We’re looking at investing in portable audio systems for our technicians, many of which are now working alone on site. Does SEN have an opinion on the compact JBL Bluetooth systems, and which do you think would be the best option?

A: We’d say speaker systems like JBL are a good option for techs on site. Almost all the JBL range is IPx7-rated, so it can be immersed in water for long periods of time – in workday life, that means used in the rain. They are all robust and offer easy connection using smart devices. Take into account that all these units sound fuller when placed on a hollow structure – that includes a wooden floor.

Which unit you select is a bit more complicated – the quality of sound and length of battery life is proportionately related to the size of the device, though when it comes to battery life, things are not so different as you’d expect. When you read online reviews of these devices you often find people whimpering about the lack of a sound stage, which completely misses the point.

The best of the bunch is the Xtreme 2 – it has great sound, including layered bass, sweet mids and highs, and solid battery life (about 20 hours at normal volumes). It’s relatively portable at 2.4kg, and offers audio comms via the speaker when techs are taking calls. Is it more speaker than a security tech needs? For the field, yeah. For the workbench, it would be ideal. Does it have a sound stage? That depends on how close you put your head to the fascia.

Next, comes the Charge 4 – it weighs less than half as much at 900g, still offers excellent sound and battery life, and like the Xtreme 2, can be used to charge smart devices via an integrated USB port. This is a polished unit that combines excellent bass, delicate mids and uppers and portability, though you’ll need to spend $15 on a carry sling. With only one speaker and a pair of bass drivers, Charge 4 and the other units discussed from this point don’t do a sound stage but they do offer ubiquitous USB-C or Micro-USB charging, not AC, as required by Xtreme 2.

The Flip 5 is next in line – it weighs about 480g, sounds way better than it has any right to sound with the addition of meaningful bass and good mids and highs, offers great battery life, can be left out in the rain, bathed in coffee and accidentally kicked across the room without suffering ill effects. It’s inexpensive, too.

The Clip 3 is the smallest JBL we are prepared to recommend and it’s best for people who love classical, acoustic and audio podcasts. It does sound surprisingly good for its size – better than any smart phone – but bass is largely absent, which won’t delight younger techs. Treatment of higher notes can be pleasing but this unit will never have the magical performance of your grandad’s glued cardboard Axiom 301s.

There’s also some hiss at higher volumes generated by the amplification circuit and some tones can get lost in this noise floor. Again, battery life is long and there’s water and dust proofing to IPX7. You could clip it to a tool bag and hardly notice its presence and it’s built tough. It’s the device to carry when weight and space are at an absolute premium.

Of these JBL devices, we’d recommend the Flip 5 as a solution for electronic security techs to carry on site if playing music is the intention. The combination of light weight, robustness, long battery life and generally good sound makes it a no-brainer. If you care about music, it’s possible to hear tone separation about 5 beers in when listening to the Flip 5, but taken as a whole, it’s the one.

If you’re prepared to take your time waiting for specials, you can find the Flip 5 in less popular colours, such as boganic camo or inner city puce, for under $A100. If you can only accept the best, or you are fitting out a workbench, then go the Xtreme2 – it delivers a lot of performance and flexibility for $250 – and the wide shoulder strap makes it more readily portable than its weight suggests.

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