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

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The Good The JBL Charge 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.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Sound 8
  • Value 7

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.

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.

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