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If you’ve ever shopped for a portable Bluetooth speaker, you’ve undoubtedly come across JBL. Founded in 1946, with a well-earned reputation for live performance drivers and professional recording studio monitors, JBL became a household name beginning in the 1970s with a highly successful series of loudspeakers. Now the company’s logo, with its familiar exclamation mark, can be found on appropriately exuberant, bass-bumping line arrays, car audio components, headphones, earbuds, and its ever-popular portable speakers. 

While JBL’s Flip and Charge series are perfect for lounging by the pool or enjoying more intimate get-togethers, the PartyBox line offers heftier, but still handy speakers with powerful audio and an entertaining light show for larger gatherings. The newest addition to this trove of celebration-supporting speakers is the PartyBox Encore Essential. Visually an obvious little sibling of the $399 PartyBox 110, the Encore Essential is the smallest and most affordable option in the line, retailing for $299.95, making it an excellent choice for party-throwers who aren’t ready to commit to a super-expensive system. With the promise of high-energy playback and a colorful presence, we put the JBL PartyBox Encore Essential to the test, rocking out and (accidentally) waking up neighbors.

Carsen Joenk

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The JBL PartyBox Encore Essential’s design

To put it plainly, the JBL PartyBox Encore Essential can deliver big sound because it’s a big speaker, measuring 10.87 x 12.85 x 11.54 inches and weighing approximately 13 pounds (about 10 pounds lighter than the PartyBox 110, which another PopSci reviewer really does like). The Encore Essential isn’t the portable speaker you toss into a beach bag on your way out the door (though JBL makes plenty of those). 

A sturdy handle molded into the top of the Encore Essential makes for relatively easy carrying, but you’ll want to clear a fair amount of surface space when it’s time for the speaker to be set down and set up. First things first, you’ll want to start charging the speaker until the battery is full (which takes approximately 3.5 hours from empty). The speaker has a Li-ion polymer 17.76 Wh battery that lasts around six hours, though it can be depleted faster if you blast your tunes at top volume, so I recommend keeping it plugged in with the included AC cord between (and even sometimes during) uses. While other accessories aren’t included, this speaker features a 3.5mm auxiliary port for external devices and a USB port to charge your phone or play content from a flash drive. I was super excited by these inclusions and made use of both—charging my phone while at a park picnic and patching in a laptop running QLab software to preview a theatrical production’s sound design.

While I wouldn’t describe the Encore Essential as “discrete,” the overall design is sleek and streamlined. The all-black exterior and cubic design have the potential to blend in fairly seamlessly with a media center or cabinet when not in use. The orange JBL logo is small enough not to distract, and the embossed black exclamation points flanking the sides tell you this model is serious about establishing a party atmosphere. Things are only made more festive when you turn the speaker on and a circle of light begins to glow behind the speaker grille. The PartyBox can be part decor and device.

JBL PartyBox Encore Essential handle/top panel
With the JBL PartyBox series of speakers, you can get a handle on keeping the energy up even when the party is uprooted. Carsen Joenk

At the top of the speaker, in front of the handle, lies the control panel, which houses a volume knob and five buttons, including power, play/pause/skip, Bluetooth, Bass Boost, and Lighting control. At the back of the speaker, you’ll find a panel underneath a thick rubber flap that includes all the aforementioned input options, as well as a mic line input for killer karaoke sessions, a microphone volume knob, a smaller gain knob, and a TWS (True Wireless Stereo) pairing button that allows you to connect to a second Encore Essential speaker for a wider, more complex sound with defined L/R channels. While I neither had a second PartyBox speaker nor the proper ¼-inch cabling for mic connection, I could only imagine the elevated fun one could have with these features. If you’re specifically looking to belt out your favorite songs on the PartyBox, JBL makes a couple of mics that you can easily connect. 

One of the reasons for that rubber flap is that the Encore Essential has an IPX4 rating, which is considered “splash-proof.” Though I tested this gently, flicking water droplets from my water bottle to see if it would dribble off, I didn’t take too much risk. An IPX4 rating means it can handle splashes of water from any direction, but it should never be submerged in water or exposed to a steady stream. I wouldn’t bring it into the bathtub or let it sit too close to the pool—and try to rescue it from heavy rain as soon as possible. That being said, you don’t need to worry about a few beads of liquid here or there. Again, the control and power panels are not waterproof, so make sure to keep those rubber flaps closed when not in use. 

Setting up the JBL PartyBox Encore Essential

Like other JBL speakers I’ve tested, the Encore Essential makes it easy to connect a smart device. Simple press and hold the Bluetooth pairing button and select the PartyBox speaker from the preferences window on your phone, tablet, or computer. This speaker uses a Bluetooth 5.1 connection and a standard SBC codec support (no aptX or other high-bitrate codec support) to connect with devices up to 33 feet away. 

I live in a pre-war apartment, which means my walls are unbelievably thick, and my connection stayed strong even as I wandered into the depths of my pantry, a location that is constantly interrupting my AirPod-to-iPhone link. The Encore Essential can remember up to eight paired devices at a time; if you’ve connected a device wirelessly but have a second device connected via the aux, the speaker will prioritize the Bluetooth connection first. All this is to say, you cannot play music wirelessly and wired simultaneously. The final piece of this setup puzzle would be the JBL PartyBox App that allows you to control EQ, the Light Show, and more. Downloading is easy, and pairing takes just a couple of seconds. 

JBL PartyBox Encore Essential speaker review: Pick it—and kick it—up
This might be the sweetest cube since sugar, you will find yourself exclaiming. Carsen Joenk

The JBL PartyBox Encore Essential’s features

The JBL PartyBox Encore Essential’s primary feature is in the name: this box is a party, delivering loud, low end-rich sound that can keep a celebration going thanks to a 5.25-inch woofer and built-in 100-watt amplifier. 

The sound

While there isn’t a ton of nuance to the sonic profile, there is enough support throughout the 50Hz-20kHz frequency range to keep listeners satisfied and then some. While it’s not the speaker I would reach for to support a relaxed, jazz-filled evening, it was a crowd favorite during a recent birthday party thrown at my apartment. Capable of reaching over 100dB, volume was never an issue, even during bursts of loud laughter or panic around a spilled drink. After a night full of Bad Bunny hits, Beyoncé’s greatest singles, an experimental phase with EDM, and a play-through of Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu” album to close things out, I was fully satisfied by the playback. The vibrant BPMs were convincingly supported, and both Level 1 and Level 2 of Bass Boost were effective, though I felt unnecessary.  Even sans Bass Boost, the PartyBox Encore was loud enough to attract the attention of my upstairs neighbors, who very graciously asked me to turn down a singalong session of Britney’s “… Baby One More Time.”  

The overall mix can get a little muddy because of bass bleeding into mid-range instrumentation, but things begin to clear up on tracks that don’t feature constant low-end. During a quieter moment that weekend, I cued up a lazy Sunday playlist and, with the aid of two 1.75-inch tweeters, the speaker conveyed the smoothness of Sam Beam’s vocals on “Boy with a Coin” cleanly, and the light percussion and steady guitar of The Shin’s “New Slang” were rendered well. Simple podcasts sounded surprisingly good and the Encore Essential satisfied a need I didn’t know I had. As a morning podcast person traipsing around various parts of my home to get ready, I often have to pop on my headphones because of volume or connectivity issues with other speakers. With the Encore Essential, I could clearly hear the dulcet tones of Phoebe Judge on my favorite podcast, “Criminal,” regardless of what room I was in. There’s enough crisp clarity, but I will likely save the Encore Essential for parties and outdoor listening to cut through more crowded spaces. 

The PartyBox App 

The new PartyBox app does the most when it comes to customizing the look and sound of the Encore Essential, plus it’s compatible with other PartyBox speaker models, including the 710, 310, and 110. Available from the Google Play and Apple App store, the application allows you to toggle between Stereo and Party Mode during TWS pairing, tune microphone input by adjusting the bass, treble, or echo, and adjust overall EQ. While the three-band adjustments (across bass, mids, and treble ranges) aren’t very precise or descriptive, this option still gives you much more control than many other Bluetooth speakers. For a little bit of added fun, the app provides nine DJ effect buttons that add an old-school flair to your party playlist. With this feature, you can choose between a horn, clap, dog bark, thumbs up, boo, “ready,” or three different records scratch sounds. 

Of all the features the app affords, the real star here is the Light Show control. A cornerstone of the entire JBL PartyBox line, each speaker has either one or two LED light rings that can move and change according to the beat of your music and/or your preferences. There are six light show modes: rock, flow, cross, ripple, flash, and off. These describe the movement patterns and general way the lights will move or pulse in time to the music. 

JBL PartyBox Encore Essential speaker review: Pick it—and kick it—up
The JBL PartyBox Encore Essential runs rings around most portable party speakers. Carsen Joenk

You can toggle between light modes via the app or by using the button on the main control panel. For even furth customized color, you can use the color picker wheel on the app to give you access to all the colors of the rainbow; you can also trigger preselected colors from a sub-menu that follows each movement pattern. The LED lights are bright enough to shine clearly during the day and provide an additional ounce of mood-setting fun at night. The light wheel is also a great way to see how much room you have for increased volume. As you turn your music up or down, you’ll see the wheel reflect the change, so you’ll know when you’re reaching the limit without any annoying beeps. At the top of the wheel is a tiny strobe light that will also flash to the beat, which you can turn on and off via the app. 

So, who should get the JBL PartyBox Encore Essential? 

The JBL PartyBox Encore Essential is a great bass-reinforced speaker for anyone interested in syncing music and guests. It really is well-suited for party throwers and goers alike. Not only is the punchy presentation well-suited for keeping the spirit alive during a gathering, but the extra features really up the ante. The various Light Show modes are fun to play around with, the possibility for karaoke is an ultimate crowd-pleaser, and the easy connectivity and overall design lets you keep the party going even on the go. And while we wouldn’t exactly consider this a “budget-friendly” speaker compared to JBL’s non-PartyBox Bluetooth models, you get a real bang for your buck with the Encore Essential. A little box with big personality, this new model from JBL is a cool way to create and maintain the atmosphere you want for your next celebration.