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Thursday, July 5, 2018

JBL Link 300 Review

JBL Link 300 Review
PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • $249.95
Gone are the days when getting a smart speaker required buying specific hardware manufactured by Amazon, Google, or Apple, and now more and more audio companies are packing those companies’ virtual assistants into their own speaker designs.


JBL is one of the latest to step into the market, with its new line of Link smart speakers, each packing support for the Google Assistant. We’ve reviewed the JBL Link 300, a home speaker that hopes to compete with the likes of the Sonos One or Apple’s HomePod thanks to some punchy, bass-driven sound.

PRICE
The JBL Link 300 costs £249.99/$249.95 at full price, which makes it one of the more expensive smart speakers on the market. It’s £50/$50 more than the excellent Sonos One, costs more than any Amazon Echo device, and really only falls short of the £319/£349 Apple HomePod and the $399 Google Home Max (not available in the UK at the time of writing).

You can buy the Link 300 directly from JBL’s website, or head to retailers including Very or O2 in the UK; or Best Buy or Harman Audio if you’re in the US.

The Link 300 is just one of JBL’s range of smart speakers, and sits roughly in the middle. If it’s not quite what you’re looking for, you might be interested in the £149.99/$149.95 Link 10 or the £179.99/$199.95 Link 20, both of which include batteries for portable use, or the larger £349.99/$399.95 Link 500, which should offer a bigger sound than the 300.
DESIGN AND BUILD
JBL has given the Link 300 an unobtrusive design that wouldn’t look out of place in just about any room of your house.

Available in either black or white, the oval body is mostly covered in a fabric speaker mesh, only interrupted by a small metal JBL logo plate on the front, and a large, circular bass resonator on the back - also bearing the company’s logo.

The rubberised top has a slight indent, and features basic membrane buttons for Bluetooth pairing, microphone mute, volume, and play/pause. There’s also a central button featuring the Google Assistant logo - basically the only splash of colour on the whole device - in case you ever want to activate the smart features without the wake word.

Beyond that, the only other interruptions to the design are a few white LEDs: a Wi-Fi indicator at the bottom of the body to let you know when the speaker is connected, and a series of four dots at the top to let you know when the Google Assistant is active.

The only ports to be found are for the power lead and a Micro-USB port for software updates and maintenance (both hidden on the underside), so there’s no room for wired audio connections: it’s strictly Wi-Fi and Bluetooth here. Since this is a stationary speaker that has to be plugged into the mains to work, it’s also no surprise that there’s no water resistance of any kind built in.

SOUND QUALITY AND FEATURES
The main reason to pick up the Link 300 is to get a Google Assistant speaker that packs more punch than either the Google Home or Google Home Mini provide - and, if you’re in the US, at a lower price point than the Google Home Max.

With that in mind, the Link 300 mostly delivers, with a warm sound that’s undeniably bass-driven, but not overpoweringly so. Mids and trebles still come through clearly, though there’s a bit of crispness lacking in the mid-range that you might get from a more balanced speaker.

The bass-forward sound is best suited to hip hop and dance music, but pop, rock, and classical still sound great. The Link 300 is also very capable of filling a room with sound, though the bass does become more dominant as you crank the volume up.

In short, this isn’t the sort of sound profile that’s likely to thrill audiophiles, but there’s enough versatility to suit most genres, for most listeners, backed by enough power for a (small) party.

Then there’s the smart stuff. As we’ve already said, the Link 300 features the Google Assistant, but bear in mind it’s locked into that - there’s no option to use Alexa or Siri instead.

Setup is easy, and will be familiar to anyone who’s used one of Google’s own smart speakers. You’ll need the Google Home app on your phone, and a Wi-Fi network to connect the speaker through, and otherwise you simply run through the instructions - the whole thing takes about five minutes, and it’s pretty painless.

Once it’s up and running, you can use the Link 300 to do all the things you’d expect from a smart assistant: set alarms and reminders, check on the weather, ask questions, and all sorts more. It will also act like any other Google Home device, and so can be connected up to other Google speakers for multi-room audio.

You can also connect it to all manner of smart devices round the house, from light bulbs to kettles, and control them using voice commands. This is where one downside of JBL using Google Assistant comes in - though support from hardware manufacturers is growing, there are still plenty of smart devices that will work with Amazon’s Alexa, but not the Google rival.

Naturally with a speaker like this, music will be the focus for a lot of people. Google Assistant supports Google Play Music, Spotify Premium, and Deezer, along with very limited support for Spotify Free - you can basically just use it to start radio playlists ‘inspired by’ the artist, song, or album you requested.

For the paid services you get more control, and can request specific songs, artists, or albums, ask for playlists based on a genre, mood, or activity, or even get a personalised playlist by just asking it to ‘play music’.

The only real complaint we have is with the far-field microphones, which seemed to struggle to understand us more often than the Google Home Mini sitting in the next room. This is especially frustrating when you’re trying to play music, as a slight misunderstanding can leave you listening to a totally different artist to the one you wanted, which happened to us a few times too many over the course of our testing.

The biggest challenge to the Link 300 really comes from other audio rivals - the Sonos One is cheaper, with Alexa support right now and Google Assistant support on the way, while big names like Sony and Philips also offer comparable speakers. JBL’s offering is perfectly decent, but it doesn’t do much to stand out from the pack.

SPECS
  • Google Assistant
  • Far-field mics
  • 89mm woofer
  • 20mm tweeter
  • 2x25W output power
  • 55Hz-22kHz frequency response
  • 802.11b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz/5GHz) Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 236x134x154mm
  • 1.7kg

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