The Portable is the latest member of JBL’s Link line of Wi-Fi speakers. It’s distinctive in that you can lift it right out of its charging dock and carry it anywhere in your home that your Internet network is available. It seemed a bit costly at its original price of $179.95 USD, but for this summer JBL has halved the price, to $89.95.
In the box
The Link’s box is all advertising: a nearly life-size photo of the Link on the front, its features listed on two sides, and, on the third, JBL’s “Dare to Listen!” slogan. Inside are the speaker, a USB-C charging cable, a colorful quick-start guide, and warranty and safety information.
The Link Portable is a cylinder with rounded ends; it measures 6.7”H x 3.5” in diameter and weighs 1.6 pounds, and comes in black, blue, or gray. The wraparound grille is a fine-meshed fabric, the top endcap is hard plastic, and the bottom endcap is rubberized plastic. Its sturdy build quality gives it a rock-solid feel. On the front is a small silver plaque with the JBL logo; just below that, a tiny white LED unobtrusively glows when the speaker is connected to a home network. At the top, behind the grille, four LEDs glow white to let you know the status of Google Assistant, and blue to indicate Bluetooth pairing.
On the small plastic rear panel are a USB-C port for charging, a power button, a battery indicator bar, and microphone on/off and Bluetooth pairing buttons. On the upper endcap is the Play/Pause button -- or give it a long press to activate Google Assistant without your having to say “Hey Google.” To left and right of this are the volume + and - buttons.
The waterproof Link can stand on end on its own, or on its 3.25”-diameter charging base -- it can be listened to while being charged. At the edge of the charging base is a channel for the cord that leads to a USB-C port on the base’s underside. Plug the supplied USB-C cord into that port, thread it through the channel, and plug its other end into your computer or, with an adapter (not supplied), into an AC outlet. The charging base has two little spring-loaded prongs that make contact with corresponding conductive areas on the speaker’s base.
Inside the speaker are one downward-firing, full-range, 1.9” driver and two side-venting passive radiators. Built into the Link are Apple AirPlay, Bluetooth 4.2, dual-band Wi-Fi, and it supports the AAC, FLAC, MP3, Opus, Vorbis, and WAV file formats. Google Assistant lets you control the Link via voice commands, set alarms and timers, control streaming services compatible with Chromecast Built-in (e.g., Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music), select radio stations via iHeartRadio or TuneIn Radio, control volume, play, pause, skip, and repeat, control compatible smartphone products, and create and control a multiroom audio setup using other Chromecast speakers.
Additional specs provided by JBL: a maximum power output of 20W, a frequency range of 65Hz-20kHz, signal/noise of >80dB, and a waterproof rating of IPX7. JBL says that the Link’s built-in, rechargeable battery takes 3.5 hours to charge and provides playing time of “up to 8 hours (varies by volume level and content).” The Link is warranted for one year.
That waterproof rating of IPX7 means that the Link will remain waterproof for up to 30 minutes when submerged to a depth of 3’ -- but it’s not like a waterproof speaker that you can use as it bobs beside you in a pool because it doesn’t float. It should, however, be fully splash-proof -- you can set it at the edge of the pool, and rain shouldn’t be a problem.
The JBL Link proved versatile and easy to use. Using an adapter, I plugged the charging base into the wall, and there I left the Link whenever I wasn’t using it, to ensure I’d never run out of power. The joy of the Link is that when you lift it from its base you can take it around the house with you -- even out on the patio, if your network’s range extends that far. Say I’m listening to music while working at the computer, but then remember that I have to load the dishwasher. I take the speaker with me and don’t lose a beat. And I could take it into the shower stall with me.
I never had to use any of the controls described above, although they did work just fine. Google Assistant took care of it all, and every one of my voice commands worked: “Hey Google, volume 75%,” “Pause,” “Play,” “Play me some smooth jazz,” “Coronavirus news.” Even Bluetooth pairing is hands-free. Tell Google Assistant to turn on Bluetooth pairing, and the Link pops up on your device -- select it and you’re connected. If you want to turn off Bluetooth and return to Wi-Fi, tell Google to "Stop Bluetooth." Bluetooth stops.
The Link fit easily in my average-size hand, and its small footprint meant that I could always find a place to set it down. I could give it new voice commands as long as the volume was no higher than 80% of maximum. Above that level, the Link couldn’t hear me over the music it was making.
Lacking Apple AirPlay, I played music via Google or Chromecast. I also tried the Link’s Bluetooth operation, to make sure it worked -- it did, but Wi-Fi sounded better. I stuck with that.
The Link’s bells and whistles were a lot of fun, but they’d all have been for naught had the speaker not sounded good. Fortunately, it did sound good -- amazingly good. It played loudly without apparent distortion, and its sound was mellow overall. Of course, a speaker with only a single 1.9” driver can’t be expected to reproduce low bass, and the Link didn’t. But its upper bass was good, with strong hints of midbass audible here and there. I could easily get the beats of jazz and rock tracks. The midrange was warm and forward, the highs sparkly without ever approaching the ugly or aggressive. All in all, I found the Link a very appealing small speaker that didn’t sound small at all, except for its lack of low bass. Although multiple Links can be, um, linked via the app, there’s no way to link two Links for true stereo sound.
As I write this, I’m listening, off and on, to a Pandora station playing classical guitar music. The Link is reproducing each attack, slide, and nuance of the guitarist’s playing. What bass there is is solid, with good presence down to its lower limits, and it displayed razor-sharp focus on the limited soundstage.
Turning to a Pandora station dedicated to Joni Mitchell, I was delighted with the sound of her upbeat “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.” Her voice was crisp and clear, her guitar sharply articulated, her overdubbed backing vocals mellow. Wilton Felder’s electric bass was audible if a bit reticent -- but that’s how it sounds on the original recording.
Turning to Bluetooth, I tried the opening chorus of Vivaldi’s Gloria, with Hervé Niquet conducting Le Concert Spirituel (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Alpha). Niquet is one of the most energetic and imaginative performers of Baroque music. If you don’t know his performances, check them out on YouTube, especially his Handel. The Gloria opens with a bouncy theme in the strings before the chorus bursts in with a joyous “Gloria, Gloria.” Everything sounded right through the Link Portable -- the articulation was clean, the tonal balance pleasant, and the attack of each note was as close to ferocious as such a small speaker can produce. It all sounded absolutely correct through the Link Portable, which provided an incredibly appealing listening experience.
I listened to jazz and rock, soft and heavy, and came away with nothing but admiration for this versatile little speaker. There seemed to be no genre of music it could not reproduce with aplomb.
The JBL Link is one of the most versatile small, portable speakers on the market today. Connected to Wi-Fi, it can be operated through Google Assistant and all its features work flawlessly. The charging base makes it easy to keep the Link powered up and ready to go, and it’s waterproof -- you can take it out on the deck, into the rain, or into the bathroom, getting good sound all the while.
This speaker has become part of my daily routine -- as soon as I wake in the morning, I tell it to play the news, then to play music by a particular artist. Later, I take it into the bathroom for music and news as I shower. Then I tell it to give me the weather report for the day and the next two days. I love this little guy.
. . . Rad Bennett
- Portable music players -- Apple iPod Touch (sixth generation), Benjie Rocker
JBL Link Portable Wi-Fi Bluetooth Speaker
Price: $89.95 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.
Harman International Industries, Inc.
8500 Balboa Boulevard
Northridge, CA 91329
Phone: (800) 336-4525