After the Google Home was announced, it was only a matter of time before Google, like Amazon, made it possible for other brands to create their own Assistant-enabled speakers. We've already reviewed the TicHome Mini, a small portable alternative to the Home Mini, and today we're taking a look at JBL's line-up of Google Homesque speakers: the Link series. In this review, I will focus on the portable IPX7-rated cylindrical Link 20 and the larger stationary Link 300. However, my Android Police colleague Jeff has also had the Link 10, 20, and 300 for a while so I'll add his thoughts on the Link 10 and mention his personal comments on the other two as well. JBL also later announced the Link 500, which neither of us has tried, but it looks like a bigger better Link 300 and more of a Google Home Max competitor.
Overall, we were both very convinced by JBL's proposition and thanks to a recent and seemingly permanent price drop on the Link series, the Link 10, 20, and 300 have become quite attractive options if you want an Assistant speaker but don't like some of the limitations of the Google Home.
I've had the Link 300 on a wooden surface for 1 month+ and it hasn't left any white traces on it.
|Portability||The Link 10 and 20 both have built-in batteries and can be carried around the house and outdoors. Even when not on power, they're listening for your commands and can stream music wirelessly.|
|Water resistance||The Link 10 and 20 are rated IPX7 so they stand immersion in water up to 1m for 30 minutes and can easily handle being in a steamy shower, a messy kitchen, or out by the pool.|
|Bluetooth||These are smart and streaming speakers, but they also work as Bluetooth speakers in case you want to take them away from your WiFi network or listen to some audio you can't stream.|
|Assistant and Chromecast||Thanks to Assistant and Chromecast, the Links are voice-activated wireless streaming speakers with support for commands, smart home control, casting, and multi-room pairing.|
|Sound||As with most JBL speakers, the sound produced is impressive considering the size of the speakers and the bass is fantastic (except on the Link 10).|
|Design and build||The design is understated and fits well in most any decor. The build quality is perfect with a rugged fabric finish.|
|Value||Compared to the Google Home, the Link 10 at $100 offers portability and water resistance whereas the $150 Link 20 brings those plus louder and better sound.|
|Dust-magnet top||The rubber silicone material used on the top of all Links attracts dust particles and oily fingerprints very easily.|
|MicroUSB||The Link 10 and 20 use MicroUSB for power. USB-C would have made plugging and unplugging them a faster affair.|
|No 3.5mm input||All three speakers don't have a 3.5mm AUX input so your only choices for listening are wireless: WiFi and Bluetooth.|
|Assistant (again)||Setting up and using the Google Assistant is not straightforward and you still run into "I'm not sure how to help with that," or "Sorry, something went wrong," when issuing the simplest of commands.|
|Design (again)||Yes it's inconspicuous but it's also a little bland.|
Design and Controls
JBL Link 20
The Link 20 has a cylindrical shape that's very reminiscent of a can and similar to JBL's popular Flip and Pulse line-up. It's 93mm in diameter and 210mm in height and weighs a little less than 1Kg (950g). You can check the rest of the specs in this PDF. It's a sturdy speaker with a lot of heft to it, probably helped by the built-in 6000mAh battery (10hrs of playtime) and 2 transducers rated at 10W each.
The top and bottom are made of a silicone rubber material that's prone to attracting dust and oily fingerprints (I keep it most times in my kitchen and try not to touch it while cooking unless absolutely necessary). The rest of the body is made out of a rugged fabric-like grille that wraps around the front and shows one vertical seam in the back. From the front, all you can see is the JBL logo and the WiFi LED light toward the bottom. The units both I and Jeff have are black, but JBL also makes them in white if you'd prefer a lighter color tone.
You won't see them all the time, but there are 4 hidden LEDs on the top that animate in white when the speaker is listening to an Ok Google command and switch to orange when the mic is muted.
The top has 2 far-field microphones and 5 buttons for volume controls, play/pause, Bluetooth pairing, and Assistant in the middle. It looks like a simple logo but it depresses as a button in case you want to invoke Assistant manually and not via a voice command. The back has the power button and 5 small battery level LED indicators as well as the mute button that also turns orange when activated.
Toward the bottom of the back there's a flap covering a reset pin and the MicroUSB port. JBL doesn't explicitly mention it, but I made sure the flap was closed each time I took the Link 20 to a humid environment as to not damage its IPX7 water-resistance. I would have preferred a USB-C port for less hassle when unplugging and plugging the Link 20. On the bright side though, JBL supplies a neat orange charger and USB cable that looks quite funky.
JBL Link 10
The Link 10 is a smaller replica of the Link 20. It's shorter (169mm), a teeny bit narrower (86mm), and lighter (710g). It has smaller transducers rated at 8W each and a smaller 4000mAh battery for 5hrs of playtime. The rest of the specs (PDF) is pretty much identical and it also exists in black and white.
JBL Link 300
The Link 300 breaks away from the portable cylinder shape and looks more like a traditional speaker with an oval shape. It's quite larger than the Link 20 while still remaining rather compact at 236mm in width, 154mm in depth, and 134mm in height. It also weighs 1.7Kg. Inside, there's an 89mm woofer and a 20mm tweeter and the rest of the specs can be found in this PDF.
However, you can easily tell the 300 belongs to the 20's family by looking at it: similar design language, same rugged fabric grille, same seams on the side, same 4 LEDs and WiFi indicator. And like the Link 10 and 20, JBL offers the 300 in white as well as black.
The back houses the passive radiator (with a large JBL logo) that vibrates with the beats of the music. The top has the far-field mics and all the controls, which from left to right are: Bluetooth pairing, mic mute, manual Assistant button, volume down/up, and play/pause.
The bottom has a large rubber base with 6 tiny feat protruding from a few angles and an opening toward the back to let the cables through. There's a reset pin, a power input, and a service USB port that I never used. For power, it uses a traditional adapter, which is a surprisingly large power brick. You'll need to keep that in mind if you don't have a place to hide something as unsightly as this.
The Link 300 has a larger similarly-designed and built Link 500 brother (PDF spec sheet) with twice the woofers and tweeters and a 4 x 15W power output, but we didn't get to spend any time with it so we can't judge it.
Assistant, Chromecast, Bluetooth
The Link series doesn't have a 3.5mm input option, but it makes up for it by offering 3 different ways you can listen to music: by pairing them like a regular Bluetooth speaker, by casting to them from your phone or computer like you would a Chromecast, and by issuing voice commands directly to them to play anything you want.
Bluetooth setup is straightfoward: you tap the Bluetooth icon on the top panel of any Link and it goes into pairing mode. You then connect to it from the Bluetooth menu on your phone or computer or other media player.
Wireless setup requires you get the Google Home app from the Play Store. Once plugged into the power, the Link will show up as a speaker needing setup in the Home app or in your phone's notification bar. You then follow the steps to connect it to your WiFi network, teach it your voice, add its location and room setup, and sign in with your music and video services. If you've set up a Google Home before, the process will be similar, but if not it should be easy to get through.
Once that's done, the speaker can now listen to your voice commands and do anything a Google Home does like play music, set reminders, control smart home appliances, and it can also act as a Chromecast letting you cast to it from your phone or computer.
There are two places in the Home app you can change some of the speaker's settings. One is by going to the side menu, More settings, then scrolling to the list of Devices linked to your account with Assistant capabilities. This is where you toggle personal results, notifications, and YouTube restricted mode, as well as change the language your Link will listen to and speak in.
The second is by going to the side menu then Devices. There you'll find all of your Chromecast and Assistant devices and you can group them and change more of their settings like name, accessibility sounds if you want to hear a little ping each time the mic turns on and off to know when the speaker is listening to you, cast notification, and lowering the volume of playback when listening to a command from you.
If you're playing something on the Link, you'll notice a cast notification on your phone(s) if you enabled that in the settings above, but you can also go into the Home app to have a bit more control over the volume, play/pause, and skip forward or back in the audio.
In daily use
I have had the Link 20 and 300 installed for more than a month now in my apartment and Jeff has been testing them (and the Link 10) a bit longer still. I had nearly forgotten it, but Jeff reminded me that the Link 20 is still a Bluetooth speaker and a portable one at that so unlike the Google Home, you can take it outdoors, to a friend's place, or when you're travelling, and still listen to your music without having to set it up again.
We both enjoyed using the Links as voice-controlled speakers and Jeff remarked something I've noticed as well: once you get a voice-controlled speaker, you start listening to music around the house a lot more frequently. If you've never tried one before, it's liberating to have zero friction when you have a song stuck in your head and you want to listen to it now, or when you're in the mood for a general artist or playlist or genre and just want to shuffle whatever fits. Instead of getting your phone, opening an app, searching or browsing to find it, you just say the words and boom, music starts playing on one or many speakers around the house. Whether you're doing the dishes, cooking, sitting around reading a book, working on something, or doing chores, it's super easy to pause, play, control the volume, skip, rewind, shuffle, and control every aspect of the playback with just your voice.
As a smart speaker, however, the Link just like Google Home has its ups and downs. Most times, the speaker hears you clearly and doesn't hiccup, so the answers and responses are lightning fast and creepily accurate. In general, they didn't have an issue with my smart home integrations, understanding my shortcuts and my IFTTT applets, or recognizing my voice and my husband's. Overall, everything I do on my Homes is possible on the Links, but I don't have voice calls yet in my country, so I'm not sure if that aspect works or not on the Links.
The Link 300 remains plugged in our living room, serving as a voice controller for the TV and smart lights, and answering a few requests and questions when needed. As for the Link 20, it's much more versatile and I use it the most in my kitchen to set multiple timers, ask questions and conversions, add reminders and calendar events, and play music. I also carry it sometimes around the house when I'm doing some chores and I tested it a few times in the shower. The water-resistance handled the humidity super well and the sound, even that of podcasts, carried through perfectly above the running water. I was able to skip and rewind and control the volume with my voice, while still under the shower. I know some people (uhm, Artem, uhm) leave a Home Mini in their bathrooms, but I wouldn't trust something with plugged-in power to remain in such close proximity to water and humidity. The Link 20 solves that as I can rely on its battery power when I'm using it there.
But when the music is super loud, you'll have trouble getting the speakers to hear you from a few feet away, and sometimes, even in a quiet room, you'll get the customary, "I don't know how to help with that yet, but I'm always learning," or even better, it will acknowledge what you asked it to do then after a few seconds say, "Sorry, something went wrong, try again in a few minutes." Jeff, for example, encountered some issues setting up alarms on the Links though I tested and had zero problems. He also complained of both the Link and his phone waking up to an Ok Google command if they were in the same room and fighting for his attention. I turn off Ok Google detection on my Pixel 2 XL just to avoid this.
Worse yet, if you have several Assistant speakers, be it Google Homes or Links, you may encounter a lot of instances where you're in a room with the same speaker but another one in a different room answers you. This happened frequently to my husband who has a loud voice and would get the Home in the hallway to answer him while he was in the kitchen talking to the Link 20. And if your connection isn't very stable at times, things can get ugly and several speakers will try answering you. There was a particular night where our apartment became haunted and the 2 Homes and 2 Links I have started answering queries all together, some saying they can't do something, some giving the proper answer, and just plain confusing us. We ended up rebooting our network and turning off the mic on a few speakers until things went back to normal the next day.
These are all issues related to the Assistant and not in any way JBL's fault, but they're worth noting because they are part of the experience you'll have by buying these speakers. Plus, as I mentioned before, the Home app lacks organization and the entire ecosystem lacks clarity on what can be done and how.
The first few reviews of the Link 10 and Link 20 on Best Buy mentioned a popping/crackling noise when listening to music, but thankfully that issue seems to have been limited to early units: no recent review has mentioned it and neither I nor Jeff noticed it on our units.
With that out of the way, the Link speakers all sound really good. Jeff had some previous experience with JBL's regular Bluetooth speakers so he was able to compare the Links against them and found their sound better. I could stop here because if you are very picky about your music, you've probably already dismissed a $100-$200 streaming speaker and are looking at a proper monitor, and if you're not picky about your music then "really good" might be all you need to know. But I'm not a fan of brevity so let's delve into some details.
Both the Link 20 and 300 that I tested impressed me with their sound. The 20 lives in my small 100sqft kitchen, but the sound it produces reverberates powerfully across the tiled walls. I never felt the need to raise the volume above 60-70%, even to drown out noisy appliances, which is great because it avoids the risk of distortion at high volumes (not that I noticed any significant one in my brief tests). The bass is deep and eloquent, even for a speaker of its size, and it completely eclipses the Google Home in that regard, which I had previously thought had decent enough bass. The mids are vibrant too and even on the same volume output as the Home, I found that I liked the Link 20's lively mids more than the Home. The highs are nice and well-defined but I wouldn't say there's anything spectacular about them.
As I mentioned earlier, I did try the Link 20 while taking a shower a few times and to be honest, I found the power overkill for our tiny 40sqft bathroom. 50% of the volume is enough to comfortably hear music or podcasts above the running water, so if this is your only use for the speaker, you might want to consider getting the Link 10 and not the 20 and save a few bucks. I once made the mistake of telling the 20 to set the volume to 100% while in the shower and it was deafening. I couldn't get Ok Google to work again, so I had to get out and use the manual buttons to lower the volume. Like a Neanderthal! #FirstWorldProblems
Speaking of the Link 10, Jeff tells me the sound is similar though less powerful than the 20, but the bass response is also weaker. His impression was that if he was buying one of the two, he'd pay the $50 more and get the Link 20 because it sounds better, it's more versatile, and the battery lasts longer.
As for the Link 300, I pitted it in a head to head with my JBL Playlist. You can see the two sitting comfortably next to my 55"TV in the living room, with the Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar in the middle. The sound signature on the Playlist and Link 300 is eerily similar, despite them not having the same internals at all. With both set at 50%, the Playlist wins in sheer power, but if you balance the volume output so that it's similar on both, it's impossible for my ears to distinguish a difference. The lesser loudness is a good thing in this case, because as I said in the Playlist's review, it gets too loud for its own good so the restraint on the Link 300 is welcome. Other than the power output difference, everything I said about the Playlist's sound in the review linked above stands true here. It's loud, it's more than adequate for a medium-to-large room, the bass is clear and powerful, and it handles vocals beautifully.
It's sad that Google doesn't let us choose a left and right channel for two speakers in a group, because these would make perfect stereo speakers together.
JBL delivered really compelling Google Home alternatives with the Link series. The "smart" experience is similar so buyers can either mix and match with their existing Google Home setup or get started with only the Links in their house. The Link 10 and 20 are portable, water-resistant, and provide something the Google Home doesn't: an easy way to use them around the house and outside the house should you need to. They're great as portable Bluetooth speakers, they're even better as around-the-house smart streaming speakers. As for the Link 300, it's a stationary speaker but its sound and volume can easily engulf a mid to large living room.
Originally, JBL had announced the Link 10, 20, and 30 at $150, $200, and $250, respectively. But they now seem to be consistently found at $100, $150, and $200, which is a much better value and gives them a competitive edge against the Google Home. The price of the latter oscillates between $79 and $129, so let's say it averages at $100. Compared to that, the $100 Link 10 may not be super appealing due to its lower bass response. But if you're only considering it for the bathroom/shower or a really tiny room, then by all means, anything bigger is overkill. The Link 20 is perfect for a small to midsize room and for carrying around the house, to the balcony or garden or on travels. It's the one I'd get if I wanted a more versatile and better-sounding Google Home and at $50 more, the price difference is justifiable. The $200 Link 300 is more expensive, but it's still half the price of a Home Max so if you want a speaker with more power and better range than a regular Home or Link 20, but the Home Max is too much for you, the Link 300 is a great intermediary solution.
In case any of these sound appealing to you, you can either grab them from JBL directly or from several other retailers except Amazon, which only sells the Link 500. I've added all the links to help you find them.