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HolidayBuyer's Guide

JBL Pulse portable Bluetooth speaker review:

The mobile speaker with a built-in light show

Battery life is rated at 10 hours for audio only and 5 hours if you fire up the light show. There's no speakerphone capability, but you do get NFC, the tap-to-pair option for devices that support it, and JBL has a free iOS app, JBL Music. The app isn't required to use the product, but it gives you a little more control of playback and allows you to create the aforementioned custom light themes (alas, there's currently no Android app, so Android users can't create custom themes yet, but that really isn't a big deal because the preprogrammed light shows are fine).

In this price range you'll find the UE Boom and the Bose SoundLink Mini, both of which are very good portable speakers. I wouldn't say this JBL sounds better than those speakers, but it's in the ballpark. The bass doesn't quite measure up to the UE Boom's or the Bose SoundLink Mini's, but the Pulse's midrange sounds smooth and natural, which helps the speaker have an overall balanced, natural sound. Like a lot of these small speakers, it sounds really good with some tracks -- well-recorded acoustic tracks and less complicated tunes that don't have a lot of instruments playing at once bring out the best in the Pulse. Where it can get dicey is when when you throw it bass-heavy material; you just can't play it at higher volumes without it sounding crunchy. The same goes for rock music.

The speaker charges via USB and has an audio input for non-Bluetooth devices. Sarah Tew/CNET

I tended to keep the volume around the midway point and was pretty pleased. Even at more modest levels it does a decent job of filling a small room with sound. If you want to fill a larger room, you'll just have to play around with placement and ratchet up the volume to a point where it doesn't push the speaker too hard and make your music sound harsh. It's a delicate balance, especially if you're a critical listener (that said, if you are a critical listener, a lot of these compact Bluetooth speakers just aren't going to cut it for you).

Soundwise, the Pulse matches up pretty well against competing speakers in its price class. Though it doesn't go as deep as the UE Boom, it sounds somewhat more natural, and while it's slightly behind the Bose SoundLink Mini (the SoundLink holds together better at higher volumes), it's not a huge difference.

The X factor is the light show. It may be a gimmick, but it's a good one, and certainly adds another dimension to the listening experience. Not everyone will like it, but combined with the speaker's decent sound, it makes the Pulse a worthy contender in a crowded market.

All the controls are on the top of the speaker. Sarah Tew/CNET

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