Thursday, June 18, 2015

Review: JBL Charge 2+ where's the plus?

It's time for an update of the JBL Charge 2. After Bose added "II" to their new Soundlink Mini, Sony made an X33 out of the old X3, now JBL added a "+" to the new JBL Charge 2 which in contrast to the other two seems to be the better portable speaker for the upcoming summer especially because of its claimed water resistance. I thought I will do a detailed review of the Charge 2+ but after trying it out, I would say that it is the same speaker as it was before without the "+". Not much has changed or improved at all, therefore if you are really interested in all the details about the JBL Charge 2+ you can also read my original review of the JBL Charge 2, just simply ignore all my ranting about any distortion or DSP issues of the first version, as the JBL Charge 2+ has none of those problems. But when buying a Charge 2 you can always check if the latest firmware is installed. The latest firmware (1.4.1) finally fixed all problems for the Charge 2 as well and made both sound and perform virtually identical. If you have a JBL Charge 2 with the latest firmware, in reality you have a JBL Charge 2+ just without the alleged water resistance. The JBL Charge 2 can be meanwhile found for much less (Deutsche Telekom started offering it for 88€ recently), therefore I would rather go for the old unit, as I don't really believe any of the JBL Charge 2+ water resistance claims. If you are still interested jump in to read what has changed or what hasn't changed at all between the two.

Putting both side by side you will just notice the different new logo. They both feel the same, have the same materials, and even the ports at the back are completely equal. Despite the water protection of the new JBL Charge 2+ all ports are completely unprotected and exposed in the same way as they were before. If the Charge 2+ was really water proof or resistant or whatever, they would have covered the ports in some way like on most other speakers with some kind of water protection. The Denon Envaya Mini, the Infinity One and all the other speakers I know that are water proof have the ports protected by a flap or cover.

The only completely water proof speaker without any protection that I know is the Fugoo, but this uses special water resistant ports and I doubt the ones on the Charge 2+ are of that type, they still look exactly the same as before. I am not sure why the new one should be better protected than the old one, maybe they added an extra sealing or something, but I cannot tell this without taking both apart, just on looks alone and even sound, they are still the same. The new one comes in different colors that were not available before and you will also notice that the passive radiators are darker now.

Of course I wanted to know how both sounded. There were already some rumors on Youtube and elsewhere on the net that the new Charge 2+ should sound better, louder, etc. When I got the JBL Charge 2+ I still had 1.4.0 installed on my own Charge 2 but finally let it update by a nearby service center. The result was that with the latest firmware 1.4.1 my Charge 2 sounded nearly the same as the JBL Charge 2+.
The only noticeable difference is a slightly higher treble boost on the Charge 2+, but without direct comparison and switching back and forth repeatedly, you won't notice it at all, they still sound the same. With firmware 1.4.1 bass was slightly reduced on the Charge 2 and brought to the same level as the JBL Charge 2+. Even the loudness of the volume steps is equal now, as with the update my Charge 2 became slightly louder during the first volume steps which are completely matched to the Charge 2+ now. This means the Charge 2+ as well as Charge 2 are both not really comfortable to use at low levels. With an iOS device volume control is mirrored between speaker and streaming device and you are getting only 16 dedicated steps. While the first volume step might be too low, the second can be already too loud, the stepping becomes only finer from the 5th step upwards and during the last 3-4 steps there is hardly any change in overall loudness anymore. It really looks as if JBL deciced to apply an inverse logarithmic volume curve, totally absurd if you ask me, they did exactly the same with the Infinity One btw, so it seems to be a trend with their speakers and I wonder how some upcoming products from them will behave in this regard.
This remains a strong negative point and although I really welcome a synced volume control, as you always have the whole volume range available regardless if controlled through the speaker or through your player, JBL does everything to make this great option annoying. They haven't improved anything since the release of the JBL Charge 2, but could have definitely refined the volume-curve further since then.

I measured both JBL Charge 2+ (black) and my own JBL Charge 2 (grey) at all available volume steps and as you can see they are more or less equal, some slight differences might result in an inaccurate positioning or simply sample variation. The only obvious difference that is probably a result of different tuning is the higher treble peak from the Charge 2+. Overall loudness and overall sound quality remained exactly the same:

What's more impressive is the very low total harmonic distortion of the JBL Charge 2+ which is considerably lower than that of all contenders. I measured it at volume step 11, which corresponds to about 80% on the Soundlink Mini II, and compared to the Sony SRS-X33 as well as to the Denon Envaya Mini, the JBL Charge 2+ has less than 4% THD at 72Hz (black curve), while the Bose has the highest peak at 86Hz with 23%THD, the Sony SRS-X33 being worst with more than 55% THD at 61Hz and still 20% THD at 100Hz and finally the Denon Envaya Mini with a peak at 110Hz and 28%THD.

How does the JBL Charge 2+ sound? I would say that it still belongs to the best perfomers in its class. The bass doesn't reach that deep, like on the Sony SRS-X33 or the Bose Soundlink Mini for example, but the strong obvious peak at around 75Hz seems to compensate for this and makes the bass appear more punchy and stronger than it is in reality. The interesting thing is, that although there is some bass reduction at high levels, JBL managed to retain more bass at maximum volume with the JBL Charge 2 and 2+, than most other comparable speakers like the Bose Soundlink Mini II, the Sony SRS-X33, Denon Envaya Mini etc. as you can see in the following measurement that I composed with all of them when set to maximum loudness. The JBL Charge 2+ (black curve) has still the loudest response below 200Hz, with the high peak at 75Hz definitely giving it even more advantage over the others.

I also think that this noticeable basshump before rolling off is based on a psychoacoustic trick to fool the human ear of hearing more bass, at the same time JBL doesn't need to boost the lower bass part that much as Bose for example, and while the Bose starts struggling at levels above half with the bass becoming distorted (as shown in the THD-measurement) because the small drivers cannot quite keep up, the JBL is still going strong up to maximum volume. In contrast to the others JBL doesn't apply any loudness compensation at low levels, it measures always the same but interestingly it never sounds "thin", it is just that it won't sound as "fat" as the Bose or the Sony.
At high levels JBL also applies some more clever dynamics processing than the competition. The compressor starts kicking in from about 8-9th volume step but is still hardly noticeable, the good thing is that the compressor is set up with a very fast attack and lets the strong peaks rather unprocessed, you will still feel and hear all the kick-drum hits even at maximum volume, while Bose and Sony tend to iron them out with their compression algorithms producing rather a mushy result. You will notice a huge difference with Dance-music. The JBL will simply sound much more driving than all the others. The only other speaker that hardly applies any dynamic compression is the Denon Envaya Mini, but this one has less bass to begin with and therefore will sound thinner than the others. But with the Denon you will still hear the music nearly unprocessed even at maximum volume, while with the JBL you will notice pumping and compression effects. Of course the Denon has definitely some kind of limiter built in as well to protect any unwanted driver-overload, but this rather acts unnoticable in the background, with far less impact than the dynamic compression from all the other devices.
The mids are pretty flat on the JBL with hardly any coloration. It sounds really neutral and doesn't give you any strange sounding vocals. It is just the treble which sounds a bit metallic. I guess that the high treble peak at around 15kHz is to blame for this, but at the same time it is probably the reason that the Charge 2+ doesn't sound muffled at all even when listened off-axis. There is some treble roll-off above 9kHz which is boosted at 13kHz again, this is not optimal but overall JBL did a pretty good job with the tuning. Although the JBL Charge 2+ does not sound that neutral as the Denon Envaya Mini, the JBL sounds definitely more fun in most cases and just gives you the impression of listening to a larger speaker. It doesn't have the exaggerated bass of the Bose, but in contrast to the Bose the JBL Charge 2+ has everything under control with no distortion or farting on kick-drums etc, regardless of loudness level.
Despite 2 separate drivers, the JBL Charge 2+ sounds pretty constrained, you won't get any real sound stage out of it, the drivers are much too close to each other, and JBL doesn't seem to apply any stereo enhancing tricks either. It is rather a speaker to be placed somewhere and walk around, but not meant for critical listening with the speaker standing directly in front of you.

I also prepared a short video showing both JBL Charge 2 and JBL Charge 2+ in action, some even think to hear better stereo separation of the new Charge 2+. If you really think to hear any differences it is definitely just an illusion. In a blind test I probably wouldn't be able to hear the difference, although I noticed the higher treble peak indeed:

The JBL Charge 2+ is definitely a solid performer and currently one of the best in its price range. But all points of criticism from the JBL Charge 2 remain still valid for the JBL Charge 2+ as well because there was no change at all. First the very rough volume control at low levels. The Charge 2+ still only tries to connect to the most recent device only and ignores all other present devices, so that you have to force a connection manually every time. It is still standing pretty wobbly, hardly placeable on uneven surfaces. It happened to me several times that outdoors with some slight wind it was simply tossed over and landed on the lawn. Although my own unit meanwhile hit the ground several times now, it is still without any obvious damage. The unprotected passive radiators are often cause for concern for many owners or potential buyers, but meanwhile I am pretty safe to claim that the JBL Charge 2+ would also easily survive any unprotected transport, it is built really well.
On the plus side is the great battery life which will give you more than 6 hours at maximum volume, ability to connect with 3 devices at the same time and the strong acoustic performance with a punchy well tuned sound at all loudness levels. If you don't mind the slightly larger size, I would definitely choose the Charge 2+ over the Bose Soundlink Mini II, the Sony SRS-X33 etc. If you don't need the water protection which I would see rather disputable anyhow, lookout for a JBL Charge 2 on sale and you will get the same device just cheaper!

+ impressive overall tuning with a nice and natural frequency response
+ sparkling treble with wide dispersion
+ great punchy bass
+ manages to keep more bass at top volume than the competition
+ low distortion
+ synced volume control with the streaming device
+ far Bluetooth reach
+ long battery life
+ track control possible through the "call-button"
+ charging of external devices

- no real improvements over the old model
- water resistance questionable as all ports are completely unprotected
- very strong volume jumps at low levels, only 16 volume steps overall
- noticeable dynamics compression at higher levels 
- doesn't automatically reconnect to previously paired devices other than the last paired device
- social mode has to be activated every time after power-on
- status tones too loud
- doesn't stand very stable
- no protecting cover or bag included
- no advanced features like NFC, AptX, wireless stereo pairing etc...