The market is full to bursting with portable Bluetooth speakers in the sub-£150 bracket, but not all of them have the JBL Link Portable’s neat features, including hands-free voice assistance, a charger cradle and wireless streaming via wi-fi or Bluetooth. Suddenly, much of that competition seems to melt away.
The built-in smarts are set up via the Google Home app, the cradle charger negates searching for a tiny charging port in semi-darkness – your speaker simply sits on its nest when it needs juice – while its connectivity brings a plethora of streaming options to the table, including hi-res support.
The Link Portable is small on branding and fuss, and on first sight, there’s an awful lot to like. But how will it fare at the price for features and sound?
The JBL Link Portable is roughly a centimetre shorter and squatter than the Ultimate Ears Boom 3, with a top plate like a rounded-off square rather than a strictly cylindrical design. Its closely-woven fabric jacket puts us in mind of an Ultimate Ears product, but there’s an altogether more retiring feel that should make it fade into your home decor.
It is relatively heavy for a ‘portable’ speaker, at 735g (the JBL Flip 5 weighs just 540g) so if you sling it in your bag, you’ll know it’s there. That said, in terms of providing something substantial enough to fill a room with sound, but small enough to be travel-friendly, JBL has hit the nail on the head. Where the Sonos One has to stay put in your lounge, the Link Portable feels perfectly comfortable indoors but is always ready for the next road trip.
Battery life Up to 8 hours
Google Chromecast Yes
Apple AirPlay 2 Yes
Bluetooth version 4.2
Max power 20W
Frequency response 65Hz-20kHz
Dimensions (hwd) 17 x 8.8 x 8.8cm
An IPX7 rating means it’s fully waterproof (to a depth of one metre, for up to 30 minutes) and JBL claims that once fully charged – which takes a maximum of 3.5 hours – you’ll get eight hours of wireless music out of it. As well as the USB-C cradle, there’s a USB-C charging port on the lower spine of the Link Portable – in case you don’t feel like packing the cradle for an overnight trip.
Also here you’ll find a Bluetooth pairing button, a mic mute button, the power button and a battery level indicator. On top of the unit, there are volume controls, two mics and the branded Google Assistant button in the centre. You can press this to stop audio, timers, alarms and responses, or hold it down for more than two seconds to activate or deactivate the Google Assistant.
There is a useful little wi-fi indicator light shining out from the fabric of the speaker just below that, and a row of four LEDs above it. These are nearer the top of the unit and light up through the fabric of the speaker’s body whenever the speaker is active, such as when switching on, altering the volume, or notifying you that Google is listening to your voice.
The Link Portable looks and feels like a premium product. It is available in six colours, though our black model fits into any room of the home – its rounded edges blend in happily until we bark “Hey Google” at it.
We set up the JBL Link Portable using the Google Home iOS app on iPhone. You can give your speaker a nickname and it shows up as such over a wi-fi connection. AirPlay 2 users can also perform set-up using the Apple Home app.
We press the pairing button on the spine of the Link Portable and pair using Bluetooth 4.2, which arguably gives this little box of tricks an advantage over the Sonos One, which lacks Bluetooth. Getting each musical source set up on the Link Portable is a breeze. Link your Spotify account via the Home app, for example, and you can say “Hey Google, play Coheed and Cambria on Spotify”.
Although Tidal’s streaming service isn’t supported for voice commands, you can stream Tidal playlists on Chromecast or AirPlay 2 simply by clicking on the Link Portable in the options on the bottom-left of Tidal’s interface. It really is easy, and brings a plethora of options to the table for little money.
We ask Google why Luis Figo left Barcelona for Real Madrid, to test its general knowledge. Google’s response (from Bleacher Report) is as detailed and emotive as you could hope for. The Link Portable’s mics, offset from the volume controls on the top plate of the speaker, never fail to pick up our voice, even during playback. It’s a competent performance and one we struggle to find fault with.
Perhaps the only omission of note here is the lack of JBL Connect app support, which will doubtless come as a blow to owners of products from JBL’s current portable line-up. Those looking to use JBL’s PartyBoost feature to create a stereo pair between a Link Portable and, say, a Flip 5, Pulse 4 or new Boombox 2, or to link several of these JBL speakers in mono will be out of luck. It’s a shame for owners who might have looked to add Google Assistant operability at home, but JBL has gone down the Google Home/Apple Home route in terms of multi-room use here.
We cue up Calligram’s The Eye Is The First Circle album on Tidal and there’s a pleasingly even distribution of sound, wherever we stand. It’s also an open-sounding mix, with plenty of room for the furiously fast-paced drums, bass, guitar and screamed vocals within Carne to be separate and distinguishable.
The album continues to Serpe and we note that JBL has not highlighted the treble here, opting for an altogether more integrated, hi-fi sounding product. Considering this speaker’s diminutive dimensions, it’s a brave move, but the Link Portable’s bass is more emphasised than much of the competition on the market and fits in line with what JBL calls its 360-degree Pro Sound.
If you’re a fan of the JBL Flip 5, for example, you’ll find a similar sound profile on offer here. Those who prefer Ultimate Ears’ slightly more treble-focused, fun-sounding products may feel the JBL lacks zeal, but it ultimately depends on whether you prefer a broader, refined and more expansive sound, or energy and punch through the mids to treble.
On the issue of placement, we find that if we remove the JBL Link Portable from its charging cradle and place it upright on our coffee table or other surfaces more susceptible to resonance, the bass accuracy is affected – more so than many rivals.
We place our Link Portable next to the slightly larger Ultimate Ears Boom 3 and find the volume equally as room-filling on our decibel meter. Considering the Link Portable’s altogether more bijou feel, that's no mean feat.
We play Joshua Kadison’s Jessie, which is presented with a sparkling and full-bodied piano, but never at the expense of the bass and purring wurlitzer, which underpins the playful notes. Kadison’s vocal is similarly well-handled, textured and central.
Our Tidal playlist continues to Michael Bolton’s To Love Somebody and we enjoy the three-dimensional presentation of Bolton’s voice, which displays an edge for detail over the Boom 3. All in all, the JBL Link Portable presents a detailed, musical, spacious and cohesive listen, with hands-free Google Assistant, at a highly competitive price.
JBL has created a great-looking, compact speaker for your home or on the road, which also boasts hands-free Google Assistant over wi-fi. It comes with a charging cradle in the box and importantly, it works well and sounds great.
For a speaker of this size, it has oodles of detail and an expansive mix with everything present, including bass. Provided you have a solid surface at home and you’re not looking to daisy-chain it with another JBL speaker, it has a lot going for it.
The Link Portable makes JBL a serious contender in the category of affordable smart speakers.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 4
Read our Ultimate Ears Boom 3 review
Read our JBL Flip 5 review
Read our Sonos One review