Review: JBL SoundFly BT

I’m a music connoisseur. For the past 12 years, I’ve reviewed hundreds of albums and built up a massive digital library. I’ve even recorded a few songs on my own. As a writer, I’m constantly hunting down the latest bands and streaming stuff from SoundCloud. As you can imagine, I’m always looking for the latest audio gadgets to make my job of reviewing (and enjoying) music easier. The ideal gadget is something that lets me select any artist in my archive and play music anywhere without a lot of hassle or complicated setup.

Like many audiophiles, I’ve been a fan of Sonos’ wireless music system for years. But I’ve never been a fan of the high price tag, which starts at about $300 per client plus another $50 for the company’s Wi-Fi bridge. I’ve also tested the Logitech UE Smart Radio, which costs $180. Of course, there are countless iPhone docks and wireless speakers.

Recently, I heard about the JBL SoundFly, a compact music device that plugs directly into a wall outlet. The idea makes sense: you can move the device from room to room and start streaming from your phone easily, but (unlike a Jambox or JBL’s Flip speaker) there are no battery-life issues to worry about.

JBL makes two versions. I tested the SoundFly BT, which costs $180 and is designed to stream from any Bluetooth-enabled device. The SoundFly Air costs $200 and works over Wi-Fi to stream from Apple hardware via AirPlay, but it was not quite available for testing. (We’ll have a review of the AirPlay version in a few weeks.)

The SoundFly is rated at 20 watts, which is loud enough for most rooms. JBL employs what it calls Computer-Optimized Equalization (COE), which examines the frequency range of the audio stream you’re playing and applies equalization to make sure the speaker still sounds good. There’s also some compression at work to help reduce distortion (the hallmark of any small radio) by lowering the peak treble on the fly.

Because the BT model uses Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR with A2DP, the sound stream is going to be about half the quality of a normal CD or a WAV file you play on your computer. That makes the audio compression technology important, because it’s trying to squeeze good sound over Bluetooth. I liked the idea of being able to grab the SoundFly, plug it into an outlet in the kitchen, play music for a few hours, then grab it and go stream something else from another room. The compact size (about 7.5 inches long, 14.4 ounces) makes it portable.

For me, this portability is the best feature: I can stream an album from SoundCloud on my iPad, move the device to my basement and start streaming a playlist from my iPhone. And unlike a battery-powered speaker, I can listen all day.

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