this thing's incredible

JBL’s Party Mode Turned My Bluetooth Speakers Into Surround Sound (and My Backyard Into a Party)

Photo: Lions Gate Films

When I wash dishes, I do it with music. It’s the only way to make the job bearable. Usually I put in my earbuds, so as not to annoy my family, but since I’ve been testing some Bluetooth speakers from JBL recently, I decided swap them in instead. After a few days of cleaning up accompanied by the Charge 5, I brought out the Xtreme 3 for that night’s dishes. I didn’t realize my phone was already connected to the Charge 5, so I was surprised when, after connecting the Xtreme 3, they both synced up and started blasting Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride. JBL calls it Party Boost Mode. Instead of the music deferring to one speaker or fighting between the two, it comes out perfectly tuned from both. I placed the Xtreme 3 on the counter behind me, and the Charge 5 by the sink (it’s able to withstand a few drops of water so I wasn’t worried). Wherever I walked, the music surrounded me.

While this is probably overkill for the kitchen, it was perfect outdoors. Set up on opposite sides of my patio, the two speakers provided a full stereo sound that didn’t need to be cranked to a neighbor-annoying volume to hear and enjoy. They handled all types of music, from the hazy background vocals on Freddie Gibbs’s “Scottie Beam” to the delicate harmonies on George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” I decided to show them to my father, who’s a bit of a speaker fanatic. Jamaican culture has an obsession with sound and speakers. It was fairly common for different reggae or dancehall crews to set up sound clashes, where they would gather gigantic speakers together and challenge each other with opposing DJ sets. That obsession continues in our home, where I grew up around larger-than-life boom boxes and a surround system that I helped my dad set up when I was only 12 years old. When I started playing Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire through Party Boost Mode for him, he lit up.

These speakers obviously aren’t as powerful as the ones you might see in a soundclash, but they do get plenty loud without sacrificing clarity. And if you want more sound, you can always add more speakers — up to a hundred of them. As for the speakers themselves, I found both the Charge 5 and Xtreme 3 to be simple to use. They sound impressive straight out of the box, with no need to tinker with EQ or even read the manual. The Xtreme 3 is the Charge 5’s larger, more substantial counterpart. It’s not particularly heavy despite its size, but you shouldn’t have to worry about it breaking after a serious drop, either. Both speakers have a rubberized casing and a nice bottom grip that makes it hard to knock them off tables or accidentally roll them into pools. (Even if they do end up in the pool briefly, it should be okay. The Charge has an IPX7 rating, which means it can be submerged in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes, and the Xtreme 3 is IP67 certified, so it’s fully waterproof and dustproof.)

They’re not exactly pleasing to the eyes (the Charge 5 looks a lot like a football, or a component of a Bond villain’s nuclear weapon), but I like the unique design. It made the other speakers in my room look like bland rectangular blocks. And this is a small compliment, but an important one: The light chirp the JBLs let out upon pairing should be copied by all other speaker manufacturers. I don’t know why the people who make Bluetooth speakers think we need blaring church bells just to let us know the speaker is connected. I’d rather save the loud stuff for the next backyard reggae party with my dad.

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These Bluetooth Speakers Can Combine for Surround Sound