AudioFiles: Smartspeakers Step Up

As audio’s veterans enter the smartspeaker business, the sound is starting to get good

With 4.3 million units sold in just the second quarter of 2018, smartspeakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home are the biggest thing to hit the audio business in years. But audiophiles look at these products with no more enthusiasm than veteran jazz pianists showed for the Moog synthesizer. Their disdain is justified, because the original smartspeakers were created by companies known for Internet technology, not audio, and all were built with mass acceptance (and necessarily low prices) as the primary goal.

Still, if music is your priority, it’s hard to deny the appeal of smartspeakers. Rather than browsing CDs or the folders on a computer, just tell the speaker what you want to hear—whether it’s as specific as “Alexa, play song ‘All Blues’ by Miles Davis” or as vague as “Hey Google, play jazz.” You can hear any jazz radio station in the world simply by saying the wake word (“Alexa” or “Hey Google”), then “play” followed by the station’s name or call letters. So if you don’t like what WBGO in Newark is playing, you can instantly call up the Bay Area’s KCSM, or vice versa.

While today’s leading tech companies employ skilled audio engineers, some of whom were hired away from the biggest names in audio, those companies have many competing priorities, and sound quality is never at the top of the list. Fortunately, Amazon and Google recently made it possible for traditional audio companies to add voice command to their products.

The JBL Link

A giant step

For many audiophiles and musicians, the 2018 entry of JBL—long revered as one of audio’s iconic brands—into the smartspeaker market essentially put that category on the map. JBL offers four models, ranging in price from $149 to $399. All have Google Assistant built in, so they work just like a Google Home speaker.

The flagship, arguably the most serious smartspeaker to date and the one that would most interest jazz fans, is the $399 Link 500. Its basically a high-quality small stereo system built into a single box, with two 3.5-inch woofers, two 0.8-inch tweeters, and a bass-reinforcing passive radiator, all powered by 60 watts of amplification. The Link series also includes two portable models, the $149 Link 10 and $199 Link 20. Both are water-resistant and run off a rechargeable battery, so you can take them out to the pool or even the beach.

JBL – Link 500 Wireless Speaker with Google Assistant – Black

JBL – LINK 10 Smart Portable Bluetooth Speaker with Google Assistant – Black

JBL – LINK 20 Smart Portable Bluetooth Speaker with Google Assistant – Black

The Polk Assist

Another decades-old audio brand entering the smartspeaker space is Polk Audio, whose Google-powered Polk Assist retails for $199. Although the Assist measures just 7.5 inches high, it’s built like Polk’s traditional speakers, with a 3.5-inch woofer, a 1-inch tweeter, and a thick, sturdy enclosure that doesn’t resonate the way cheap smartspeakers tend to.

Polk isn’t firmly in the Google camp; it also has an Alexa-powered soundbar. The $299 Command Bar sounds more like a real stereo than a typical all-in-one smartspeaker can, because its speakers are spread out further for a better stereo effect, and the included wireless subwoofer assures that Dave Holland’s deepest tones won’t go missing. It also connects to a TV.

Bose, yet another audio brand dating back decades, offers a more upscale take on the voice-command soundbar with the $499 Soundbar 500. The Alexa-powered unit is more powerful than the Command Bar; with the optional $399 Bass Module 500 and $299 Bose Surround Speakers, it can be expanded into a full home theater system.

Riva’s Concert

New voices

The smartspeaker field has also attracted audio brands that made their reputations in the last decade by building great-sounding wireless speakers. One is Riva, known among audiophiles as the company that dared to demo its Bluetooth speakers at high-end audio shows. Riva’s new $179 Concert combines the company’s savvy acoustical engineering with an Alexa-powered voice command system. Because it’s splash-resistant and can be fitted out with a $49 rechargeable battery and $29 travel case, the Concert is as comfortable coming along on vacation as it is sitting in a living room.

Although Marshall is best known for its guitar amps, it also makes some of the world’s best wireless speakers. The company recently added voice command to a couple of its well-reviewed models, the best of which is the $399 Stanmore II Voice. With 80 total watts of amplification pushing a 5.25-inch woofer and two 0.75-inch tweeters, the Stanmore II Voice packs serious audio power—along with familiar bass and treble controls on top that let you dial in the sound to your liking.

Marshall – Stanmore II Voice Wireless Speaker with Amazon Alexa Voice Assistant – Black

Thanks to huge amounts of engineering and talent, the sound quality of smartspeakers has finally gotten good enough that it’s worth the attention of serious music listeners. Even if they don’t (yet) sound as good as a traditional stereo, any jazz fan is sure to love the ease of calling up whatever old classic strikes the mood—or investigating the newest sounds without having to lift a finger.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.