Modern Tunes in a Vintage Car: The JBL Charge 3 Bluetooth Speaker

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Modifying a vintage vehicle is a dicey proposition. It’s your car, of course, but as prices for these vehicles continue to rise, extensive modifications almost always make the car less valuable to potential buyers down the road. Reversible modifications like wheels and minor trim are one thing, but major, irreversible modifications like sunroofs are another.

One of the most frequent, least attractive modifications to a vintage car is a modern stereo. Yeah, listening to your favorite songs while driving is terrific. Hacking a gaping hole in the dash for a DIN radio is not. Neither is cutting original door panels and package trays for speakers.

I’ve been looking around for a solution for my 1978 Chevrolet Blazer. The original AM/FM radio works fine, but I listen to a lot of podcasts and Spotify, and I’d like to listen to those on the road.

I had a few options:

  • I could break the law and use earbuds. Massachusetts state law is kind of ridiculous on the subject. Since the state wants to encourage hands-free cell phone use, it allows drivers to use one earbud, but not two. The chance of a State Trooper figuring out whether I have two earbuds in is about nil. Listening to podcasts, I keep the volume low and can hear traffic around me, but it’s definitely not something I want to do.
  • I could opt for a vintage-looking head unit with self-contained speakers. RetroSound offers a range of dual shaft head units specifically for older vehicles. Depending on the make and vintage of your car, they can look almost exactly like an original unit. They have Bluetooth functionality, and they have pods for speakers that can match your kick panels in the footwell.  By the time I got done, I was looking at about $750, and the kick panels didn’t fit my application, though.

I started to completely change my thinking about it when I was out at the pool this summer. Somewhere along the line, someone gave me a cheap Bluetooth speaker that we use outside. It works great in limited situations, but it’s not loud enough to hear in the Blazer.

I looked around a bit and decided to try the JBL Charge 3.

It’s got a lot going for it:

  • It’s compact
  • It’s got terrific sound quality
  • It’s waterproof
  • It has incredible battery life
  • It’s got a speakerphone function built in
  • At a $149.95 list price (significantly cheaper on the street) it’s a lot less expensive than building an entire audio system

Granted, a full car audio system is going to be louder, and more permanent than a speaker like this could be. But it’s not like I’m putting 15,000 miles a year on this thing in day-to-day traffic. All I want to do is have something I can listen to on relatively short trips.

I’ve used it for a month now, and I think I’m kind of in love with it.

In the Blazer, it’s plenty loud enough for the around-town driving I do. I don’t spend a lot of time at 80 miles per hour in this truck. Mostly, I’m banging around locally and the speaker works perfectly for that, without a huge investment and without any kind of irreversible modification.

Its size is almost perfect for the application. It sits just in front of the console door where the two cupholders are on the Blazer. If I was looking for a more permanent, yet still removable way to mount it, I’d probably opt for a universal fire extinguisher bungee mount.

JBL sells larger versions of speakers like this that are up to boom-box sized, but the nice thing about the Charge 3 is that it’s small enough to fit inside most automotive consoles so you can stash it out of sight.  Yet, the Charge 3 can be the first piece in a much larger, more powerful audio system if you do decide to go that route (More on that later.)

The Charge 3 comes with a simpe, pictograph-style instruction sheet, and it’s really all you need to get up and running.

With a full charge (via a micro USB cable — thanks for the non-proprietary charger, JBL!) pairing the Charge 3 is a snap. There’s a big button on the top of the Charge 3 with the Bluetooth symbol. Push it and the device gives you an audible signal that it’s in pairing mode. Find JBL Charge 3 on your device and you get another signal when your device is successfully paired.

The other controls on top of the Charge 3 are largely simple and intuitive. The (+) and (-) buttons raise and lower the volume, not only on the Charge 3, but on your device, too, so you’re not in a situation where you’ve cranked the volume on the speaker, but your device’s volume output is still set on 2.

The other thing to take note of is the JBL Connect+ button. Any JBL device with this symbol can be paired together for even better sound. You could run one of these, a Flip 4, Flip 3, Pulse 3, Pulse 2, Xtreme 2, Xtreme or Boombox together.

What’s pretty amazing is the battery life. Most speakers like this will work for five or six hours before they need to be fully recharged. The Charge 3 will run for 20 hours. It’s got so much oomph in the battery that you can use it as a charge port for the device you’re listening to and still double the battery life of competitive devices. On a recent drive in the Blazer, I forgot to bring a USB car charger for my phone, but remembered I could just plug a Lightning cable into the Charge 3’s outlet. By the time I got home, I had a fully charged battery. The Charge 3 shows battery life with a five-light indicator under the speaker itself.

The door that hides the USB and micro USB ports also contains a 3.5mm input jack, so even if your device doesn’t have Bluetooth, you can plug it in and listen.

All of this would be for naught without the sound quality. It’s pretty incredible that you can get this kind of sound out of a device the size of a small thermos. In the car, it’s plenty loud enough with the windows up. If you’re driving with the windows down, or in a convertible, you probably want to step up to the larger $299.95 Extreme 2 (about the size of a fireplace log) or the $449.95 Boombox, but for most driving situations, you’ll find the Charge 3 to work just fine.

I’ve also come to appreciate its amazing versatility. My intent was to just have it in the car, but it found its way out to the pool the end of this summer where the whole family got to appreciate it and I don’t have to worry about it getting wet.

It’s also regularly in the basement where all my guitar and audio stuff is. I haven’t turned on my ’80s-era Sony stereo since it arrived because it’s so easy to use and provides better sound quality than my junky speakers can.

For $149.95 (as low as $99.95 on the street) it’s definitely worked for what I wanted it for, though, and it’s completely eliminated the need for expensive stereos and modifications on my vintage truck. If you’re in the same situation, you’ll find the JBL Charge 3 is a winner.

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.

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