Aliph’s $129 Jawbone Era is the newest entry in the company’s expanding line of Bluetooth headsets, joining the Icon series and the Prime. The Era is available in four styles: Shadowbox (black metal), Smokescreen (brown copper), Midnight (black over a red background), and Silver Lining (silver over a white background); I tested the Silver Lining version.
The Era is small, but a bit taller than the Icon, measuring 2 inches long, 0.6 inches wide, and just under an inch thick. Like the Icon, the Era sports a single multi-function button for answering, ending, and switching between calls. Pressing and holding the button initiates voice dialing by default, but can instead trigger MyTalk apps—more on those later. Pressing and holding the button during a call or other audio playback will slowly cycle the volume up and down; you release the button when you’re happy with the volume. (You can also adjust the volume directly from your phone.) The only other visible hardware control is an On/Off slider switch.
If that was all the Era offered, it wouldn’t be much different from the Icon. But the Era actually provides an additional control mechanism courtesy a built-in accelerometer. Using a gesture that Jawbone dubs “TapTap”—a double-tap anywhere on the device’s exterior—mirrors the basic functionality of the hardware button: you can answer, end, and switch between calls with a quick tap-tap. You can also achieve the same results by shaking the headset—assuming the Era isn’t yet in your ear, of course. Two quick shakes—a gesture Jawbone has christened “ShakeShake”—followed, one presumes, by a quick insertion of the Era into your ear is equivalent to a TapTap or a button press.
You can also use the accelerometer to enter Bluetooth-pairing mode by performing a quadruple shake—a.k.a., a double-ShakeShake. (The first time you turn on the Era, it automatically enters pairing mode—no shaking necessary. My iPhone paired with the Era easily.) Other actions, however—such as activating the useful spoken summary of your battery’s remaining talk time, or redialing the most-recently called number—can be activated only with a button press, rather than a shake, tap, or any other kind of jiggle.
While the accelerometer-based controls might seem gimmicky, I took to them rather quickly, even though I never found the Icon’s button difficult to access or press. In fact, the Era’s tapping gesture offers two benefits that I hadn’t anticipated. First, as someone with longer hair, I find that tapping is actually faster than moving my hair out of the way to find the Era’s physical button. Second, by using a gentle tap instead of a button press, I don’t risk jostling the Era out of my ear. That’s not a major issue with the Icon or other earpieces, but it’s nice to be able to avoid the risk completely. (Of course, tapping too hard on a device that’s inserted in your ear can sound awfully loud; thankfully, gentle taps work just as well.)
My only two complaints about the Era’s control system mirror my complaints about the Icon’s controls. First, the power switch is difficult to access when the device is already in your ear, so I’m forced to remove the Era in order to turn it off and on. Second, I find that my iPhone needs an extra two seconds to enter Voice Control mode when triggered from the Era (although this may be an issue that’s out of the company’s control).
Like the Prime and the Icon, the Era comes packaged with an assortment of eartips and an earloop. After mixing and matching, I eventually found a snug, comfortable fit, and the plastic earloop is useful for added security. A bonus for large-eared people: There’s a new eartip included that’s larger than the biggest one included with the Icon.
Aliph claims battery life of 5.5 hours of talk time or up to 10 days of standby time—I haven’t yet had the Era for 10 days, but the 5.5-hour estimate matches with my early testing. You’ll need 30 minutes to charge the Era 80% of the way, and another 30 minutes to top it off. These numbers are all improvements over the Icon’s performance. (The Era charges via a micro-USB port; you can use the included AC charger or any powered USB port. Also included is a very short USB-to-micro-USB cable.)
Despite its innovative use of an accelerometer, the Era’s single biggest improvement over the Icon is its immediately noticeable superior audio quality. The Era employs a true wideband speaker that’s 25 percent larger than the Icon’s without changing the ergonomics of the earpiece, and the headset uses Jawbone’s NoiseAssassin technology for both inbound and outbound audio to automatically adjust volume and equalizer settings, catering them to your current audio environment.
The result is that, in my testing, calls, music, and YouTube audio all sounded impressively clear with the Era. Folks on the other end of phone calls reported that I sounded good, too. In fact, multiple callers indicated that I sounded better with the Era than I did when I switched to the iPhone’s built-in microphone. My chief complaint about the Icon was its mediocre audio quality, and, much to my delight, the Era corrects its predecessor’s flaw beautifully.
Like the Icon, the Era can connect with Jawbone’s MyTalk service, which lets you add Audio Apps and DialApps. (AudioApps customize the spoken voice that announces battery-status updates and the like; DialApps replace the “hold down the main button” voice-dialing functionality with 411 services, transcribed texts and status updates, and more). New for the Era is a Caller ID app that speaks the full names of your callers, instead of just their phone numbers. The app uses high-quality recordings of your contacts’ names whenever possible for better audio, though the app wasn’t yet available for testing at the time of this review.
I also successfully paired the Era with my MacBook Pro and my iPad; in those scenarios, the earpiece essentially works like a one-ear Bluetooth headphone. I listened to iTunes, Skype, and other audio without difficulty. I was unable, however, to take advantage of the Era’s microphone with either my Mac or my iPad.
Macworld’s buying advice
With the Era, Aliph/Jawbone seems to have focused on several important areas: audio quality, hardware design, and ease of use. The Era excels at all three, and dramatically improves upon its predecessor’s primary weakness. You can still buy that model, the Icon, for $30 less than the Era, but I wouldn’t. The Era’s innovative tap gestures, stylish looks, and terrific audio quality make it a pleasure to recommend.