Tom's Guide Verdict
The light-up JBL Pulse 5 brings a fun and captivation element to a Bluetooth speaker, but sound quality is unlikely to get the party started.
Fun light show
Sophisticated app control
Ambient 'white noise' sound playback
Heavier than most portable speakers
No auxiliary input
Real-world battery life runs short
Why you can trust Tom's Guide
Price: $249 / £229 / AU$379
Size: 8.5 x 4.2 x 5.2 inches
Weight: 3.2 pounds (1.5kg)
Battery life (rated): 12 hours
The JBL Pulse 5 is an attention-grabbing Bluetooth speaker that straddles the company's portable speakers and 'fun' party speakers ranges. As the latest addition to the company's burgeoning line up, the Pulse 5 puts on a few extra pounds compared to its light-up Bluetooth speaker predecessor. So much so, in fact, that it feels rather heavy compared to many of the best outdoor Bluetooth speakers I've tested — and at around 3.2 pounds (1.5kg), I'd be reluctant to sling the JBL Pulse 5 into my day sack for day trips.
As well as the larger size, the JBL Pulse 5 upgrades connectivity to Bluetooth 5.3 and claims incremental improvements to ruggedness and sound quality. From an external point of view, the Pulse 5 introduces a branding refresh with a bigger JBL motif rather than the small square badge adorned by previous versions.
The changes introduced on the Pulse 5 don't come cheap, though, and it costs $50 more than the price that its predecessor launched at. With the Pulse 4 is still available via online retailers, keep reading our JBL Pulse 5 review to find out whether this extra cost for the next-gen version is worth it.
JBL Pulse 5 review: Price and availability
The JBL Pulse 5 portable Bluetooth speaker retails for $249 / £229 / AU$379, which is considerably more than the JBL Flip 6 portable speaker I tested at home recently. Its dimensions are similar to the JBL Charge 5 ($179), but whether the Pulse 5's light show is worth the $80 extra is a moot point.
The Pulse 5 is available in black only, but the light show settings enable it to fit in with almost any environment when put into action. You can buy the JBL Pulse 5 directly from the JBL website or via online retailers including Amazon where it's currently available with a free case.
JBL Pulse 5 review: Design
Externally, the Pulse 5 has a clear plastic outer with inner 360-degree light sleeve. The lights can be activated via a control at the back of the speaker, or customized using the JBL Portable control app available for iOS and Android devices. There's a carry strap at the back just above the touch controls.
JBL's Pulse series designs haven't looked much like most regular Bluetooth speakers, but that's the idea. They're designed to stand out from the crowd and have an extra level of entertainment thanks to the built-in RGB lights that you just don't get with regular speakers. Simply dim the room lights and watch the Pulse 5's light show dance along to your music.
With the Pulse 5's lights off, though, the speaker looks pretty dull, and the plastic outer is a magnet for attracting sticky fingerprints. The Pulse 5 is larger and a good deal heavier than its predecessor, measuring 8.5 x 4.2 x 5.2 inches and weighing in at 3.2 pounds (around 1.5kg). And from the side, the woven carry strap and the speaker's cylinder proportions, make it look a bit like an oversized travel mug.
It sure is on the chunky side for a portable speaker design, but the extra dimensions should help to bring good bass levels to its performance. As such, the Pulse 5 claims a frequency range from 58Hz to 20kHz. Power handling is rated at 30W RMS for the woofer driver firing downwards from the bottom of the cylindrical speaker, and 10W RMS for the upwards firing mid/tweeter.
The Pulse 5 sports JBL's branding refresh, too. As with the Flip 6, there's a large JBL motif at the base of the cylindrical speaker, and there’s no doubt about who makes this speaker.
Dust and waterproofing are rated at IP67, meaning the Pulse 5 is protected from dust and can be submerged in up to 3 feet of water, which is up from the IPX7-rating of its predecessor.
JBL Pulse 5 review: Controls and connectivity
Physical controls at the back of the Pulse 5 speaker are limited to Bluetooth pairing, lighting, and PartyBoost, which links it with other JBL speakers. There's a USB-C port for charging and an LED strip indicates the battery level. There are no auxiliary jacks or ports for external inputs, so you can only connect via Bluetooth.
Users can choose from different light effects via a dedicated button at the back of the speaker that cycles through several preset options, but for full light display support you'll want to download the JBL Portable control app available for iOS and Android devices. Once the app is synched with Pulse 5, users can independently turn the main lights around the speaker body on or off, as well as the lights around the bottom of the speaker. There are also considerable customization options to tweak the color pallet to your tastes and mood, and adjust the style and frequency of the lighting effects as they shape to the beat of the music.
My experience with the Pulse 5's light show was fun, and the eye-catching effect created a comforting and captivating glow in a dark corner of my home office. I found myself obsessing over getting the light effect to work in perfect time with the music, though, and there was some latency with the initial stetting to the lighting effects on some high-BPM tunes I tried. Adjusting the Tempo control to max improved the light show timing.
Along with the comprehensive light show adjustments, the app provides access to the latest firmware updates, as well as ambient sounds that play relaxing white noise sounds on a loop. Users can boost or cut bass, mid, and treble frequency levels to tailor the sound to fit with their tastes and surroundings. It's a nice addition for anyone such as myself who likes to tweak the settings to get the best sound output possible. The PartyBoost tab enables the Pulse 5 to pair it with another JBL speaker to either mirror the sound, or assign speakers as a left/right stereo pair. JBL says users can pair up to 100 of its compatible speakers.
The Pulse 5 paired easily via Bluetooth 5.3 with my iPhone 12 Pro and maintained a strong signal around my home without drop out. I was able to play and select tracks from whichever music streaming service I was using on my phone from other parts of the house without any connection issues.
As with the JBL Flip 6 I reviewed recently, there's no voice assistant integrated into the speaker itself, but I found that Siri voice assistant was able to play/pause tracks on the JBL Pulse 5 without any issues.
JBL Pulse 5 review: Sound quality
I've spent a good amount of time listening to the physically smaller JBL Flip 6 portable speaker, and have been impressed by the sound delivery given the unit's small dimensions. The Pulse 5 Bluetooth speaker is larger, and as such I naturally expected it to sound bigger than its more compact and more affordable sibling, particularly where bass frequencies are concerned. Sadly, though, that's not quite the way it pans out.
The Pulse 5 did a solid job at pumping out upbeat tunes like Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" and Estelle's "American Boy," but the sound felt forced and didn't punch out bass levels quite as well as I hoped for. In fact, the frequency response sounds uneven, and made some elements of my music sound more forthright than others, while certain mid-bass details appeared to be missing all together.
The Pulse 5's 360-degree sound is a natural consequence of its upward firing mid/tweeter driver. This allows sound to radiate out from the driver in every direction, rather than beaming sounds towards you as with forward-firing drivers used in the majority of portable speaker systems. Configuring the Pulse 5 in this way means it can be placed pretty much anywhere in a room and sound consistent. The only thing to consider is whether you place it on or close to the ground, so that the mid/treble speaker is below ear height, or on a desk or worktop where I got a slightly mellower sound.
The placement height of the speaker relative to your position in the room, has a direct effect on the way the Pulse 5 sounds. Close up, the treble was overly detailed and bordered on sounding shrill and harsh at times. I also found that I needed to tweak the EQ settings from their flat factory setting to bring a boost to the lowest frequencies, and reduce the high frequencies in an attempt to achieve a better sound balance across the frequency range. Reducing the mid setting also helped to bring a bit more warmth to the JBL's overall sound balance as well.
JBL Pulse 5 review: Battery life
JBL says you can play the Pulse 5 for 12 hours on a full charge, which is the same as the Pulse 4. In reality, battery life lasted a little less than the claim with regular playback usage and the light show doing its thing.
Recharge time goes from dead to full charge in 4 hours, which seem a little on the long side. There's no quick charge mode. The battery level is displayed on the back of the speaker, and a USB-C charging cable is provided.
JBL Pulse 5 review: Verdict
While I wouldn't describe the JBL Pulse 5's sound quality as among the best I've heard from a Bluetooth speaker at this size, it did improve outdoors. As such, I could easily see this speaker as a useful companion on a family picnic or BBQ where something eye-catching is required to distract the kids. It could also be a useful addition to a kid's bedroom — although the battery might not be up to the job of running through the night if you're thinking of using it as a comfort light.
While I could be persuaded by the JBL Pulse 5's light show, sound quality is too compromised to make it worthy or recommendation for anyone seeking great portable audio. The light-up design is an attractive addition that is bound to have plenty of appeal, if that's your thing. But ultimately, the Pulse 5 sacrifices audio, and better performance can be found for less.
More from Tom's Guide
Find out how we test for more information on our reviewing procedures.
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As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.