Company: JBL/Harman Multimedia
Compatible: All Bluetooth-equipped iPads, iPhones + iPods
JBL Spark Wireless Bluetooth Stereo Speaker
After years of creating distinctive, alien-inspired Apple speaker systems — beautiful designs that were at least a little otherworldly in shape and name — JBL has pivoted recently towards new themes. Spark ($130) is the latest example, a speaker that continues the company's flare for eye-catching designs while choosing a somewhat more conventional shape and an interesting use case scenario. Currently sold in yellow, red, or blue colors with white or black options apparently forthcoming, the substantially translucent Spark is shaped like a megaphone with a rubber cap at the back and a perforated metal speaker grille on the front, hiding two 1.5" drivers inside. A thick color-mismatched fabric cable connects the drivers to a four-button remote and wall adapter, providing controls and power for a Bluetooth wireless audio connection. Plug Spark into the wall and there are no further cables to connect; you just pair it with whatever Bluetooth-capable device you have, and start listening.
Even with hundreds of Bluetooth speakers on the market with similar sonic and connectivity concepts, Spark’s industrial design stands apart. The front and back edges of the speaker are rubberized should you want to place it on a desk like a conventional audio system, but unlike virtually every competing option out there, Spark can also be hung on a wall. JBL includes a color-matched metal wall mount with two screws so that you can hang Spark up wherever you want it, and the fabric cable is a bit over eight feet long, providing more than enough length to connect to a wall outlet even if the speaker is hanging close to a ceiling. Bluetooth audio streaming works reliably from well over the standard 33-foot distance; we experienced no hiccups during testing from two full rooms away.
The only ergonomic challenge some users may face is the location of the remote control, which is necessary to make Spark power on, gently illuminating the JBL logo on its face with white light. Rather than placing the remote in the middle of the cable — a spot that might better have satisfied people planning to hang the speaker up high — JBL located it around two feet from the speaker. This location strikes us as a fair compromise for both desktop users, who might prefer the controls to be on or as close to the speaker as possible, and most wall-mount users, who will hang the speaker at a standing or sitting head level. Apart from powering Spark on and off, the only time you’ll strictly need to use the remote is for initial Bluetooth pairing; volume can be left at a set level and then changed on your iOS device, albeit without mirroring on Spark.
There’s little question that Spark’s design will appeal to many people, particularly creative types and fashion-conscious users, but audiophiles won’t be particularly impressed by its sonic performance for the price. Despite its 7.25” diameter front, which might suggest that there’s a single giant speaker inside, JBL has instead equipped it with two relatively small 40mm (~1.25”) audio drivers. Consequently, Spark looks a lot bigger than it sounds: this isn’t so much a megaphone as a repackaging of a small dish-sized OnBeat Micro-style system into a different shell. At its peak volume level, Spark is just a little shy of small room-filling, and its loudest performance of songs is typical of two-driver speaker systems — flat and radio-like.
Performance at lower, near-field volumes is better: you’ll hear a reasonable balance of treble, mids, and mid-bass without any really low bass, with enough treble standing out to make music sound a little exciting. Stereo separation isn’t particularly wide, but it’s obvious if you’re relatively close to Spark, with the field extending an inch or two past its edges. That having been said, JBL missed the obvious opportunity to offer dual Bluetooth streaming with a second Spark speaker as an option, as the ability to hang or place two paired Spark units on opposite sides of a desk or media center would have been aesthetically great and sonically even more satisfying.
Although there are numerous other Bluetooth speakers we’d consider over Spark if sound quality or features for the dollar was the single metric of value, it’s obvious that JBL wanted to do something different with this model, and it has largely succeeded: there’s nothing quite like this speaker at its price point. While Spark would have been better with a dual-streaming option, one speaker makes enough of a visual statement in its own right to win some fans on looks if not raw sonic quality, and we can see the wall-mount option going over well with users looking for something different. Overall, this is a good new speaker system, and we’re glad to see JBL taking a somewhat new direction with its designs.