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JBL Pulse 2 review: A great-sounding Bluetooth speaker that really lights up a room

JBL has improved both both LED light show and sound in the Pulse 2, making this flashy Bluetooth speaker a stand-out product in a crowded market.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

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Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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Compact portable Bluetooth speakers tend to be fairly similar these days, which is why a speaker like JBL's Pulse 2 is refreshing. Not only does it offer very good sound for its size, but it has the added value of offering a very cool "interactive" light show thanks to its built-in LED lights. You can buy it for about $170 in the US, £165 in the UK and AU$329 in Australia.

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8.5

JBL Pulse 2

The Good

The JBL Pulse 2 is a compact splashproof wireless Bluetooth speaker that delivers strong sound for its size and distinguishes itself with an integrated light show that's far improved from the original model. The built-in rechargeable battery offers 10 hours of battery for sound only and 5 hours with the light show in effect.

The Bad

There's no carrying case included.

The Bottom Line

JBL has improved both LED light show and sound in the Pulse 2, making this flashy Bluetooth speaker a stand-out product in a crowded market.

You press a button on the speaker itself to toggle through 12 different light show options, including fire, rain and fireworks, holding that button down to turn off the LEDs completely. The speaker has a companion app for iOS and Android devices that also allows you to adjust the light show remotely from your phone and perform firmware upgrades as they become available. (As we finished this review, the latest update added two more light shows.) I didn't see a button to turn off the light show in the app, but it would be useful.

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The JBL Pulse 2 with its companion app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Additionally, you'll find a prism sensor embedded in the speaker that allows you to hold a colored piece of paper or colored object up to it and press a button on the speaker and have the LEDs change to that color. It's a bit of a gimmick and didn't always work the first time, but hey, it's kind of fun to play with.

As you might expect, the light show plays off your music and matches its mood. You can also download ambient sounds via the app, such as waves, fire, rain and stars to enhance the light themes and create some white noise. And finally, you can wirelessly link two of these speakers together to augment the sound if you happen to have two of them.

The 1.7-pound (775-gram) speaker seems pretty durable. It's splashproof, though not waterproof, and there's a gasket that covers the Micro-USB charging port and audio input to keep moisture out.

As far as other extras go, there's a built-in speakerphone -- it works pretty well -- but the Pulse 2 doesn't have the USB charging feature of JBL's Charge line of speakers, nor does it offer that model's better battery life. It's rated at 10 hours for sound only (that's pretty good) and about 5 hours with the light show on.

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Close-up of the prism sensor.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

JBL's upcoming Charge 3 speaker is larger than the Charge 2+ we reviewed in 2015 and does offer more bass. This Pulse 2 is comparable to the Charge 2+ in terms of performance, and is among the best sounding compact Bluetooth speakers, with decent bass for its size and good detail.

If you're looking for differences between this model and the original Pulse, the first thing you'll notice is that JBL has upped the number of LEDs and increased the resolution of the light show, so to speak -- the wire mesh covering the speaker is much finer on this model.

As for sound, my gripe with the earlier Pulse was that it distorted at high volumes. This one offers a little better bass, holds together better at high volumes and sounds better overall. However, the digital signal processor (DSP) does clip the frequencies as the speaker gets overloaded with music from more complicated tracks. It essentially ratchets back certain frequencies, restraining the speaker's volume.

With all these small speakers, you can only push them so hard before they distort. But the trick is to find a balance between making a speaker sound loud for its size and not having it distort too much. With the Charge2+, Flip 3 and now this Pulse 2, JBL has found a pretty good balance.

If you do want to augment the sound, there is a way to do it: You can wirelessly pair two Pulse 2s together (the speakers' sound and light shows are synced but you can't make a stereo right and left pair). By pairing the speakers you don't get more bass and better detail, but you do get more sound that covers a wider area, particularly if you place the speakers several feet apart.

Light up your life

Yes, you'll pay more for the light show, but at around $170 online, the Pulse 2 is well worth the extra dough and is a good value at that price.

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8.5

JBL Pulse 2

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 8Value 8