JBL Charge Review: Solid Sound with Power to Spare

Many portable Bluetooth speakers try to be more than just music playback devices, but the JBL Charge keeps it simple: there's no speakerphone, and no app to extend its ability. What you hear is what you get; the device delivers solid sound for a $150 Bluetooth speaker. But it's called the Charge for a reason, as the JBL doubles as a backup battery for your smartphone.

Design

The Charge's 6.9 x 2.9-inch cylinder is slightly smaller than that of its illuminated cousin, the 7.15 x 3.11-inch JBL Pulse, though they both weigh 1.1 pounds. Whereas the Pulse is wrapped in LED lights, the Charge has a thick plastic skin to help it withstand the bumps and bruises of the outdoors. However, the Charge isn't IP rated, meaning you shouldn't get it wet. By comparison, the UE Boom can stand a splash of water, while the Fugoo Style can be submerged for 30 minutes and still function.

The Charge keeps it simple when it comes to design as well as features. The unit sports a power button, volume button and battery indicator on the top. One end has a bass port that helps produce better low tones than similar speakers. On the other end, a cap hides the Charge's secret power. The USB port underneath can charge a mobile device; think of it as a battery backup that can play music, too.

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The Charge we tested came in gray and black, but you can also order this speaker in green, gray and blue. A neoprene case ships with the Charge to protect it when not in use.

Setup and Use

The Charge paired quickly and easily with iOS and Android devices. To put the speaker into discovery mode, hold down the power button until you hear a repeating sound and the light flashes from blue to red. On an Android device, you just have to go to Settings and look for the speaker listed in Available Devices. In iOS, go to Settings > Bluetooth, where the JBL Charge should appear under Devices.

The Charge also features a 3.5mm auxiliary input for connecting directly to your device's headphone jack.

Audio Performance

Thanks to its two 1.5-inch drivers and a bass port on one end, the Charge pumps out much better sound than other portable Bluetooth speakers that cost $150, such as the Philips Shoqbox, but it can't compete with $200 models such as the UE Boom and Fugoo Style.

The Charge is particularly strong in the midrange tones, where most vocals live, and it also delivers deep bass tones, which many Bluetooth speakers eschew. The bass and midrange together added depth to St. Vincent's "Digital Witness" and Lorde's "Team," both of which rely heavily on low-end effects and vocals.

However, the Charge lacks the high-end that rounds out the musical spectrum. Beck's acoustic guitar on "Heart Is a Drum" lacked the crisp plucking of strings that we heard on the Fugoo, while the saxophones on Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" sounded thin.

The Charge is still much better than the Philips Shoqbox, which produced almost no bass and little treble. The JBL also bested the Jabra Solemate, with better overall sound quality.

Note that the Charge sounds best when the JBL logo on the front faces the listener; its closed back muffled the sound in our testing. This directional sound would hinder sharing your music at a party, a problem that does not afflict the omnidirectional UE Boom and Fugoo.

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Battery Life and Charging

JBL says the Charge's 6,000mAH Li-ion rechargeable battery will last for 12 hours of audio playback. We listened to the unit for several hours over the course of a week, and it still displayed two out of three on the battery indicator.

Of course, if you use the Charge as a battery to power your mobile device, expect less audio playing time. Using the bottom-mounted USB port, we found that the speaker can fully charge an iPhone and still have enough power for several hours of music playback.

Verdict

The JBL Charge offers solid sound performance for a $150 portable Bluetooth speaker. No other device in this price range sounds better. While the Charge lacks the features that some others $150 speakers include, such as a speakerphone or weatherproofing, the option to power your mobile device means you can keep the party going without worrying about your player running out of juice. If you can spend $50 more, we'd recommend the Fugoo, which has superior sound, a speakerphone and is waterproof. But if you're on a tighter budget, the JBL Charge is a very good option.

Follow Michael Gowan @zebgowan and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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