Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: JBL Flip 3 - the UE Boom killer

According to JBL the Flip together with the Flip 2 are their most popular portable speakers. To tell the truth, neither of them really managed to impress me. They were rather tinny sounding, the first version had also quite harsh treble response with some honky upper bass boost, although the second version was smoothened out a bit, it still sounded far from impressive and the battery life was pretty underwhelming as well. Now JBL came up with a completely new design more similar to the new JBL Xtreme or JBL Charge 2. Let's have a look if the JBL Flip 3 (buy from amazon) is really an improvement over the predecessors.

The catchy title of my review was chosen on purpose. There are still lots of people who really think the UE Boom to sound good. Some even claim it to be the best portable speaker available. With so many great alternatives on the market right now, I cannot quite follow their attitute, but if you really like the sound of the UE Boom, the Flip 3 is a much better sounding speaker, besides being cheaper as well. Although the JBL Flip 3 still has some design elements of the previous Flip models, it is pretty obvious that it rather aims at directly competing with the UE Boom.

The main features of the JBL Flip 3 compared to the predecessors are a much better battery. While the old models were claimed to last up to 5 hours, the Flip 3 should last 10 hours, but according to my own tests it will last even much longer if you keep the volume at reasonable levels. The Flip 3 has a tough textile finish similar to the UE Boom and it is water water resistant, although it shouldn't be completely submerged under water, you can still wash it under running water.

It supports multipoint pairing to 3 devices at once, and last but not least it can be paired with another one for wireless stereo or to double the sound, besides it can also be paired with a JBL Xtreme. These two speakers are the first JBL speakers to actually have JBL Connect integrated. The most important change though is probably the acoustic design. While the former Flips were ported bass-reflex designs, the JBL Flip3 uses dual passive radiators to enhance bass response. The amplifier delivers 16W which would be even more powerful than the JBL Charge 2, and my hope was that the JBL Flip 3 would be a kind of shrinked JBL Charge 2, smaller, cuter with slightly less bass. But before talking about the sound quality, let's first have a look at some details.

The Flip 3 is available in many funky colors. For my taste they all look pretty good, but initially I decided to go with black, as it would match my black JBL Xtreme best. In the meantime I returned the black and have a yellow unit now, more on this "exchange" later. As you can pair 2 of them and use them as a stereo system, the choice of different colours for both can definitely become tough. Yellow/blue, red/teal, black/grey, it would be interesting if JBL could once publish a list with the most popular colors. 
The Flip 3 comes within a stylish compact box. With exception of the speaker and a micro-USB cable you will not find much inside, just the common quick-guides, warranty cards etc. This means there is no charging adaptor included. But thanks to a micro-USB port for charging the Flip3 can be charged from any USB source. The Flip 3 has also an own cord mounted which acts as a carrying loop. I really love this loop as it makes the usage of the speaker much more versatile. I can attach the speaker to anything, or let it hang from other objects. When I go hiking with my son, I often tether the Flip 3 to our rucksack, or let it hang from my trouser-belt. Thanks to the loop there are endless possibilities how to utilize it, which is how a portable speaker is meant to be used.

There are so many "portable" speakers with glossy surfaces, or delicate brushed metal finishes which scratch immediately if put on stone or sand or even when carried inside a bag. I think the choice of materials for the JBL Flip 3 is really sensible. The textile finish is equal to the one used for the Xtreme. It really seems to be insensitive to any kind of wear.

The other parts of the speaker seem to be made out of some kind of soft plastic or maybe hard rubber, not this rough rubber you'll find at the UE Boom or Megaboom, which also tends to absorb scratches very quickly. The rubber material of the JBL Flip 3 looks much mure durable, it is also slightly transparent, which looks really cool when put against some light source.

As usual my son fell in love with the speaker immediately and of course after some time he managed to drop it on flagstone not only once. Although I was shocked in the first moment, after examining the speaker closer I couldn't find any sign of damage or dent, I wasn't even able to say where exactly it hit the ground. I wouldn't recommend dropping the Flip 3 repeatedly, but it seems to be built to taking some pounding. Doing so with the Bose Soundlink Mini managed to create a big dent into one of the edges, although it only fell on grass and not stone.
There are still the exposed passive radiators at the sides, but I think the fear of damaging them is exaggerated by many. Just be careful not to perforate the rubber suspension with some sharp objects. The radiators will even work well with a dent, besides they are covered by an additional rubber coating, so that they won't scratch that easily. Of course you must be careful how to place the speaker when in use. If there are nearby objects touching the radiators you will hear a rattling sound.

One of the main design elements of the Flip 3 is that it's completely round, but this design also comes with one of the biggest problems as the speaker has no stable base to be placed horizontally, it rather rolls away. There seems to be a slight centroid difference at the bottom part of the speaker, so that if you place it down as it should, it usually remains stable. You can also help by using the loop as additional support, just place it behind the speaker and it should prevent it from rolling around. If placed "correctly" the JBL logo should aim directly towards you. This way you will also have the drivers in best position, which will of course result in better sound, with better treble, although the Flip 3 is not a very directional speaker to begin with. You can even try placing it with the logo aiming exactly upwards. This way, you might lose some slight treble definition, but you can hear the speaker from any angle like that. It becomes a kind of 360° speaker and I would even say with better results than the UE Boom, because the UE Boom's 2 drivers facing the opposite sides of the speaker are extremely directional, resulting in big areas at the front and back of the speaker with a more muffled sound. There is no way to really get acceptable sound from all angles with the UE Boom, thus I really prefer the JBL Flip 3 placed like that, as it will give you a much better 360° experience although the Flip 3 was not designed to be 360° speaker at all. Of course when used like this it should be placed below the listener for the best dispersion. If you are sitting around with friends outdoors in a lawn somewhere, just put it on the ground in the center with the logo aiming up and everyone should get good sound. Placing it directly at the ground will additionally enhance bass response a little bit. Think of the JBL Flip 3 as a non 360° speaker with hidden 360° ability.
A more stable form of placement is to set it up vertically, thus the name "Flip", although I would have rather called it "Roll" maybe, but then JBL might get into problems with Ultimate Ears and their "UE Roll"..., but funnily the UE Roll does not roll around at all...
Of course when placed vertically you will lose any stereo separation, but I prefer this way of positioning when used together with another paired speaker for stereo. It simply stands and won't roll away thanks to some wind etc.

The overall design and user interface is well-thought-out. You have a distinct band at the back of the speaker which blends into the side fame and divides the textile covering. The band contains the power button and the JBL Connect button as well as the ports hidden behind some additional flap. All the other elements are located within the textile part beside or above the band (depending on how you look at it), these buttons are elevated and can be easily recognized as such without the need of looking. Here you will find the Bluetooth button, both volume buttons, and a combined call/playback button. This is the usual button for accepting or starting calls, or for starting music and skipping to the next track with a double press. Skipping backwards with a tripple press doesn't work by the way just like it didn't with the JBL Xtreme which is a pity. The band at the back also contains the battery indicator with 5 distinct dots showing the current battery state, diminishing one after the other until the last one starts blinking red or lighting up when the speaker is being charged. Similar to the JBL Xtreme the battery indicator is only a very rough guide and usually it takes quite long until you lose the first dot, but then it can become very quickly to go down from three to a red blinking one.

According to the specs the built in battery has 3000mAh, which doesn't sound much, but despite a half as strong amp and a similar battery capacity the Denon Envaya Mini delivers a much shorter run-time. I hardly managed to squeeze out more than 2:30 hours out of the Denon at maximum volume while the JBL Flip 3 played for 3:30 being much louder at the same time. At normal levels 10 hours and more are indeed easily doable, unlike the Denon where you will hardly reach 9 hours at levels close to half. Many even complain to only get 5-6 hours. The JBL Flip 3 has really a solid battery, I used it during our long hikes at higher levels and had to recharge it after some days only.

After powering on you will notice the same new welcome tones we already heard from the JBL Xtreme. They are simply much too loud. No idea who went for this brillant idea to include such striking tones, but forget to use the Flip 3 in quiet areas. Every time you turn it on or off, it will attract all attention: first you get this guitar slap when turned on, then you want to pair your device and it will play this repeated guitar note signalazing the pairing procedure and finally another guitar arpeggio is played when your device is finally connected. Too many tones and much too loud tones for me and I hope JBL will once decide to give the user an option for disabling them, but from what I heard Harman tries to serve all different markets and many asian areas are simply seem to be crazy about this kind of bling-bling stuff.
The entire bluetooth functionality is completely equal to that of the JBL Xtreme. Fhe Flip 3 can connect to three devices at once. Devices that were already paired can simply select the Flip 3 as destination and it will automatically connect, even when another connection is already active. Each connected device can "steal" the playback from another one, this means that when one device is currently playing music while another connected device receives an SMS and plays back a tone, the playback will interrupt because the Flip 3 will rather play the SMS-tone from the other device.
As with all JBL devices so far, automatic reconnection doesn't quite work. It always tries to connect to the latest connected device only, but ignores all other ones, even when the last connected device is not present. You always have to force a manual connection from the other devices in such a case. Other speakers have no problems finding all other paired devices, let's hope that JBL will update this strage as well with some future firmware. The Flip 3 seems to be user upgradeable either through USB or through the own JBL Connect app available for iOS and Android. Therefore upgrading the speaker shouldn't be such a hassle as it was with the JBL Charge 2. Apart from that Bluetooth connection remained pretty stable with a reasonably far reach, I had no issues with hickups or connection drops etc.
Volume is mirrored between speaker and streaming device, at least with iOS devices, but also Sony players like the A15 or Sony Xperia mobile phones have mirrored volume control. It is just all other Android devices that still have a separate volume control. Usually mirrored volume control is very useful as you have the entire volume-range available from both player and speaker. This way dynamic sound adjustments can also be fine tuned better by the manufacturer, as they can tune the sound for each single step to get out most of the speaker. Many speakers simply sound different when set to maximum volume, while the volume of the player is rather set low, which would rather result in bass-loss, other speakers do the exact opposite (the Damson Vulcan or TDK Trek Flex come to my mind here) which will only play full bass when turned up completely. Unfortuantely in case of the Flip 3 the mirrored volume control failed a little bit. The Flip 3 has only 16 volume steps unlike the Xtreme which has 32. But the bigger problem is that the very 1st volume step is already pretty loud, it is comparable to volume step 30 of the Denon Envaya Mini, which has 100 steps.

With the mentioned streaming devices you simply have no way to turn the speaker even lower, a big oversight by Harman. This is strange because already the JBL Flip 2 was a disaster in this regard. The Flip 2 also had mirrored volume control, but it already reached half volume half way, the last 8 steps didn't increase volume really much. Now they seem to repeat the same error again, but with another result. I really hope JBL will provide some update for this as well. This problem becomes even more obvious if you intend to use 2 Flip 3 connected together for wireless stereo or for "party mode". Two will be even louder than a single speaker thus at the lowest volume setting they can be too loud for simple background listening.
As already described in detail for the JBL Xtreme review, the JBL Flip 3 also has the ability to be paired to another speakers that supports "JBL Connect". So far only the Xtreme and the Flip 3 have this option, but upcoming JBL products will certainly have this option as well. If you want to know more about JBL Connect, have a look at my JBL Xtreme review, or watch this video, where I try demonstrating the functionality:

Now let's have a listen how it sounds. If you expect a droning bass like from a Bose Soundlink Mini, you will be probably disappointed, but if you liked the UE Boom only missing some refinement, some more bass definition, better treble with a comparable overall loudness, the Flip 3 is definitely an upgrade and makes the UE Boom sound honky and cheap.
Obviously this is not a direct JBL Charge 2 contender. First I thought the Flip 3 would be a scaled down Charge 2, with slighty less bass etc, but it sounds much more different. It rather sounds like a Flip 2, but better, smoother, with less harsh treble and and more bass extension. I think that as the Flip series is the most popular speaker from JBL (at least this is what they claim in their videos) they didn't want to change too much, but simply improve on the existing sound. If they made the Flip 3suddenly sound like a Charge 2, they would probably scare off existing owners who might be interested in upgrading their older devices, but don't like bassheavy sound etc. But what JBL did is really make it sound like a Flip 2, just better and more mature, with better features and water resistance and also much better looking in my opinion.
The Flip 3 is still not a bass heavy speaker, it sounds just right, but doesn't reach that deep with bass like some others including the Bose Soundlink Mini, The Sony SRS-X33, The Charge 2 etc. The JBL Flip 2 is rather similar to the Soundlink Colour, although not as boosted and more natural sounding. Yet you get some real response down to 80Hz with everything below being rather negligible. The strongest peak is between 90-100Hz, still pretty impressive as most other speakers (including the UE Boom) have hardly any response at 100Hz anymore, albeit a stronger boost above, which makes them simply sound boomy without providing any real bass at all. I would rather compare the JBL Flip 3 with the Denon Envaya Mini, the Denon has still a deeper reaching bass and slightly more punch, but this is only noticeable at low levels. Besides some funky psychoacoustic tricks from Maxxaudio which enhances bass response even further, Denon also applies some loudness compensation and adds boost to lower frequencies at low levels, the JBL Flip 3 doesn't do this, therefore it may appear thinner sounding than the Denon at low levels, but it is still far from anemic sounding, it just doesn't have that strong "wow"-factor of the Denon, which together with the very spatial stereo enhancing algorithms really manages to create a huge sound. At levels close to half and above they are more or less on par in bass response, as the Denon starts reducing bass pretty soon. The Denon may have a smoother sound, the JBL boosts upper mids slightly but remains also clearer when listened off-axis. That's the reason why it will still sound acceptable when just placed on the ground with the drivers facing upwards. This way you can "misuse" it as a 360° speaker, the Denon becomes rather dull if not listened exactly from front. When listened outdoors the slight bass advantage of the Denon Envaya Mini is not noticeable at all anymore, I even prefer the Flip 3 as it manages to sound more punchy. Bassdrums have a more defined impact and it will play considerably louder, still with hardly any distortion or obvious processing. Of course it won't have much bass left at maximum volume either, but it will still sound better than the UE Boom reaching about the same loudness but with less distortion and less obvious dynamic processing. The UE Boom may be slightly louder on some tracks, but the Flip 3 sounds more restrained, the UE Boom produces obvious artefacts and distortion at maximum volume.
The Flip 3 keeps the same frequency response up to about its 10th volume step, as already mentioned there is no additional bass boost at low levels. From the 10th step upwards bass level is kept the same with everything above becoming louder, therefore the Flip 3 won't sound that full-bodied anymore when cranked, but it will still sound convincing. Take two Flip 3 and connect them for stereo, and the sound will become be even better.
Put against a JBL Charge 2, this will of course sound more impressive at first. Bass is boosted more and reaches deeper, but the Flip 3 has more natural sounding treble without this metallic character. Also mids sound more natural on the Flip 3, it is just the strong bass of the Charge 2 that is missing. I personally would have preferred the deeper response of the Charge 2, but without that obvious boost, this would really make the Flip 3 stand out. It stands out already now as it sounds considerably more serious than most other speakers in this class. It rather reminds me of a Fugoo, just cheaper, lighter and louder.
Before having a look at the frequency response measurement of the Flip 3, I would like to mention that I had tested 2 different units that I bought separately: a black one and now a yellow one. I ordered the yellow about a week after the black one, because my black one started to behave strange when put into the sun. After some minutes standing in the heat it started to distort and the passive radiators were pushed out, probably because of the higher air pressure inside when hot. You can see both my videos showing with this problem, my first video where I was still not sure if this was a general issue and an updated second video where I already had the chance to compare both units extensively.
The yellow unit doesn't have these problems even when put into the sun for some hours. Surprisingly I was contacted by Harman because of this and they assured that after having tested several samples especially in regard to this problem the issue was not repeateable, so meanwhile I think that the black unit I got might have simply been defective. Nevertheless I preferred the sound of the black unit, as long as it didn't become hot. The bass had a slightly stronger emphasis and at the same time the treble was smoother. The yellow unit has less bass-punch, while at the same sounding a bit more distorted than the black unit, as I could test both units side by side, these differences were easily noticeable, without this direct comparison you probably wouldn't have noticed any sound difference at all.
So let's first have a look at the frequency responses of both units at exactly half volume:

You can see a rather balanced and flat response with only some stronger treble boost at the upper end for the yellow unit. This treble boost was not existent on the black unit, but this treble peak is also responsible for some slight intermodulation at high levels with bass heavy tracks, something I didn't encounter with the black unit.
Looking at the entire available volume-range (black unit) it is also clearly visible from the measurement that the Flip 3 cannot keep the bass amount at higher levels, blue being half volume and red maximum volume. It starts to reduce bass from around 60% or above volume step 10:

Here a side by side comparison of both frequency responses for the Flip 2 (pink) and the Flip 3:

And of course the obligatory comparison against the UE Boom, which proves that the audio produced by the UE Boom is simply questionable, not even taking the price into account. You can see two measurments for the UE Boom, one with the speaker turned around to the side and only the left driver facing the microphone (blue), and another measurement with both drivers facing the sides (red) which results in an overly dull sound:

As usual I prepared some videos for you with binaural audio to be heard through headphones. First a comparison against the old Flip 2. Although they still sound similar, I think the improvement over the old model is more than obvious:

Another test against the UE Boom. The UE Boom sounds so strange and honky, probably also due to the fact that both drivers face opposite sites, but regardless how I turn it around, it never sounds really convincing. The Flip 3 easily outperforms it, although the UE Boom plays slightly louder with the demotrack used here:

Very interesting the comparison against the Denon Envaya Mini. While I would definitely give the edge to the Denon indoors and at low levels, at high levels the JBL Flip 3 sounds more impressive with more punch and more loudness:

The JBL Charge 2 sounds of course much more full-bodied, but starts to struggle at higher levels. You notice some stronger dynamic processing swallowing all peaks while trying to retain as much bass as possible. Nothing that you will notice with the JBL Flip 3 which in addition will play much louder at the same time:

For me the Flip 3 defines some kind of "standard" for a small portable speaker around 100€ (a German store had already offered it for 88€). I have yet to hear a better one in this class, sure the JBL Charge 2 will play more bass heavy, another one might play even louder, although the loudness of the JBL Flip 3 is already pretty impressive without falling apart at its maximum volume, but the Flip3 is tuned really well and as common for JBL tasteful to sound natrual while still offering a bit of liveliness and quite a bit of punch in the bass, which is often so much missing from speakers that small. You won't mistake the Flip 3 for a bigger speaker, it definitely doesn't try to play beyond its size or limits, but the sound is still fullbodied enough with a nice bass amount to really make listening to music satisfying, unlike many other competing models inlcuding the highly rated UE Boom, which simply cannot compete in regard to overall sound quality.
The Flip 3 is compact enough to be carried around all the time, fits in a bigger trouser pocket or thanks to the included loop can be attached to a belt, a rucksack or just hang somewhere. I really love the design and the choice for many different colors should meet everyones taste. I would regard the Flip 3 as a kind of "Volkswagen" among portable speakers. A speaker that is affordable, but delivers solid performance without obvious flaws.
JBL really packed this speaker full with features. The battery life is great, although it won't come close to that of the JBL Charge 2, which has twice the capacity. But you should never worry about running out of juice, as it was mostly the case with the Denon Envaya Mini.
A very neat feature is JBL Connect, to use 2 Flip 3 as a stereo system, or to use a Flip 3 together with a JBL Xtreme to enhance its sound even more, or to act as a back-speaker to provide more of a 360° sound experience.
The JBL Flip 3 gets my strong recommendation for anyone looking for a perfect all-around portable speaker that can be used outdoors or even become wet without damage. The sound is solid although doesn't set any new benchmarks. It simply sounds good and can play pretty loud without distortion.

+ great rugged and water resistant design
+ handy loop for attaching the speaker to be taken around
+ balanced sound with punchy bass and sparkling treble
+ louder than most competition
+ very little distortion up to maximum volume with no noticeable dynamics processing
+ treble response with low directivity
+ solid battery life
+ affordable
+ multipoint connections with up to 3 devices simultaneously
+ JBL Connect for wireless pairing with another speaker
+ volume mirrored between speaker and iOS devices

- status tones much too loud, cannot be disabled
- first volume step too loud on iOS devices (only 16 volume steps)
- too much bass reduction at higher levels
- some noticeable hiss at low levels
- No NFC, no AptX support
- JBL Connect not always 100% stable    
- tends to roll around when placed horizontally