If you’ve been following our headphone reviews this year, you’ve seen us examine a few headphones that feature integrated lighting. We’ve been puzzled by this trend — why waste battery powering LEDs that don’t make the music sound any better? Is this how kids are getting each other’s attention these days? If we had been asked whether we thought adding lights to a speaker was a good idea, we probably would have responded with something equally old-headed and puritanical. Luckily, nobody asked our opinion — someone from JBL simply handed us the Pulse 3 and asked us to try it out. Color us surprised: we had fun playing with the pretty lights.
JBL’s Pulse 3 is a Bluetooth speaker with a built-in light show. At first glance, it looks like a lantern — the upper two-thirds are made of translucent plastic, and the bottom third features a stiff fabric speaker grille, charging and aux audio ports, and control buttons. The Pulse 3 is about the size of a 1-liter bottle of soda and weighs just over two pounds — portable, but not something you’ll carry in your bag. It appears to be extremely well-built, with high-quality plastics, tight seams, and a generally solid feel. Our review unit was black, but the Pulse 3 is also available in white. Accessories in the box are minimal — though we would have thought a soft protective pouch would have been a nice addition, just a USB cable and wall charger are included. In our testing, the Pulse 3 held its Bluetooth connection to our iPhone to about 30 feet and played for about 12 hours from our iPhone at low to medium volume.
The Pulse 3 has an analog audio port, but you’re most likely going to be playing music over Bluetooth. No fancy Bluetooth codecs are supported here — no aptX or AAC — which is probably fine given the limited sonic abilities of a speaker like this (more on that later). Though volume, track, power, Bluetooth, party mode, and light effect functions can be controlled with the dedicated buttons on the back of the Pulse 3, the buttons are flush with the speaker housing, and only some are backlit; this makes it difficult to tell what button is being pressed without looking. This is no problem in practice, as all the Pulse 3’s functions can be easily controlled from an iPhone using its built-in controls and JBL’s companion app.
The JBL Connect app is a free download from the app store, and is generally snappy and well-designed. When prompted, the app will discover the connected Pulse 3 over Bluetooth and display battery level, a brightness slider, and access to the Stereo and Party modes, which allow you to sync multiple JBL speakers wirelessly. Where you’ll spend most of your time, though, is selecting between light effect modes. Seven preset modes are offered — Rainbow, Jet, Wave, Fire, Rave, Explosion, and Equalizer (which is actually a spectrum analyzer but we let that slide) — and a mode that lets you customize light patterns from nine optional patterns. In each mode, users can set light color from a palate or using the iPhone’s camera. We tried the camera capture feature, but ultimately preferred the vibrant colors that the Pulse 3 produces on its own. A cool detail: the speaker’s volume level is also indicated using the speaker’s lights; as volume is increased, the lantern portion fills from bottom to top with light, changing from purple to green to yellow along the way.
At the top and bottom of the Pulse 3 are a pair of 1.5-inch passive radiators, which really do a great deal to move air and improve bass impact from the Pulse 3. JBL promises “360-degree sound” from the Pulse 3 — the speaker configuration is not visible, but it’s fair to say that neither the Pulse 3’s speaker nor its light show are directional — the experience is the same from all sides. Still, it’s clear that the lights are really the main attraction here — the Pulse 3 can certainly get loud, but its sound is a little underwhelming. Bass hits hard, but isn’t very well defined; some low-end frequencies resonate, others “thup.” Highs and female vocals come through clearly, but male vocals and midrange sound distant and thin. To be fair, we don’t expect an audiophile experience from a speaker this size; just as the Pulse 3’s lights are not intended to be a high-definition display, its small drivers are not going to replace a dedicated audio setup. The Pulse 3’s lights and sounds are best for creating atmosphere, which is exactly what you want when hosting a party, hanging out in a park, or just casually listening with some music in the background.
The Pulse 3 has some potentially impressive features that we were not able to test. Users can sync up to 100 Pulse 3 speakers — or any combination of speakers from JBL’s collection — wirelessly, and even designate speakers as left and right channels for a better stereo image. We’re having a hard time imagining anyone spending the kind of money necessary to test the limits of this Party Mode, but we would have liked to try out the stereo feature — perhaps it could have improved the Pulse 3’s sound. Though nobody invited us to a pool party this month, we were able to verify that, true to its IPX7 rating, the Pulse 3 can survive underwater and will float. We were surprised by the lack of a simple “lantern mode” on the Pulse 3; we think that many users would like to be able to simply choose a color and brightness level and enjoy a static soft glow.
In most of our audio reviews we’re listening for detail and clarity, unique presentation, and a no-frills approach to high-quality audio. Though the Pulse 3 is, in many ways, the opposite of those ideals, who wouldn’t want to live in Pulse 3’s world of moonlit summer pool parties, each friend holding a speaker with flashing lights and thumping bass in sync? In the real world, however, the Pulse 3 is probably too expensive for anyone to pass out as party favors, at least considering the quality of its sound. Still, we had much more fun with the Pulse 3 than we expected, and it’s an extremely well-built product. If you’re looking to add some color to your casual listening experience, we think the Pulse 3 is a solid choice.
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Model: Pulse 3