Review: JBL Flip Portable Wireless Loudspeaker
While we called out the Jawbone Jambox two years ago as overpriced and sonically underequipped, there was no question that the small, boxy $200 speaker landed in what's known as a blue ocean -- a segment of the market where there wasn't a lot of direct competition. After repackaging Soundmatters' pioneering small Bluetooth speaker foxL in a more stylish Yves Behar-designed enclosure, Jawbone aggressively marketed the Jambox in an increasingly diverse range of colors and textures, winning fans who were less concerned about the sonic performance for the price than its clean looks. Major and minor speaker makers alike took notice, and rushed various small wireless alternatives to market, trying strategies ranging from "same price, better performance" to "lower price, similar performance" and "lower price, lower performance." Having covered many earlier and in some cases superior options in prior reviews, we're taking quick looks today at seven new Jambox alternatives, all less expensive than Jawbone's basic model. The prices range from $59 to $150, and though their shapes, features, and performance vary considerably, any one will save you at least $50 relative to the Jambox, and several markedly outperform it, too.
All of today’s speakers have several things in common. They’re all built primarily as Bluetooth wireless speakers with support for Bluetooth 2.0 and newer devices, which is to say that they’ll work in wireless mode with all iPads, all iPod touches and iPhones except the original models, and even the latest seventh-generation iPod nano—reliably at 30-foot distances, sometimes longer. Each has an auxiliary 3.5mm wired option if you needed it. Every speaker comes with a charging cable and has a rechargeable battery built in, with a run time of roughly 4 and sometimes more hours, though longevity is dependent on the volume level you pick. And finally, they’re all super portable: though their shapes are different, each could be placed in a purse or backpack with ease, though there’s variation in the resilience of the materials chosen by each developer, so some will emerge more unscathed than others.
The single best speaker in the bunch—and one of the best speakers we’ve ever tested, period, is JBL’s Flip ($99). Shaped like a tube that’s been pinched on the back to form a small leg, Flip is capable of being laid down on its side or stood upright on one edge, depending on the orientation you prefer. On the black unit we tested, a stiff black metal mesh speaker grille wraps around most of the otherwise matte black and metallic silver plastic body, holding twin front-facing speakers, a microphone for speakerphone use, and a five-hour rechargeable battery inside. The design is typically JBL in that it’s handsome and substantial-feeling, with a nice arrangement of buttons and ports—power, calling, and volume buttons on the “top” or “left” edge, plus power and aux-in ports on its back—and comes in either white or black colors, each with a nice neoprene carrying case and a wall adapter.
While we were generally impressed with Flip’s industrial design even before knowing the unit’s price or audio performance, the “wow” point comes when you actually turn it on, hear it, and realize just what JBL has accomplished at half the Jambox’s price point—apart from Jawbone’s audio prompting, Flip does everything else better. Thanks to JBL’s historically impressive speaker engineering, Flip produces dramatically louder and clearer sound: Flip’s 50% volume level is equivalent to Jambox’s top volume, yet Flip’s versions of songs are crisper and more detailed, making the Jambox sound flat.
Crank Flip up higher than that and the unit’s bass and treble become even more pronounced, flattening somewhat as they reach a peak amplitude that’s remarkable for a small speaker. Even at 75% volume, you wouldn’t want to sit right next to Flip, lest you damage your hearing; it’s seriously powerful, pushing out air from the edges of its front grille. Believe it or not, it even outperforms Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick, which sells for the same price but is considerably larger; only JBL’s slightly weaker bass and narrower stereo separation, available in Flip’s wide orientation, fall behind Sound Kick.
Flip’s speakerphone performance isn’t stellar, but it’s better than Jambox’s: callers said that we sounded closer to the microphone when we used Jambox, but they preferred the lower static and vocal rendition in Flip’s audio, despite Flip sounding more distant. From our side, callers sounded substantially clearer and more intelligible on Flip than on the Jambox; there was no reason to prefer the older speaker’s sonics, which were flatter and more staticy. Callers noted that Flip was sonically closer than the Jambox to the integrated speakerphone system in the iPhone 5, though Flip users will find that the standalone speaker’s audio is markedly louder.
Overall, Flip is a truly excellent little speaker system: sonically far superior to the Jambox, within a comparably compact and nice-looking enclosure, at half the price. While JBL has been making impressive and affordable speakers for years, Flip demonstrates just how compelling the company’s products can be when it aligns its design, audio, and engineering teams to produce something groundbreaking at an aggressive price. Flip is the new reference point for small wireless speakers, and worthy of our very rare flat A high recommendation. It’s very special, and the first speaker we’d recommend you look at if size and great performance for the price are critical considerations.