JBL Link 20 Review

JBL’s Link 20 wireless speaker is a versatile new way to get smart

Storied audio brand JBL has found a nice space of market real estate in recent years by crafting affordable Bluetooth speakers to fit any niche; the Flip can go virtually anywhere, the Pulse features a built-in lightshow, and the Charge, well, charges your phone without stopping the music. Stepping into the smart speaker game – as everyone seems to be doing these days — is a natural progression.

JBL’s first offerings, the portable Link series, boast baked-in Google Assistant support to compete with the armada of voice-activated speakers currently flooding the market. In our review, we focus on the Link 20 ($200) — as well as taking a look at its siblings, the smaller Link 10 ($150) and the larger Link 300 ($250) — to find out whether JBL’s Links can rule the roost.

A note: Our review focuses on the “middle sibling” Link 20, but the three speakers are very similar, and many of our observations apply to the whole series.

Our first impressions with the Link were… not great.

In terms of design, the cylindrical Link 20 is standard JBL fare, dressed in black with rubbery caps on the end where most of the onboard controls are located. The Link 10 looks the same (only smaller), and the 10 and 20 also come in white, while the black-only Link 300 is shaped more like a boombox. The aesthetic does convey durability, and there’s certainly nothing offensive here, but we didn’t find it particularly pleasing to the eye either.

The Link 20 is outfitted with a rechargeable battery, which can provide up ten hours’ listening time, while the Link 10 has a five-hour battery. If you’re in dire need of a portable speaker, these are advantages the Link has over many smart speaker options. They’re both also IPX7 rated for waterproofing; the Link300 will need to stay plugged in to a wall outlet at all times (and kept away from water).

Setting up shop

The Link series has Chromecast built in, which means you can cast from your choice of compatible apps (everything listed under Music & Audio on the Chromecast home page). For setup purposes, JBL’s included literature is disappointingly sparse. The Quick Start guide simply directs users to the Google Home app, leaving us with plenty of questions (What’s that tone the speaker’s playing? What do the lights on the front mean? How do we factory reset the speaker?). The Home app holds some answers, as does JBL’s FAQ section – see Specs & Support but we would have appreciated more comprehensive guides.

JBL Link 20 review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Our first impressions with the Link were … not great. To use Chromecast and Google Assistant, you’ll need to connect to Wi-Fi via the Google Home app. While trying to get the speakers set up in our office, we had several issues, but the Links worked fine at home, so the problems may have been network-related. We don’t expect others will experience the same issues, though it’s worth noting that the speakers seem a bit more finicky than other options at the office.

To be clear: The Link speakers also support Bluetooth. We found the connection to be reliable, even through walls up to around 20 feet; you can’t use voice control while playing music this way, though.

OK, Google

After getting connected, it’s time to try out Google Assistant. The Link’s far-field voice recognition is impressive, picking up “Hey Google” or “OK, Google” even with loud music playing. The speaker follows voice commands to a “T,” playing music via selected apps and answering trivia questions or weather queries with ease. One notable exception is phone support; unlike the Google Home speaker, when we asked the Link 20 to make a call, the Assistant told us it’s not currently able. JBL says there’s no timetable for the addition of this feature.

Loud and proud

As far as audio quality is concerned, the Link 20’s sound signature is familiar. Like other JBL speakers, it offers powerful bass with decent clarity up top and solid midrange presence. Queue up a high-energy dance tune like Galantis’ Love On Me and the speaker practically bounces off the table, but it also reproduces the acoustic stylings of Boyz II Men’s Water Runs Dry admirably. More complex selections like The Weeknd’s Gone expose the Links’ lack of detail, as the singer’s breathy vocals somehow alternate between too loud and not loud enough without finding a sweet spot, and the negative space comes with a very slight hiss; with both a woofer and a tweeter, the 300 is a bit better, but still sounds a little bit processed.

The Link has Chromecast built in, which means you can cast from your choice of compatible apps.

Both the Link 10 and Link 20 are easily capable of filling a living room with sound, though, and the Link 300 is even more powerful than that. Seriously – these speakers are impressively loud. None of the Links manage the type of clarity and precision you’ll get from a similarly priced Sonos speaker, but to be fair that’s a high bar, and unlike Sonos speakers, you can also take the Links off the grid with Bluetooth connection, though you won’t have multiroom functionality.

Multiroom audio via Google Home works well on the Links, though we did find adjusting volume on each speaker to be an annoyance, as when speakers are grouped, you can only adjust overall volume via the app. You can adjust volume on individual speakers using voice commands or the physical volume buttons, but these methods feel imprecise, and when you’ve got a Link 300 grouped with a Link 10, the 300 will naturally be a lot louder.

Conclusion

Overall, the Link 20 is a successful, if not revolutionary, take on the smart speaker. Aside from some speed bumps in the pairing process at the office, all three Links offer impressively powerful sound for their price points, and for Google Assistant lovers (or people who want a poolside speaker that takes commands), they’re a pretty attractive option.

If you can handle using Alexa instead, though, there are better options out there, including options like the $200 Sonos One (though, again, it doesn’t have a battery) or the $250 Riva Arena.

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