The Jabra Solemate Max looks great and has fantastic features, but has a maxed out price tag for very little musical soul.
Excellent battery life
Helpful connectivity features
Sound quality is just OK
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We loved the original Jabra Solemate; it was small but it punched way above its weight.
You can pick one up for £90 in the UK, $125 in the US, and it's a feisty, pugnacious little portable Bluetooth speaker.
Sure, we wouldn't recommend it as a primary speaker for anyone who cares that much about music, but every time we switch it on (in the kitchen, the bathroom or the park) we are genuinely surprised by how good it sounds. The Solemate Max, then, has big shoes to fill.
And that, though you might not have realised it at the time, was a subtle pun. Both given that the whole styling of the range is inspired by shoes (with the rubber tread on the base giving it its name) and that the Max looks a lot like someone just hit the original Solemate with an enlargement ray.
The Solemate Max is well-specced. The sound comes from two tweeters, two woofers and a bass driver, and its internal rechargeable battery is rated at lasting 14 hours; if anything, our testing suggested that might be conservative.
As well as powering the speaker it has a full-sized downstream USB port into which you can plug your phone or other USB device to charge. It reports its internal battery charge level to connected devices too, and communicates this and other statuses to you with a built-in male or female voice.
If you think the smug, oleaginous tone saying "Go ahead and connect me! Use the Bluetooth setting on your phone!" is cool, then we won't judge you. However, others might be relieved to know the voice prompts can easily be turned off.
You can connect devices to it wirelessly using Bluetooth 3.0, optionally using NFC for the pairing process if your phone or tablet supports it.
There's also a 3.5mm jack so you can connect pretty much any audio device on the planet. What's more, there's a 3.5mm cable handily concealed in the base.
If you connect over Bluetooth, though, support for AVRCP means you can control volume, play/pause and previous/next using the membrane control on the top of the Solemate Max.
Paired with your phone, you can also use it as a hands-free speaker system, although the image of a suited-up businessman sitting at a desk soberly holding a conference call using this rugged, urban speaker strikes me as a little comical.
There's a nice, rubbery handle on the end too, with which you could carry the Solemate Max to the beach with your friends or perhaps heft it so you can hurl it at Jenkins because he screwed up the Peterson account again.
(The latter is not recommended, not least because it weighs 3.7kg and even Jenkins doesn't deserve to be hit in the mush with that.)
Of course some aspects of judging a product's design are subjective; you might just not like how the Solemate Max looks. As it happens though, we do. The chunky, ballsy styling isn't overwrought, and it's just enough to give it some character without being ridiculous.
It's put together well, and with smart thinking too. For example, the lip around the top, which gives you somewhere to keep your phone or iPod. (It might have been nice to have a Qi-based wireless charging pad on this top surface, but maybe that would have added too much to cost or complexity.)
What's more, the very slightly angled base not only gives it some nice attitude, but it also makes sense to angle the speakers up towards your ears since most of the time they'll be below you.
The rugged design isn't just for show, either. Although you won't get away with dunking it in the sea, it's resistant to splashes, dust and knocks.
Here's where it gets tricky, because I'm about to say some not very nice things about the Solemate Max's sound quality, but I need to make sure you know up front that it's not actually bad.
Indeed, some people positively love how it sounds; we just suspect they either have too much money to be critical, or simply haven't heard many speakers.
We have two big problems with how the Solemate Max sounds; the first is a little unfair, but I'm going to tell you it anyway. The thing that endeared the original Jabra Solemate to us is that every time we switched it on it surprised us with how good the sound emanating from this tiny, comparatively cheap little box was. Yet every time we switched on the Max, we kept expecting better than we got.
It's big and heavy, has five separate drivers, and just flat-out looks like it should sound amazing. In truth, though, it sounds mediocre. Better than the original Solemate, to be sure, but while there's bass there, it lacks visceral punch. While there's detail in the high end, there's not much warmth or, ironically, soul to the mid-range.
Music has little presence; it feels like it's trapped inside the box rather than flooding the room. It struggles most with complex, multi-layered music; simple stuff with a beat, very well-produced acoustic sets with very few instruments, or clean electro-pop all sound fine.
Give it an orchestra, however, or some messy trance or even The Beach Boys and there's a tendency to smoosh everything together.
All this would be understandable in a speaker that cost less than a hundred quid, but the Solemate Max's recommended retail price is $350/£330, and that's our other big beef with the sound quality.
For that kind of money we want a set of speakers that'll put a big, stupid grin on your face every time you listen to them. The Solemate Max doesn't.
It is competent-shading-to-good depending on what music you put through it, but its performance ain't worth even the £260 you can pick it up for online.
Knock a hundred quid off that and we might be talking, but at the moment it's not giving enough bang for your buck.
A quick note about volume: it cranks plenty loud enough to fill a room, and happily goes even further to keep the party going outside, and it only starts breaking up once you really push it.
Annoyingly, though, its lowest volume level is still reasonably loud. Depending on your source, the track and the size of the room you're in, you may find you it wont be quiet enough. It then jumps down from its still-quite-loud lowest volume setting to mute.
The problem for Jabra is that it set the bar so high with the original Solemate. Here was a small Bluetooth speaker with great battery life and sound. While not brilliant in the abstract, it delighted you every time you heard it because it seemed impossible it could come out of such a cute little box.
What's more, the original Solemate felt like good value for money, even when it cost a lot more.
Sure, we thought, whack another ton on the price if that means we get a speaker that honours the Solemate's heritage of delighting us. We didn't get that.
The Solemate Max is a decent speaker; it's well-designed, well-specced on paper, and nicely styled. It only sounds OK, though, and for £260 you need to be better than OK. Keep looking; this is not the speaker for you. It's not your soulmate.