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JBL Charge portable Bluetooth speaker review: Jolt of sound with a dash of power

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Following up on its well-received $99 Flip and $59 Micro Wireless, JBL has expanded its portable Bluetooth speaker line with the $149 Charge. The newer model is bigger than the Flip but is still relatively compact and represents a nice compromise for those who want a little better-sounding portable speaker but don't want to make the jump -- both in terms of size and price -- to something like the Jawbone Big Jambox or Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II.

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8.0

JBL Charge portable Bluetooth speaker

The Good

The <b>JBL Charge</b> is a compact portable Bluetooth speaker that sounds very good for its size and is designed to be used horizontally or vertically. It also has a built-in USB port that allows you to use the speaker's built-in 6,000mAh lithium ion battery to charge other portable devices. And it ships with a neoprene carrying case.

The Bad

No speaker-phone capabilities; can't handle heavy bass at higher volumes without distorting.

The Bottom Line

The JBL Charge is a nice compromise for those who want a better-sounding portable wireless speaker but don't want to make the jump -- both in terms of size and price -- to something like the Jawbone Big Jambox or Bose SoundLink.

First and foremost, this is a wireless speaker, but it's called the Charge for a reason: it has a USB port that allows you to use the speaker's built-in 6,000mAh lithium ion battery to charge other portable devices, such as a smartphone or tablet.

While all these compact speakers have their sound limitations, the Charge is one of the better-sounding speakers for its size and price point, besting the Jawbone Jambox, Beats Pill, and $99 models such as the Flip and Logitech UE Mobile Boombox.

Of course, the advantage to those models is that they're smaller and even more portable. They also offer speakerphone capabilities, which this unit lacks. But the Charge's slightly better overall performance should tempt a lot of folks to spend the extra $50 or so.

The Charge weighs a hair over a pound. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
Like the Flip, the cylindrical speaker can be placed horizontally or vertically, though one side is vented, so you need to make sure you stand it up correctly without covering the port. The speaker is 2 inches (50mm) wide by 6 inches (150mm) long, and when I held it in my hand I had a slight urge to toss around like a mini football. Luckily, at just a hair over a pound, it does weigh more than a mini football and feels pretty solid in one's hand.

The Charge, which comes in multiple color options, is technically a stereo speaker with two 1-5/8-inch (40mm) full-range drivers and a 2x5-watt amplifier. That aforementioned built-in 6,000mAh lithium ion rechargeable battery provides about 12 hours of playback from a single charge, which is about double the battery life the Flip offers (of course, battery life will vary according how high you set the volume).

As noted, on side of the speaker (the non-ported side) you'll find a USB port. You can connect any USB charging cable to it and use the speaker as an external battery pack for charging. The speaker also has an auxiliary input for connecting non Bluetooth-enabled audio devices with an optional cable.

There's a built-in USB port for charging other devices. Sarah Tew/CNET

There's no mention of apt-X support (it's a technology that can improve the sound quality of Bluetooth), but that technology isn't going to make a noticeable difference in a speaker this size. NFC for so-called automatic pairing is missing, but that, too, is a minor omission.

I did appreciate that the Charge comes with a protective neoprene carrying case; it's nothing fancy, but it's nice. In contrast, the AC adapter that ships with the product is pretty generic looking. But at least this unit charges with a standard Micro-USB cable. That means any standard tablet charger (two amps or better -- like the one that comes with the iPad) should juice up the Charge itself; don't expect to charge it with a cell phone adapter.

Alas, as I mentioned in the intro, the Charge has no speakerphone capabilities. Some people won't care, but some might.

The back of the speaker. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
A lot of people are really impressed by how much sound comes out of these small speakers, and I think they will be impressed by how big and loud the Charge can play. The main thing I'm looking for in these speakers is that offer decent clarity and some punch to their bass. The Charge exhibited those qualities, but as I say with all these speakers, you can't expect incredibly rich, open sound, with room-rattling bass. Also, because the drivers are so close together, if you stand more than a few feet away from them, you get very little in the way of stereo separation, so you're essentially listening to mono sound.

All of these little speakers do best with less-demanding acoustical material (your favorite singer-songwriter will sound good), but the Charge will sound a little bit restrained with tracks that have big bass lines.

What you get in the box. Sarah Tew/CNET

What I can tell you is this does sound better (not night-and-day better, but a little improvement) than a lot of other mini Bluetooth speakers in the $80-to-$150 price range. You're going to get a somewhat more pronounced bass and bigger sound than the Flip, and so long as you don't crank the volume too much or feed it ultraheavy bass, the Charge sounds comparatively clean. It does help to put it near a wall or in the corner of a room to get some reflection -- that will improve the bass response -- but it just can't handle big bass without distorting.

I put it up against several different speakers, and in terms of size at least, it was most similar to Philips Bluetooth speakers -- the ShoqBox SB7200 and ShoqBox SB7300 -- both of which we liked. While the moderately priced Philips SB7200 is more rugged and built to withstand impacts better, the JBL offered more in the way of clarity and sounded bigger and better overall.

The speaker has only a few buttons on it. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
I look at a lot of these mini Bluetooth speakers and think that JBL has done a good job with the Flip, Micro Wireless, and the Charge reviewed here. They all perform well for speakers in their size and price classes, and the Charge is a slight step up in the sound quality and bigger step up in battery life. That it also offers a charging component is a nice extra that gives it a small but significant differentiating point. (I suspect we'll see this feature in other portable Bluetooth speakers soon enough.)

While it may not be a steal at $150, comparatively speaking, it's a reasonable deal. The only strike against it is the lack of speakerphone capabilities. But if you can live without that, it's an enthusiastic recommendation.

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JBL Charge portable Bluetooth speaker

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 7