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A sound investment
With a long and somewhat meandering history that stretches back to the days before the first "talkies" arrived at cinemas, JBL have garnered an enviable reputation for solid, reliable high quality audio that inspires confidence in the buyer. Some of their wackier looking creations such as the "Creature" range of PC speakers may raise the odd eyebrow but somehow the JBL logo gives you the confidence that the sound quality will be solid and not compromised just to get attention from the design.

Under the wing of Harman International, JBL has trotted out a succession of quality products and, unsurprisingly, were at the forefront of the portable Bluetooth speaker revolution with their much loved Flip, Charge, Go and others. Today we'll be looking at the latest in their midrange portable speaker portfolio, the Flip 3.

Both the Flip and the Flip 2 earned the respect of music aficionados and the general buying public alike. Offering big sound from a package no bigger than a couple of cans of pop they were ahead of the pack for the price with few predators to worry about. That's not to say the sound was perfect, far from it in fact, it was just far better than the competitors were managing for the same price point. Of course Bose owners would occasionally look down their noses but the slight sound quality advantage they had came at a significant cost.

The Flip 1 and 2 were very similar beasts both in terms of looks and performance. The flip 2 replaced the original's soft, neoprene case with a slightly more rigid affair and boosted the power from 2x5w to 2x6w but otherwise they shared similar sound, a rather lowly 5 hours of playback per full charge and bomb-proof construction. Both used bass port technology to eek out as many of those low notes as possible and both did a reasonable job of it despite an undeniably thin feel to some of the mids and lows that you somehow felt you should make allowances for considering size and cost.

Enter the Flip 3. It's undoubtedly part of the Flip family as can be seen by its looks and layout.





Like its predecessors it's designed to be lay horizontally or stood on one end. Gone is the perforated metal design of the body replaced by a thick, water resistant heavy duty fabric that not only looks much better but also feels every bit as rugged. Construction remains as rock solid as ever and you really do feel like you could bounce this thing off the floor for fun and not damage it.

Not only if the fabric water resistant, the whole device has now been sealed allowing it to be used in situations where you wouldn't have risked the first two offerings. JBL stress that the Flip 3 isn't waterproof per se, in fact splash proof is the term they've opted for, but it certainly shouldn't come to any harm if it gets caught in a rain shower or used in a bathroom.

To earn the right to be classed as splash proof JBL have had to tuck the USB and auxilliary-in ports behind a protective water-tight flap.




The added flap should pose less of an issue as battery life has been stretched from a rather meagre 5 hours to a much more satisfying eight to ten hours courtesy of a beefed up 3000mAh 3.7v Lithium-ion polymer battery. 

When sat horizontally the Flip 3 seems to be weighted along the bottom edge as it just kind of finds its own natural position and sits there using the lanyard connection point to stop it rolling backwards. This is fine on a flat surface but next to useless on any kind of an incline where you'll need to "flip" it onto its end. This seems like a backward step over earlier incarnations which were always shaped to counteract rolling.

Another negative step is the decision to not include any kind of case whatsoever. Now, had the earlier versions had no case this probably wouldn't have even crossed my mind, but they did. I can almost hear the marketing team at JBL smugly quipping that the new device is so invincible it doesn't need a case. Well for me personally even a soft drawstring pouch would have been better than nothing at all. Nothing at all however is what you get.

On the spine of the device are a power button and a connect button which allows multiple devices to be streamed to simultaneously thus boosting the sound. Alongside these are five white lights which serve to show battery power reserves and of course the flap covering the charging and input ports. It seems a bit mean that while a USB cable is included for charging there's no 3.5mm auxiliary lead in the box.





A further four buttons are moulded onto the fabric and are raised to make it easy to find them in the dark. These handle the obligatory Bluetooth pairing, the volume controls and the call answering function. The call answering button works as a pause (single click) or track advance (double click) button when in music playback mode. Bluetooth comes in at version 4.1 and the device supports A2DP V1.3, AVRCP V1.5, HFP V1.6 and HSP V1.2. 


Finally we come to the big issue, the sound. On each end of the Flip 3 you get to witness the biggest change to the Flip 3's audio capabilities in the shape of a pair of passive radiators which run in parallel with the two 40mm drivers. Designed to increases bass response the best way to think of a passive radiator is to imagine it as a speaker but with all the magnet and coil mechanism removed from the rear. They are usually a mirror of the actual driven speaker with which they are paired and are driven using air pressure changes generated by that speaker. The passive speaker is usually tuned to only react at certain, usually lower, frequencies thus reinforcing the low end presence. We could probably spend another two pages discussing the pro's and con's that passive radiator's have when compared to a bass reflex system but the bottom line is that a properly implemented passive radiator gives a small speaker a much more discernible bass response.


Of course when you sit the Flip 3 on end you partially cover one of the two passive radiators but the castellated (stepped) edge means there's still a small gap for sound to escape. It does diminish the sound quality but not by as much as I had imagined.

Testing:

Pairing was a little fiddly with my phone refusing to find it the first two times I searched then finally it locked on third time around. A specific tone indicates power on and a quite different tone confirms device pairing.

I tested the Flip 3 with a variety of music across a wide range of genres and volume settings. The immediate impression is that JBL have really rounded off the sound and have added a worthwhile boost to those whispy mids and lows. The speaker seems far more capable at mid to high volumes than it is when set for quiet, close proximity listening but it still turns in a decent performance for general use. It doesn't like overly complicated tracks with too much going on at once, presumably due to the radiators getting a little swamped, but once you get accustomed to the best settings for different types of music you quickly learn to admire the output. Some kind of equaliser setting would certainly help but although there's an app available for both Android and iOS it offers very little functionality.

Bass stays relatively tight throughout and, for the first time in a speaker this size, I could actually "feel" the bass in the room. For twin 40mm drivers with no sub this has to be an achievement JBL are happy with.

I listened to the Flip 3 alongside the much vaunted Soundlink Mini and for me there was no competition. The Flip 3 sounded cleaner, tighter and offered a much wider sweet-spot than the Bose across the range. It's easier to carry, more secure to hold and needs no special charging equipment other than the supplied usb cable and power feed.

I only got around 8 hours from the battery, however that was after a first charge so things may well get better with subsequent charges.




Conclusion:

There's really no tech on the JBL Flip 3 that wasn't available when the Flip 2 was released so if spent good money on that it's easy to feel a little cheated but then you could use the same argument for many gadgets. 
Compared to its older sibling you lose a carry case, you lose NFC "Tap-To-Pair" functionality and you get a device far more liable to roll off a table but in exchange you get the ability to connect multiple devices, much improved sound quality, double the battery life and a splash-proof exterior with a slicker looking design. It's a trade-off I think I can live with.

There's only so much you can do within the physical size constraints of a small portable speaker and we're fast approaching that limit. My hope is that JBL don't just keep pumping out new models for the sake of it, at least not until new technology or features make it a worthwhile exercise.

With a retail price of £99.99 at time of the review the Flip 3 represents a solid buy, however with it selling for as little at £69.99 (Currys/PC World were selling at this price at time of review) and available at closer to £62.00 with a little help from Flubit or Bespoke, should you be happy buying that way (personally I wouldn't), then it's really head and shoulders above the competition at anywhere near the price.


Performance:     


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Features
Wireless Bluetooth Streaming
3000mAH Rechargeable Battery
Speakerphone
Splashproof
JBL Connect
Lifestyle Material
JBL Bass Radiator

Audio Specifications
Frequency Response 85 Hz – 20 kHz
Signal-to-Noise Ratio ≥80 dB

General Specifications
Battery type Lithium-ion polymer (3.7V, 3000mAh)
Weight (Metric/English) 450g
Dimensions: Satellites (H x W x D – Metric/English) 64 x 169 x 64 (mm)
Music playing time Up to 10 hours (varies by volume level and audio content)
Colour Black, Blue, Grey, Orange, Pink, Red, Teal and Yellow












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