audio: finding a Jambox replacement

I listen to music throughout the day on a Jawbone Big Jambox. This was one of the original “Bluetooth speakers” and the company is named Jawbone because it made Bluetooth wireless earpieces back when people debated whether using one made you look like a dork. I hate most Bluetooth audio setups because the music regularly drops out and pauses for less than a second. So I plugged my phone in over a 3.5mm cable. When I signed up for Google Play Music All Access at the early adopter $8/month rate, suddenly I could listen to nearly any piece of music made any time through a decent-sounding box! I can reposition the Big Jambox to project sound into the kitchen or into my office area, it can almost fill the house with music, and I can pick it up and move it into the garden. It’s less than 4 inches tall so the bass is limited, but I can adjust the bass response by how close I put it to nearby surfaces (just say NO to tone controls). I listen to it far more than my zillion dollar stereo.

I later bought the crazy cheap $35 Google Chromecast Audio puck so that I could direct GPMAA to play music on the box without having to leave my phone plugged in.

Big Jambox from the side with a Chromecast Audio puck

Years later the Big Jambox’s battery is dead, there are no software updates for it, and Jawbone the company is struggling to survive. It still plays music over the 3.5mm cable fine while plugged in, but I want something better-sounding. This sort of powered speaker is still called a Bluetooth speaker even though I almost never use Bluetooth. What I want is:

  1. Fantastic sound.
  2. Optical input. The Chromecast Audio puck can output a digital audio signal over an optical cable, and then the speaker can process it digitally. This should boost the audio quality.
  3. A USB socket, for three things:
    1. 5V power to power the Chromecast Audio puck so I have one less wall wart. I think any USB port can supply at least one power unit, 100 mA, at 5 Volts, and I think that’s all the Chromecast Audio puck uses.
    2. USB digital audio input in case I want to play music from my laptop.
    3. USB drive support in case I have a USB flash drive with some music on it (like Electronic Dance Music DJs getting $50,000 a night).
  4. 3.5mm input for ad hoc connections to friends’ phones.

I don’t care about battery power, because in practice I never took the Big Jambox far from an AC socket. I don’t care about Wi-Fi and Ethernet because the Chromecast Audio puck handles that for me, and likewise I don’t care about a remote control or app for the speaker because I’m controlling it from my phone.

There is a fantastic speaker that does all this, the KEF LS50W. It’s $2000 but it sounds worth every penny. The only problem is… it’s a pair of speakers. Great for listening in the office, but maybe not so good to listen way off axis in the kitchen, or in the rest of the house. And difficult to cart into the garden.

my office area with standing desk surface

Two speakers would work in the office…

… but not so well moving them to fire into the kitchen and beyond

Turning to big maybe Bluetooth single speakers (all with optical input and a 3.5mm analog input unless otherwise noted),

  • Bluesound Pulse 2: unclear if its USB port can power the Chromecast Audio puck. No Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
  • Definitive Technology W9: USB only for power, not playback. No Bluetooth which is odd. Instead it’s designed for Play-Fi over WiFi or wired Ethernet, but I’m using Chromecast. (Wow, a bunch of high-end audio makers are now making various Play-Fi devices, which don’t show up when you search for Bluetooth speakers.)
  • Devialet Phantom (and Silver, and Gold): no USB port, has Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet.
  • JBL Authentics 16 “retro wireless USB speaker”, very wide
  • Marshall Woburn: no USB port.
  • Martin-Logan Crescendo X: USB port supplies power, unclear if it supports audio in over USB, but it has wired Ethernet and Play-Fi
  • Master & Dynamic  MA770: has Chromecast built in! made of concrete, very heavy
  • Naim Mu-so Qb: the USB port supports external USB drive, unclear if it supports audio in over USB and whether the USB port is powered. I bought one of these for a friend and it sounds excellent, better in most respects than the Big Jambox.
  • Peachtree Audio Deepblue 2: USB only for service updates (no music files or audio in), and unclear if the USB port is powered. No Wi-Fi or Ethernet. This model was The Wirecutter’s favorite Bluetooth speaker. I was close to buying it, but it seems discontinued. You can’t buy it new on Amazon or from the manufacturer!
  • Polk Woodbourne: no USB
  • Riva Festival: this implements the Chromecast protocol, so you don’t need a separate Chromecast Audio Puck (… until the speaker stops getting software updates like my Big Jambox). This model is The Wirecutter’s favorite Chromecast speaker.
  • Sonus Faber SF16: no USB but Ethernet. And $10,000!

Other: AIWA Exos-9, Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless, Klipsch Heritage Wireless Three, Paradigm Shift PW-800, Sonos Play 5, Wren V5: all lack the optical input. (Stupidly, the B&W Zeppelin gets high ratings for sound quality, and the previous Zeppelin Air model did support optical in via its combo audio/optical 3.5mm Aux in, but B&W dropped this on the current Zeppelin Wireless.) There are various expensive portable speakers at Cnet

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