JBL Charge 2+ review: A sweet-sounding Bluetooth speaker that can juice up your phone, too
For 2015, JBL has been doing something interesting with its portable Bluetooth wireless speakers. Instead of completely redoing its line, it's upgraded certain models with a water-resistant design and simply added a plus sign to their product names. Such is the case for the Charge 2+, which -- except for the color of the logo -- looks identical to last year's Charge 2 and carries the same list price of $150 (UK £150). However, it weights slightly more at 600 grams to the Charge 2's 540 grams, which means something has changed.
Like its Charge predecessors, you can lay this cylindrical speaker down horizontally or stand it up vertically. It charges via Micro-USB and has a built-in 6,000mAh battery for a healthy 12 hours of playback. It also retains its eponymous feature: the ability to juice up USB-powered portable devices (smartphones, music players, even tablets). Of course, if you use it as a backup battery, expect the music playback time to dip accordingly.
There's a built-in speakerphone -- it works OK (though not great) so long as you stay within about 5 to 10 feet of the microphone -- and a "social sharing mode" that allows multiple users to connect to the speaker with their devices and alternate playing tracks. (Sol Republic's Deck speaker offers this feature as well.)
Unlike the original Charge, this model doesn't come with a carrying case. It seem like a pretty durable speaker, but some people may want to find a pouch for some added protection when traveling with it.
I had no problem pairing both an iPhone 6 and a Samsung Galaxy S5 with the speaker and re-pairing was automatic when I turned the speaker back on (there's a dedicated Bluetooth button on the speaker to enable pairing if you get disconnected). Range is the usual 33 feet (10m), and I managed to hold a steady connection with minimal dropouts so long as I stayed within that range.
My only one gripe with the speaker is that its ports aren't sealed off, which means that if you drop it in a pool or really get it soaked, it will probably be a problem. And I don't think I'd fully trust using it in the shower. (JBL says that splashproof means, "No more to worrying about rain or spill, you can even clean it with running tap water. Just don't submerge it.")
The speaker is powered by two 7.5-watt drivers, which gives you a total of 15 watts. That's pretty decent for a speaker this size. The Charge 2+ plays surprisingly loud, and -- unlike the original Charge 2 I reviewed -- it's tuned better and delivers cleaner sound with tighter bass. That's because about three months after the initial release of the Charge 2, JBL upgraded the speaker's firmware without bothering to tell anyone about it.
As far as I can tell, the new Charge 2+ sounds the same as the firmware-updated Charge 2, and it's arguably among the best-sounding Bluetooth speakers in this size and price class.
When you're playing music through it, you can literally see the bass ports on each side of the speaker moving as air passes through them. For a such small speaker, it's able to output an impressive amount of bass. However, like all of these small speakers, you can only push it so hard, and when maxing out the volume and playing more complicated tracks with lots of instruments, things can get rough around the edges.
The internal DSP (digital signal processor) works to limit or clip certain frequencies ("compress" is another way to describe it) to keep the speaker from distorting too badly, and you can literally hear the bass pulling back at times.
All these speakers have similar sound profiles, and their sound is subtly different. You can end up judging them differently from track to track; they all distort to some degree.
That said, the JBL is right there with its competitors, and I actually thought it sounded a touch better than the Sony SRS X-33 and maybe even the Bose SoundLink Mini II, which features a metal enclosure. The JBL has a little stronger, tighter bass and slightly smoother sound overall. Of the three, it's probably the most natural sounding.
If you're choosing between this speaker and the UE Boom, I'd say the UE holds the advantage with a little bit better build quality and battery life, but it's a close race in terms of sound. If you're looking to save money, this JBL is a good alternative.
Perhaps we'll get full waterproofing in the Charge 3. While this isn't much of an upgrade over the Charge 2, now that JBL's resolved the sound issues that held back the standard Charge 2 at launch, this is an excellent portable mini Bluetooth speaker.
Over time, it should come down in price by $20 or $30. Until then, the standard Charge 2, which is being discounted as it heads towards retirement, is arguably the better deal. Just make sure to do that firmware upgrade to improve the sound.