JBL has a justified reputation for wireless speakers; not only has it sold millions of them, they reliably offer good sonic performance at any given price. The Flip and Charge models (both now in a version 4) perhaps deliver maximum sound per pound thanks to the passive radiators pumping away in their circular ends. But the four models in the Link series (pictured in a group opposite) have the enormous bonus of having both Google Assistant and an audio Chromecast inside — just like a Google Home, if you like, but with far better sound.
There’s also the Link View, with a screen, which won a 2019 Sound+Image Award, while we loved the Link 10 in our review this time last year.
Now the JBL Link 20, significantly bigger than the Link 10, its 21cm length delivering a volumetric increase of 45% if our cylinder calculations can be trusted, and with 50mm stereo drivers over the Link 10’s 45mm, plus a little extra power. Yet it can still run on its battery; just yank the plug and it keeps on playing, though of course its Google abilities require a home Wi-Fi network. It makes sense to leave the Link 20 plugged in most of the time, firstly so it stays charged, but also because it will power down when left idle on battery power, and of course as a Google speaker, you will want it always listening (or may not, if you have privacy concerns).
In that regard it operates exactly like any other Google Assistant-equipped smart speaker, which means you can use the Google Home app to get it easily on the Wi-Fi, enabling voice interaction, Spotify and Google Play streaming (subscriptions required), control of Google-compatible smart home devices, and the ability to cast from any Chrome browser or Chrome-compatible app. Plus JBL’s Link speakers also all have Bluetooth, so you can stream that way from any other app.
The Chromecast inside also allows grouping of multiple Chromecast-enabled devices using the Google Home app, so that a simple but effective multiroom ability is available.
The Google Home app
With Chromecast and Google Assistant built in, the Link 20 operates within the Google Home app. While some users may never enter the app except to set it up, there are plenty of settings in there which can be useful.
One little known ability is to nominate a default playback speaker — any Chromecast speaker can link with another Bluetooth speaker so that you can say “Hey Google, play Crowded House” without specifying any other information, and the music should emerge from your defined default. Mind you when we tried this, linking a Google Home to first KEF’s LSX and then the Bluesound Pulse Mini, it didn’t always work, and when it did, the transmission quality was appalling, destroying the treble.
Other recent additions include the ability to turn on ‘Continued Conversation’, so that after the first ‘Hey Google’ question you can keep asking things without including ‘Hey Google’ with every request. Privacy advocates will, of course, ask how long it keeps listening! The answer from our attempts seems to be only about 10 seconds (during which every-thing is being piped off to Google’s storage servers for analysis).
For music, it’s also easy to set up multiple ‘Groups’ of your Chromecast-enabled speakers for multiroom playback. We made a group called ‘Party’, added our Google Home, Home Hub and the Link 20 to it. Then when we opened Spotify, we selected ‘Party’ as our device, and the tunes flowed from all three speakers at once, in perfect synchronisation.
All this, together with its additional size over the Link 10, makes the Link 20 a highly enjoyable wireless speaker for the money. We started with Wi-Fi streaming. Chromecast theoretically allows network streaming of high-res to 24-bit/96kHz, and addressing the Link 20 from Roon (see screen grab below) it could receive 24-bit files, though only downsampled to 48kHz (see inset), rather than 96kHz.
This seems a limitation imposed by Google on smart speakers. Of course high-res is, really, overkill for a unit of this size, but we found notable sonic merits from Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth. The Link 20 delivered a balanced rendition from a 24/192 file of Antonio Forcione’s ‘Meet Me In London’, Sabina Sciubba’s vocals full and warm, the guitars delivered down to their bass strings, though lacking the airiness of this recording and the stereo spread; the Link 20 is stereo, but the width is only apparent if you have it very close to the listening position.
We went heavier with Queen’s White Queen, the JBL again displaying its depth by delivering John Deacon’s bottom E. The more complex moments started some congestion in the midrange up at high levels, but given the welly we were getting, it held up well.
We replayed these tracks via Spotify Connect, which softened them slightly, and then by Bluetooth, which softened them more, notably reducing the spread of gong on White Queen, for example. As with any small speaker, we’d plead that you don’t make this your only music system — there are clear limits to level and detail. But at the price, we’ve not heard better, while the combo of Chromecast, Bluetooth and Google Assistant is powerful indeed.
There’s another bonus of the two portable Link models — they are fully waterproofed to IPX7 standards, which means full immersion dunking up to a metre for 30 minutes. Regular Sound+Image readers may have noted our decade-long search for an easy way of playing music while having a bath — there are many waterproof Bluetooth speakers, but control is hard from the tub. A waterproof Google speaker, on the other hand, can play anything from Spotify on command, and have a conversation as well. We enjoyed reading Tom Moon’s 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die during a long soak while calling up the albums as we read about them. We commemorated our delight in this ability by the picture at the top of this article.
Anything sounds good in the bathroom, of course. But the Link 20 achieves a full, non-distorted sound with a fair whack of level in any room, in stereo (fairly box-bound, but stereo), and with those enormous benefits of both battery operation when you need it and all the smarts of Wi-Fi-connected Google Assistant. Smart and solid, JBL’s Link 20 is highly recommended - all the more so since it's currently on JBL's site at $199.95, $100 less than when we had it in for review.