The JBL Pulse 3 is a stunning Bluetooth speaker, not only in terms of sound quality, but also in terms of design. The Pulse 3 is a party machine that sits somewhere between a portable Bluetooth speaker and a digital lava lamp. It’s a small speaker that you can take to the pool in the summer or use at campfire gatherings. This might just be the flashiest option in the portable speaker game, with app connectivity, a customizable RGB light show that syncs up with your music, and a surprisingly capable battery life.
Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, and I was ready to dismiss the Pulse 3, but I was continually impressed with what it could do from the moment I turned it on throughout the following week of real-world testing.
Design: The star of the show
There’s no getting around it: the Pulse 3’s LED light show is its most distinctive feature. From psychedelic concerts in the 1970s to the stock “visualizer” on Windows Media Player in the early 2000s, we’ve all seen lights sync to music. Light shows that sync to your music aren’t exactly new. Despite this, JBL has managed to create something new here.
The glossy cylindrical light diffuser shell makes up about two-thirds of the Pulse 3’s chassis. When the speaker is turned off, it appears to be a dark gray opaque piece of glass. When you turn on the speaker, however, it truly comes to life. Because the diffuser cover is so thick, the RGB LED lights beneath it don’t appear to be distinct—rather, they appear to be soft orbs that blend together. JBL can use the “screen” to create stunning patterns ranging from soft rainbow gradients that ebb and flow with your music to cool EQ visualizations that feel like mini EDM shows.
The pulsing subwoofers on either side of the unit, the tight-knit cloth grille around the bottom, the bright metallic orange JBL logo, and a small set of controls on the back are all very JBL. It’s also worth noting that this speaker is considerably larger than the more well-known Flip series (basically double the width and a solid few inches taller). This has an impact on portability, but it also makes the speaker appear bulkier. This shouldn’t be an issue most of the time, especially at night, and it’s most likely a trade-off JBL made to accommodate all of the tech inside this beast.
Because the opaque diffuser that softens the LEDs is extra thick-feeling, I’m not worried about it physically cracking, but it does have a glossy finish, so scrapes and scuffs are a possibility.
Portability: Cumbersome, but reasonably light
Most Bluetooth speakers with this cylindrical footprint have a dense feel to them, which is by design. These speakers prioritize being small and unobtrusive, making them easy to slip into a backpack on your way out the door. The Pulse 3 is significantly larger than the Flip series. It stands nearly 9 inches tall and has a diameter of nearly 4 inches. This places it in the size range of a large thermos rather than a small water bottle, making it significantly less portable than most other cylinder-style speakers.
One surprising fact is that, despite its size and bulk, the speaker is only about 2 pounds in weight. As a result, it feels lighter than you might expect. In any case, this isn’t the speaker you pack just in case—the it’s one you bring to serve as a visual focal point.
Durability and Build Quality: Sturdy, but don’t push it
Unlike other speakers in the category, the Pulse 3’s visual appearance and functionality are almost as important as its sound. As a result, minor scuffs and dings on the exterior will have an impact on your enjoyment of the unit. It was for this reason that I took extra care when transporting this speaker.
Because the opaque diffuser that softens the LEDs is extra thick-feeling, I’m not worried about it physically cracking, but it does have a glossy finish, so scrapes and scuffs are a possibility. And those scuffs are likely to detract from the light show’s pristine smoothness. So, even though the Pulse 3 has the same thick rubber on both ends and a sturdy chassis as the rest of the JBL speakers, I recommend treating it with care.
With that said, this speaker will continue to function in the face of adversity. The diffuser appears to act as a good buffer between the inner workings of the speaker, so you’ll have to really abuse it to cause any technical issues. JBL has also placed its standard rugged grille along the bottom of the three-speaker array, ensuring that your driver cones are well protected. IPX7 water resistance is also included.
There are plenty of pictures of people submerging the speaker underwater for fun pool party antics, as with most other JBL marketing. While this is technically correct (IPX7 indicates that your item can be submerged up to 3 meters for up to 30 minutes), these tests are conducted in a laboratory, and I don’t recommend submerging the speaker for fun. Overall, the paradox is that, while the Pulse 3 feels powerful, abusing it will almost certainly result in aesthetic issues.
Related: KeySmart CleanLight Air Pro Review
Connectivity and Setup: No real issues to speak of
All of my JBL products, from Bluetooth headphones to speakers like this one, have worked flawlessly together. The units come pre-paired and appear in your Bluetooth menu almost immediately. A long press of the Bluetooth button also returns you to pairing mode without the need for guesswork.
The Bluetooth 4.2 protocol is ideal for outdoor use because it provides a range of up to 30 meters as long as line of sight is maintained. Although Bluetooth 5.0 would have provided a better experience and the ability to connect to multiple sources, it isn’t a deal-breaker. I also discovered that using the Pulse 3 as a speakerphone was a very useful feature for me because it allowed me to have more clear and complete phone conversations. No news is usually good news in this category, and I can confidently say that the connectivity here is excellent because it simply works—nothing more, nothing less.
Sound Quality: Solid and middle of the road
Is this the JBL Bluetooth speaker with the best sound? Not at all. Is it suitable for a wide range of musical genres and applications? Yes. It isn’t the loudest portable speaker on the market, but I’m impressed by how loud it can get and how well it maintains sonic integrity at those higher volumes. The frequency response ranges from 65Hz to 20kHz, providing adequate coverage but lacking in literal bass.
It isn’t the loudest portable speaker on the market, but I’m impressed by how loud it gets and how well it keeps its sonic integrity at those higher volumes.
The resonance carries nicely on the low end, thanks to the side-firing subs and the clever porting that JBL is known for. One oddity is that when you place this speaker upright on a table, it sounds slightly muddy (which is all but encouraged by the lava-lamp-style design). If you lay it flat and sideways, you’ll get a slightly more even sound, but the light show will look strange. It’s certainly something to think about.
One key feature of the Pulse 3 that you may not have considered is the fact that it offers truly substantial “360-degree sound.” Many speakers in this category now claim to provide omni-directional sound, but only have one physical speaker that fires in one direction (meaning they have to enlist clever directional porting to give you the illusion of surround sound). The Pulse 3 has three separate 40mm drivers arranged in an array around the outside of the speaker, pointing out in all directions. This means that the sound from this speaker fills the room in all directions. This is a fantastic offering.
The Pulse 3 has three separate 40mm drivers arranged in an array around the outside of the speaker, pointing out in all directions. This means that the sound from this speaker fills the room in all directions. This is a fantastic offering.
Battery Life: Pretty good considering the feature set
The 6,000mAh battery is expected to last about 12 hours, according to JBL. At first glance, a 6,000 mAh battery should provide more playback time, but considering how many LEDs are on this device and how many patterns those LEDs can fire in, I’m actually quite impressed with that 12-hour figure. Many of JBL’s portable speakers have a 12-hour battery life estimate, so seeing it here isn’t actually disappointing—a it’s selling point.
I’d say that after using this speaker in dark environments with the light show turned on, it felt closer to 10 hours of use—especially at higher volumes. As with any battery life estimate, keep in mind that it’s just that: an estimate. So, especially if you’re listening to a lot of loud music, keep in mind that your totals will likely vary. One disadvantage is the micro-USB charging port, which charges the device in about 4 hours, which is significantly slower than a USB-C port.
Software and Extra Features: A bit of extra control
The Pulse 3’s eye-catching visual show is an obvious extra feature, and you can actually cycle through a variety of light pattern presets by pressing the light button on the speaker’s outside. The Pulse 3 is compatible with the JBL Connect app, which gives you additional controls, just like the rest of JBL’s flagship speakers.
To begin, you can pair this speaker with other compatible JBL speakers in Party Mode (creating a massive soundscape with up to 100 speakers) or simply as a stereo pair. You can also change the behavior of some of the speaker’s buttons and update the firmware.
The lighting is the subject of the app’s real control functionality. The app allows you to easily cycle through the aforementioned presets, but you can also customize them to focus on specific colors. JBL has also included a cool feature that allows you to take a picture of a color in the real world with your phone’s camera and map it to the RGBs on-board. You can even create a completely unique light show by selecting a variety of colors and patterns to display your message.
Price: More reasonable than you might expect
While the light show is a gimmick, and a portable Bluetooth speaker may seem like an unjustifiably high price tag (), the Pulse 3 feels well worth the money. The build quality is excellent, the light show (and the customization options available through the app) is breathtaking, and the speaker sounds fantastic.
Because the Pulse 3 is an older model, you can get it for as little as $149, which is nearly the same price as the Flip 5, which doesn’t have any light options. The Pulse 4 is also available, which has a slightly longer battery life and a better, more durable form factor, but it costs around $250. So now is a great time to get a great deal on a device that feels truly premium.
JBL Pulse 3 vs. Soundcore Flare+
Most portable Bluetooth speakers don’t try to provide a meaningful LED lighting component, so there aren’t many direct competitors to the Pulse series. Because the JBL Pulse 3 is such a good value, I think it stands up to the Soundcore Flare+ (view on Amazon), Anker’s premium offering.
For around $100, you get a great-sounding device that lacks the same level of lighting customization and isn’t as durable. However, because it’s Soundcore, the battery life will almost certainly be improved, and the sound quality should be adequate. However, if you’re willing to spend an extra $50, I believe JBL has the upper hand here.
Related: JBL Clip 3 Review
The Final Word
I was surprised at how much fun I had with the JBL Pulse 3 as someone who prides themselves on high audio standards. It isn’t the best-sounding speaker on the market, but it is still excellent. It doesn’t have the longest battery life, but it’ll get you through a party. What it excels at is serving as a party focal point. It’ll provide plenty of entertainment on a picnic table when you want a light show, and its omni-directional-firing speakers will get plenty loud. It also does all of this for a very reasonable price.