JBL Pulse 5 Review: Fun to look at and listen to

As e-readers, Bluetooth speakers are the apotheosis of the product form. It’s a single-use product that turns on and off and does exactly what you want it to do – nothing more and nothing less. A portable Bluetooth speaker works anytime, anywhere with any phone. You don’t have to look for an outlet or have the right type of cable. Works with Android and iOS. You don’t even need Wi-Fi.

Manufacturers of smart speakers have gone to great lengths to capture our imaginations. And it kind of worked; My kids occasionally ask Siri questions, but often ignore the HomePod Mini’s presence.

There is no ignoring the JBL Pulse 5. The writing of this thing makes it impossible. When I found it, I put it in the middle of the kitchen table, turned it on, and watched the kids roll it around, staring at it and sighing.

It’s a beautiful, 8.5-inch-tall tube with an LED display that shines through the smooth, clear skin. It’s basically a lava lamp that plays music. You’ve never seen pure joy until you’ve seen 10 second graders running around your house, turning off all the lights in the house, and walking around in this thing while listening to Katy Perry. The price is steep, especially when compared to similarly sized speakers, but the Pulse 5 can make up for the expense just for the fun extras packed inside.

Never break the chain

The Pulse 5 is the latest entry in JBL’s line of portable light-up Bluetooth speakers. It’s slightly larger than 2019’s Pulse 4, among a few other differences. It’s got a thicker, more comfortable carrying strap and slightly better build quality – it’s dustproof and waterproof at IP67, compared to the Pulse 4’s IPX7, which is only rated for submersion. (This is a good thing as I just checked mine and saw broken cranks in the upper diaphragm.)

The Pulse 5 also has Bluetooth 5.3, which means 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 both JBL speakers you want to pair and the two will sync instantly. You can pair two JBL speakers for stereo sound, or add speakers to have them all play the same thing. JBL claims you can connect more than 100 speakers wirelessly, but I haven’t been able to test that claim.

Here’s the first feature where the price tag starts to assert itself. Only certain JBL speakers support PartyBoost – unfortunately my favorite Clip 4 doesn’t. However, I found a Dusty Flip 5 in my gear rack from 2019, and it worked! If you’re a long-time JBL fan, you can pair this new speaker with the old one to create stereo sound.

Most of the speaker’s surface area is clear plastic with a light tube inside. The diaphragm of the speaker is above and below. The Pulse 5 also has long legs that are satisfyingly squat, making placing it on a hard surface a positive pleasure. (Oh, I’ll take what I can get) The speaker moves ton Air, and can be very loud. Like, filling the house loud.

The upper registers of the audio spectrum aren’t as clear or punchy as those on other speakers – or even the Flip 5 – but it’s hard to capture this on a “party” speaker. Nicola Benedetti’s recordings of Vivaldi sounded surprisingly strangled, even once I turned up the treble in the app. But you know, I’m not alone at home listening to concertos on this thing. Robert Palmer looks good.

Relatively bright

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

Photo: JBL

What really sold me were the lights. Light-up speakers can be a cheesy gimmick—I’ve tried versions where a small, colored, vibrating ring of light added no value to the speaker. But the Pulse 5 is gorgeous. You can customize the lighting experience in the JBL mobile app, turning the main panel lights on or off, as well as the lights from below.

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