Review: The Era by Jawbone raises the bar for consumer headsets

Jawbone is best known for its nattily designed consumer products. While its current favorites are probably its Up lifestyle wristband and series of Jambox Bluetooth speakers, it started with a line of relatively small consumer headsets. The company recently returned to its roots by coming out with a new headset somewhat confusingly called Era by Jawbone (as opposed to one of its previous headsets, which was called the Jawbone Era).

The Era is the smallest and most compact headset that Jawbone has developed to date. Yet in spite of that, it offers good quality sound, a variety of consumer-pleasing features and an innovative charging case that makes it simple to store the headset while adding an additional charge.

Era by Jawbone

The Era measures 1.83 x 0.83 x 0.51 in. and weighs a negligible 0.21 oz.; it comes in silver, red, black and bronze. It is small and sleek; the outer surface is featureless and so relatively unnoticeable (which I like). One end holds the USB power port and a single button that performs a variety of tasks, depending on how many times (and for how long) you press it, such as: pause and resume playing audio; accept, reject or end a call; find out how much time is left on the charge; etc. An on/off switch is on the inner surface, along with an LCD.

I was impressed by the way the Era fit; the new earbuds, which secure themselves by fitting into the curve of the ear, were comfortable and at the same time felt completely secure. I'm not sure how well it would stick if I were doing jumping jacks, but it felt as though I'd be quite safe during ordinary day-to-day activities.

One note: Some users who want to listen out of their left ear may be out of luck, at least for now: The Era comes with three earbuds: medium and large for the right ear, and medium for the left. (According to a Jawbone representative who commented in the support forum, more sizes should be coming down the road).

A variety of features, minus one

Unfortunately, it appears that, in order to accommodate the smaller size, at least one feature has been eliminated --the motion sensor in the previous Jawbone Era, which allowed the headset to automatically shut down when removed from the ear and then resume when replaced, is no longer included.

There are plenty of other features, though. As with previous Jawbone headsets, you can program the device (by signing on to the Jawbone website, downloading an app and connecting your headset to your computer via USB) to make announcements in a variety of different voices (most of them self-consciously comic).

You can also program the Era to work with Apple's Siri or Google Now (depending, of course, on which device you're using it with). Since I currently use a Moto X smartphone, I was able to use it with the device's Touchless Control fairly effectively.

I was also impressed with the smartphone app that Jawbone offers; I installed the Android version. It provides you with a quick guide to which presses do what on the control button (handy for new users); a quick way to switch which voice you want use for announcements (and in which language); and an alarm tone that you can use to locate the headset (a very useful feature for those of us with who tend not to put things away properly).

Great sound quality

One of the most important aspects of a headset, of course, is the sound quality. And this is where I was most impressed; for such a compact device, the audio was clear and quite audible, without the background hiss that I've occasionally found in competing products. I used it in a variety of environments, both indoors and out -- including in the lower level of New York's Pennsylvania Station, which is an exceptionally noisy environment -- and I never had problems either understanding my caller or being understood. In fact, one caller, when asked how the quality of the call was at her end, said that she had not realized I was using a headset at all.

The only difficulty I have with the headset, in fact, is its volume control -- in order to adjust the volume, you have to press its main button to cycle from low to high and back again, which I found singularly awkward.

Era by Jawbone

Finally, Era users can purchase a charging case along with the headset. The small rectangular hardcase measures about 2.25 x 0.75 x 0.70 in. It comes in black or silver and holds the Era snugly; it's builtl-in battery lets you add about another six hours of talk time (according to the company, the Era holds up to four hours on its own). It's a rather ingenious answer to the question of where to put the headset when you're not using it.

The Era costs $99 without the charging case and $130 with the case included.

Bottom line

Headsets have been around a lot longer than the newly fashionable "wearables" category of tech devices. However, the Era from Jawbone may qualify to fit into both categories. Its lightweight and comfortable design, ease of use, and ability to work with Siri and Google Now -- not to mention its impressive audio quality -- make it a lot more wearable on the long term than most consumer headsets have been up to now.

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