The saying goes that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when it comes to car electronics that just isn’t the case. All the vehicles rolling off dealership lots for the past several years have optional Bluetooth connectivity, which is great for anyone in the market for a new ride but otherwise users are stuck with two options to make hands-free calls or stream music: buy a new head unit or take a risk on a cheap AUX plugin. JBL decided there’s a third option– the Smartbase Wireless.
JBL is a brand that needs no introduction, but for those who don’t know it is owned by Harman, which has been doing some interesting things with connected car technology as of late. Rooted in premium quality audio, JBL is no stranger to car electronics and has been pumping out serious speakers for the road for decades.
Their most recent adaptation to the market shift to driver-engagement devices like the Smartbase Wireless Bluetooth speaker for cars marks the first time that a major audio brand has taken a look at a standalone automotive hands-free space, with some solid results. The Smartbase Wireless won an Innovation Award at CES 2016, connecting drivers with quality call audio and music streaming with a few additional tricks up its sleeve.
What Can the Smartbase Wireless Do?
At its core, the Smartbase Wireless is a phone dock that connects via Bluetooth to Android or iOS phones with built-in speakers, to make hands free calls or stream audio. This is a far safer option for drivers than holding a phone, and offers better quality than using the speakerphone included on mobile devices.
Other “hands free” options still require drivers to click buttons to make or accept the initial call, which still creates a moment of unsafe distraction from the road. The Smartbase Wireless responds to user voice commands, similar to Smart Home devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home. In fact, the voice assistants Google Now and Apple Siri are both supported by the Smartbase, so this is expanding the connected car ecosystem.
While the latest iteration of Bluetooth 4.1 technology is great for audio quality, it isn’t so great for phone battery life, and generally drains the tank pretty quickly. When I’ve used Bluetooth to stream audio and make calls, I’ve found that often a 45-minute ride with this activity has cut my battery life by almost 30%, which puts a serious dent in the longevity for the rest of the day.
JBL’s answer to that was to include Qi wireless charging, with WPC (Wireless Power Consortium) compliance so drivers can stream music, chat on the phone, and not have to mess with wires while driving in order to keep a healthy battery level. Qi charging is available for most modern cell phones on the market, and helps to keep the clutter down from charger cables running all over the cab.
Keeping in the vein of driver safety, the Smartbase is compatible with third-party ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist System) apps, which basically keep drivers informed about safety hazards by utilizing their smartphone camera to analyze what is happening on the road ahead. Alerts like LDW (Lane Departure Warning), FCW (Front Collision Warning), and traffic signal identification are designed to keep drivers aware when they may fail to do so, and blend seamlessly with the Smartbase.
There are standalone hardware manufacturers that have devices which do this, like the CarVi which uses a hockey puck-like device to pair with your smartphone and process this kind of information, as well as a variety of other apps on the scene.
JBL’s dash device design is pretty sleek, with an all black construction comprised of plastic, and cloth covering the speaker/button interface. The left and right sides have a strip of numerous polygonal elements that make for a neat, modern look and help to break up the smooth surfaces.
While I definitely wouldn’t say the Smartbase is minute or unnoticeable at 5 ½” x 5” x 3 ½”, it does have a rather clean look when mounted on the dash using the super-sticky suction cup. Cell phones are held in place to the Qi charger using some of the same sticky material that is found on the suction cup (so your phone doesn’t fly across the vehicle during turns), on a fold-down panel that can sit up for viewing directions or phone information or lay flat.
Let’s Talk Sound Quality
Since the prime function of the Smartbase is audio and coming from a pedigree like JBL, it better sound good. Dual 27mm drivers are positioned on opposite front corners of the device, so the audio is distributed evenly throughout the vehicle.
Each channel has a 5W power rating, with >80 dB signal-to-noise ratio and a frequency response of 100Hz to 20KHz. JBL uses a fixed-frequency transmitter to minimize the impact of other electrical systems on the vehicle, and for what it’s worth I didn’t notice any negative side effects in my use (although I wouldn’t have expected any).
When streaming music to the Soundbase, the sound quality was pretty solid. The mids were a strong suit, with accuracy on the tones and a hearty richness to the range. Acoustic guitar and other mid-range notes were strong and vibrant. The treble came through clean and clear, albeit with a slight sharpness on the very upper end with certain “sh” vocal sounds in speech-heavy audio or some synthetic high hats. The bass was a touch muddy at the lower ends, but the rest of the bass range performed well.
The sound distribution of the unit was good, as the speakers positioned on the two corners of the unit provided an even and balanced overall sound. I would like to have seen a third channel directly in the middle of the two corner speakers though, to help drive sound to the rear of the cabin. Granted, the control buttons are currently occupying this space however it would help to enhance the overall experience.
Another minor modification I would make would be to the volume control. I tend to like my audio at a reasonable volume when listening to podcasts, but crank it up when playing music. With my phone at max volume and the Smartbase at max, there was still something slightly left to be desired on the intensity. I can imagine the limitation being lower to maintain sound quality throughout the sound spectrum, and it was by no means quiet, but I did notice room for improvement. After all, if this is being used as the main audio source in place of a radio it should be able to handle the windows down, music blasting joyride.
Bluetooth Calling Connection
If you’ve ever used any of the hundreds of cheap Bluetooth plugins for streaming audio you know that the background noise, static, echos, or mysterious crackling often makes it tough to even hear the caller let alone enjoy music.
One of the more prominent claims from JBL on the Smartbase is their Voice Logic Noise Cancellation, which is designed to help eliminate background noise when making calls and ensure proper audio quality.This is also able to ensure that strong wind and road noise are non-issues when using the Smartbase, so talking on the phone with the windows (or top) down doesn’t negatively impact the call quality.
This is a neat element that many Bluetooth car electronics claim to have, but many are just blowing smoke. If anyone ever has had an important call on the road and the connection is shotty or background noise makes it difficult to communicate, you know how frustrating that can be.
Connecting to the Smartbase
App connectivity to the Smartbase is run through JBL’s aptly-named Smartbase App, and right off the bat it is an attractive interface, but a pretty narrow user path. Upon opening the app, you are prompted to record a voice command, which helps to assign different user-defined voice commands to certain actions such as making, accepting, or declining calls.
By requiring three sound samples, the interface ensures there is more clear recognition of commands, so you don’t have to fiddle with the controls while driving.
Hands Free Car Electronics
For those without Bluetooth built into their automotive head units from the factory or aftermarket upgrades, JBL’s Smartbase Wireless is an interesting gadget with a clear upside over other Bluetooth car electronics it competes with. The sound performance for music streaming is legitimate, and call audio comes through quite clear and crisp, without all the residual noise that often accompanies lesser-quality devices.
The inclusion of a wireless Qi charging pad is awesome, so charging can be neat and orderly without wires running all over the place, while still being positioned in the best place for GPS navigation, music player engagement, or ADAS programs.
At $199.95 it definitely isn’t as cheap as other auxiliary-based solutions for hands free calling, however for those looking to add a little more modern tech to their ride it can make a world of difference for entertainment and safety.
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