JBL Link Music Smart speaker review: Pretty good things in a pretty small package

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JBL Link Music Smart speaker review: Pretty good things in a pretty small package

The JBL Link Music is a smart speaker in both design and market positioning. It’s a great value for the person who doesn’t want to pay a lot for a good-sounding smart speaker. Be forewarned, however; JBL’s app is clunky and startup can be sluggish. Hey: you give, you get.

The Link Music is the entry-level model in JBL’s smart speaker line, but it doesn’t compromise much in terms of sonic performance. Especially ripe for placement out in the open, this little thing abides by classic JBL signature sound-shaping: think warm, bright and forward. And it delivers the goods in an evenly dispersed 360-degree pattern, thanks to a downward-firing, high-excursion 2.5-inch round driver powered by a 20-watt digital amplifier with digital signal processing, and two oval-shaped passive radiators facing left and right.

With just one active driver, the speaker’s output is strictly mono. While a combo-punch would probably sound super, you can’t pair two Links for stereo.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart speakers, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

jbl link music vs google home number 2 Jonathan Takiff / IDG

The JBL Link Music (left) is about the same size as the recently discontinued Google Home (right), but it sounds significantly better.

Step back a few feet from the Link and the sound field really opens to fill the room, with special zing and balance when cranked to a medium-loud level. The aural presentation is not as phat-sounding as a Sonos One or Bose Home Speaker 300, but at less than half the $200 price of those rivals, it comes close enough for pleasurable rock, folk, jazz, hip hop, and even hoity-toity classical music entertainment.

JBL’s typical midrange bump pushes vocals and throaty brass soloists forward. Citizen Cope’s rap/rocking political rant “Contact” actually struck home with better clarity on the Link Music than it did on a Sonos One, and he emoted almost as articulately on the JBL as on the brighter-barking Bose Home Speaker 300.

Playing the ultimate (106-track!) Bruce Springsteen concert set “The Live Series Collection” (newly discovered on Napster), I was struck again and again by how much I felt (and miss) Clarence Clemons’ in-your-face concert saxophone wailing. There’s also enough bottom end extension (down to 60Hz) in a Link Music to make the room sway on an electro-dance pop thumper like Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate,” found on a Spotify fresh hits list.

jbl link music top Jonathan Takiff / IDG

Get used to using voice commands, the JBL Link Music has minimal physical controls.

Now being regularly discounted to $79.95 (down from the original $119.95 MSRP), this mighty mite also ticks a bunch of the feature boxes you might be hoping for in a smart speaker. Connecting wirelessly to a home network via dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11ac, but no ethernet port), a JBL Link Music runs on the Google Home platform, takes cues from an iOS 11.0+ or Android OS 5.0+ app, and from Google Assistant-aided voice commands. So, it’s designed to do a lot more than pull in music, internet radio, news, and podcasts. You can also ask the Google Assistant to serve up a recipe; answer a burning question; or command the lights, thermostats, window shades, and door locks in your smart home to do their thing.

The speaker design is non-controversial, blending in with any décor. It’s a boxy but rounded-at-the-corners enclosure measuring 4.1 inches in diameter by 5.3 inches high, wrapped in acoustically neutral black or gray textured speaker cloth. A row of LEDs blink on the front when you wake the thing up with a “Hey Google” command Flush plus/minus buttons on the speaker’s rubbery top control the volume, while a serious, center-mounted Google Assistant button controls playback and alarms and timers. A rubberized bottom kept this thing from creeping across the counter even when the Springsteen crew was in soul-shaking, earth-quaking revival mode on “The Detroit Medley” and “Higher and Higher.”

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