Wireless multiroom speaker systems are seriously cool, but they do have their drawbacks. For one thing, they can be pricey — often running hundreds of dollars for each speaker. For another, they can be difficult to use. Multiroom systems usually require connection to your home network and a complicated app to operate, and even finding compatible streaming applications can sometimes be difficult. Finally, they’re rarely portable, requiring power and internet connection to spin their home-filling sound.
JLab tackles many of these issues with its new portable multiroom speakers, the Block Party and House Party. The pair ditch network-based multiroom setup in favor of good old fashioned Bluetooth, along with a self-contained 5.8Ghz wireless network to communicate with one another. That means they can travel with you to far-off places, free from the bonds of Wi-Fi.
The larger Block Party speaker easily offers some of the best value on the market. A powerful, portable cube of sound, the Block Party blankets its environment with warm and balanced audio that rivals much more expensive speakers. Add in extras like water resistance, and multiroom playback that’s easy to setup on the go, and the Block Party is well deserving of our Editor’s Choice badge.
The Block Party arrives in a simple rectangular box with just a few accessories, including a user guide, a power cable, and a bright blue micro USB cable. No cable is provided for its 3.5mm aux input at the back, but that’s not all that surprising considering the speaker’s price and loaded feature set.
The Block Party looks a bit like a Star Trek’s Borg station, but with rounded edges. A 6-inch x 5.5-inch x 5.5-inch rectangle with metal mesh on three sides and rubberized black plastic on the remainder, the aesthetic is simple and elegant enough to blend in almost anywhere.
Apart from a thin JLab logo on the bottom front and a LED-backlit multifunction button on the top, the only bit of flash onboard is a rubberized handle on the rear in bright blue. The burst of color isn’t particularly noticeable once you’ve setup the portly 5.6-pound device for playback, but it does make it easier to find the handle in a dark room or moonlit backyard.
The Block Party has an IPX4 water resistance rating, making it splash proof, but not suitable for full-on submersion. A rubber seal at the back covers the 3.5 mm input, a USB port, and the charging port.
Along with the multifunction button, the top of the speaker boasts raised rubber buttons for power, volume, and Bluetooth pairing. Each of them are large enough to find by touch or sight easily, while melding into the black background when you don’t need them. Another great design cue is the inclusion of step-by-step setup and pairing instructions on the bottom side for easy access. Smart thinking.
Under the grill a 50-watt amplifier powers two 3-inch, 15-watt woofers and a pair of 1-inch, 7.5-watt tweeters on the left and right sides, joined by a pair of 3-inch passive radiators for bass on the bottom and front.
Audio playback is accomplished via Bluetooth or the 3.5 mm input when using single-speaker playback, while JLab’s built-in 5.8Ghz wireless connection comes into play when connecting another Block Party or House Party speaker. Battery life is a somewhat middling nine hours per charge, but considering the multiroom functionality and the sheer volume the speaker can produce, it’s not a detraction.
Pressing the two volume buttons together for a short period will let you know how much battery life is left. Pressing and holding the volume keys for three seconds allows you to change EQ settings between Indoor and Outdoor, invoking a blue LED flash for indoor listening, and a green flash for outdoor.
As with most speakers, pairing the Block Party to your phone via Bluetooth is easy. After hitting the power button, the multifunction button will pulse blue for Bluetooth connection or white for “Share” mode. If the speaker is in Bluetooth mode, simply locate it on your device’s Bluetooth menu and connect. If it is in Share mode, press and hold the Bluetooth button on the top of the device for three seconds to switch to Bluetooth mode.
To set up two or more speakers in multiroom mode for the first time, Bluetooth pair with the speaker you intend to keep within 33 feet of your device (the master), then press and hold the multifunction button on the top of the speaker until it blinks blue, indicating you have started sharing to other speakers.
Once your master speaker is sharing, make sure the slave speaker(s) is in Share mode, and hold the multifunction button until it blinks white. The speakers (up to eight) will auto-connect, and the multifunction buttons will become solid white or blue, depending on which are in Share mode and which is in Bluetooth as your master. Once connected, you can move your slave speakers wherever you like within a 100-foot radius, while keeping your master speaker (and its Blue LED) within 33 feet of your phone or other Bluetooth playback device.
Putting the speakers in standby mode, accomplished by holding the power button on the master speaker for two seconds until red, retains your setup settings. Holding the button again takes the system out of standby, at which point the speakers will immediately reconnect and continue broadcasting.
When placing synced speakers around our home, office, and even outdoors, everything within the network’s 100-foot range worked just as advertised. The most impressive feature when connecting the Block Party and House Party speakers in tandem was the absolute lack of audible latency. Every sound we played between the two devices was in sync, even when stacking the speakers on top of each other. We’d be interested to see how the system performs when more speakers are added to the mix, but we can’t imagine performance will be much different given the dedicated streaming signal.
The 33-foot range restriction between source device and of your master speaker is a limitation, but there are ways around it. For instance, we Bluetooth paired our master JLab speaker to a desktop computer in the main area of our home, and then used the Spotify App on our phone to select the computer as a playback device, allowing us to change the music remotely in other rooms. Of course you can also take a speaker out of Shared mode and stream Bluetooth at any time.
Considering its small footprint, the Block Party offers an extremely revealing soundstage with a surprising amount of stereo imaging, and a healthy dollop of bass to boot. At max volume the speaker is very loud for its size, easily providing enough noise to fill a dance-crazed living room.
There is one major caveat worth mentioning when it comes to overall audio quality: We vastly preferred everything we heard through the Block Party in Outdoor mode. In fact, the difference was so drastic that we actually wonder just who or what Indoor mode is designed for.
While listening to Allen Touissant’s Last Train in Indoor mode, the piano’s shimmery high end and the drummer’s hi-hats were totally buried beneath the midrange and bass. When we switched to Outdoor mode, it sounded as though a box surrounding the music had been removed, giving each register more room to breathe in the soundstage, and providing a much more pleasurable listening experience.
In Outdoor mode, the Block party really impresses for its price point, even without the added value of multiroom functionality. While it does utilize digital signal processing for each driver, the Block Party’s driver layout helps to create a natural balance, without over processing — something that can bother your ears over long listening sessions, and plagues many speakers this size.
Even without dedicated low-end drivers, the passive radiators provide plenty of oomph for instrumental hip-hop like J Dilla’s Detroit Madness, while showcasing the warm sub-bass frequencies of Radiohead’s House of Cards in perfect balance with the bright tones of Thom York’s reverb-laden vocals.
Given how well it handled standard pop music, we found ourselves gravitating toward more difficult genres like jazz and folk in testing, just to see if we could find cracks in the facade. Especially when considering its portability and low price point, we couldn’t find many. It’s hard not to love a speaker that offers thoroughly enjoyable reproductions of saxophone player Joshua Redman’s Elastic album while you’re deep in the redwoods, miles away from the nearest Wi-Fi signal or power source.
Whether you are looking for a loud and capable Bluetooth speaker, or the foundation of an affordable multiroom listening system, JLab’s Block party is a top performer.
Is there a better alternative?
Those looking for a great Bluetooth speaker will find plenty of options hovering around the $150 price point, with favorites like the JBL Charge 3 providing a more rugged alternative for a bit less money, and speakers like the Marshall Kilburn offering more style and better battery life for a bit more.
Those looking to build a multiroom system also have plenty of options, but most of the industry leaders are a bit pricier. Sonos’ quieter, mono-channel Play:1 is $50 more than the Block Party, for instance. And while the Play:1 offers higher-resolution music streaming, and more playback options via the app, you give up the Block Party’s portability.
How long will it last?
The Block Party’s build quality appears to be quite high, and with the IPX4 rating, we imagine that the speaker will last several years of moderate-to heavy use — provided you don’t drop it in the pool.
Should you buy it?
Yes. The JLab Block Party is a great sounding Bluetooth speaker that fits a particularly interesting niche in the world of multiroom speakers, making it a worthwhile purchase for multiple reasons.