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Nokia / JBL PlayUp Bluetooth Speaker Review

During my brief stint as a blogger, I’ve had the pleasure of handling a number of Bluetooth accessories. The vast majority of these devices consisted of the ubiquitous little earpieces sported by businessmen everywhere. However, there have also been more than a few instances in which I was given the chance to play around with a more exciting bit of equipment- such as noise-cancelling stereo headphones- courtesy of an offshoot of Nokia’s PR efforts (namely: Nokia Conversations).
As if it weren’t already obvious, a great deal of my experiences with wireless streaming audio center around products released by a certain Espoo-based company, and the device being reviewed here is no different. It also just so happens to be that the Nokia/JBL PlayUp arrived in my doorstep in the still-fresh footsteps of its predecessor as the Play 360 was the second-to-last device that was sent my way from Conversations, being displaced only by the Lumia 920.
What is the PlayUp then, if not an update of the Play 360 that brings it up to date with Nokia’s new design language and colors? As it turns out, there are more differences between the two devices apart from just an aesthetic reboot... let’s find out what they are.
As was just mentioned, Nokia’s new Play-branded speaker sports the same colors and aesthetic flourishes as the rest of the Finnish firm’s current handset lineup. Gone is the colorful perforated-aluminum shell and cloth-covered concave speaker vent, both of which really helped to set the Play 360 apart from its competitors. And that’s not all: the 360’s rounded-square design has been thrown out the window in favor of a cylindrical body made up of polycarbonate. In the case of the black speaker, this body sports something of a soft-touch finish that helps suggest a premium build quality. The top, meanwhile, is now home to a finely-perforated steel speaker grille.
While the Play 360 required a coin or screwdriver in order to remove its base for access the user-replaceable battery, the PlayUp features a much more user-friendly base plate that can be removed with one’s fingers; no tools required. The reason why Nokia made this change makes itself immediately apparent: there’s a 3.5mm auxiliary cord conveniently stowed away under the plate for use with gadgets that don’t have Bluetooth connectivity. Under a second plate, also removable sans-tools, is the battery itself.
From this point on, everything should feel completely familiar to users of the old 360. The button and jacks (power, micro-USB, 3.5mm) located on the back of the device are the same, the locations of the bass port (lower right-hand side) and bluetooth pairing button (bottom front) are the same… even a similar neoprene carrying case is included in the packaging. The only real change here is a relocation and redesign of the individual volume buttons into a rocker switch now located on the speaker grille itself.

One significant change made in the evolution from the Play 360 to the PlayUp is in the design of the speaker drivers themselves. For those who are familiar with the older model, I just gave a huge hint about what I’m talking about: the PlayUp has more than just one driver. As should be somewhat obvious from the above picture, the product of the partnership with JBL is equipped with a total of three drivers. These are significantly smaller than the solo driver found in the 360, a change I’ll address in the usage category. Worth mention at this point is the relocation of the NFC antenna from underneath the cloth speaker vent of the 360 to just below the Nokia branding on the front of the PlayUp. This is likely a move necessitated by the space requirements of the relocated volume control and those three audio drivers.

Undoubtedly underrated and not marketed very well is the implementation of NFC into Nokia’s Bluetooth peripherals. There’s simply no easier way to establish a Bluetooth connection than bringing two devices together and confirming the handshake. The PlayUp sports said functionality and, as you can see above, it works flawlessly. Not that this is a surprise, given that the Play 360 did the same, but it’s still nice to see it work. Were I to suggest an improvement, I’d move the NFC antenna back to the top of the device. Its current location, while not unintuitive, doesn’t feel quite as natural as it was with its predecessor.
What is more natural is the sound emanating from JBL’s speakers. The Up’s predecessor, with its large solo driver, was surprisingly capable of producing a lot of decibels without sounding like it was cheating. This made it extremely popular at my workplace, where it could fill an entire room with full-bodied sound. The Nokia and JBL’s partnership has produced a speaker which, while not quite as strong in the bass realm, is undeniably cleaner in the mid- to high-range frequencies. It’s not like the bass channels have been erased, they’re just not quite as poignant.
In terms of Bluetooth performance, there’s really nothing to write here that hasn’t already been mentioned before. Bluetooth, while low-power and simple, doesn’t quite offer the same fidelity of sound that other methods of wireless audio transmission (such as AirPlay) promise. That information now out on the table, I’ve managed to maintain a relatively solid connection to the PlayUp from my Nexus 4 despite being about thirty feet removed.
Nokia set quite a lofty goal for itself in attempting to create a successor to the Play 360 and, in most ways, they were successful. The partnership with JBL has produced a device with improved user-friendliness and cleaner sound. That’s a solid win right there.
Ultimately, though, I personally find myself drawn back to the aesthetics of the Play 360. It’s not that I find the PlayUp distasteful- I’ll even admit that it looks better sitting on my desk- but it doesn’t exactly capture my attention. Where the understated PlayUp would look good sitting nearby, I want to place the Play 360 at the center of my coffee table where it will be the center of attention. The latter is just so much more playful (pun intended).
Would I recommend the PlayUp? Absolutely. It’s one of the best Bluetooth speakers out there, so if it fits one’s budget and feature requirements, then I wouldn’t hesitate to go with it. It’s a good example of what Nokia’s (and JBL’s) designers and engineers can do when they really try.