Review: JBL Charge portable speaker and OnBeat Rumble dock

The JBL name is among the most revered in the audio marketplace. Since its founding in 1946 by James Bullough (love that middle name) Lansing, the brand consistently stood for excellence in the pro market. The company has been part of the Harman constellation for 40 years, and expanded into the consumer market, but its reputation has held fast. Now, JBL is pressing hard in the portable speaker and dock markets. Does the red square still stand for quality?

Charge Portable Speaker

The JBL Charge kills a number of birds with one stone. In particular, it is a small portable speaker that can connect to your music source via Bluetooth, or via a 3.5-mm analog input jack. It also provides a USB port that can be used as a charger (hence its name) for a phone or other device.

The cylindrical unit is made of plastic, except for a metal grille. Two 1-1/2 inch speakers fire forward through the grille, and there is an acoustic port (but no speaker) on one end. The other end sports the USB port behind a plastic plug. Two plastic strips on the bottom let you position the speaker horizontally, but if you're not using the USB port, you could position it vertically.

There is a power button on top, along with three LEDs that show battery level, and a volume rocker. The lower backside has a charging connector and analog audio input. My review unit came in a nonthreatening blue color; it is also available in somewhat more threatening gray, and a very tropical green. The unit is accompanied by a soft and stretchy neoprene carrying case, and an AC charger with USB cable.

Operation is simplicity itself. Hit the power button, and the unit automatically finds and pairs with a Bluetooth source. The button flashes blue if there's no Bluetooth connection, flashes blue and red while its pairing, and is steady blue when Bluetooth is established. The stereo amplifier is rated at 5 watts/channel. The unit is rated to play for 12 hours on its 6000 mAh lithium-ion battery. Charge time is about 3.5 hours. The unit measures about 3 x 7 inches. Retail price is $150.

As you would expect from such a small device, playback fidelity was limited. However, I have certainly heard far worse, and in fact, the Charge sounded pretty good. Auditioning tracks from Pink Floyd's Delicate Sound of Thunder at moderate levels revealed a clear midrange (with distinctly enunciated vocals), a reasonably warm lower end (note that I did not hear an actual low end), and a satisfactory (albeit rolled-off) high-end response. This is fairly typical of small speakers, but the sound was atypically redeemed by the bit of mid-bass warmth. On the other hand, the extended bass response on Pink's Blow Me One Last Kiss was largely absent; again, not a shocker given the unit's small size.

As expected, the sound quality degrades at high volume levels. The treble response becomes shrill, however the midbass manages to hang in there. Although distortion also increases, there is a surprisingly absence of clipping. I strongly suspect that the JBL engineers put some kind of limiter in the signal path to dial back peaks that would otherwise have clipped at the speakers.  All in all, not bad.

Playback sound quality via Bluetooth was equal to wired sound quality; this is almost certainly because the sonic limitations of the speaker eclipsed that of the Bluetooth connection. Finally, from a operational standpoint, I am disappointed that the USB port cannot function as an audio input.

Long playback time, decent sound quality, compact size, and last but not least – the ability to keep your phone charged - the Charge does it all. Amid a sea of small speakers, this one merits a look and a listen.

OnBeat Rumble Dock

The JBL OnBeat Rumble is an iPod/iPhone dock, and one of the relative few that supports the Lightning connector. Its sizable width (almost 18 inches) provides enough real estate for a decent transducer complement, and the accompanying fidelity and stereo separation that is lacking in most small docks.

The Rumble sports a cheery orange facade; in particular, orange fabric is behind a punched metal grille. The rest of the unit is housed in more sedate black plastic. Stereo playback is provided by two 2-1/2 inch speakers, and the bass is handled by a single 4-1/2 inch driver firing downward. The unit is raised up by its plastic case and a foot-strip of orange rubber; the rear is open, allowing bass to escape. An additional pair of acoustic ports on the back panel conceivably contribute to bass response. The amplifier is rated as 11 watts x 2, plus 28 watts for the subwoofer.

The Lightning connector is revealed when you open a spring-loaded hinged lid. A few buttons on the top provide for power, source/Bluetooth, volume, bass boost, and "club" EQ.  Bluetooth pairing is simple; just hit the button and let the dock and source do their thing. The same button selects the docked device or an auxiliary analog input; creatively, according to the source selected,the button lights up blue, white, or amber. Around back you'll find a headphone jack, auxiliary analog input, and USB port. As with the Charge, I am bummed that the USB port cannot function as an audio input. Power is provided via an external power-supply brick. Measurements are 17-13/16 x 6-11/16 x 8-13/16 inches. Retail price is $400.

Although certainly not a mandatory form of usage, as its name implies, the OnBeat Rumble is vaguely aimed at the DJ crowd; JBL reminds you that you can download any number of DJ mixer apps that let you play DJ using the Rumble for playback. You can also run JBL's MusicFlow app on a tablet that is paired to the Rumble; when using the app, additional EQ settings are enabled: wider stereo movie, rock, jazz, and gaming.

Sound quality was several notches above average. Given its premium price, this should not be surprising. Pink Floyd's The Wall sounded terrific (for dock playback). The high end was smooth and extended, the midrange was accurate with natural-sounding vocals, and the bass was – if not fathoms deep – extended and robust. In fact, the luxurious warmth of the overall sound soon endeared this dock to me. I also appreciated the really excellent stereo separation – far above what most dock listeners are accustomed to. In fact, I wonder if JBL is using some kind of processing to artificially (but effectively) expand the soundfield.

When coping with the copious amounts of bass in Pitbull and Shakira's Get it Started, the Rumble pumped out correspondingly copious amounts of bass; it did not shrink from the extreme bass content and even handled it at loud levels, with fully acceptable distortion levels. Moreover, the bass stayed punchy and impactful and yes – it successfully rumbled my desk. Good work, JBL.

The AAC Bluetooth connection (augmented by processing called "Harman TrueStream") sounded first rate. I generally could not hear a difference between wired and wireless playback. If there was a bit less dynamic range with Bluetooth, it was probably my imagination; I could not duplicate the supposed difference in informal blind listening. Don't be paranoid; use the Bluetooth; it's fine.

There are hundreds of docks on the market, and probably several dozen (the number growing rapidly) with Lightning connectors. The OnBeat Rumble lives up to its JBL logo and is therefore better than the great majority of no-name docks. The DJ thing is more marketing than reality; you shouldn't buy the Rumble either because you're a DJ or not buy it because you're not a DJ. It is, instead, a solid Lightning dock with excellent Bluetooth performance and a healthy serving of bass.

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