Now and then a product comes along that doesn’t fit into an established category. The JBL Soundgear wearable audio device is one such product. The Soundgear isn’t a pair of headphones. It isn’t a Bluetooth speaker. It is a wearable music delivery system that creates an entirely new category. But I’m left to wonder, does it have a future?
The $199.95 horseshoe-shaped Soundgear device is made from rigid black plastic on the bottom and a fine, acoustical cloth on the top. The Soundgear wraps around your neck with the open side to the front and sits on your shoulders. It’s light enough to be comfortable while you wear it and, once turned on, creates an audio experience, unlike anything you have ever before encountered.
Inside the box, you will find the JBL Soundgear, a charging cable, and some paperwork. There no protective case included but I don’t see that as an issue.
While wearing the Soundgear, there is a small door on the left rear portion of the device that opens to reveal the micro USB charging port.
On the side of the front right part of the device, there is a small power button as well as a small Bluetooth pairing button.
On the left side, there is a play/pause button as well as volume up and volume down buttons. The buttons are small but easy enough to find and use while wearing the device.
It takes two hours to fill the Soundgear’s tank and, when fully charged, it delivers up to six hours of talk or music via Bluetooth.
Beneath the black acoustical cloth, there are four 31mm drivers tuned with JBL’s Signature Sound. They get plenty loud when you are wearing the Soundgear.
JBL describes the JBL Soundgear this way:
Life at home has a soundtrack: Introducing a totally new way of experiencing sound at home – by wearing it. Thanks to the JBL Signature Sound wireless performance, the Soundgear creates your own personal sound zone while allowing you to remain fully aware of your surroundings. Bluetooth®-enabled for sound streaming from compatible devices, the JBL Soundgear features Quad transducers with Bass boost for an exciting sound experience and 6 hours of playback time, a quick recharge time of 2 hours. Thanks to its dual mic conferencing system with echo-cancelling technology it provides crystal clear phone calls. The around-the-neck construction, ergonomic shape, intuitive controls, and soft touch fabric finish provide a hands-free and ears-free audio experience unlike any you’ve ever had before. Whether you want to give your VR experience a boost with immersive audio, watch a video, add music to your daily activities around the house or take a conference call, the JBL Soundgear provides you with an exciting, pervasive sound experience with total freedom and comfort.
JBL goes on to highlight some of the key features they packed into this unusual wearable.
- JBL Signature Sound: Enjoy an enriched and immersive audio experience that only JBL sound can provide, thanks also to the Quad transducers with Bass Boost.
- Dual mic conferencing: Hands-free, crystal clear voice calls make your conference calls easy and convenient, free from echo and noise.
- Hands-free and ears-free: Cut the cords and conveniently stream all your music wirelessly and hands-free, staying aware of your surroundings, without disturbing the others.
- Intuitive controls: Easily take control of your music or calls without taking off the Soundgear.
- Seamlessly switch between devices: Allows you to effortlessly switch from one device to the other. You can simply switch from a video on your tablet to a call on your mobile phone so that you’ll never miss a call.
- 6-hour battery life: Micro USB charging built-in battery provides 6 hours of playing time, with a quick recharge in just 2 hours.
- Comfort-fit design: An ergonomic shape that leans gently on your shoulders and soft-touch materials that fit all sizes combine to create an unbelievably comfortable audio experience.
Okay, so that’s what JBL has to say about the Soundgear. Here’s what I think about it.
The JBL Soundgear is… odd. As I noted at the beginning of this review, it is an item that does not fall into any existing category that I know of. Although you wear it, the Soundgear is not a pair of headphones. Although it plays music out loud, the Soundgear is not a speaker. And the first time you put it on and fire it up you can’t help but think to yourself, “What the hell?!” I mean, once the Soundgear is placed comfortably on your shoulders and turned on, it is as if there is a curtain of music rising from it and surrounding your head.
The sound is typical JBL … and that’s a good thing. And when you are looking forward the audio is nicely balanced. Interestingly, but not surprising, when you turn your head to one side or the other the sound goes a bit out of balance and is not quite as enjoyable.
There’s another “issue” with the JBL Soundgear. If you turn the volume to more than a whisper people around you will also hear the music. When I first tested them, Raina asked me, “What’s the point? It’s not like you are listening to something and not disturbing me. I can hear it too, although I suspect the sound I’m hearing is not nearly as good as what you are listening to. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” If you want to listen in private why not use headphones?
She has a point and raises the key question I have about the device: Who and what is it for?
JBL’s materials speak of the Soundgear as a great addition to your VR experience.
They suggest it is great for holding handsfree calls. And they also point to using the Soundgear while you are doing a variety of activities around the house. At the same time, you can use headphones for the former activity and speakers for the latter one.
So again I ask, what exactly is the intended purpose of the Soundgear?
I didn’t have a decent answer until yesterday. It was time to take my golden doodle Nava for a walk. I usually wear headphones when I do, but there are two issues with doing so. First, when wearing headphones, I am a bit too isolated from traffic and our walk takes us on some busy roads. Second, with headphones on, I’m not able to interact as much with Nava. I could simply not listen to music while I walk, but I find that a bit too boring. So I decided to try the Soundgear. It was fantastic. As we walked, I was able to listen to music AND interact with Nava. The music sounded great, and the increased safety of being able to hear oncoming traffic was a bonus. When we saw another dog coming toward us, I was able to pause the music and let Nava play. When they were done, I turned the music back on and continued my walk. During that walk I finally got it. The Soundgear won’t be for everyone, but if you want to listen to your music or take a call without having to be shut off from the world, the Soundgear may be for you.
- Dynamic frequency response range 100Hz – 20kHz (-6dB)
- Sensitivity 96dB
- Maximum SPL 111dB
- Microphone sensitivity @1kHz dB v/pa -42
- Impedance 32 ohm
- Weight 350g
- Driver size 4 x 31mm
- Charging time 2 hours
- Music play time with BT on 6 hours
- Talk time with BT on 6 hours
- Rated power 2 x 3W
- Battery type Polymer Li-ion battery (3.7V, 800mAh)
The JBL Soundgear isn’t for everyone. If you are deciding between a good pair of headphones and the Soundgear, I will encourage you to go for the headphones. (JBL has a fantastic range of headphones at a variety of price points.) If, however, you are looking to increase the variety of ways you enjoy your music, you will want to check out the $199.95 JBL Soundgear. Learn more here.
Source: Manufacturer supplied review sample
What I Like: Comfortable to wear; Good battery life; Excellent sound
What Needs Improvement: Not immediately clear what need they fill; When listening others will also hear your music; Music quality changes when you turn your head