Review: JBL Pulse Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
JBL's remarkable $100 portable Bluetooth speaker Flip was a very big deal last year, winning our Speaker of the Year and Accessory of the Year Awards for delivering unmatchable sound quality in a small, highly affordable package. Since then, the company has been working on "premium" alternatives that offer users ways to up the feature ante at higher prices, including the mid 2013 debut of the $150 Charge with better battery life, and now there's Pulse ($200), which is effectively Flip with an integrated light system.
That statement isn’t just shorthand: Pulse’s concept, sonic performance, battery performance, and functionality are almost identical to Flip’s, which is to say that if you need more details, you’ll find them in our Flip review. In short, this is a larger-than-pocket-sized, tube-like small speaker that can be laid horizontally or vertically as you prefer, with controls on the tube’s left edge and similarly flattened surfaces on the tube’s right and “bottom.” Turned off, Pulse is jet black but for a silver JBL logo and a collection of touch-sensitive controls; a wraparound grid-like grille surrounds and completely obscures the speakers inside, while power and audio input ports on the “bottom” can be accessed as necessary. JBL includes a wall adapter and micro-USB recharging cable in the package.
The major difference between Flip and Pulse becomes obvious when the newer model is turned on. JBL doesn’t make a big deal about the specs or capabilities of the LED lighting system, but there’s an array of 72 independent lights inside Pulse, each in the shape of an equal sign or boxy S. With all of the lights illuminated, Pulse can glow an almost solid white, red, yellow, weak orange, green, aqua blue, dark blue, or purple, but generally mixes those colors in ways that appear to generate pinks and other mid-tone colors with rainbow effects. It’s unusual for the Pulse lights to ever sit still — as the name suggests, they tend to pulse in and out at different levels of brightness, or switch from one color to another — and JBL uses the grid-like speaker grill to create an almost pixel-like display.
By default, Pulse ships with five different lighting effects as presets, and although they’re not incredibly impressive, they’re definitely more compelling than anything we’ve seen in earlier color-shifting audio systems. A pulsing simple equalizer, rainbow shifting lights, flickering single-color light bursts, and slow fades are all included, some clearly or subtly synchronized to your music. Toggling between them is typically accomplished with a button on Pulse’s top, and you can use swipe-sensitive brightness and color toggles to tweak the effects. From a visual standpoint, the only major issue we had was that Pulse has too much of a tendency to cycle through colors when beat-matching, though there are ways to lock it into a specific color scheme. All of our editors found the light effects to be at least pretty neat, if not better.
The best way to take control over Pulse’s lights is to download the latest version of JBL’s MusicFlow app for iOS. Confusingly, there are currently two MusicFlow apps in the App Store, and the correct one is the version that installs as “JBL Music,” with a flat-shaded icon. When the right app is loaded, you’ll see Pulse as a supported device and gain access to several special features, including an Effect Library toggle with easily-labeled buttons and previews of the effects, a Light Editor with effect-specific sliders for light color, intensity, and sometimes speed, plus a firmware updater. After installing new firmware, Pulse gained a bunch of new effects, which Effect Library can reassign as the unit’s presets, or make individually accessible through the app. Although the new effects are basically variants on the originals, they bring Pulse up to 10 total options, helping to increase the chances you’ll find something you like.
Pulse’s issues will be familiar if you’ve already looked at our review of JBL’s Charge. At 7.1” in length and around 3” in diameter, Pulse is longer and thicker than Flip without improving in any real way upon its sound quality. It’s also a bit heavier, loses Flip’s integrated speakerphone functionality, and unlike Charge doesn’t improve in any way upon Flip’s battery life. Pulse notably runs for only five hours before requiring a recharge — on the very low end of what we’d expect from portable speakers, and like the sound quality, that’s harder to accept from a midrange $200 speaker than a budget-conscious $100 option.
Sonically, Pulse is able to generate enough music to fill a small room, and the sound is judiciously balanced, though slightly midbass-skewing in a way that won’t disappoint most listeners. Again, although more details can be found in our Flip review, expect stereo separation that’s limited but obvious when the unit is laid in a horizontal orientation, and clarity that’s on par with good to great $100 speakers.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether Pulse’s $100 premium over Flip is justified by the inclusion of the LED lighting system, but when the unit is really analyzed in functionality, that’s the only real advantage it offers over last year’s stellar model. Ideally, there would either be a bit more of a sonic improvement or stronger battery life to justify the higher price and larger size; otherwise, a lower price point would have made Pulse a more appealing option. But this is a very good first stab for JBL at a color-shifting audio system, and we look forward to seeing what it does with the concept in the future.