JBL recently sent Android Headlines one of its Link Music smart home speakers for review and, from that, it's safe to say the company has a real competitor in this space. JBL Link Music may not be Google-branded, but it goes a long way towards accomplishing what the search giant set out to do. Namely, that's to represent a solid audio offering at the upper-budget-end of the spectrum.
That's not to say the JBL Link Music is without caveat. The company appears to have taken a few shortcuts to bring the cost down to just $119.99. The design language, while solid, has at least one noticeable flaw. Audio quality takes a dive too, compared to more expensive offerings from competitors.
That aside, this smart home gadget does perform slightly better and at a louder volume than Google's own home-branded speaker.
Simultaneously, JBL has put quality materials front and center. It's gone out of its way to include all of the features that users might expect from a smart home speaker too — sans a 3.5mm audio jack. Intuitive, easy-to-use controls and an array of usability-focused design features are part of that. As is an attention to detail when it comes to longevity and durability.
All of that holds true, while this device also fits in with just about any decor in either black or grey.
In short, JBL Link Music is one speaker that more than warrants a closer look for anybody looking to expand or build their smart home ecosystem.
JBL Link Music is designed to impress, and mostly did
JBL Link Music features what is a fairly standard design in the home smart speaker world, in terms of shape. It takes the shape of a short cylinder, wrapped in cloth, with what feels like super soft-touch plastics adorning the top and bottom. JBL covered the somewhat convex bottom segment of that in the latter material.
That's printed with the usual branding, cautionary words and symbols, and certifications, but primarily serves to add a bit of grip so that it doesn't slip and slide or vibrate off whatever surface it's been placed on.
It's not a perfect cylinder though. JBL instead designed it with more of a squared-off shape. JBL ships that in either black or grey. My JBL Link Music review unit was the grey variety.
JBL has embedded it's branding in the 'front' of the device, accenting the premium looking fabric. That's comprised of a smooth metal badge set flush with the fabric. The rear features a small swatch of that same soft-touch plastic material, with two buttons for Bluetooth and mic muting. That's also where the power cable goes.
The top of the gadget is concave, utilizing more of that same material mentioned above, wrapped in a ring of darker, hard plastic. The center houses a harder plastic multi-function button, marked with the Google Assistant icon. A plus and minus button is present to either side fo that button. Two of the top corners pack mics arranged to make AI-driven listening work better at a distance.
The chief drawback to this JBL Link Music speaker became immediately noticeable when plugging it in to start this review. And that comes down to the power cable used here. JBL designed its Link Music to be well-suited just about any household aesthetic. It's sleek, premium, and overall just a great-looking smart home device.
The cable breaks from that in it's a two-socket ac-type cable. It plugs straight into the back of the speaker a few inches above the base, without any design elements — such as angled segments — to keep it from protruding outward. The cable itself is flattened but thick. So it's going to be more difficult than others to tuck away out of sight.
Making that slightly worse, it doesn't end in an adapter but rather a standard US-style plug. JBL could probably have used a plug more similar to the Google Home speaker. That cable plugs into the bottom of the device with an angled DC plug. The cable is flat and easy to hide away as a result. The opposing end comes to an angled adapter to keep things flush with the wall.
By comparison, JBL's speaker feels like it misses the mark. The power cord is the one aspect of the JBL Link Music that gives off a 'cheap' vibe that also could easily get in the way when deciding where to place the speaker.
Hardware quality matches the expectations set by design
Setting aside the appearance of the JBL Link Music speaker, using the gadget over the course of my review revealed that it is at least very well made. The power port at the back fits snugly, with no sign of wiggle or looseness, just for starters.
But the materials used here are also fairly easy to clean off, as needed.
With a weight of around 730g at just over 4.4-inches by 5.28-inches, aided by soft-touch, almost rubbery plastics, the JBL Link Music stays put where it's placed. And it feels sturdy.
When it comes to button-presses, JBL has ensured that none of those is too squishy. That's most prominent in the exposed, separate Google Assistant button. That key presses in with a satisfying click-through, as do all of the other buttons.
The primary difference is that the 'plus' and 'minus' volume keys are embedded below the soft-touch surface. So they do have a bit more 'squish' to them. The same holds for the mic mute/unmute button and Bluetooth pairing button found near the power jack.
Rounding out the package, JBL incorporated four LED lights at the front, just below the interactive top-surface. Those show through in a brilliant white but JBL also ensured they can shine in blue. The LEDs become lit up in a blue hue when a Bluetooth connection is active or pairing is initiated.
Audio quality is as good as JBL has ever been, considering the size of Link Music
The JBL Link Music is only about the same size as Google's original Home-branded speaker but, as shown throughout my review, it is a step up from that gadget. That carries over on the audio front too but with a somewhat annoying caveat. This isn't a speaker designed to compete directly with Bose or Sonos when it comes to balance and quality.
With the Google Home-branded speaker, the bass is just a bit underrepresented in music. JBL's Link Music isn't necessarily going to thump and rattle. In fact, it feels just slightly overrepresented depending on the genre of music in question. That's despite the advertised frequency range of 60Hz to 20KHz. In dubstep, rap, or other bass-heavy jams, the lower tones are as powerful as might be hoped at this speaker's size.
Conversely, in other genres, the bass comes through a bit strongly, even overpowering highs and mids. That's especially true at lower volumes. Increasing volume to over 40-percent improves matters and that continues to improve as volume increases.
The sole problem with that is that this speaker is very loud. At 50-percent volume, I was able to fill nearly the entire first level of a small home. That home had an open floor plan, so that may not hold true for every space. But turning it up to get rid of the overpowering bass, mostly, is going to require the speaker to be turned up quite loud.
That means JBL's Link Music isn't going to be the best speaker for audiophiles — despite its branding. At the highest volumes, above 70-percent, this speaker really shines. Audio is predominantly balanced with only the slightest amount of extra bass, above what might be expected. The quality of the audio is also stable with no distortion or anomalies present at any volume.
Of course, listening to a podcast or other media through this speaker doesn't present a problem.
Overall, the JBL Link Music is definitely a better alternative to Google's smaller Nest- or Home-branded speakers. Setting aside its audio balancing caveats, the pricing for the speaker feels on-point.
Special features extend well beyond Google Assistant but that's here too
JBL Link Music is, first and foremost, a Wi-Fi-enabled smart speaker. That's how JBL Link Music was mostly used during my review too, via the casting feature found in Google or Nest Home devices. The gadget can access Wi-Fi via 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac protocols on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz networks. It supports playback of HE-AAC, LC-AAC, MP3, VORBIS, WAV (LPCM), FLAC, and OPUS formats.
Of course, as hinted above, Bluetooth is also available as a connective option. So users don't necessarily need to utilize Wi-Fi, smart home-ready, or cast-ready apps to send music over all the time. There is one drawback to that, but we'll discuss that momentarily.
Now, this speaker utilizes Bluetooth 4.2, which is an older standard. JBL could likely have solved some of the audio quality issues experienced during my review of the Link Music if Bluetooth 5.0 or newer had been utilized. Or at least that may have been the case any time Wi-Fi wasn't being used. But I only used Bluetooth for a small portion of my listening.
That's because the JBL Link Music is fully integrated with Google Assistant. It functions almost identically to Google's own smart speakers. That means that users can effectively replace those devices or start off with this speaker when building out a smart home. The speaker can, in effect, act as a central hub for controlling the smart home.
All of that is setting aside its use as a groupable speaker in an existing smart home and everything that entails.
The Google Assistant button at the top of the device serves multiple purposes. Holding that for more than 2-seconds — or saying "Hey Google" or "Okay Google" — will launch Google's AI helper. Pressing it once can also stop various audio, including timers, alarms, and Assistant responses.
As a matter of course, that doesn't come without drawbacks, as noted above. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, JBL Link Music cannot be used as a Bluetooth speaker until it's been set up as part of a smart home in Google's Home app. That means users can't just buy this and use it for Bluetooth without going through that process.
With that said, users can set this up with Apple Home instead, since it's AirPlay 2 compatible. So there is at least a second option for setting things up available. Although that's hardly ideal for a Bluetooth-enabled speaker of any sort.
JBL's Link Music is so close to being a 5-star device
If well-balanced audio that holds its composure across every volume level is of utmost importance, this probably isn't going to be the right speaker for you. For those that love heavier bass tones in a small form-factor, JBL Link Music is more than suitable. The same can be said for those who like to play their audio loud since the overwhelming bass diminishes with volume.
JBL's use of Bluetooth 4.2, unless this speaker's primary use will be via Wi-Fi, means that it isn't going to be great for audiophiles either.
Conversely, it's not going to be perfect for those who want to mount their smart home speakers cleanly. Particularly in most cases where minimal wires are intended to show. The design of the power cable here just isn't well suited for that in most situations.
Despite the few caveats covered in this review, the JBL Link Music still stands as not just an affordable smart home speaker. It's also one of the few gadgets in its price bracket, at just a penny short of $120, that competes with Google's self-branded offering. Whether or not that's going to make it a viable option for users will depend on the above-mentioned factors.
However, not only does it pack in all of the same AI Assistant features found in Google's Home speaker. It does that while looking great and delivering on overall quality for its price. That helps this speaker stand apart in its bracket and live up to its branding.
JBL Link Music should, caveats aside, make a great starting point or addition to just about any existing smart home.