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Lifewire / Jason Schneider
Stunning, customizable light show
Solid, 360-degree sound
Surprisingly good value
Prone to scuffs and scratches
No Bluetooth 5 or fast charging
The JBL Pulse 3 a speaker as much as it is a grab-and-go party machine. Come for the light show, stay for the solid speaker performance.
The JBL Pulse 3 is a stunning Bluetooth speaker, both because of its sonic response, but also visually. Sitting somewhere between a portable Bluetooth speaker and a digital lava lamp, the Pulse 3 is meant holistically as a party machine—a small speaker you bring out to the pool during the summer or use during campfire gatherings. With app connectivity, a customizable RGB light show that syncs up with your music, and surprisingly capable battery life, this might just be the flashiest option in the portable speaker game.
Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky, and I was preparing myself to scoff at the Pulse 3, but from the moment I turned it on throughout the following week of real-world testing, I was continuously impressed with what this it could do.
There’s no way around this: the most unique part of the Pulse 3 is the LED light show the speaker puts on. We’ve all seen lights syncing to music, from the psychedelic concerts of the ‘70s all the way to the stock “visualizer” on Windows Media Player from the early aughts. Light shows synced up to your music aren’t new. And yet, JBL has managed to do something that feels fresh here.
About 2/3rds of the Pulse 3’s chassis consists of glossy cylindrical light diffuser shell. When the speaker is off it looks like an opaque dark gray piece of glass. But when you turn the speaker on, this speaker really comes to life. Because the diffuser cover is so thick, the columns of RGB LED lights underneath don’t look distinct—they’re more like soft orbs that blur together. This lets JBL create jaw-dropping patterns through the “screen” that range from soft rainbow gradients that ebb and flow with your tunes to cool EQ visualizations that feel like mini EDM shows.
The rest of the design feels very JBL—pulsing subwoofers on either side of the unit, the tight-knit cloth grille around the bottom, that bright metallic orange JBL logo, and a small set of controls on the back. It’s important to note that this speaker is also quite a bit larger than the more popular Flip series (basically double the width and a solid few inches taller). This has implications on the portability, but it also does make the speaker look bulky. This shouldn’t visually be an issue very often, especially at night, and it’s likely a trade-off JBL made to accommodate all the tech that’s under the hood of this beast.
Because the opaque diffuser that softens the LEDs is extra thick-feeling, I’m not concerned that it will physically crack very easily, but because it does sport a glossy finish, it is certainly prone to scrapes and scuffs.
Most Bluetooth speakers that sit in this cylindrical footprint feel very dense, and that’s by design. These speakers put a premium on being small and unassuming, making them easy to fit inside a backpack on your way out the door. The Pulse 3 is quite a bit more massive than the Flip series. It measures almost 9 inches tall and almost 4 inches in diameter. This puts it in a size category closer to a large thermos, rather than a small water bottle and makes it significantly less portable than most of the other cylinder-style speakers out there.
One surprising fact is, even though the speaker is thick and bulky, it’s actually only about 2 pounds in weight. Because of this, it actually feels lighter than you assume. Either way, this isn’t the speaker to leave in your bag just in case—it’s the one you intentionally bring as a visual focal point.
Unlike other speakers in the category, how the Pulse 3 looks, and how it functions visually are almost as important as what it sounds like. Therefore, small scuffs and dings on the outside will actually affect your enjoyment of the unit. It was for this reason that I was extra precious carrying this speaker around.
Because the opaque diffuser that softens the LEDs is extra thick-feeling, I’m not concerned that it will physically crack very easily, but because it does sport a glossy finish, it is certainly prone to scrapes and scuffs. And those scuffs will likely affect the pristine smoothness of the light show. So, even though the thick rubber on either end and hearty chassis on the Pulse 3 is just as substantial as all the other JBL speakers, I recommend being very careful with it.
With that said, this speaker will continue to operate through rough treatment. The diffuser feels like it serves as an impressive buffer to the inner workings, so you’ll likely have to really put the speaker through abuse to cause any technical damage. JBL has also put its standard rugged grille on the outside of the three-speaker array along the bottom, meaning your driver cones are protected well. There’s also IPX7 water resistance built-in.
Like most other JBL marketing, there are plenty of pictures with people submerging the speaker underwater for fun pool party antics. While this is technically fine (IPX7 denotes the ability to submerge your item up to 3 meters for as long as 30 minutes), these tests are done in a lab, and I don’t recommend submerging the speaker for fun. Overall, the paradox here is that even though the Pulse 3 feels very strong, abusing it will likely cause adverse aesthetic issues.
I’ve had great experiences connecting all of my JBL products, from Bluetooth headphones all the way to speakers like this one. The units ship ready to be paired and show up in your Bluetooth menu almost instantly. A long press of the Bluetooth button lets you enter pairing mode again without any guesswork, too.
The Bluetooth 4.2 protocol here is perfectly serviceable for outdoor use because you’ll have up to 30 meters of range as long as line of sight is maintained. Bluetooth 5.0 would have given a better experience and the ability to connect to multiple source devices, but it isn’t a deal-breaker. I also found that using the Pulse 3 as a speakerphone was a really helpful use case for me as it allowed me to have clearer, fuller phone conversations. With a category like this, no news is usually good news, and I can confidently say that the connectivity here is great because it just works—nothing more, nothing less.
Is this the best-sounding Bluetooth speaker in JBL’s lineup? Not really. Does it sound great for most types of music and most applications? Yes. At 20W of continuous power, it isn’t exactly the loudest portable speaker out there, but I’m impressed by both how loud it gets, and how well it maintains its sonic integrity at those higher volumes. The frequency response covers 65Hz to 20kHz, giving you plenty of coverage, but lacking a bit of literal bass.
At 20W of continuous power, it isn’t exactly the loudest portable speaker out there, but I’m impressed by both how loud this thing gets, and how well it maintains its sonic integrity at those higher volumes.
However, thanks to the side-firing subs and the clever porting that JBL is known for, the resonance carries nicely on the low end. One quirky thing is that this speaker sounds ever so slightly muddy when you put it upright on a table (which is all but encouraged by the lava-lamp-style design). You’ll get a slightly more even sound by putting it flat and sideways, but then the light show looks weird. It’s something to consider, for sure.
One key point with the Pulse 3 that is perhaps a selling point you hadn’t thought of is that it provides really substantial “360-degree sound”. Now, a lot of speakers in this category purport to offer omni-directional sound, but only have one physical speaker firing in one direction (meaning they have to enlist clever directional porting to give you the illusion of surround sound). The Pulse 3 actually sports three separate 40mm drivers in an array that points out in all directions along the outer perimeter of the speaker. This means that this speaker really does give you an area-filling sound in all directions. An impressive offering.
The Pulse 3 actually sports three separate 40mm drivers in an array that points out in all directions along the outer perimeter of the speaker. This means that this speaker really does give you an area-filling sound in all directions. An impressive offering.
The battery life JBL says you’ll get out of the 6,000mAh battery is about 12 hours. Now, at first thought, a 6,000 mAh battery should give you more playback time, but I’m actually pretty impressed with that 12-hour figure considering how many LEDs are firing on this device and how many patterns you can have those LEDs fire in. Twelve hours is the standard estimate for many of JBL’s portable speakers, so to see it here isn’t actually disappointing—it’s a selling point.
I will say that after using this speaker in dark environments with the light show on full display, it felt a little closer to 10 hours of use—especially at louder volumes. As with any battery life estimates, that’s just what they are: estimates. So keep in mind that your totals will likely vary, especially if you’re listening to a lot of loud music. One downside here is the micro-USB charging port that charges the device in about 4 hours, which is much slower than you’d expect with something like a USB-C port.
The obvious extra feature for the Pulse 3 is the eye-catching visual show the speaker puts on, and you can actually cycle through a variety of light pattern presets by pressing the light button on the outside of the speaker. But just like the rest of JBL’s flagship speakers, the Pulse 3 is compatible with the JBL Connect app, giving you some additional controls.
First, you can connect this speaker with other compatible JBL speakers in Party Mode (enlisting up to 100 speakers in a massive soundscape) or just as a stereo pair. You can also customize what some of the buttons do on the speaker, as well as update the firmware.
The real control functionality on the app deals with the lighting. You can cycle through the aforementioned presets easily in the app, but you can also customize those presets to center on certain colors. JBL has also put in a cool feature that lets you use your phone’s camera to take a picture of a color in the real world and map that to the RGBs on-board. You can even create an entirely custom light show, picking a variety of colors and patterns to show what you want.
While the light show is a bit of a gimmick, and a portable Bluetooth speaker might feel like something that’s hard to justify a high price tag, the Pulse 3 feels worth the money. The build quality is top-notch, the light show (and the customization it offers through the app) is downright impressive, and the speaker sounds excellent.
Because the Pulse 3 is technically the previous generation, you can snag this speaker for as little as $149, nearly the same price as the Flip 5, which doesn't feature any light options. The Pulse 4 is available, which offers slightly better battery life and is a better, even more durable form factor, but that will run you about $250. So now is a great time to get a solid deal on a truly premium-feeling device.
There actually aren’t a whole lot of direct competitors to the Pulse series, as most portable Bluetooth speakers don’t try to provide a meaningful LED lighting component. Because the Pulse 3 gives you a great value, I actually think it compares well to the Soundcore Flare+ (view on Amazon)—a premium offering from Anker.
For about $100 you get a great-sounding device that doesn’t quite offer the same lighting customization and isn’t quite as durable. But because it’s Soundcore, the battery handling will likely be better and the sound should be pretty serviceable. If you can shell out the extra $50, I think JBL has the edge here, though.
A lot of fun listening time with some visual appeal.
As someone who prides themselves in high audio standards, I am surprised at just how much fun I had with the JBL Pulse 3. It isn’t quite the best-sounding speaker out there, but it still sounds great. It also doesn’t offer the best battery life around, but it will get you through a party. What it does well is it serves as a party centerpiece. When you want a light show, it’ll provide a ton of entertainment on a picnic table, and it will get plenty loud with its omni-directional-firing speakers. And it does it all for a pretty reasonable price.