JBL Pulse 5 Review: Fun to watch and listen to

Like e-readers, Bluetooth speakers are the apotheosis of a product form. It’s a single-use product that goes on and off and does exactly what you want – nothing more, nothing less. A portable Bluetooth speaker works anytime, with any phone, anywhere. You don’t have to find an outlet or have the right kind of cable. It works with Android and iOS. You don’t even need WiFi.

Smart speaker manufacturers have done their best to capture our imagination. And it sort of worked; My kids occasionally ask Siri questions, but mostly they ignore the existence of the HomePod Mini.

The JBL Pulse 5 cannot be ignored. The styling of this thing makes that impossible. When I got it I put it in the middle of the kitchen table, turned it on and watched the kids circle around it, ooh and aah.

It’s a beautiful, 8.5-inch-tall tube with an LED display that shines through smooth, clear skin. It is actually a lava lamp that plays music. You’ve never seen pure joy until you’ve seen 10 second graders run through your house, turned off all the lights in the house, and looked wildly around this thing while listening to Katy Perry. The price is outrageous, especially compared to other speakers of a similar size, but the Pulse 5 might be worth it just for the nice extras it packs.

Never break the chain

The Pulse 5 is the latest addition to JBL’s line of portable, light-up Bluetooth speakers. It’s slightly larger than the 2019 Pulse 4, among a few other differences. It has a thick, handy carrying strap and a slightly better build quality: dust and waterproof IP67, compared to the Pulse 4’s IPX7, which can only withstand water immersion. (This is a good thing because I just inspected mine and found broken crayons in the top aperture.)

The Pulse 5 also has Bluetooth 5.3, meaning it can connect to multiple phones. It can also connect to other JBL Bluetooth speakers using JBL’s PartyBoost. The feature is incredibly easy to use. Just press the Bluetooth connection button on either JBL speaker you want to pair and the two will instantly sync. You can pair two JBL speakers to get stereo sound, or keep adding speakers to make them all play the same. JBL claims you can wirelessly string together more than 100 speakers, but I haven’t been able to test that claim.

Here’s the first feature where the price tag starts to justify itself. Only certain JBL speakers support PartyBoost – alas, my beloved Clamp 4 doesn’t have it. However, I found a dusty one Flip 5 from 2019 in my gear closet, and it worked! If you’re a longtime JBL fan, you might also be able to create instant stereo sound by pairing this new speaker with your old one.

The vast majority of the speaker’s surface is clear plastic with a lighted tube inside. The speaker diaphragms are located on the top and bottom. The Pulse 5 also has high feet that are pleasantly soft, making it a real pleasure to set it down on hard surfaces. (Hey, I’ll take what I can get.) The speaker moves tons of air, and it can get really loud. Like, house filling loud.

The upper registers of the audio spectrum aren’t quite as crisp or penetrating as on other speakers of this size – or even the years old Flip 5 – but it’s hard to hold this against a ‘party’ speaker. Nicholas Benedetti Vivaldi recordings sounds strangely strangulated even after I increased the treble in the app. But you know, I don’t just listen to concerts on this thing at home. Robert Palmer sounds fine.

Shine bright

The lights in the Pulse 5 move along with your music and can be customized in JBL’s mobile app.

Photo: JBL

What really sold me are the lights. Light-up speakers can be a cheap gimmick – I’ve tried it versions where a minimal, colored, pulsating light ring added virtually no value to the speaker. But the Pulse 5 is beautiful. You can customize the lighting experience in the JBL Portable app by turning the lights on the main panel on or off, as well as the lights coming out of the bottom.

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