It’s that time of year again. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, temperatures are warming, and people are starting to move outdoors again. (Okay, fine, I know I live in Miami, but really, I feel your pain, Buffalo!) When I go outdoors, I love taking my music with me. JBL has two new products designed to take music to new locales, both indoors and out.
The JBL Micro Wireless, as the name implies, is a small, wireless Bluetooth speaker. It’s a mono system, and pairs instantly with any Bluetooth device. I paired it with my 7th generation iPod Nano and it was about as simple as could be. An LED flashed indicating it was on and pairing, then went solid once successfully paired to my Nano. The range was surprisingly good – line of sight I had at least 35 feet, less with walls in the way. The Micro Wireless has a built-in lithium-ion battery that provides up to 5 hours of playback from a single charge. There is a micro-USB port that is used for charging. I charged it using my laptop, but you can easily use a USB AC charger (not included.) If you want to use it without a Bluetooth-enabled device, there’s a cable connected to a 3.5mm jack to use with any device’s headphone output.
How does it sound? Well, it’s small, so even though there’s a bass port, there’s no bass to speak of. Holding it in your hand, you can feel it trying to produce those low notes, but alas, there’s nothing really down there. However, the midrange and treble are surprisingly clean and clear for such a small (1.58”/40mm) driver. I checked out Flo Rida’s Good Feeling, and the vocals were clear, but the pounding bass, well, wasn’t. It’s powered by a 3-watt amplifier, so it won’t blow anyone out of the water, but it does have the ability to daisy-chain a few more together for a more impressive sound. Obviously, it’s a mono speaker, so there is no stereo imaging. I brought mine outside while chillaxing and reading, and it provided nice background sounds.
For more serious listening, turn to the JBL Soundfly BT. This is also a wireless speaker that uses Bluetooth – there is also an Apple Airplay version. The Soundfly BT is an odd combination – it’s wireless for the audio connections, but it needs to be plugged in to power – there isn’t a battery onboard. I guess it can still be considered wireless because it’s designed to plug in directly to a wall outlet – no AC cable is needed. This is good and bad. The first place I wanted to use it outdoors had an outlet cover that made it impossible to plug this in. And, when I did find an outlet that I could use, the size of it made it impossible to use the other unused outlet. However, in most homes, you should be able to find plenty of places, indoors and out that can benefit from this little powerhouse.
The Soundfly is a slick device. Plugged discreetly into a wall jack, it is simple and clean – no buttons, knobs or switches. It uses capacitive touch-sensitive power and Bluetooth connect buttons with status LED indicators. It lights up instantly when plugged in and a pleasant voice announces that the JBL Soundfly is in pairing mode. Again, I was connecting it with my Nano, and as soon as it discovered the Soundfly on the Bluetooth menu, the voice announced, “JBL Soundfly is connected.” The voice was surprising at first, and without a volume control, I thought she was a bit loud. When I wandered out of range, she announced that Soundfly was disconnected. Helpful, but some might think it’s a bit obnoxious - there is also a blue light that indicates Bluetooth connectivity, and that would suffice for most users.
The sound of the Soundfly was surprisingly robust. It’s a powered system, so it supplies more sound than you would expect given its compact size (7-1/2" x 2-13/16" x 3-5/8"). It’s rated at 20 watts per channel, with two full-range speakers providing a very modest stereo image. It plays very, very loud, but uses JBL’s computer-optimized equalization (COE) and optimized compression topology (OCT) to provide the best sound from your MP3 or Apple library. I found it to be a little too compressed, and hard to find a listening level that was just right. Volume is controlled by your playback device, and the range between inaudible and overwhelming was quite small – I could never get close to listening to the volume set at 50%, even on softer, acoustic recordings. But, it’s not often that I can complain about a device playing too loud, so I can deal with this.
The frequency range is also surprising. The specs are 60 Hz – 20 kHz, and while not overwhelming, there is some bass notes. On songs with a natural bass sound, it was quite adequate. Phillip Phillip’s Gone, Gone, Gone had a nice, smooth impact, and his guitar and vocals soared. Similarly, on Calvin Harris’ Sweet Nothing, vocals from Florence Welch were clean and bright, but the heavy bass just wasn’t conveyed.
The JBL Soundfly BT is definitely the sonic superior of these two products, but you can’t beat the Micro Wireless for portability. The Soundfly’s need of a wall jack is turning up to be rather limiting, the more I use it. Throughout my home, the AC outlets tend to be behind bookshelves, dressers and microwaves, limiting placement options. And places that have an open, exposed wall jack aren’t exactly where I want to sound to be – a foot or so off the floor. However, the convenience of no cables and not needing a shelf can be appreciated, if you have an outlet that works for you.
Summertime is approaching, so any way you have to tear off those headphones and share your music with the world should be embraced. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.
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