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Hands on with the Jawbone ICON

I recently tested out the new Jawbone ICON Bluetooth earpiece. It's a small hands-free earbud device that you wear in your ear, and talk while on-the-go. At a cost of US$99, the unit provides support for both calls and A2DP-based audio. You can listen to your music and podcasts via the earpiece as well as talking with others.

I found the packaging extraordinarily hard to grapple with. There are an insane number of tiny plastic pieces in the box, which has been designed to be eco-friendly rather than to provide a Jonathan Ive-like unboxing experience. All those pieces, however, easily fit into the rigid plastic portion of the package. Once you manage to get the thing open, it's pretty easy to keep track of all the parts.
Before you do anything else, you'll want to charge the unit overnight. It comes with a small USB adapter that recharges the built-in battery. Then, before you do anything further, you'll need to call into Jawbone tech support and have them walk you through the initial set-up procedure. You'll need a computer with a free USB slot (a hub really won't work), an administrator password, and about 30 minutes to an hour of time to devote to the set-up.

Until you do the set-up, your unit will not work with A2DP (advanced audio distribution profile), the technology that allows your iPhone to connect its normal (non-phone) audio stream to the earpiece. When you play music, it will play on the iPhone speakers. Once installed, that music redirects to your jawbone.

The installation process provides both the A2DP set-up and your choice of native voice. Jawbone offers 6 custom voices in English plus a few from other languages. I ended up going with the "Hero" voice, a rugged he-man, and one of the 3 male English-language choices. There are 3 female voices, described as "Sexy", "Flirty", and "Foxy". Ah, well.

I very much appreciate that the ICON uses a hardware switch rather than a button to be powered on and off. It's hard to change that state by accident with casual brushes, unlike the way that some other earpieces work. The cheap BT earpiece that I bought at Tuesday Morning is like that -- and when placed in a pocket can easily power on and lose power over time without me noticing.

The audio quality was fine. It's mono, of course -- listening with only one ear, no stereo is possible. I tested it with both phone calls and music and found it easy to listen to. I did not find the experience particularly "tinny", apparently a complaint among some users. Its default playback volume did not blast out my ears -- another plus, but also a negative at the same time.

I took the unit out to the street. Despite the ICON's noise elimination technology for improving your listening experience, it was easily defeated by common busy street noise. Audio books were incomprehensible. Music fared better, but only just a bit. That's part of the design to keep your ears in good shape by not blasting them with high volume. But unless you're jogging on quiet roads and paths, the ICON may not suit your running and walking audio listening needs. Instead, you may want to limit its use to hands-free calls in the car, or calls and music in the office.

For phone calls, incoming audio was excellent. Outgoing audio proved more problematic. When placing outgoing calls, the receiving parties complained of slight voice distortion at their end. To compare, I also placed calls to the same parties using the iPhone directly, without going through the ICON. The distortion did not happen on direct handset use.

The strengths of the ICON lie in its quality design, easy recharging, and A2DP support. Negatives include outgoing voice distortion, the extended set-up process to use A2DP, and the many easy-to-misplace tiny pieces that accompany the unit. All in all, I can recommend the product to anyone looking for a streamlined easy-to-use A2DP earpiece. Just make sure to use some kind of case when the ICON is not in use, so you won't lose track of it. It's really small and easy to misplace.

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