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JBL Flip review: Portable Bluetooth speaker stands tall

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JBL has been making a push into the portable speaker space with several products, including the Micro Wireless and the Flip Bluetooth speaker. The larger Flip, which gets its name because you can set it up horizontally or vertically, retails for $99.99 and includes speakerphone capabilities.

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8.0

JBL Flip

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The affordable <b>JBL Flip</b> is a compact portable Bluetooth speaker that is designed to be used horizontally or vertically. It sounds good and plays loudly for its size, has speakerphone capabilities, and ships with a neoprene carrying case.

The Bad

The unit is powered by a generic, somewhat bulky AC adapter instead of USB, and the 5-hour battery life is only OK. It doesn't handle bass-heavy material incredibly well.

The Bottom Line

The JBL Flip's decent performance and attractive design make it a worthy Bluetooth speaker contender at $100.

At this price, it sits between the Jawbone Jambox, the Beats Pill, and several other contenders in the $150-$200 price range, and smaller speakers such as JBL's Micro and Philips' grenade-shaped SoundShooter SBT30ORG/37, which costs $50 and also has speakerphone functionality. The smaller Logitech UE Mobile Boombox, a direct competitor, retails for $99.95.

While the JBL has a couple of small drawbacks, all in all I thought it sounded decent for the money and was a solid value.

Flip it
The cylindrical speaker has two orientations -- you can lay it down or stand it up -- and it has rubberized parts in the right places so it stays in place whether you go horizontal or vertical. I can't say I noticed a difference in sound quality but I ended up listening to it more often oriented vertically than horizontally. It has a smaller footprint in this mode, and the physical buttons (power on/off, call end/answer, and volume) end up on top where they're a little easier to see and reach.

All the buttons, including the speakerphone call/end button, are in one location. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Flip's biggest shortcoming is that it doesn't charge via USB. Rather, you have to plug a somewhat ungainly AC adapter into the wall to power the Flip (when you're off battery power) or to charge it. I always think it's a shame when you have a well-designed, sleek-looking speaker that's coupled with a generic charger, which is a little bit of pain to lug around. Also, if you lose it for some reason, it won't be so easy to find another. If you could charge via USB as you can with the Jambox, you could just swap in another Micro-USB cable and be good to go.

There's an auxiliary input for non-Bluetooth devices (optional cable required). Alas, the speaker doesn't charge via USB. Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, this is a stereo speaker, but the drivers are spaced so closely together you really have to be sitting 2 or 3 feet away from the speaker to get any sort of stereo separation. The speaker can play fairly loudly and fill a small room with sound, but it's probably best to listen to it at more moderate levels because it just doesn't sound quite good enough to really rock out to -- at least not if you're used to listening to a decent pair of headphones or a larger set of speakers.

The Flip in its upright position. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like most of these speakers, the Flip is strongest in the midrange and sounds best playing acoustical material. It sounded clean and much bigger than its size on tracks such as The National's "Runaway" and Wilco's "Black Moon." But feed it more bass-heavy material -- hip hop or techno -- and it shows some strain, particularly at higher volumes. Not that it doesn't produce some bass. It just has its limitations.

This is par for the course for this mini speaker category. I should also point out that while Bluetooth wireless streaming has improved over the years, it, too, has its shortcomings. You'll experience the occasional dropout and your music gets compressed, though that matters less when you're listening to a tiny speaker such as this.

Like most Bluetooth speakers, the Flip has a rated range of around 30 feet, but you can do better than that in an open environment. No remote is included because your mobile device -- the Flip works with iOS and Android smartphones and tablets as well as most Bluetooth-enabled devices -- acts as a remote.

Battery life comes in at around 5 hours, which is OK but not great. If you play the speaker at higher volumes, you probably won't hit that, but you can do better if you turn down the volume to quieter levels.

The speaker in its carrying case. The charger must be carried separately. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
I liked the JBL Flip. Aside from the ungainly AC adapter, I thought it was well designed, and I appreciated that JBL included a neoprene carrying case, which offers decent protection. Few of these types of speakers sound fantastic -- and the Flip doesn't either -- but it sounds as good as anything at this price point, and in some cases, slightly better. Logitech's UE Mini Boombox is more compact and has a rugged finish, but the JBL sounds a little bit better and has slightly stronger bass performance.

In the end, while the Flip doesn't necessarily stand head and shoulders above the rest of its competitors, it does stand tall and distinguishes itself enough to make it easily recommendable.

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8.0

JBL Flip

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 8Value 8