Review: Jawbone Era

Jawbone’s marquee Bluetooth telephone earpiece has been redesigned. It’s been greatly simplified, and the sound quality improved. And while the Jawbone is as ever unmistakably a Bluetooth earpiece — the mobile accessory that has come to signify self-importance and douchery of the highest order — it’s less geeky simply because it’s smaller.

The last Era, which came out in 2011, was built around some fancy sensor technology. It had a motion sensor — to awaken the device and pair it, you shook it in your hand. The outer shell was touch-sensitive, and you double-tapped the earpiece to answer a call.

All that is gone now. And really, good riddance. Those motion and touch controls may have been gasp-worthy three years ago, but we’re now awash in tiny sensors. I have six of them on me as I write this. In 2014, motion and touch interactions make a small device like a Bluetooth earpiece seem far more complicated than it needs to be. It’s a thing you use to talk on the phone (something most of us are doing less and less of these days) and maybe to ask Google a simple question. Whatever whiff of magic the touch and motion sensors gave it, they also got in the way of pure functionality and surely gave some users pause. Now, all you need to know is: You turn it on, it’s ready to pair automatically, you put it in your ear, and if you need anything, you press the button on the back. Simple.

And so tiny! 2011’s Era was about twice the size of this one. The new Era is almost exactly 1.5-inches long, and it sticks out less than an inch from the ear. Hippies, mods, and long-hairs will find it stays hidden beneath their curls. Individuals with dark beards or sideburns will be surprised at how easily it blends in to their facial ornamentation. The social awkwardness of these devices — “I really don’t want one of those dorky things sticking out of my ear” — has been mitigated. It’s still clearly a Bluetooth earpiece, but the dork factor has been significantly reduced. The smallness of the Era is a big step for wireless earpieces, distancing them from “taxi driver and UPS worker” territory and edging them closer to discreet, everyman devices. I fully expect the next iteration (or the one after that) to look like the round plugs the characters wear in the movie Her.

Taxi drivers and delivery guys aren’t the only ones who spend hours doing something that requires the hands-free use of a phone. So do commuters, warehouse managers, supermoms, and professional bike racers. This is a device many people need, so it’s nice to see that it’s been made as non-intrusive as possible.

In my testing, the audio quality was excellent. I wish the voice on the other end of the line was louder, but that may be an issue with the fit. Jawbone ships the Era with a selection of different soft rubber earpieces that gently clamp into the curve of your lobe. It stays put (even jogging and cycling can’t dislodge it), but the seal is not as tight as an in-ear headphone. It’s closer to an earbud, so I found myself cranking up the volume when I was walking on busier streets. In a car, or in most situations when I was strolling around my home or my neighborhood, the volume was fine.

Other people could clearly hear what I was saying — much better than my standard get-gadget earphone headset mic. Some sophisticated noise-cancellation technology is in play here. I can count three holes for microphones on the Era, and Jawbone has developed its own signal processing software (with the suitably badass name NoiseAssassin) that handles wind noise, street noise, and other auditory detritus.

There’s a single button on the back. Press it to pick up or end a call. When you’re not on the phone, give it one press and you’ll hear a robot voice tell you how many hours of talk time you have left (one charge earns about four hours). Long-press it on an iPhone and you’ll activate Siri. Communicating with her/it is just as error-prone as it is speaking directly into the iPhone’s mic, but I found the transition to wireless to be seamless.

I also used it beyond telephone calls. I fired up my radio tuner app and listened to NPR while I cleaned the kitchen. I listened to a podcast in bed. I listened to music while I rode my bike to work, and since the earpiece doesn’t form a tight, isolating seal, I felt totally safe doing so.

For most listening applications, I’m still going to remain an earphone guy. But on the bike, in the car, and those times when I’m walking around and talking on the phone, this little ear bug is a welcome companion.

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