Which JBL Bluetooth Speaker Should You Buy?

From a large boombox to a tiny clip speaker, the company offers a variety of portable options. Here's how to choose a JBL speaker.

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JBL portable bluetooth speaker Photo: JBL

JBL has a long history in the audio business—the company was founded in the 1940s and made the speakers used onstage at Woodstock in 1969—but now it’s mostly known for portable Bluetooth speakers in a wide range of styles and prices.

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Consumer Reports has tested a number of JBL models, and testers have generally found them to be easy to use and versatile with good sound. But there are quite a few of them, and choosing the right one can be confusing—especially since JBL has stopped making some good speakers that are still available from retailers. The listings below should help. (Note that the company has discontinued its smart speaker models, but you should look for replacements some time in 2022.)

Like all products with Consumer Ratings ratings, these speakers are tested in labs by trained technicians. The models were all purchased through normal retail channels—no freebies for us.

JBL Xtreme 3

Who it’s for: Someone looking for a fine-sounding portable speaker, even if it’s not all that portable.

What’s to like: The JBL Xtreme 3 is one hefty hunk of speaker, a tiny bit bigger and a little lighter than its predecessor, the Xtreme 2. In any case, you might be surprised at how large it is when you see it in person. The Xtreme 3 sounds slightly better than its predecessor, too, although it’s very close in overall character. Like the Xtreme 2, the 3 has strong bass that goes fairly deep—but was somewhat boomy and lacked natural instrument detail compared with better performing speakers we’ve tested. It can play loud enough to fill a medium- to large-sized room. The Xtreme 3 features an internal power bank that can charge other devices and JBL says it’s both dustproof and water resistant to 3 meters, but CR doesn’t test those claims.

What’s not to like: Did we mention that it’s hefty? At more than 5 pounds and almost a foot long, the Xtreme 3 is quite large and heavy for a portable speaker. And unlike other large portables (see JBL’s Boombox 2), it lacks a handle; you’ll have to make do with a shoulder strap. That shouldn’t be an issue if you plan to use the Xtreme 3 indoors or in your backyard. But if you plan on hauling the speaker around town, the smaller and lighter Charge 4 might be a more suitable traveling companion.

JBL Boombox 2

Who it’s for: A music lover with a retro style sensibility who’s all about the bass.

What’s to like: The JBL Boombox 2 is a satisfying sequel to JBL’s original Boombox. And like its predecessor, the Boombox 2 channels the giant beatboxes that the cool kids—and even LL Cool J—carried around in the 1980s and ’90s. But while it exudes old-school style, the Boombox 2’s tech is decidedly modern, with solid Bluetooth streaming and a 10,000-milliamp-hour rechargeable battery that’s said to last 24 hours and can serve as a power bank for charging other devices. JBL says the Boombox 2 meets IPX7 water-resistance standards, so the speaker should stay safe from a significant splash or even a modest dunking, though we didn’t test that. Our testers find the new model to sound very much like its predecessor. The Boombox 2 is both loud and clear, with enough volume for a large room or an outdoor space.

What’s not to like: The Boombox 2 features bass that can rattle the walls, and that’s not entirely a good thing. While our testers give the Boombox 2 a solid rating for sound quality, they add that the bass can be overwhelming on certain kinds of music. While it might be just the thing for an outdoor dance party, the Boombox 2 can sometimes deliver too much low end for a small bedroom or home office.

JBL Xtreme 2

Who it’s for: A bass fan looking for a loud speaker that’s likely to stay in one spot.

What’s to like: The Xtreme 2 looks a lot like other modern Bluetooth speakers, but it’s significantly bigger than the models you’d toss in a beach bag. The sound quality ranks toward the top of our portable speaker ratings with strong bass, though our testers found that it falls a bit short compared to the new Xtreme 3. The bass is a bit too prominent, but it does deliver enough volume to fill a rather large room. The Xtreme 2 has an internal power bank that can charge other devices, and it’s reported to be water resistant to 3 meters, a claim that CR doesn’t test. It also includes a speakerphone feature that was dropped from the Xtreme 3.

What’s not to like: At more than 5 pounds and almost a foot long, the Xtreme 2 is kind of cumbersome for a portable speaker and it lacks a carrying handle. As with the Xtreme 3, the Xtreme 2 isn’t really ideal for music on the go.

JBL Charge 4

Who it’s for: The fan of music alfresco in search of a Cinderella speaker that’s not too big or too small.

What’s to like: Think of the Charge 4 as the smaller sibling of JBL’s Xtreme 3. Our testers find it easy to use, and its light weight and more modest dimensions make it a great choice if you’re looking for a speaker that you’ll be taking with you. Our testers find that the Charge 4 has admirable sound quality, and delivers enough volume for a midsized room. It also features an internal power bank to charge other devices. JBL says that the Charge 4 is water-resistant to 1 meter, a claim that CR doesn’t test.

What’s not to like: It’s not a drawback exactly, but if you have no plans to leave the house with your speaker, home models like the similarly priced Sonos One SL or the cheaper Ikea Symfonisk offer better sound quality for the money than the Charge 4.

JBL Flip 4

Who it’s for: Someone who does most listening on a home speaker and wants a high-value portable model for on-the-go use.

What’s to like: The JBL Flip 4 is a bargain. It lists for $100, and the street price is often significantly less. But don’t be fooled by the low price—this JBL is a lot of speaker for the money. The classic cylindrical design takes up relatively little space in a beach bag or on a picnic table. JBL claims a battery life of up to 12 hours, and the Flip 4’s claimed IPX7 water-resistance rating means that it can survive a dunking, which makes it perfect for the beach or any outdoor setting where a shower—or being dropped in the kiddie pool—is a distinct possibility.

What’s not to like: Compared with the best-sounding speakers we’ve tested, the Flip 4 has a few sonic shortcomings, with bass that’s a bit boomy and trebles that are somewhat subdued. But when played outdoors and in other casual environments a speaker like this is designed for, the Flip 4’s largely forgiving sonic signature encourages you to play tunes one right after the other.

JBL Flip 5

Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a really good, inexpensive portable speaker, and who’s not troubled by the Flip 5’s missing features, compared with its predecessor.

What’s to like: The Flip 5 is the very similar successor to the Flip 4 and it shares many of that speaker’s good qualities, notably the fine sound quality and overall performance at a low price.

What’s not to like: Our testers find the Flip 5 to be a bit less versatile than its predecessor. It lacks an aux input for plugging in an external device, and a microphone that allows the Flip 4 to function as a speakerphone.

JBL Charge 5

Who it’s for: A fan of outdoor dance parties who’s not troubled by the Charge 5’s missing features, compared with its predecessor.

What’s to like: Our testers find that the Charge 5 has many of the same good qualities as the Charge 4, most notably its satisfying sound quality. It’s easy to use, and able to deliver enough volume for a midsized room. JBL says the Charge 5 is dust-resistant in addition to being water-resistant like the Charge 4; these are claims that CR doesn’t test.

What’s not to like: Our testers find the Charge 5 to be less versatile than its predecessor. It lacks an aux input for plugging in an external device. Also gone is the microphone that allows the Charge 4 to function as a speakerphone.

JBL Pulse 4

Who it’s for: Someone who wants to see as well as hear their tunes.

What’s to like: The JBL Pulse 4 is a speaker that you don’t just listen to, but one that you can watch as well. Like its predecessor, the Pulse 3, the Pulse 4 has a transparent dome that covers an array of LED lights. The Pulse 4 looks less like a lava lamp than the previous model—that may or may not be a good thing—but it throws even more light. You can adjust the Pulse 4’s colors or make the LEDs pulse to the music. These adjustments are useful because they allow you to pump up the light show on Saturday night, or tone it way down to make the Pulse 4 an unobtrusive accent lamp after the guests have gone home. The sound quality is more than adequate, with solid but slightly boomy bass, a clear midrange that doesn’t distort vocals, and enough volume to fill a midsized room.

What’s not to like: You’re paying a lot for the Pulse 4’s visual effects. You might seriously consider buying the Flip 5 instead, and having enough money left over for a very nice lamp. Our testers also find the Pulse 4 to be less versatile than its predecessor, which had a mic for a speakerphone and an aux jack for plugging in an external device. They also report that its controls are a bit less easy to use.

JBL Clip 4

Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a cheap and cheerful companion for a hike or a bike ride.

What’s to like: The JBL Clip 4 is hardly the best-sounding speaker we’ve tested, but it does have two important things going for it—it’s inexpensive and it’s small. This tiny speaker fits easily into your palm and features a carabiner that can clip onto a backpack or a beach bag. JBL claims an IP67 rating, which means the speaker is both water-resistant and dustproof. Our testers found the Clip 4 to be easy to pair, and the prominent controls make it easy to turn up the volume.

What’s not to like: Sonically, our testers report the Clip 4 to be somewhat challenged. The highs are a little sizzly, the midrange is a bit nasal, and there’s not much bass to speak of. The performance falls well short of the similarly sized but significantly more expensive Bose SoundLink Micro, and is better suited to podcasts than music.

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.