Several times over the past decade, excellent first-generation JBL speaker designs have proved difficult to improve upon in sequels. Harman Multimedia’s budget-conscious division has released desktop and portable speakers that were unbeatable for their price points, then tried with mixed results to develop more compelling “step up” models at $30 to $50 premiums. As just one example, the 2013 speaker Charge was a step up from 2012’s groundbreaking $100 portable speaker Flip, adding a bigger battery and ruggedized frame for a $50 premium. A little more than one year later, JBL has released Charge 2 ($150), a same-priced sequel that evolves the original model’s industrial design and feature set.
Although the differences between Charge and Charge 2 aren’t gigantic, JBL has succeeded in transforming what originally looked like a toy into something more sophisticated. The playful, two-toned color schemes of Charge have been replaced with slightly longer (7.3”) and thicker (3”) single-color chassis designs, now accented only by handsome silver JBL logos and side speakers. Charge 2 preserves the recessed perforated metal speaker grille, top-mounted controls, and USB iPhone/iPod recharging port that were Charge’s signature features, but there’s now a matching rear grille, a better collection of controls and lights, and superior charging capabilities. Apart from the added size and loss of an included carrying case, Charge 2 surpasses the original model at least a little in every way, even including five color choices: black, white, red, blue, and purple.
Confronting the reality that the $150 Charge was basically just the $100 Flip with an extra bass port and more battery life, JBL re-engineered Charge 2’s internals. First, it increased the size of the two front-facing drivers from 40mm to 45mm, then it added passive bass radiators to the sides, making Charge a four-driver system. JBL also increased the amplifier package from 10W to 15W total, and added an echo-canceling microphone to restore the speakerphone functionality Charge 1 inexplicably lost relative to Flip.
The audio differences are non-trivial. Charge 2 delivers more bass than the original model — nothing sub-sonic, but more than enough to guarantee songs don’t sound anemic on the low end. Peak volume is small room-filling, with automatic mirroring between the iOS device and Charge 2. The only thing that suffers a little is treble performance: this model’s larger drivers and greater emphasis on bass take a bit away from the crispness we heard in Flip and the original Charge; you can expect modest stereo separation and a warm rather than neutral presentation of sound. We weren’t wowed by Charge 2’s audio, but it’s better than Charge’s.
Speakerphone performance is acceptable: callers noticed an obvious difference between Charge 2 and an unassisted iPhone 5s, describing the former as a little distant and muffled by comparison. That’s not great, but better than the original Charge, which had no microphone.
JBL’s other changes aren’t as major. Two of the top controls are now illuminated with white lights, making power and Bluetooth 3.0 pairing buttons very easy to see, while the rubber volume buttons are now subtly elevated atop a larger array of five (rather than three) battery power lights, alongside a Social Mode button to toggle between up to three source devices, and another button for phone call answering/ending. We were glad to see that holding down the phone button triggered Siri, which isn’t a given on Bluetooth speakers these days.
As was the case with Charge, Charge 2 includes a 6,000mAh battery with a promised 12 hours of battery life. Last time, the battery could output at a peak rate of 1-Amp, which made Charge ideal for use with iPhones and iPods. Charge 2 has a peak output of 2.1 Amps, suitable for iPads and the power-hungrier iPhone 6/6 Plus models. JBL continues to include a micro-USB cable and wall adapter for recharging Charge 2, but this version’s wall adapter is smaller and more attractively designed.
Overall, Charge 2 is certainly an improvement on Charge, but our editors wrestled with whether it was truly better enough to merit a higher rating. On the plus side, we preferred the industrial design by a wide margin, appreciated the bass improvements, and liked the fine-tuning of the controls and indicator lights. But we weren’t sonically thrilled by Charge 2 for the $150 asking price — both as a speaker and as a speakerphone, it’s in the “good, not great” camp, taking only small steps beyond the original model. The omission of Charge’s carrying case was also a small factor worth considering. Consequently, though this model was on the edge of two ratings, it ultimately merits a B+ and strong general recommendation. Consider it worthwhile if the tube-shaped design appeals to you, and you really value the ability to charge an iPad, iPhone, or iPod on the road.
Company and Price
Company: JBL/Harman Multimedia
Model: Charge 2
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPads, iPhones + iPods