Tuesday, September 9, 2014

First impressions: JBL Charge 2 - the new king? of distortion!

After the announcement of the JBL Charge 2 and the Infinity One I asked Harman if they would send me review samples. They didn't but instead responded about the Infinity One to be not released in Europe at all, but rather be a U.S. only model. Strange decision, but as meanwhile at least the Charge 2 became available here, I simply ordered a white one to try it out and satisfy my curiosity.

All I can say: JBL should have sent it to more beta testers than they obviously did, because as it is now the Charge 2 seems unusable, at least for anyone who wants to listen to music, not noise!
Maybe my unit is defective, therefore I already ordered a replacement and will hopefully get this soon to have a direct comparison and be sure if not all of them are like that.

But judging the unit I currently own, which I assume to be alright, there seem to be considerable problems with either sound-processing, the amplifier or whatever. Apart from that, the sound is indeed great if not even best in class and a huge improvement over the old Charge, although not in all aspects. I will cover that more in detail with my final review. As for now I only want to demonstrate the problems my JBL Charge 2 unit suffers from.

As I sometimes like to listen to music at low levels depending on the situation and mood, I wanted to try out if the JBL Charge could deliver enough sound for my needs. The first thing I noticed was, that it didn't sound that overwhelming at low levels. The Charge has only 15 dedicated volume-steps, exactly like the Fugoo, volume control is synced on both the speaker and streaming device, at least with an iOS device. When controlling volume through the speaker, it seems as if there were 30 steps, but you can only hear a jump of volume every second step. Unforunately the speaker becomes too loud too quickly. Step 5 is already as loud as 50% on the Soundlink Mini. Nevertheless within the very first volume steps the sound remained a bit flat only to become more punchy at higher levels. Compared to a Sony SRS-X3 that I reviewed here, the Sony managed a much more profound sound down to lowest levels while the Charge 2 sounded more canny at comparable loud(soft)ness settings. But the more worrying fact was, that the sound became really strange at low levels. The bass sounded as if it couldn't come through and aside there was some distinct noise and interference artifacts, that I first thought to be the influcence of a mobile phone network, Wifi, or even Bluetooth. Later when I could narrow down the problem and try different solutions to solve it, I realized that it was not solvable. The artifacts which I thought to be interference were even present with the iPhone set to flightmode and with music playing through line-in.

The other problem I heard was some severe distortion on particular tracks that are mastered with a very high gain close to 0dB. Strong peaks like that from a bassdrum start to get a scratching sound. First I thought it to be a problem with the drivers, the passive radiators etc. But this distortion was noticeable at lower levels as well. I thought that because of the synced volume, the input gain through Bluetooth was maybe set too high causing this distortion. But when trying to listen through line-in while lowering volume on both speaker and player to prevent any clipping, funnily the distortion remained exaclty the same as if it was "baked" into the track directly, which of course is not the case, because any other speaker plays these tracks perfectly. To further test this issue I played some sine-sweeps and heard that particular frequencies or frequency changes seem to cause these artifacts. I guess the sound processor is responsible for that, as it maybe tries to process bass adequately, but fails, who knows!

You can hear or download quite an extreme example here. This is an MP3-file of a close mic recording from about 15cm with the JBL Charge playing at volume step 4/15. I switch over to the Fugoo 2 times in this file, and you can hear that beside all the grumbling background noise the JBL has also a much higher overall noise floor compared to the Fugoo. Both speakers were recorded in exactly the same way with the volume more or less matched, which was about half way on the Fugoo thus not that low anymore.

I also prepared a video which demonstrates the problems of the JBL Charge 2 with some selected tracks. To show how the music should sound in reality I also recorded the same with the Bose Soundlink Mini and the Fugoo using equivalent loudness settings and switching between the speakers.
My only hope is that my unit is indeed defective, otherwise the JBL Charge 2 would be a complete fail!

UPDATE: Meanwhile I was able to test another brand new unit, but also on YouTube several other owners confirmed the same issues with their JBL Charge 2. This would lead to the conclusion that indeed all units seem affected. I already contacted Harman on this problem and am curious to hear what they will answer and what kind of fix they might offer!

UPDATE2: All issues were finally fixed with the final Firmware, please have a look here.