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JBL Go 3 review: Tiny $40 Bluetooth speaker with big improvements

One of JBL's smallest portable Bluetooth speakers has a new design that makes all the difference.

The JBL Bluetooth speaker that received the biggest improvements for 2021 is among the company's smallest. The JBL Go 3 has a completely new look -- it's now covered in durable fabric instead of having the naked plastic design of its Go predecessors -- and that new design coupled with surprisingly decent sound for its small size makes the Go 3 ($40, £35, AU$70) one of the top micro Bluetooth speakers out there. 

Like

  • Pocket-size speaker with impressive sound for its small size
  • Improved, more rugged design
  • IPX 67 water resistance (waterproof and dustproof)
  • Charges via USB-C
  • Integrated loop

Don't Like

  • Battery life is only 5 hours
  • No speakerphone capability

Read more: Best portable Bluetooth speakers for 2021

Like the more expensive JBL Clip 4 ($70), the Go 3 is available in multiple color options. The speaker is designed to play either in a vertical position or laid flat, with a rubberized bottom (and rubberized ribs on its side) to keep it from moving around on smooth surfaces when played at higher volumes. The Go 3 has a simpler boxy design than the Clip 4 that makes it easier to stand it up and play your audio in a directional manner rather than fire it up at the ceiling. 

The Clip 4 has USB-C charging and its underside is rubberized so the speaker doesn't move around when you lay it down on a smooth surface.

David Carnoy/CNET

While they're both excellent pocket Bluetooth speakers, as I said in my review of the Clip 4, the JBL Go 3 may be the better pick for a lot of people. The Clip 4 plays a bit louder and has slightly better clarity and bass (it's a 5-watt speaker compared with the 3W Go 3), but the Go 3 costs $30 less and some people may prefer its design, as I did in some ways. At 0.46 pound (0.21 kg), it's a tad smaller and lighter than the Clip 4 (0.53 pound or 0.24 kg), and while it doesn't have an integrated carabiner, it does have a rope loop, so you can attach a carabiner to it.

Like the Clip 4, the Go 3 puts out more volume and better sound than you'd expect, though it does have its limitations. The bass is adequate -- it's got a little bit of punch to it -- and the speaker can sound quite decent with less demanding tracks (these little speakers tend to excel with acoustical material because they are strong in the midrange). It also works well for supplying richer sound for movie playback than your smartphone or tablet speakers are capable of.

jbl-go-4-4

The right side houses the power and Bluetooth buttons.

David Carnoy/CNET

Just don't expect the bass to have any serious kick to it -- you're not going to power a dance party with it unless maybe if you host it in a walk-in closet. The Go 3 is designed for playing background music anywhere you are and, like the Clip 4, sounds best at 50%-75% volume levels, with buttons on the speaker for controlling volume and track playback. It can end up sounding a little harsh if you crank the volume, particularly with more demanding tracks that have a lot of instruments playing at the same time. But it should nevertheless exceed most people's expectations for sound quality.

As for competing products, you have the Bose SoundLink Micro at $99 (sometimes it goes on sale for $79), the Tribit StormBox Micro at around $40 (it's our value pick in the micro Bluetooth speaker category) and JBL's aforementioned Clip 4 at $70. All these speakers offer similar sound with small differences. The Bose has slightly more bass and I've always liked its design, but it is a little pricier and due for an upgrade, as it came out a few years ago.

Meanwhile, the StormBox Micro, which has a 9W power rating (though take that rating with a grain of salt), offers slightly superior sound to the Go 3 and the ability to pair two speakers for stereo sound. The StormBox Micro also has better battery life -- up to 8 hours compared the Go 3's 5 hours -- but the Go 3 has a slight edge from a design standpoint. 

JBL Clip 4 (left) is slightly bigger than the Go 3 (right) and has double the battery life.

David Carnoy/CNET

Aside from having slightly better sound, the Clip 4's higher battery life number (up to 10 hours) does give it an advantage over the Go 3. But if you only plan on using the speaker in shorter spurts -- and it does charge fairly quickly -- that's not a huge downside.

Other caveats: Note that like the Clip 4, the Go 3 has no speakerphone capabilities and doesn't pair with a companion JBL app, so you can't link up multiple speakers in PartyBoost mode like you can with some of JBL's step-up Bluetooth speakers such as the Flip 5, Charge 4 and upcoming Charge 5. Also, JBL removed the audio input that the Go 2 has, so you can't plug in a non-Bluetooth device. 

Also worth mentioning: The Go 3 uses upgraded Bluetooth 5.1 while the Go 2 uses Bluetooth 4.1. Additionally, the Go 3's water resistance is IPX 67, not IPX 7. However, it can be submerged in shallow water for a short period of time and is dustproof. 

The right side houses the power and Bluetooth buttons.

David Carnoy/CNET

JBL Go 3: Final thoughts

While the Go 3 has its sonic limitations, it plays bigger than you'd think for its tiny size, and its design not only looks better than its predecessor's but feels more rugged and able to withstand drops better (I dropped the Go 2 once and its corner showed a little ding afterward). It's a little speaker that's hard not to like and perhaps we'll see some small discounts on it later in the year, which would make it an even better value.