We test our fair share of portable, splash-proof Bluetooth speakers. Most of them are relatively affordable, and many can fit in a small tote bag. The $449.99 JBL Boombox is different—it's portable, yes, but it's big and heavy, like the boomboxes of the 80s and 90s. All of this bulk isn't for show—the Boombox packs a level of power we rarely see in portable speakers, and the size of its drivers definitely contributes to that. Booming bass lovers will be thrilled, but there's enough high frequency to keep things balanced for everyone. It's not cheap, but JBL gets just about everything right, earning the Boombox our Editors' Choice award.Design
Available in black or forest green models, the Boombox is a hefty cylinder with a large built-in handle for carrying it around (or hoisting it up on your shoulder). At 10.0 by 19.5 by 7.7 inches (HWD) and 11.6 pounds, you probably don't want to carry it for extended periods of time. The Boombox has an IPX7 rating, meaning it can be submerged in up to a meter of water for a short period of time, so it can definitely be used by the pool and you don't have to worry about forgetting it outside in the rain.
The main barrel-shaped section of the speaker houses dual forward-firing 20mm tweeters beneath the speaker grille. Two 4-inch woofers deliver added bass depth—they're located on the left and right ends. The front face also houses an array of controls—there's a Bluetooth button, a power button, volume up/down (these work in conjunction with your mobile device's master volume levels), and play/pause (this button is also used for fielding calls and skipping forward when tapped twice). In addition to these controls, there's a Connect+ button for linking multiple JBL Bluetooth speakers.
The back of the speaker houses a covered connections panel—this cover must be closed in order for the speaker to remain waterproof. In addition to the connection for the included power adapter, the panel houses a 3.5mm aux input, two USB ports (for charging mobile devices using the Boombox's battery), and a micro USB port for firmware upgrades. There's also a control for switching between Indoor and Outdoor sound modes—in outdoor sound mode, the audio is essentially boosted in the bass range. There are no included USB or aux input cables, which seems like an omission given the high price.
The mic offers so-so intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word we recorded, but like most speakerphones, the sound was a little distant and clipped, and like most Bluetooth built-in mics, it was also a little fuzzy. The sound is perfectly suitable for communicating, but not if doesn't deliver superb clarity.
There's a free companion app, JBL Connect, which isn't necessary for operating the Boombox, but gives you some extra controls. You can switch the speaker into Party mode (mono) or Stereo mode (when it's grouped with other speakers), for instance. You can also switch between Indoor and Outdoor modes, disable the speakerphone, turn off the sound effects when powering up and down or pairing, and reassign the playback button to instead summon your connected phone's voice assistant. It's too bad there's no EQ—it's a pretty common inclusion that would mean a little more flexibility from a speaker that pumps out some powerful bass.
JBL rates the Boombox's battery life at roughly 24 hours, but your results will vary with your volume levels and your mix of wired and wireless playback.Performance
We tested the Boombox in Indoor mode—and trust us, it packs plenty of bass punch without the added push Outdoor mode provides. On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the Boombox delivers insanely powerful bass response. At top, very loud volume levels, the bass doesn't distort, though JBL deploys digital signal processing (DSP) to thin the lows out somewhat at top levels. At moderate, normal listening volumes, the bass presence is still quite intense. If you're looking for a portable speaker that sounds like it has a built-in subwoofer, this is the one to get. Those two woofers provide plenty of thump, and you can expect the Boombox to rattle walls and vibrate surfaces on deep bass tracks.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with little in the way of deep bass, gives us better sense of the Boombox's overall sound signature. The drums here get more bass depth than they need—this isn't exactly the most accurate sound signature you'll find. But many listeners will love the sound—there's some serious depth to the drums, but despite their heavy presence, the track has a solid overall balance. Callahan's baritone vocals get some powerful, rich low-mid presence, while the high-mids and highs are also quite sculpted, giving his voice some treble crackle and the keeping the attack of the guitar strums and higher percussive hits bright and clear. This is in no way a sound signature for anyone seeking an accurate representation of the mix—it sounds more like a club PA system, and plenty of listeners will be thrilled.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loops gets some tremendous added thump, beefing up its sustain, while the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with gusto, as well. Interestingly, it's the drum loop's thump and not the sub-bass synth hits that sound most powerful through the Boombox. It's usually the other way around—the drum loop tends to sound powerful but actually has more high-mid attack to it than bass depth, but not here. Thankfully, JBL keeps the high-mids and highs crisp and things remain fairly balanced, with clear vocal deliveries that manage to avoid sounding overly sibilant or be overpowered by the bass.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound vibrant and intense through the Boombox. Purists might scoff at the boosting here, which adds some body and bass presence to the lower register instrumentation, but the higher register brass, strings, and vocals are still the primary focus, and they get a bright, clear presence. This is a sculpted sound signature, but it maintains balance between lows and highs.Conclusions
If the bass boosting sounds like it might be too full for you, there are Bluetooth speakers that still deliver solid low frequency presence in this price range (and lower), but don't necessarily sound like they're packing a subwoofer. The B&O Play Beolit 17, Marshall Kilburn, Libratone Zipp, and Vifa Oslo are all excellent options.
But if you love booming bass and want to take it wherever you go, the JBL Boombox will not disappoint. The price is high, but you'll understand why when you hear it in action. The added versatility of being waterproof makes it a strong choice in this price range and earns it our Editors' Choice award.JBL Boombox
Bottom Line: The outdoor-friendly JBL Boombox delivers thunderous bass balanced with solid high frequency presence in a nostalgic design.
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