Review: JBL Playlist wireless speaker with Chromecast
4.4Overall Score

Price (RRP): $249
Manufacturer: JBL

Ubiquity, thy name is Bluetooth. But Bluetooth isn’t the only wireless technology for delivering music to speakers. There’s also WiFi. JBL’s Playlist wireless speaker of course supports Bluetooth – what company would dare not these days – but it stands out from its would-be peers by virtue of WiFi.

Features

I shall return to the issue of WiFi vs Bluetooth, but first let’s look into the JBL Playlist. This is a smallish speaker, available in black or blue in Australia, although a white model is pictured on the website as well. In addition to WiFi and Bluetooth, it has a 3.5mm stereo socket so you can feed in analogue audio from, say, an old iPod or a phone you don’t want to connect using Bluetooth. Or even a TV.

By “smallish”, I mean 316mm wide, 131mm tall and 147mm deep. It weighs just a little over a kilogram. It is curvy and, sitting normally, the speakers are aimed slightly upwards from the horizontal. It’s finished in a quality plastic. The grille looks somewhat cloth-like but it actually a firm, perforated plastic.

The review model was finished in black, and around the base it had a red ring, making it stand out just that little bit. On the front is a WiFi light indicating connection status (including signal strength). An indent at the bottom rear has the 3.5mm audio socket and the two-prong socket for the power lead. Unlike a lot of other compact speakers, the 240 volt power supply is built in, rather than being a wall wart. That makes for a neater unit in my view.

Under the grille are two 57mm speaker drivers, which JBL for some reason calls “woofers”. Since they function as full range drivers – JBL specifies the frequency response as 60 to 20,000 hertz, -6dB – calling them “woofers” makes as much sense as calling them “tweeters”. At the back is a large passive radiator. That’s a kind of sprung panel (in some hifi speakers, the passive radiator is a regular speaker minus the electrical bits) which is tuned to employ some of the energy which would otherwise be wasted inside the enclosure to enhance the deeper bass. If it does indeed deliver down to 60 hertz, that would be an impressive performance from such a small speaker.

Each of the two speakers has fifteen watts of power available to it.

Across the top is a set of five buttons for controlling the unit: power, volume up and down, play/pause and Bluetooth. Pressing the two volume buttons mutes the sound.

The unit supports dual band – 2.4Ghz, and 5GHz – WiFi, and the 802.11b/g/n/ac standards, so dropouts and problems with crowded WiFi spectrum should not arise.

So what does WiFi offer over Bluetooth? One reason might be quality. Bluetooth uses compression systems that can detract from audio quality. JBL doesn’t specify the Playlist as using the higher quality aptX or AAC codecs, so I’ll assume it relies on the standard lower quality SBC. Via WiFi the speaker can support streaming music of full CD quality – 16 bits, 44.1kHz sampling, uncompressed – or even better. It’s rated at 24 bits and 96kHz for high resolution music.

(Does that make a difference in ultimate audio quality in a relatively compact speaker of this kind? Probably not. But why add unnecessary hurdles.)

Another reason is versatility. The two main WiFi functions supported by this speaker are Chromecast and Spotify Connect. Chromecast is Google’s wireless media standard. The Google Home app can send all audio from an Android device to a Chromecast-compatible speaker, as can many apps running on both Android and iOS, and indeed the Chrome web browser on any Windows or Mac computer on the same network.

Furthermore, thanks the ability to “group” Chromecast speakers, you can use a whole bunch of JBL Playlist speakers, or one or more of them with other Chromecast-compatible speakers, for a multi-room system. That’s something you can’t do with Bluetooth.

Spotify Connect is only available to those with a Spotify Premium subscription. Rather than the music going to your phone from the Internet and then being sent via Bluetooth to the speaker, with Spotify Connect your phone effectively becomes a controller. The music is streamed from Spotify’s servers directly to the speaker.