In this work, a hybrid nonlinear magnetorheological elastomer (MRE) vibration absorber has been designed, theoretically investigated and experimentally verified. The proposed nonlinear MRE absorber has the dual advantages of a nonlinear force–displacement relationship and variable stiffness technology; the purpose for coupling these two technologies is to achieve a large broadband vibration absorber with controllable capability. To achieve a nonlinear stiffness in the device, two pairs of magnets move at a rotary angle against each other, and the theoretical nonlinear force–displacement relationship has been theoretically calculated. For the experimental investigation, the effects of base excitation, variable currents applied to the device (i.e. variable stiffness of the MRE) and semi-active control have been conducted to determine the enhanced broadband performance of the designed device. It was observed the device was able to change resonance frequency with the applied current; moreover, the hybrid nonlinear MRE absorber displayed a softening-type nonlinear response with clear discontinuous bifurcations observed. Furthermore, the performance of the device under a semi-active control algorithm displayed the optimal performance in attenuating the vibration from a primary system to the absorber over a large frequency bandwidth from 4 to 12 Hz. By coupling nonlinear stiffness attributes with variable stiffness MRE technology, the performance of a vibration absorber is substantially improved.