We put JBL's smallest speaker in its new line of voice-enabled Chromecast speakers to the test to find out the answer.
One of the great things about both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa voice-assistant platforms is that they're both very open. It's easy for third-party companies to make compatible smart home devices that work with both of them. In fact, companies can also make their own smart speakers to compete directly with those manufactured by Google and Amazon.
JBL is the latest company to take up the Google Assistant smart speaker mantle. In late 2017, it released a new line of voice-enabled speakers under its new Link sub-brand. The line features a combination of two fully waterproof battery-powered portable speakers -- the JBL Link 10 ($150, £150, AU$230, reviewed here) and Link 20 ($200, £180, AU$300) -- as well as two AC-only models, the Link 300 ($250. £250, AU$350) and Link 500 ($400, £350, not available in Australia). The upcoming Link View, meanwhile, is one of a new wave of Google Assistant devices with a screen built into it.
In addition to using Google Assistant for its voice commands, all Link speakers are equipped with Google Chromecast, which enables them to join up not only with other Link speakers but any Chromecast-based audio device to create a multiroom audio setup over a Wi-Fi network. (All Android apps and many iOS apps can send audio to Chromecast speakers at the touch of a button.) The speakers are also equipped with Bluetooth , which offers universal compatibility.
The Link 10 and Link 20 look like bulkier cousins to JBL's cylindrical portable Bluetooth speakers. In fact, from a sound quality standpoint, the smaller Link 10 (reviewed here) is in the same ballpark as the JBL Flip 4 and has a rated battery life of 5 hours via a Wi-Fi network.
The only problem with the Link 10 is that the step-up Link 20 offers fuller sound with better bass, and has twice the battery life for $50 more. That doesn't mean the 1.6-pound (0.73 kg) Link 10 is a mediocre wireless speaker. It's quite decent for its size. But its sound came across as a little recessed when I compared it to its larger sibling, which weighs in at 2.1 lb or 0.95 kg.
The 20 is arguably the best-sounding portable voice-enabled speaker for the money at the time this was published, but the competition is pretty limited, with the UE Blast and Megablast being among the only serious adversaries along with the Amazon Tap (all three of which use Alexa, not Google Assistant).
Setting up the speaker is relatively simple via the Google Home app on iOS and Android devices. You log into the speaker using a direct Wi-Fi connection, then log onto your chosen network to get the speaker on the network. You can then give it a label for a particular room and link it with other Chromecast-enabled speakers if you have them.
The biggest issue I encountered was the speaker's sluggish startup time. Once you power it on, it takes a good 10 to 20 seconds to connect to your wireless network and ready itself to receive voice commands. AC powered models like the Link 300 and Link 500 are always on (like an Amazon Echo) and don't have those startup delays.
It'd also be nice if the speaker had a dock option like the UE Blast, Megablast and Amazon Tap. It's not an essential feature, but every time you want to charge the speaker you have to uncover the Micro-USB port (there's a gasket that covers it) and plug in a USB cable. For those using the speaker at home a lot, the docking station is a convenient feature.
Link the other Link speakers in the line, the Link 10 has two microphones at the top along with some physical buttons, including volume controls. You can access Google Assistant by pressing the middle button on top of the speaker and issue commands without having to say "Hey, Google" or "OK, Google" first.
Alternatively, you can call out to the speaker with "Hey, Google" and a set of LEDs, which also double as the battery-life indicator, lights up to tell you that speaker is ready to take your command. Thanks to the dual mics, I had no problem issuing commands from several feet away (across a medium-size room) in a normal voice. If the speaker is playing music at higher volumes, you will have to raise your voice for it to hear you over the music.
You can argue over which voice assistant is the best. Alexa is currently dominant in the wireless speaker market with Google Assistant, Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Samsung's Bixby all playing catch-up. And while the arrival of Apple's HomePod may shake things up, that speaker is comparatively costly and feature-challenged: You can only access Apple-based music services via voice, and it needs an iOS device living on the same network to perform basic tasks like reminders.
Google Assistant performs as well and perhaps better than Alexa for basic tasks like accessing music services (including Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn), getting the latest news and weather, and setting timers for cooking. It's also arguably superior for answering general questions because it's tied to Google's renowned search engine. Where it falls short compared to Alexa is in the smart-home realm, where Alexa can control more products. Needless to say, like Alexa, Google Assistant will grow even more robust with time. (This list of Google Assistant commands will give you an idea of all the options for controlling this speaker with your voice.)
As I said, the Link 10 delivers strong sound for its compact size. It's a little bigger than the 1.4-pound (1.17 kg) UE Blast, which is a little slimmer and slightly easier to carry around (I like the UE's design slightly better).
Not surprisingly, the Link 10 doesn't sound as good as larger and more powerful AC-powered speakers like the Sonos One, Apple's HomePod and JBL's Link 300 and Link 500, which deliver fuller, richer sound and hold together better at higher volumes. (It does sound better than Amazon's second-gen Echo, however.)
Like the Link 20, the Link 10 sounds best at 75 percent volume or less. It can get loud when cranked up, but you will get some distortion as you push the volume to max levels, particularly with bass-heavy and more complicated tracks that have a lot instruments playing at once.
At times, it sounds better than the UE Blast, which costs $50 more. That may sound like a strange thing to say, but all these wireless speakers have digital signal processors (DSP) that process sound in their own particular way. That can make for some uneven performance.
When listening to Ed Sheeran's "Perfect," I thought the JBL sounded a tad warmer and more natural. The Blast has a little bit of presence boost (otherwise known as treble boost) that can sometimes make certain riffs sound a little harsh. However, when I played Bruno Mars' "That's What I Like" the Blast had a little more punch to it and sounded clearer, while the Link 10's bass had a little less definition.
Alas, these compact cylindrical speakers have their moments when they sound quite good -- and then they have their moments where they show their limitations. (None of these small speakers can handle Vampire's Weekend's "Diane Young" track at higher volumes, for example).
It's also worth noting that they sound different indoors and outdoors. I maintain that these types of speakers -- like the Link 10/20 and UE Blast/Megablast -- are better suited to outdoor use. They're designed to disperse your music in an open area so your ear doesn't hear some of their sound quality imperfections. Rather, you just say to yourself, "Wow, that speaker plays loud for its small size."
I'll finish by talking about the Link 10's price. At $150, it's an OK value. But it's frequently discounted by $50, which puts it at $100, or not much more than JBL's Bluetooth-only Flip 4. While I'd personally step up to the Link 20 -- especially if it, too, was discounted -- if you want to save some money and actually like the idea of a more compact speaker, the Link 10 is certainly a good option.