this thing’s incredible

The Other Night, I Did Nothing But Stare at This Bluetooth Speaker

Photo: Jordan McMahon

Back when I lugged a backpack with a Walkman CD player and my favorite albums from class to class, listening to music was an activity all on its own. I’d hop on the bus, throw on my favorite tunes, and stare out the window as I drifted off into my own little world. When I got home, I’d lie on the floor, drop in another album — probably something a friend burned for me — and block out my worries as I scoped the track list.

As time went on, listening to music became a more passive act to keep my ears busy while I focused on something else, rather than something to appreciate by itself. I never lost my passion for music. It still got me through hard times and helped me make some of my fondest memories, like bonding over favorite songs with a friend on a long road trip. But I rarely let myself get lost in songs the same way I did when the only responsibility I had to avoid was getting my homework done. That changed when I started testing JBL’s Pulse 5, a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker featuring an array of LED lights that change shape and color with your music, making it look like a modern take on a ’70s-style lava lamp, something I haven’t decorated a room with since my childhood one got knocked over.

Unlike most Bluetooth speakers with plastic or fabric coverings, the Pulse 5’s exterior is nearly all transparent, which allows the light to shine through — think of it like a lighthouse in party mode. It flashes various designs, including solid colors, pulsing dots, and a swirl of different colors. There’s also a separate ring of lights at the bottom of the speaker, where the bass emits from, to complement the main LED ring. And not to worry: The clear casing is as protective as any other speaker’s covering. The Pulse 5 is rated IP67 against water and dust, meaning it completely blocks out dust particles and can be submerged into up to 39 feet of water.

Lights on speakers often feel like an afterthought, but on the Pulse 5, they’re the main attraction, and the visuals are dazzling enough to keep your eyes and mind on only it, not whatever may be stressing you out. After one particularly bad day — prompted by getting a parking ticket right outside my house — I turned the lights off and blasted a song. My living room radiated with colorful lights and my mood lifted.

A few days into testing, I discovered the Tourists, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s band before the Eurythmics, and fell in love with their cover of “I Only Want to Be With You.” I dimmed my living-room lights, turned on my Pulse 5, put the song on repeat, and watched it flash to the catchy beat while I cooked dinner. I planned on turning the music off and starting a movie once I’d finished cooking, but the Pulse’s lights were too fun to stop, and I kept digging through new tracks to play until I went to bed.

The speaker does a surprisingly good job of syncing its patterns to the music you’re playing, but if you don’t like them, you can change the tempo with its accompanying app. You can also tweak the color scheme by picking a primary color and letting the speaker incorporate complementary shades to mix in. There are presets like the slowed-down Nature setting (warmer colors) and the Party one (a faster tempo, more neon-colored lights). If I’m about to throw on an instrumental playlist to read to, I’ll switch to the Weather preset, which has animations that look like clouds in a blue sky, storm clouds moving through, and drops of rain against a window, and chill out immediately.

The sound isn’t perfect, but it’s still good enough to justify the $250 price. When playing classical songs in Apple’s new app dedicated to the genre, tracks like John Williams’s main theme for Star Wars sounded particularly great, bringing the song to life in a way that the song’s opening crawl of text can’t match. On the other hand, when playing hip-hop songs with busy, bass-heavy beats with higher-pitch sounds, the higher sounds were slightly washed out.

But that’s a tiny quibble compared to the spectacle of the Pulse 5’s vibrant and eye-catching lights that dance to any song. I rarely notice the slightly compromised sound quality while lying back and letting my mind drift as I gaze at the lava-lamp-like motions of the speaker’s lights. For the first time in recent memory, I’ve been able to use music as a way to unwind, completely unmarried to any other task, chore, or concern. I may still have more woes to fret over than my middle-school days, but it’s hard to worry about them too much when I’ve got my own personal light show to outshine whatever may be casting a shadow on the day.

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The Other Night, I Did Nothing But Stare at This Speaker