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JBL Pulse portable Bluetooth speaker review: The mobile speaker with a built-in light show

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The portable Bluetooth speaker market is very crowded these days, with a lot of products that don't sound all that different from one another. It's nice then to come across a product like JBL's Pulse, which attempts to shake things up by throwing a multi-LED light show into the mix.

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JBL Pulse portable Bluetooth speaker

The Good

The <b>JBL Pulse</b> is a compact wireless Bluetooth speaker that delivers good sound for its size and distinguishes itself with an integrated light show with preprogrammed and customizable themes. The built-in rechargeable battery offers 10 hours of battery for sound only and 5 hours with the light show in effect.

The Bad

Can distort at higher volumes with rock tracks and bass-heavy material; no carrying case included.

The Bottom Line

It may not sound quite good as some $200 competitors, but the JBL Pulse's integrated light show adds a flashy new dimension to the listening experience that makes it a worthy contender in a crowded market.

At least in shape, the Pulse has a similar design to JBL's highly rated Flip and Charge Bluetooth speakers, but it's covered with a metal mesh grille that, when combined with the lights underneath, makes you think it's capable of killing mosquitoes (now there would be a great dual-purpose Bluetooth speaker if there ever was one).

It plays a little louder than the $150 Charge (it's a 2 x 6-watt speaker versus 2 x 5W for the Charge) and sounds a little better, with slightly better bass response (the Pulse extends down to 100Hz, versus 150Hz on Charge). However, it doesn't offer as much battery life as the Charge, which incorporates a USB port for charging mobile devices.

The Flip is a $99 speaker, while the Pulse is $199.95. You're not going to get double the sound quality, but you are getting a much flashier speaker -- literally. Of course, not everyone is going to love the visual element, but I found the light show fairly mesmerizing, even without smoking anything.

In living color: the Pulse's light show in action (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

As far as that lighting goes, there are a few different preprogrammed modes to choose from and you can go with a custom light theme and control the brightness -- or just turn off the LEDs altogether and listen to the Pulse as to a standard wireless Bluetooth speaker. What's also kind of cool is that when you raise and lower the volume you'll see it reflected on the speaker.

JBL Pulse puts on a show (pictures)

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Unlike the Flip, the Pulse charges via a standard Micro-USB connection instead of using a AC adapter, which is easy to misplace (the Charge recharges via standard USB as well).

Battery life is rated at 10 hours for audio only and 5 hours if you fire up the light show. There's no speakerphone capability, but you do get NFC, the tap-to-pair option for devices that support it, and JBL has a free iOS app, JBL Music. The app isn't required to use the product, but it gives you a little more control of playback and allows you to create the aforementioned custom light themes (alas, there's currently no Android app, so Android users can't create custom themes yet, but that really isn't a big deal because the preprogrammed light shows are fine).

Performance
In this price range you'll find the UE Boom and the Bose SoundLink Mini, both of which are very good portable speakers. I wouldn't say this JBL sounds better than those speakers, but it's in the ballpark. The bass doesn't quite measure up to the UE Boom's or the Bose SoundLink Mini's, but the Pulse's midrange sounds smooth and natural, which helps the speaker have an overall balanced, natural sound. Like a lot of these small speakers, it sounds really good with some tracks -- well-recorded acoustic tracks and less complicated tunes that don't have a lot of instruments playing at once bring out the best in the Pulse. Where it can get dicey is when when you throw it bass-heavy material; you just can't play it at higher volumes without it sounding crunchy. The same goes for rock music.

The speaker charges via USB and has an audio input for non-Bluetooth devices. Sarah Tew/CNET

I tended to keep the volume around the midway point and was pretty pleased. Even at more modest levels it does a decent job of filling a small room with sound. If you want to fill a larger room, you'll just have to play around with placement and ratchet up the volume to a point where it doesn't push the speaker too hard and make your music sound harsh. It's a delicate balance, especially if you're a critical listener (that said, if you are a critical listener, a lot of these compact Bluetooth speakers just aren't going to cut it for you).

Conclusion
Soundwise, the Pulse matches up pretty well against competing speakers in its price class. Though it doesn't go as deep as the UE Boom, it sounds somewhat more natural, and while it's slightly behind the Bose SoundLink Mini (the SoundLink holds together better at higher volumes), it's not a huge difference.

The X factor is the light show. It may be a gimmick, but it's a good one, and certainly adds another dimension to the listening experience. Not everyone will like it, but combined with the speaker's decent sound, it makes the Pulse a worthy contender in a crowded market.

All the controls are on the top of the speaker. Sarah Tew/CNET

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JBL Pulse portable Bluetooth speaker

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 7Value 8