Review: JBL Link10 Voice-activated Portable Speaker | iLounge

Review

Review: JBL Link10 Voice-activated Portable Speaker

B
Recommended

Company: JBL

Model: Link10

Price: $150

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Guido Gabriele

Recently, we took a look at the Invoke, a home speaker made by JBL's sister company, Harmon Kardon. We liked the Invoke as a speaker, but didn't like its virtual assistant, Cortana. We talked to HR and, this week, we've got a new assistant in a new office — the JBL Link10, powered by the Google Assistant. We find that although the Link10 has a lot going for it, some limitations apparently caused by Google Assistant require us to re-calibrate what "portable" means.

The Link10 looks simple, and we mean that as a compliment. Our review unit came in the all-black colorway, almost entirely wrapped in JBL’s tough fabric speaker grille wrapped around stiff plastic. On top of the speaker are four simple buttons — play/pause, volume up, volume down, and Bluetooth — placed around a colorful Google Assistant button (oddly, there does not seem to be any way to change tracks from the speaker). On the front of the speaker are four hidden LEDs that illuminate to indicate volume level or when Google Assistant is listening, and a backlit Wi-Fi symbol below the JBL badge. On the rear of the speaker is a power button, battery level indicator, microphone mute button, and charging port. The Link10 feels hefty and solid, well-built as we’ve come to expect with JBL’s speakers. It’s also IPX7 water resistant, in case you feel like asking Google for the weather underwater.

We think the Link10 sounds good for a portable speaker this size. Inside are just two 45mm drivers — no passive radiators here. This speaker can get surprisingly loud, though sound quality seemed decrease near the top of Link10’s peak output as the drivers seemed to be pushed past their limits. At low to medium volumes, however, sound from the Link10 is clean with decent bass response, without the recessed midrange we so often hear. As with the Invoke, only SBC is supported over Bluetooth, so you’ll want to use a streaming service over Wi-Fi for best sound quality.

Also like the Invoke, the Link10 cannot be considered outside of its integration with Google Assistant. JBL calls the Link10 a “voice activated portable speaker,” which is a bit of a misnomer — though it can be controlled by voice, the Link10 requires an active Wi-Fi connection for Google Assistant to work. This limits its true voice-activated portability — without Wi-Fi, the Link10 is just a Bluetooth speaker. During initial setup, the user must connect to the Link10’s own ad-hoc network, discover the device from within the Google Home iOS app, and grant it access to your home or office network. It’s here where we struggled with the concept of a battery operated virtual assistant speaker: though the Link10 is portable, Google Assistant can only remember one Wi-Fi network at a time, and must be reconfigured every time it’s brought to a new place. In somewhat of a contradiction, Google Assistant is a little too willing to share itself once connected — anyone on a public or office network can cast music to the device, and there is no setting available to hide it from other would-be casters.

Though we won’t review Google Assistant in full here, we generally like Google Assistant better than Cortana, especially because we think more of our readers are using Google services than those of Microsoft. Google Assistant is quick to retrieve information from the internet, including news, sports, trivia — virtually anything you can Google is just a command away. Like Cortana, it can also handle reminders and timers, calendar events, list creation, and other routine tasks (all of which are pushed to the Google Home app), though Google Assistant can also provide a “daily briefing” that is far more useful than what Cortana offers. Perhaps most relevant to the Link10 is that Google offers connections to more streaming services than Cortana — Google Play Music, Pandora, and Spotify, all of which can be controlled from the Link10 or from the services’ apps or web interfaces. Still, there are some limitations — there’s no general casting ability from Chrome that we could find, and the Link10 still lacks an auxiliary input.

There are some quirks and shortcomings to the hardware that detract from the Link10’s experience. The Link10 seems to favor Bluetooth connections over Wi-Fi, so we chose to leave the speaker un-paired to ensure that it always streamed maximum quality music. The Link10 also lags behind the Invoke is in its microphones; the Link10’s microphones seem less sophisticated than the Invoke’s array. We found that the Link10 is a bit less responsive than the Invoke in challenging environments with lots of ambient noise or through loud music, and we couldn’t get away with mumbling as much as we could with the Invoke. In normal use, however, Google Assistant is responsive enough, and will activate upon hearing “Hey Google” or “Okay Google.” Expect to be saying those phrases often — unlike its smartphone counterpart, Google Assistant on the Link10 is not conversational so each command must be issued separately, and follow-up questions do not work. Finally, the Link10 takes an oddly long time to start — longer than a Macbook or Windows 10 PC in some instances.

We like the Link10 with Google Assistant — it’s well-made, sounds good, and Google Assistant is useful. There is some inescapable cognitive dissonance in the Link10’s positioning as a “portable voice activated speaker.” Google Assistant doesn’t like switching networks, and the battery life of this speaker is problematic — it maxes out at 5 hours, and it takes almost that much time to charge. However, this makes sense if we rethink what “portable” means in this context: after living with the Link10 for a few weeks, we think its “portability” is best considered within the bounds of your Wi-Fi network.  If you’re a Google user looking for a virtual assistant and competent music streamer to carry around your house, back yard, and front porch, we think the Link10 is a good choice.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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