JBL link portable review: This sub-£130 smart speaker is a ‘big step forward’ for the brand

·6 min read
Designed to soundtrack your outdoor adventures too, the gadget can survive underwater for up to half an hour  (iStock/The Independent)
Designed to soundtrack your outdoor adventures too, the gadget can survive underwater for up to half an hour (iStock/The Independent)

JBL’s solidly built, treble-heavy speakers have long been a hit in the saturated Bluetooth marketplace. Its new link portable, though, is a different beast. It’s a smart speaker with built in Google Assistant to enable streaming from WiFi, and comes with connectivity to Airplay 2 and Chromecast.

First, some bad news. You won’t be able to link it up with another, Bluetooth-only JBL speaker in the range. Instead, JBL are leaning into the Google Home link-up. The idea here is to make the link portable more than just a solid go anywhere, play anything kind of a speaker, which JBL have built their brand in.

In trying to bring together Google Assistant, a room-filling 360-degree sound which doesn’t lack detail, and a sub-£150 pricetag, it’s gunning for Ultimate Ears and its other Bluetooth speaker competitors. It doesn’t just want to be the speaker you grab to play tunes on at a party or for podcasts in the garden; it wants to ensconce itself in your home permanently.

Out of the box you do feel the extra weight that the smart tech inside demands. And the rubberised control panel at the top – volume controls, plus a Google button to stop whatever’s playing, silence alarms and timers, and to manually summon Google Assistant if you hold it down – and the demure fabric covering do make it feel like a premium piece of kit.

How we tested

Over three days we played an array of different music – from classical and jazz to electro and fuzzy post-rock – through the JBL link portable’s speaker. We also tested how the sound of streamed radio and music differed from Bluetooth-paired music. On top of this, we wanted to see how well it sounded in different locations around our home and at different levels of charge.

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JBL link portable smart speaker: £129.99, Jbl.com

 (JBL)
(JBL)
  • 1Speaker: 1 x 49mm 20w driver

  • Weight: 740g

  • Dimensions: 17cm x 8.9cm

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, Airplay 2, Google Chromecast

  • Battery life: 8 hours

  • Compatible with: iOS and Android, needs Google Home

  • Rating: 8/10

Design

The look will be familiar if you’ve come across a JBL speaker before. It is a little smaller and stouter than the company’s flip and essential speakers but it isn’t a huge departure. And with its rounded edges, fabric covering and top control panel it looks a little like an Apple HomePod which has been through a mangle.

The neatest little feature is the four LEDs which show you how high the volume is and what mode the link portable is in. They’re invisible when the speaker’s off, but light up out of nowhere when it’s on. The power, microphone off and Bluetooth pairing buttons and USB-C port are stowed out of the way on a back panel, as is the battery level indicator – a single strip of light which gradually fades down. It’s smartly done.

Most of the time when you’re at home it will likely sit in its charging cradle, but after three and a half hours it’s fully charged and will play for eight hours. Be warned though, the extra kit it carries to become a proper smart speaker does make it a bit beefier than its JBL brethren, and you’ll feel that touch more weight in your tote bag if you pack it for some cans in the park with mates.

After three and a half hours in its charging cradle, it’ll be fully charged and play for eight hours (Tom Nicholson)
After three and a half hours in its charging cradle, it’ll be fully charged and play for eight hours (Tom Nicholson)

That said, it’s more park-ready than most other smart speakers, at least for a British summer: it’s IPX7 rated, meaning that it can survive being submerged in water for up to half an hour.

Overall, it’s a handsome looking thing with a couple of nice touches, though given how familiar the JBL look is, it’s not likely to become an objet d’art sat on your coffee table any time soon.

Sound

JBL has form for small but mighty sound from its speakers, and the link portable’s 20W speaker comfortably fills a room at half volume. The perennial problem of working out where to plonk your speaker for optimum sound coverage is taken care of by a genuinely 360-degree range, too.

The detail is pretty remarkable as well, even at higher volume. A play of Vampire Weekend’s This Life and Can I Kick It? by A Tribe Called Quest on Spotify, shows it can pick out the dusty, sepia-tinted textures in the mix while not obscuring the bass. That bass can occasionally feel a little vague and roomy, more a broad rumble than defined bottom end, and that feeling only becomes more acute when the speaker is off its charging cradle. But in general, it’s a strong showing.

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Live recordings have an air and space to them, and a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata has a sense of energy and fullness to it.

Radio streams have very slightly less kick to them than music played via Bluetooth, and that slightly loose, thumpy bottom end is a little more noticeable. But it handled Radio 1’s Greg James and his Ten Minute Takeover of tunes from Fatman Scoop to Mumford and Sons nicely. Classic FM was slightly thinner and less characterful, but still absolutely serviceable.

Software and features

JBL portable, the brand’s dedicated app for its Bluetooth speakers, can be a little bit temperamental for some – common complaints include misgivings about the quality of the stereo experience and difficulty with pairing – so it’s a bit of a relief that the link portable is controlled through the solid Google Home app. There you can do any tweaking of the EQ and sync up any other link portable speakers nearby for a stereo experience.

One other thing to note: the quick start setup instructions are, perhaps, a little too quick. You’ll need the Google Home app to set it up on your home WiFi and Google account before you go gallivanting into Bluetooth and streaming audio.

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Once set up though, the Google Assistant is a breeze to use. The link portable’s inbuilt microphones are sensitive and responsive enough that you only have to mutter “Hey Google” and it’ll be ready to do your bidding, even during playback or streaming.

Link up your Spotify, YouTube Music or Deezer account on Google Home and you’ll be able to command them vocally too. Tidal isn’t supported by voice commands, but through Google Home. And it all works very smoothly.

The verdict: JBL link portable smart speaker

While there are a few little niggles here and there around the set-up and a lack of connectivity with other JBL speakers, the link portable is a big step forward for the brand, and makes for an extremely undemanding, straightforward smart speaker. (That is, once you’ve navigated a slightly abstract set of set-up instructions.)

The sound quality punches well above its price point, and it’s equally comfortable in the home and out and about. There are Bluetooth speakers out there with more battery life, but the link portable manages to cover all bases with aplomb.

JBL link portable smart speaker

Buy now £129.99, Jbl.com

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