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JBL Flip 3 review: A top portable Bluetooth speaker for the money

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Third time's a charm, right? When it comes to JBL's Flip 3 Bluetooth speaker, it is. This third-generation model has a more streamlined, splashproof design and better battery life (at 10 hours), while the price remains the same at $100, £100 or AU$150. And as with all such speakers, the JBL plays any audio content from a Bluetooth-enabled source -- nearly any smartphone or tablet, and most recent computers -- so long as it's in the same room, or relatively nearby.

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8.1

JBL Flip 3

The Good

The JBL Flip 3 is a highly portable Bluetooth speaker that's splashproof and designed to be used horizontally or vertically. It sounds very good and plays very loud for its size, can act as a speakerphone and offers improved battery life at up to 10 hours. You can also wirelessly link multiple Flip 3 speakers using the free JBL Connect app.

The Bad

Some distortion at higher volumes with certain tracks.

The Bottom Line

Enhanced with better battery life and splashproof design, the Flip 3 is one of the best mini portable Bluetooth speakers available.

I received a black review unit, but the speaker, which weighs in at just less than a pound (15.9 ounces or 450 grams), is available in seven other colors and like its predecessors can be stood up vertically or laid out horizontally. Since one of the bass ports gets covered up a bit when you go vertical, you do get a little more bass in horizontal mode.

No carrying case is included with the speaker like it was with the JBL Flip 2 (that speaker launched at $120, then came down to $100). But it seems pretty durable and, as I said, it's water-resistant and has a flap that securely covers its USB charging port and audio input.

At first we thought there there was no pause/play button on the speaker, but it turns out the answer/end button doubles as a pause/play button and also allows you to skip tracks forward and back (double tap to advance forward, triple tap to skip back).

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The Flip 3 in vertical mode with its included USB charging cable and lanyard attached. Sarah Tew/CNET

As far as other extras go, it's equipped with a built-in noise and echo canceling speakerphone and you can wirelessly link multiple JBL Connect-enabled speakers together to amplify the sound. (JBL Connect is a free app for iOS and Android devices.) The speaker uses Bluetooth 4.1 technology and has the typical wireless streaming range of about 33 feet or 10 meters.

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The Flip's 3 USB port and audio input are covered by a flap, making the speaker splashproof. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

It'd be good to pair up a couple of these, but a single Flip 3 sounds just fine and plays very loud for its size with ample bass, though a speaker this compact has its limitations. The original Flip delivered 2x5 watts of sound while the Flip 2 was augmented to 6 watts. This model gets an additional boost to 8 watts -- and it makes a difference.

For the same price you can get the UE Roll, which is totally waterproof and is another speaker I like a lot at this price. The Roll has a flatter design and is more outdoor-oriented (it doesn't have a speakerphone), but the two speakers sound somewhat similar. The Flip 3 plays a little louder, however.

I also compared the Flip 3 to the UE Boom and JBL's own Charge 2+, which has 15 watts of power. Both of those models sound a little fuller and offer slightly deeper bass.

The optimal listening distance for the Flip 3 is somewhere between 3 and 12 feet (1 and 4 meters) with the volume set around 75 percent. Going back and forth between the more expensive UE Boom, I found it disperses sound better over a wider area and sounds better than the Flip 3 when you're standing farther away from it. Of course, none of these small speakers offer much, if any, stereo separation.

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The view from above. Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but with all these compact Bluetooth speakers, performance varies from track to track. Case in point: the Veronicas' "You Ruined Me" and "Untouched" tracks. "You Ruined Me," a rock ballad, is well suited to the Flip 3's strengths -- all these compact speakers tend to sound best in the mid-range. But the harder driving "Untouched" gets a little rough when the electric guitar kicks in and other instruments are playing. The UE Boom and Charge 2+ fare slightly better, but virtually all these small Bluetooth speakers distort when you crank the volume and hit them with bass-heavy or complicated material.

That's a bit of a long-winded way of saying these types of speakers aren't for critical listeners, but the majority of people will be impressed with how the Flip 3 sounds for its size, especially in places like the kitchen, the bedroom or in the backyard. We listen to a lot of these little speakers, and although we always find fault with them, some -- including this one -- perform better than others.

Conclusion

If you're comparing this model to the JBL Charge 2+, which costs around $30 more, that speaker's a little larger, weighing 600 grams as opposed to 450, sounds a little better, and has 2 more hours of battery life, as well as a USB charging port to juice up your phone. I rate the Charge 2+ a little higher, but if you want a more compact speaker and are also looking to save some money, the Flip 3's impressive for a small speaker at this price and well worth checking out.

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8.1

JBL Flip 3

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 8