Getting outside and in the elements is a perk of any summer, but in this, the second summer of coronavirus it’s the perk. Being outside means you can push fears of airborne pathogens aside and enjoy being around friends—new and old—as well as family you might not have seen in a literal year or more. Of course, in this summer of love and outdoor socializing, you still want to party. And to do that properly, you’re going to need some tunes from one of the best portable Bluetooth speakers—the JBL Flip 5.
Outdoor speakers that take the party outside tend to fall into two categories: small and portable but with a puny sound, or big and bulky with more bass than your neighbors appreciate. JBL has an entire range of party speakers that manage to avoid these pitfalls. The JBL Flip 5 Bluetooth speaker, priced at $119.95, is the smallest of the bunch and straddles the line between the two extremes. It weighs just over a pound (1.19 pounds, or 0.54 kilograms to be exact) and comes with a handy wrist strap, making its portability a defining feature. It offers impressive sound for its small size. At 7.1 x 2.7 x 2.9 inches, or 18.1 x 6.9 x 7.4 centimeters, it’s just a wee bit bigger than a tallboy can of beer.
Compared to previous JBL Flip versions, there are a few differences. It’s got a USB-C port. There is no microphone feature or the ability to pair with Siri or Google Now as in previous versions. And instead of JBL Connect or Connect+ to pair multiple devices, there’s PartyBoost, which allows additional JBL Flip 5 speakers to connect for a more robust sound. It also dropped the ⅛-inch auxiliary jack. The JBL Flip 5, however, is waterproof just like the JBL Flip 4. It’s a looker, too, available in 12 preset colors. Or, you can customize the colors and look of the JBL Flip 5 on the JBL website, even adding graphics or photos for a truly personalized portable stereo.
The JBL Flip 5’s design and key features
Certainly, the JBL Flip 5 speaker’s petite size and light weight mean it’s a go-anywhere speaker. Whether in the palm of your hand, your car’s cup holder (or even your bike’s bottle cage), or hanging from its strap on a hook off your boat, the speaker is unobtrusive and easy to incorporate into whatever activity you’ve got going on. Throw it into your gym bag, your beach bag, your day-hike backpack, or your suitcase without a second thought or rearranging everything to make room for your tunes. The shape and texture mean it’s grippy enough that you can also literally throw it back and forth like a hot potato, as my kids encouraged me to do in the name of science and testing. It emerged from our friendly game of toss without a scratch or diminished sound.
The unpredictability of the outdoors is part of nature’s appeal, but that often means danger for electronics in particular. A sudden downpour, an extra-large splash from your cousin’s deranged cannonball, or a spilled water bottle in the bottom of your bag can mean disaster for many of the even best portable speakers. But not this JBL Bluetooth speaker. After being vigorously splashed with chlorinated pool water and taking a few showers with my kids who love the idea of getting electronics wet without fear of being shocked to death or angering their mom, it carried on without pause. The official designation is IPX7, which means it can be submerged in up to 3 feet or 1 meter of water for 30 minutes and still keep going. Note to daredevils living around deep bodies of water: It does not float. Despite my deep misgivings about purposely trying to ruin something, I dunked it in a large bowl of water and it emerged dripping wet but still rocking.
Pump up the jams
When on the go, you’ll probably only want to bring one JBL Flip 5 Bluetooth speaker along for the ride. But if you’re grilling or hanging by the pool and you want to up the volume and sound coverage, that’s where the PartyBoost feature comes in handy, allowing you to configure (via a downloadable app) current-generation JBL speakers as a stereo pair or in mono multiples (up to 100, according to JBL) for bigger sound. Older JBL speakers could be chained via the Connect or Connect+ protocol, but it’s important to note that PartyBoost isn’t backward-compatible with these. The trade-off for gear obsolescence, according to JBL, is that PartyBoost is a longer, stronger, more clear wireless signal.
One PopSci editor tested PartyBoost with a JBL Xtreme 3 and Boombox 2. After pairing the Boombox 2 via Bluetooth to an iPhone X, pressing the PartyBoost button (a rubberized infinity sign) marks the primary speaker. Pushing the PartyBoost button on subsequent speakers enables a connection between them. Blasting Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At” (oh so appropriate) at peak-hour levels simultaneously was loud enough to startle the entire house, and the signal strength held on with the pair separated by a full six townhouses without any sound breakups or drops. A backyard without any major obstructions would allow for numerous JBL speakers to keep a steady beat, if that’s your thing.
Customize the JBL Flip 5
Music is a mood as much as anything, and you can permanently set the vibe on your JBL Flip 5 by purchasing a customized version on the JBL website. Add colors, text, and/or pre-selected graphics such as a pink cupcake, palm tree, or rainbow. But the real fun comes in adding photos or personalized graphics ($125 and up). Your face, your pet’s face, a favorite vacation photo—there’s nothing that can’t be printed, wraparound style, onto the JBL Flip 5. Just remember, the graphics are forever, even if the summer fling isn’t.
If you’ve ever set up any device with Bluetooth (push, ping, pair), you won’t break a sweat setting up your JBL Flip 5 with your phone. My 13-year-old had tunes blaring through the speaker from his iPhone before my coffee had finished warming up in the microwave. The raised buttons for play, volume up or down, and PartyBoost are intuitive, as are the depressed power and Bluetooth buttons. When you power up the device, the on button lights up and a drum sound briefly plays—the same drum sound plays when the device turns off. Bluetooth pairing comes with the pluck of a guitar and that button lights up too—it’s one of the easiest, best Bluetooth speaker designs to use.
I walked the speaker all over my two-story, 1,500-square foot house and there was an occasional blip at the outer ranges as it adjusted, but I never completely lost connection and could even take it another 30 or so feet into my yard without losing the beat. The bass performs best indoors in rooms with good acoustics, but even outdoors playing a creeping, low end-rich song such as “Angel” from Massive Attack, the sound comes through in appropriately spine-tingling waves. At the highest volume, the sound breaks up a bit, loses a bit of quality. Will it outperform your expensive soundbar or surround sound home theater setup? No. But you can’t take your soundbar to the lake or into your rented ski chalet, either, so …
This JBL portable speaker claims the battery lasts a full 12 hours. You’ll lose a bit of time if you have it cranked up all the way, but we got it to play at a comfortable in-home volume for just about 12 hours without trouble. If you’re like me and you always forget to turn your speakers off, the auto power off feature is a godsend, and it helps boost the play life too.
So, who should buy the JBL Flip 5?
The JBL Flip 5 waterproof Bluetooth speaker is a smart buy for those looking for a compact, portable speaker with decent sound quality at a fairly low price point. Durability plays a key role here, too. Those who use their speakers outside or near water, or who have pets or kids (who always seem to find a way to spill something on or otherwise abuse electronic devices) will be especially drawn to its ability to be dropped, thrown, abused, and submerged with little effect on performance. Audiophiles might quibble with sound quality, especially at top volume, but given the speaker size, battery life, and portability, it’s a decent trade-off for wireless outdoor speakers to take to weekend soccer games and pull out for the annual limbo contest at the family reunion. A 2021 refresh, the JBL Flip 6, adds a dedicated tweeter to increase clarity, while still delivering that lively low end that JBL has made a signature through decades producing live venue loudspeakers. Or, if you’re willing to spend a little more, you can bump it up and pump it up with the larger but still portable JBL Charge 5. However, the JBL Flip 5, while still on the market, brings plenty of bounce to the ounce of its own.