JBL Pebbles review

The JBL Pebbles are easily one of the best-sounding, most versatile pairs of speakers we’ve heard under $100.
The JBL Pebbles are easily one of the best-sounding, most versatile pairs of speakers we’ve heard under $100.
The JBL Pebbles are easily one of the best-sounding, most versatile pairs of speakers we’ve heard under $100.

Highs

  • Remarkably big sound from a small speaker
  • Portable
  • USB-powered
  • Clever cable management

Lows

  • Short connection cables
  • No USB wall adapter included

Computer speakers have been in need of an overhaul for a while now. Advances in digital amplification and DSP have opened up a host of new possibilities, yet manufacturers, for the most part, have stuck with the same old designs. Sure, we’ve seen some pretty fancy stuff from the likes of Edifier and Harman Kardon recently, but for many, those sorts of options are too pricey and somewhat limiting – they’ll never leave the desk, and they take up a fair amount of space.

Finally, JBL, a reputable and familiar name in audio, has come out with an affordable, modern-looking, and – perhaps best of all – portable pair of computer speakers that manage to take up a modicum of space while punching well above their weight in the sound department.

Hands on video

Out of the box

We’re not sure what JBL was thinking when they named these speakers; they look nothing like pebbles. If anything, they look like a pair of small tires with some fancy metallic rims trimmed with thin, bright strips of color. That description may seem a little odd, but really, these speakers are pretty cute, and we think they’ll look great on any desktop.

You can easily shove them in a backpack or overnight bag for some sound on the go.

Our review sample came in black with orange accents, but two different combinations of white and orange are also available.

The Pebbles manage to remain light (1.4 lbs total) without feeling like cheap plastic toys. And because they are reasonably small too (9.1 x 8.1 x 6.3 inches), you can easily shove them in a backpack or overnight bag for some sound on the go.

In the box with the speakers is a multi-language safety brochure and a 3.5 mm auxiliary cable.

Features and design

In this day and age of digital amplifiers and USB-powered devices, we see fewer and fewer space-hogging wall-wart plugs or power bricks. The Pebbles run on USB power, and it is through the USB port that they also get their audio signal. That is, unless you want to use some other device like a mobile phone, tablet or portable music player; for that, there’s a 3.5 mm auxiliary input jack.

If there’s one thing we’d like to have seen included in the box, it would be a USB wall adapter. Sure, most of us have at least one hanging around by now, but it seems like a curious omission. To be sure, you’ll need either a USB wall adapter or USB battery pack to power the speakers if you want to use them without a computer or some other USB power source around.

Both the USB cable and audio cable that connects the two speakers together can be wrapped around the base of each speaker (USB on the right speaker, audio cable on the left) routed into a little plastic cutout in the base for secure and practically invisible cable storage. Our only complaint here is that the USB cable and the cable linking the left speaker to the right is pretty short – about 2.5 feet. Longer cables would probably ruin the clever cable management, but the short ones could pose a problem if you want more speaker separation, or just to place the speaker further from your PC. Of course, you could always buy a headphone or USB extension cable to remedy the situation. (Note that the audio-signal cable is hardwired to the left speaker; you can extend it but not replace it.)

All of the Pebbles’ electronics live inside the right-hand speaker, where you’ll find a little blue LED power indicator (located under the speaker screen) and a large power and volume dial (located on the left side of the speaker). Aside from volume and power switches, there are no other on-board controls.

Each speaker is ported to the rear to enhance bass response. Placing the speaker close to a wall or corner will further reinforce bass.

The hookup

If used with a computer, The Pebbles are entirely plug-and-play speakers. If used with a mobile device or some other audio source, you’ll want to turn the device’s volume up to about 75 percent. The Pebble’s built-in amplifier does seem to have a forgiving input stage, but it also has plenty of headroom, so no need to overdrive them from the source side.

JBL Pebble bottom

We should note here that plugging a cable into the auxiliary port will override the USB audio signal input, whether music is playing from the external device or not.

Performance

We’re pretty tickled with both the volume and quality of sound the Pebbles are able to produce, especially considering their small size and low price point. You simply won’t find a better combination of versatility and sound quality under $100.

Without a subwoofer, the small-ish pebbles can’t deliver deep, visceral bass, but they do an impressive job of filling out the mid-bass region, which gets you enough low-end output to round out the overall sound signature and provide just enough punch to catch your attention. Bass guitars sound warm, well-rounded and tuneful, while kick-drums have a light punch that you’ll better feel through a desktop more than hear.

You won’t find a better combination of versatility and sound quality under $100.

The midrange area is clear and clean, though it doesn’t offer the sort of live presence you’d get out of a more advanced speaker system. Still, understanding dialog or lyrics was never a problem for us.

The treble region flirts with being just a tad aggressive, but we were never turned off. We just noticed a little bit too much sparkle in instruments like a drummer’s cymbals and in the sibilance of a vocalist’s ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds. On the other hand, that same gleaming treble provided some well-defined articulation to the click of a drumstick hitting a ride or hi-hat cymbal, and the pick of a guitar string. We also felt like brass instruments came off with an engaging sizzle.

To be sure, the Pebbles can get a lot louder than they need to. We pushed them far beyond typical listening levels, and they held together pretty well. We’re not sure we’d try to power an entire dorm party with them, but they are plenty gutsy enough to annoy students a couple of doors down.

Aside from doing music and YouTube videos well, we thought the Pebbles added a lot to movies. There is a point at which the Pebbles will begin to sound crowded, though, usually when there’s a high density of sound effects, music, and explosions happening at once. Still, the Pebbles manage to steer clear of breaking up entirely, and that, again, is really impressive for such an inexpensive speaker.

Conclusion

You can find more elaborate computer speaker systems, complete with subwoofer, for the same price you’ll pay for the JBL Pebbles. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find a speaker system that can play as loud and as clean as the Pebbles do for $60. Add in the fact that there’s rarely a need to worry about a power outlet, and that they are portable enough to go where you go, and the Pebbles are a big winner. Until we find something better, the Pebbles will remain our favorite little 2.0 speaker system under $100, and therefore earn our Editor’s Choice award.

Highs

  • Remarkably big sound from a small speaker
  • Portable
  • USB-powered
  • Clever cable management

Lows

  • Short connection cables
  • No USB wall adapter included
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