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JBL Link 500 review: A voice-enabled Wi-Fi speaker with lots of bass

The Link 500 is a voice-enabled Wi-Fi speaker with Google Assistant that has enough bass to power your next dance party.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.

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One of the great things about both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa voice control platforms is that they're open. Unlike with Siri -- which is only available in Apple-made devices -- it's easy for third-party companies to make compatible smart home devices that work with both of them. That means, in effect, that companies can make smart speakers to compete directly with the Google Home and Echo speakers manufactured by Google and Amazon, respectively.

JBL Link 500
7.5

JBL Link 500

The Good

The Google Assistant-enabled JBL Link 500 has Google Chromecast built in and can be linked to other Link and Chromecast speakers to create a multiroom setup. It plays very loud and delivers strong bass for its size. Has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The Bad

Bass is a little boomy (lacks definition).

The Bottom Line

The JBL Link 500 is a powerful, relatively compact voice-enabled multiroom wireless speaker, but its bass may be a little too boomy for some.

One of the latest companies to take up the Google Assistant smart speaker mantle is JBL, which released a new line of voice-enabled speakers in late 2017 under its new Link sub-brand. The Link 500 ($399.95, £350, AU$500) is currently the largest speaker in the line and competes with such products as the Siri-powered Apple HomePod, the Google Max and the Sonos Play:5. That final product costs more and is merely Alexa-compatible -- the voice assistant isn't built in as it is for the Sonos One.

In addition to the Link 500 reviewed here, the smaller and more affordable Link 300 is also AC-powered. The Link line also features two fully waterproof battery-powered portable speakers -- the JBL Link 10 and Link 20. The upcoming Link View, meanwhile, is one of a new wave of Google Assistant devices with a built-in screen.

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The Link 500 (left) is quite a bit bigger than the Link 300 (right).

Sarah Tew/CNET

In addition to using Google Assistant for voice commands, all Link speakers are equipped with Google Chromecast platform compatibility, which enables them to join up with not only other Link speakers but also 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. 

Given that the Link 500 is the largest speaker in the line, it's not surprising that it also plays the loudest and has the biggest bass output. It's got some real kick -- and by that I mean it can really thump. But the bass does get a little too boomy for my taste. In other words, it lacks some definition and I liked the step-down Link 300 better for that reason.

Setting up the speaker is relatively simple. You use the Google Home app on iOS and Android devices to log in to the speaker with a direct Wi-Fi connection. Then you log on to your chosen network to get the speaker on it. You can then give it a label for a particular room and link it with other Chromecast-enabled speakers if you have them.

It's worth noting that the Link 500's power supply is built into the speaker (there's a simple cord you plug in) whereas the Link 300 has an external power supply. That's not a huge deal but it is a difference.

Like other Link speakers in the line, the Link 500 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 issuing commands without having to say, "Hey, Google" or "OK, Google" first.

Alternatively, you can call out to the speaker by saying, "Hey, Google." A set of LEDs, which doubles as a 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.

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The rear bass port.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 as (and perhaps better than) Alexa for basic tasks such as 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 with 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.)

Rock the house

I put on David Byrne's new album, "American Utopia," pitting the Link 300, Apple HomePod and Google Home Max against each other. The Link 500 played louder and had deeper bass than all of them but the Link 300 and HomePod sounded more refined and were more pleasant to listen to. The Google Max was most closely related in terms of sound quality. The JBL Link 500 does output more bass, with a wider sound stage, and I gave it the slight nod overall. The more expensive Sonos Play:5 is a superior speaker with tighter bass.

If you're someone who plays a lot of hip hop, rap or EDM, this speaker does have its appeal. The bass was powerful enough to rattle the somewhat flimsy shelf we had the speaker sitting on (we had to move it to a more stable spot). And, as I said, it's got lots of punch and can fill a fairly large room with sound.

If you were doing a party and wanted to pump out the jams, this would be the speaker in the Link line to deliver some oomph, especially in a noisy room. But its meatier bass lacks a little definition and is a little thumpy at higher volumes. It may be overkill for some people.

The speaker lists for $400, same as the Google Home Max and more than the HomePod. But as I've mentioned in my other reviews of JBL Link speakers, JBL frequently discounts these speakers and at the time of this writing, you can buy it for $320 in the US. That's a pretty great deal, especially for a speaker that matches the Google Home Max on features and -- I think -- beats it on sound quality. But if you don't mind a bit less powerful bass, I'd go for the even more affordable Link 300 instead. 

JBL Link 500
7.5

JBL Link 500

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Sound 7Value 7
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