Review: JBL Flip3 and Xtreme aren't afraid of the water

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The Xtreme and Flip3 are portable Bluetooth speakers that don't mind getting their feet wet(Credit: David Szondy/Gizmag.com)

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Portable speakers are a great way to take the party anywhere, but many lack in the robustness department to the point where taking one to the beach is like using a Faberge egg as a rugby ball. To keep the tunes going even on a rainy day, JBL's Flip3 and Xtreme speakers not only boast exceptional sound quality, but are also so water resistant that you can rinse them off under the tap. We recently got hold of each of them and put them through the figurative wringer.

Reviewing the Flip3 and the Xtreme together is logical, given that they're basically two iterations on the same idea. Both are designed as weatherproof speakers that can stand up to water, mud and sand, with the main differences being in size, capabilities and price.

The Flip3, as the name implies, is the third generation of JBL's pocket-sized Flip series, sporting improved weatherproofing, a sealed port compartment, and better audio. Meanwhile, billed as the "ultimate portable Bluetooth speaker," the Xtreme is a boombox-sized system that takes many cues from the JBL Charge 2+, while being more rugged and boasting high degree of connectivity.

Out of box, both the Flip3 and the Xtreme share a lot of features. Both have a rubberized casing with a "Lifestyle Material" fabric covering, while either end is protected by dual external passive radiators that both protect the bass speakers and provide a visual show when the volume is cranked. JBL makes a major point of the splash-proofing, saying that the speakers can be cleaned under a tap, though they won't stand up to submersion.

Both speakers are powered by built-in lithium-polymer batteries, and they can each pair with up to three devices simultaneously via Bluetooth, as well as act as an echo-cancelling speakerphone. Connectivity also extends to the JBL Connect technology that allows two or more compatible speakers to link to one another to create a true stereo system.

Flip3

The Flip3 puts an emphasis on portability. Measuring 64 x 169 x 64 mm (2.5 x 6.6 x 2.5 in) and weighing 450 g (1 lb), it's about the size and heft of a tall can of pop. Coming in a choice of black, red, orange, pink, grey, blue, yellow or teal, it fits easily in a bag or jacket pocket. Its 3,000-mAH battery recharges via micro USB cable in 3.5 hours and provides up to 10 hours of continuous play time.

Audio output comes courtesy of two 8W 40-mm speakers with a frequency response between 85 and 20 kHz. Due to its emphasis on compactness, it is more specialized than the Xtreme. It's a more intimate device when used outdoors – more suitable to park or picnic than outdoor party, as it has difficulty in filling an unrestricted space. In an indoor setting, the Flip3 can hold its own at a small party, but in competition with conversation, its bass carries less and the upper registers become very indistinct.

Xtreme

The larger Xtreme comes in at 126 x 283 x 122 mm (4.9 x 11.1 x 4.8 in) and weighs 2.1 kg (4.6 lb), so the shoulder strap that comes with it is for more than show. As it charges from the mains, the Xtreme's 10,000-mAh battery also recharges in 3.5 hours to provide up to 15 hours of play time. It also features dual USB ports that allow it to charge two devices at once – though it halves the output from 2 A to 1 A when charging two devices at once.

The larger casing allows the Xtreme to pack more in the audio stakes, with four active 20 W transducers and two visible JBL Bass Radiators. There are two 63-mm woofers and two 35-mm tweeters, which give a frequency response of 70 to 20 kHz.

We found both the Flip3 and the Xtreme to be very aesthetically pleasing with an appearance that's attractive without being too assertive, so they blend in well with everyday decor. The fabric covering provides a good grip and is a refreshing change from the usual plastic, while the Xtreme has reassuring heft. In terms of basic design, the main drawback of the Flip3 is that is lacks a base, so it has a tendency to roll away when set down.

The rubber casing lives up to its claims, and we found it a bit unnerving to rinse off the Xtreme to remove some mud stains after an outdoor test. However, it would be best to be cautious around water because, although the ports on the Flip3 are sealed by a rubber cover, the Xterme's are only protected by a zip. So getting water in there (especially salt water) would be inadvisable to say the least.

We found that being able to link the two speakers is good marketing. A drawback of mobile speakers is that they can't provide true stereo. Having two linked wirelessly together to provide separate stereo channels overcomes this. We linked the Xtreme to the Flip3 and the results were very good, though we had to place the Flip3 closer to make up for its lack of power compared to the Xtreme. Unfortunately, the sound range of the Flip3 – especially in terms of bass – couldn't compete with the Xtreme, but both stereo channels were distinct.

The Xtreme does very well in the bass department, and side speakers provides a suitable tactile boom. However, at the other end of the scale, both the Xtreme and Flip3 do a poor job with higher ranges. This made us think that the speaker had switched off when a Debussy intro came on and was completely inaudible for over a minute. That being said, we found that the Flip3 provided excellent, distinct sound quality at low volumes and made it suitable for late night listening in the place of headphones.

In sound tests, we found the Xtreme to do very well in everything from quiet restaurants up to lively parties and crowded pubs. However, being a portable, its volume does have its limits. The bass comes off well in noisy situations, though the upper registers are less distinct when competing against a crowd. Like the Flip3, it does best in an enclosed environment, though it also performs well outdoors despite a notable drop in audibility over distance.

Setting up both devices was very easy. The controls are very simple and intuitive with a good tactile design, though it was easy to mistake the power and play buttons because the later lights up and tends to draw attention. Setting up Bluetooth connections with both devices was fast and simple, as was pairing the two with each other, which simply involved pressing the connect buttons on both units.

The Flip3 did very well in speakerphone mode without any noticeable noise or distortion. In fact, the other party wasn't even aware that a speaker was in use. The speakerphone function had very good qualities at both ends, but setting it up meant remembering to activate the function before making a call and trusting to the Xtreme to handle the rest.

Adjusting the speakers, especially when paired, made them a bit glitchy, with the sound cutting in and out as the devices caught up with themselves, but left alone they tended to do their job. There's also a JBL app to help operate the speakers, though this is more of a tutorial. It claims to be able to swap channels on connected speakers, but this was another function that didn't seem to work for us.

Since the Flip3 and the Xtreme are aimed more at the youth market than middle-aged journalists with a taste for Bach and coffee house jazz, we loaned the units to a 13-year old volunteer for evaluation. She found both very easy to master and connect to her smartphone, and regarded it as easy for even younger kids to use, but she found the playback very glitchy – especially for video soundtracks. On the whole, though, she rated it as "good for parties and rocking on your own."

The JBL Xtreme retails for US$299 and the JBL Flip 3 for $99.

The video below introduces the JBL Xtreme

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