’t completely private or quiet.) But it is definitely not like having speakers blasting. And, you can carry on a conversation with the Soundgear user without having to take off headphones or removing earbuds.
Since my wife has become the primary tester and user, I decided that getting her opinion in a series of questions. Here is her feedback:
Me: What do you like best about the Soundgear?
Wife: The ease-of-use and light-weight model that allows me to move around freely. The cumbersome in-your-ears earbuds can be a nuisance when moving about, not to mention the discomfort.
Me: How has it changed how you work?
Wife: I can pay attention to outside noise without blocking it out completely. There is some comfort knowing I can hear what is going on around me without missing a beat (haha).
Me: What makes it good for use around the home?
Wife: Because it wraps around the neck and is lightweight enough, you hardly notice you have it on.
Me: What don’t you like about it?
Wife: Color. Maybe more options would be nice.(My note: the Soundgear comes in black and grey.)
Me: Was it strange wearing it at first and why?
Wife: It was only strange when people stared at me because they can sort of hear noise coming out of the neck device.
Me: How is it better or worse than using speakers or a headset?
Wife: It’s way better than speakers, more intimate and personal without blasting. I can lower the volume enough to not bother people around me. It’s better than a headset because it doesn’t irritate the ear canal. After some time, earbuds can be bothersome and irritating.
Me: Any other comments, suggestions, or observations?
Wife: No, don’t change a thing. Just make sure there are color options. Perhaps add a teeny bit more cushion would be nice, but it’s not too heavy and can be worn throughout the day without bothering my neck issues. I thought it might be painful, but it wasn’t.
As mentioned, there are two models of the JBL Soundgear, and I feel they are reasonably priced. Remember, you are getting the high-quality sound of a JBL audio device coupled with an extremely functional design. Pricing is as follows:
- JBL Soundgear – $199.95 retail (available on Amazon for $199.95)
- JBL Soundgear BTA – $249.95 retail (available on Amazon for $249.95)
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So there you have it! A true testimonial to the innovative design and functionality of the JBL Soundgear by someone who is NOT addicted to tech (like I am) and who uses it regularly in day-to-day activities. Honestly, when I first learned about the Soundgear, I wasn’t convinced about its benefits. But after using it (briefly) and then seeing my wife use it daily for a variety of activities, I know that the Soundgear lives up to the JBL standard of design and innovation.
Disclosure: I have a material connection because I received a sample of a product for consideration in preparing to review the product and write this content. I was/am not expected to return this item after my review period. All opinions within this article are my own and are typically not subject to editorial review from any 3rd party. Also, some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate” or “advertising” links. These may be automatically created or placed by me manually. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item (sometimes but not necessarily the product or service being reviewed), I will receive a small affiliate or advertising commission. More information can be found on my About page.
HTD says: I have to hand it to JBL! The JBL Soundgear fills a niche between earbuds and portable speakers in a way that provides stellar audio but also allows the wearer to still be connected to and hear the world around them.
I have to hand it to JBL! The JBL Soundgear fills a niche between earbuds and portable speakers in a way that provides stellar audio but also allows the wearer to still be connected to and hear the world around them. In my brief time using the JBL Soundgear (until my wife completely took it over), I found the setup and usage to be extremely easy. It’s lightweight so you barely notice that you are wearing it. The sound quality is superb. And the fact that you can still hear and interact well with your surroundings is great. And, my wife completely has taken over the Soundgear and uses it daily (and she’s not a huge fan of tech) so that is a testament to the design and functionality. It’s easy to use and is reasonably priced, especially if you consider the prices of Bluetooth speakers and headsets or headphones. It does everything I expected it to. And with the BTA unit, you can connect the Soundgear to devices that normally don’t connect to Bluetooth. Nice job JBL!