JBL Playlist review: Multiroom audio at a Bluetooth price
If you're looking to build a multiroom audio system based on Chromecast, then you really should consider putting at least one JBL Playlist in there.
Wi-Fi speakers have huge advantages over Bluetooth-only units, but affordability isn't one. One case in point: the $200 Sonos Play:1 is still one of the most affordable of the breed. Speakers powered by Wi-Fi just haven't come down to Bluetooth speaker prices yet.
Sonos is the best-known name in multiroom audio, but its biggest challenger could be Google with its $35 Chromecast Audio dongle. We love the Chromecast ecosystem, which lets you easily stream from just about any audio app on your phone, but it needs a genuine speaker, not just a dongle, to compete.
At $150/£149, the JBL Playlist is the cheapest Chromecast speaker we've seen to date, and based on its performance it could do for Google what the Play:1 did for Sonos. Its main benefit over the dongle is integration. With the dongle you need to make sure your hi-fi or speaker is turned on and set to the right input. With the JBL, all you need to do is press Play in your favorite app and it just works.
The Playlist looks very similar to the JBL Boost TV, albeit a bit bigger at 12.4 inches by 5.8 inches by 5.2 inches (316mm by 147mm by 131mm). It looks like a black football. The Playlist doesn't boast the most luxurious finish with a thick, plastic mesh covering and an orange, rubber base. It's fairly light at 4 oz (120g) but be aware that it's not a portable speaker -- it doesn't run on batteries and you'll need to plug it in, just like the Sonos. The cabinet houses a pair of 2.25-inch woofers and a passive bass radiator at the rear.
The connection options are relatively simple with Bluetooth , Wi-Fi and a 3.5mm auxiliary. Of most interest to future-proofers is the Chromecast built-in function under Wi-Fi. Setup is easy using the Google Home app -- a pop-up within the app should appear informing you of the Playlist's presence and then it walks you through connection. It's one of the most streamlined setup sequences out there, a rival to Sonos for simplicity.
Chromecast brings with it dozens of native apps -- the big ones being Spotify, Pandora iHeartRadio and YouTube Music -- plus the ability to stream anything from an Android phone or Chrome browser (though this is less reliable). Tap the Cast button in your favored app and after a brief pause it begins playing. Like the Chromecast Audio, the JBL also supports hi-res music up to 24-bit/96kHz over your network. Using a Google Home, users can group compatible speakers together for multiroom listening.
For $150 you can't expect too much from this speaker performance-wise, right? Well, I was surprised by how well it fared against my current benchmark, the $200 Sonos Play:1.
With Radiohead's challenging "Ful Stop," the differences between the two were immediately obvious. The track begins with a low ebbing and flowing bass line and the Sonos struggled to keep up -- the bass drum beats underneath were causing audible chuffing even at a moderate volume. The JBL was able to go louder without distortion and had an open sound that the Sonos lacked. The JBL seemed like a much larger speaker than its diminutive dimensions suggest.
Neither speaker sounded especially comfortable with Alt-J's semiacoustic take on "House of the Rising Sun." While the JBL had plenty of space for the arpeggiated guitar and "Happy" chants, the underlying bass and general sense of urgency was a little lost. And while the Sonos had plenty of bass power, Joe Newman's already nasal voice was amplified to newly annoying heights.
With the tight funk of Gorillaz' "Dare" the Sonos was on more assured ground with a tight bass synth and coolly presented vocals. The JBL had an unpleasant steely edge on the close-micced vocals and synths and didn't have as much punch down below.
As the most "open"-sounding Wi-Fi speaker I've heard at this or almost any price, the JBL is best suited to "Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden"-sized music and acoustic performances. If you like orchestral, jazz or singer-songwriters, this JBL is your speaker. On the other hand, processed pop or dance styles can sound a little unruly or even unpleasant when played at volume.
At $150, though, the JBL Playlist is still one of the best, and cheapest, Chromecast built-in speakers I've yet heard.