Review: JBL Charge Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
JBL's unexpected late 2012 release of the $99 Flip was stunning. Even though Flip arrived two years after the Jawbone Jambox -- a seriously overpriced but still category-defining small wireless speaker -- it looked, sounded, and felt like the sort of response that only a company with JBL's design and engineering chops could muster: a decidedly superior alternative across the board, at half the price, in a similarly compact form factor. Now JBL has followed Flip up with a more powerful alternative called Charge ($150) that adds several new features that might appeal to less budget-conscious users. But it's not a uniformly superior sequel, as it has lost speakerphone functionality, and is also physically larger and more expensive without making major improvements in audio quality.
Since the core Charge experience is nearly identical to Flip’s—a tube with two 40-millimeter speakers, a 10-watt amplifier, a Bluetooth wireless chip, and a rechargeable battery—one might imagine that there wasn’t much room for differences between the models, but that’s not the case. Charge is nearly an inch longer than Flip, measuring around 6.9” from end to end, and thicker with a nearly uniform 2.7” diameter versus Flip’s uneven but mostly 2.4” center. While the numbers tell part of the story, the reasons for the changes are more significant: JBL has used the extra thickness to recess Charge’s perforated speaker grilles behind colored hard plastic lips that look ruggedized, though only the left side actually uses potentially shock-absorbent rubber. Even then, the rubber is solely for a relatively small ring on the outermost edge, as well as a flip-open cap that covers a full-sized USB port. Two other rubber pads on the bottom keep Charge from rolling away when placed on a flat surface, and its glossy plastic buttons are on the top rather than the side.
As it turns out, these tweaks do change Charge’s user experience. Flip was expressly designed to be used in either horizontal or vertical orientation; its control buttons were actually placed on one edge for easy access if it stood upright as a miniature tower, while a central bulging stand tilted the speakers upwards to project sound away from the flat surface underneath. By contrast, Charge is primarily intended to be used in a horizontal (wide) orientation, and in that position, it projects sound directly forward without an upward tilt. A small “bass port” on the right side doesn’t seriously improve the audio relative to Flip, but needs to be left unobscured, so the only way to turn Charge upright would be to block the left side USB port instead. The left rubber ring is thus less of a shock absorber and more of a way to keep an otherwise hard plastic surface from scuffing or shifting on a table.
Charge’s namesake changes from Flip are literally related to charging. JBL’s original design had only rear-mounted inbound power and aux-in 3.5mm audio ports, but Charge adds the outbound USB port to enable you to recharge an iPhone or iPod from the speaker’s integrated battery—assuming you self-supply a charging cable, and leave the speaker turned on. To support this feature, JBL has boosted Charge’s battery to 6000mAh from something in the 2000mAh range for Flip—an addition greater than the full capacity of most standalone iPhone battery cases. Consequently, you can expect a full iPhone or iPod battery recharge plus at least as much play time as the five-hour Flip, or 12 hours of wireless playtime with Charge. This is a major upgrade assuming you need the extra power for some reason, though it should be noted that Charge’s battery indicator is surprisingly basic given the high-capacity cell: there are just three small blue lights on the unit’s top, and they don’t provide the sort of granular power drain details we’ve come to expect from much lower-capacity batteries.
There’s one other power-related change that some users will appreciate more than others. Flip and Charge both include wall adapters so that you can keep them topped off or wall-tethered, depending on your needs. While Flip somewhat unusually used a wall adapter with a classic circular-style plug—the way most speakers worked until three or four years ago—Charge’s wall adapter is USB-based, with a detachable USB to micro-USB cable so you can refuel the speaker using a computer, instead. This small convenience means that it’s easier to replace the adapter in the event that it’s lost, or refuel Charge on the go without carrying the large adapter along. Just like Flip, JBL includes a zippered neoprene carrying case with Charge that’s large enough to hold the speaker, but not the wall adapter.
The single biggest knock against Charge is the fact that its sonic performance hasn’t improved versus Flip, despite the $50 price increase. Both units have the same audio drivers, amplification, stereo separation, and overall wireless audio quality. Charge isn’t louder, clearer, or otherwise more impressive than Flip; if there’s any difference at all, you’ll only hear a hint more treble from Flip because of its slightly upward-facing drivers, and potentially a similarly tiny bit of extra bass from Charge because its bass port is on the side rather than the back, like Flip. But the distinctions are so minor and user position-dependent that we’d call them trivial; users will be more likely to notice the absence of Flip’s speakerphone functionality in Charge than any other audio differences between them.
Overall, JBL’s Charge is a very good $150 portable speaker, though outshone in some regards by its fantastic sub-$100 brother. If you prefer the newer design, which will apparently be available in three color schemes (blue, green, or gray) versus Flip’s two, or if you really value the improvements JBL has made to its power functionality relative to Flip, Charge offers almost everything that made last year’s best speaker so special. But Flip offers 90% of the same experience at two-thirds the price, with an at least equally appealing industrial design and added speakerphone functionality. You can decide which one better suits your personal needs; we’d lean towards Flip unless something in Charge really calls out to you.