(Pocket-lint) - In days gone by, if you wanted a decent multi-room audio experience, you could go two ways: if you wanted to keep your existing speakers and stereo, you could use something an Apple AirPort Express unit to build a fairly clunky, unintuitive hack of a system; or you could replace your speakers and stereo and go for a more consumer friendly approach by shelling out a lot of money for, say, Sonos.
Now, thanks to Chromecast Audio coming built into some new speakers, you can combine the two approaches without the expense or the clunkiness. You can buy new speakers for rooms you haven't got them in, or buy an inexpensive Chromecast Audio unit and plug it into your existing speakers.
That's where the JBL Playlist come into play. It's a £150 speaker that can be used on its own, or as part of a Chromecast group.
JBL Playlist review: Design
- 316 x 147 x 131mm; 1.12kgs
- Plastic case, fabric grille cover
JBL's Playlist has a minimal and modern design, one that's not ostentatious or attention-grabbing. Its front is covered almost entirely in perforated stretchy fabric that looks more like it belongs on a trendy new pair of Adidas trainers, but it works well. It covers the entire surface of the elongated pill-shaped speaker and is interrupted only by the small, silver square JBL badge and the Wi-Fi icon which lights up to let you know how strong the wireless signal is.
The back is a rounded, attractive plastic shell with a matte finish. Right at the back there's a large oval cutout featuring a prominent, silver bass reflex system. This silver oval essentially sits on a springy support system, allowing it to vibrate like crazy when the bass is pumping on your favourite tunes. It's arguably the only part of the speaker with any polish, with its shiny chamfered edges. Which is ironic, given you're never going to see it, being that it's on the back.
The speaker controls are all on top of the device, sitting flush in a grey panel. There's the power on/off button, play/pause, volume up, volume down and Bluetooth control. Each lights up depending on what's happening. If the speaker is playing through Spotify Connect or Chromecast, the play button lights up, and turns off when you pause the music. Likewise, when Bluetooth is in use, that icon lights up. The power button switches between white and orange depending on whether it's active, or switched off.
Turning to the underside, a rubberised ring surrounds the recessed area which contains the selection of ports. In all, there's a 3.5mm jack, a power port and the reset button. That's all.
The only design shortcoming is a problem of practicality: the standard two-pin power chord that comes with it is only about a metre long, which is way too short in our view.
JBL Playlist review: Set up
- Built-in Chromecast Audio
- Set up through Google Home app
Because of its built-in Chromecast support, the speaker setup is slightly different to a regular Bluetooth speaker. Although, there is Bluetooth support too, so you can pair it through your phone's Bluetooth menu if you want. The joy of Chromecast, however, is that once it's setup on your network, you can play music through it from virtually any device you have in the house, without having to pair it for each new one.
Once plugged into a power source and switched on, you need to head to the Google Home app on your iPhone or Android device. Of course, if you haven't already got it installed, you will need to download it from the App Store or the Google Play Store. Then you head to the devices section by tapping the icon in the top right corner, which shows any existing Chromecast devices you have connected, plus any nearby available new ones.
The next step is choosing to set it up, which includes connecting to it then using the setup process to tell it which wireless network to connect. Once done, it'll show up as an option in Spotify Connect, or whenever you choose to cast audio using any compatible app on your iPhone or Android phone.
Since this is Chromecast Audio, you can also choose to add it to a multi-room Chromecast group. Once this has been done, the speaker forms part of your whole-house audio setup, presuming you've gone down the Chromecast Audio route rather than another multi-room streaming or casting technology like Sonos.
JBL Playlist review: Features
- Bluetooth 4.2
- 802.11 n/ac
- 2.4 and 5.0 GHz Wi-Fi
Undoubtedly the most important feature of the Playlist is its convenience. Once it's setup and connected, using it requires no effort whatsoever. You don't have to go and check that you've switched it on, you don't even have to use the buttons on the speaker to adjust volume. Everything can be controlled either through your Google Cast controls on the phone, or through Spotify.
The Playlist is always on, in standby, meaning to switch it on you just have to select it in your Spotify Connect devices list, or start casting to it. Then, it turns on and starts playing.
Equally, if you want to pause a song or skip to the next one and your phone isn't to hand, you can reach to tap the play/pause button either once or twice depending on whether you're pausing or skipping. The best part is that if your JBL speaker is connected to a group of Chromecasts, the music pauses or skips on the group.
JBL Playlist review: Sound
- 2x 57mm woofers
- 2x 15W drivers
- 60Hz - 20kHz frequency range
The sound balance on the Playlist is a curious thing. That's to say it's not bad, but at the same time we weren't enthralled by it. At low volumes the bass wasn't easy to hear at all. Once the volume is boosted, this comes to the fore and is one of the better performing aspects of the sound profile. Bass guitar is clear, responsive and prominent - so long as everything's loud enough.
As for the higher-end frequencies, the treble feels ever so slightly muffled. While audible, treble doesn't ring clear and sharp, while mid-tones basically take a back seat leaving this curious sound which - in some songs - makes the bass and treble feel as though they're playing apart from each other.
To put it more simply, instead of feeling like all the elements merge together to produce one cohesive whole, they feel somewhat disconnected. At least in comparison with more traditional stereo systems.
Once your ears are used to the sound balance, however, this initial sense fades. Plus this is a £150 speaker, so shouldn't be thought of in comparison to big hitters like the pricier Sonos devices. Indeed, the JBL sounds better than, say, an Amazon Echo - which is the same price.
In terms of volume, the JBL Playlist is certainly loud enough to fill a room. We only pushed it half way up the volume slider before it was almost painful to listen. That's some serious decibels.
If you're a Spotify subscriber and want a speaker you can conveniently stream music through, the JBL Playlist is ideal. It's also perfect for those who have an existing Chromecast Audio setup and want another relatively inexpensive speaker to add to their multi-room system. Even if you don't fit in either of those categories, with the number of apps on iOS and Android that now support Chromecast, this is still an recommend option. Load up your music app, tap the Cast button, and you're away.
There are only two real downsides. The audio quality could be better balanced in our view, but it will still fill a room without even trying. Secondly, the power cable that's supplied with it is comically short. It's not ideal having to plan its placement around the fact that it needs to be within a metre of a wall outlet. We could barely get it on top of a set of drawers.
Despite that, you can't really go wrong with with the JBL Playlist at this price point. Its convenience, design and output volume make it a decent product that, although it might not blow away audiophiles, will please those with an appetite for modern simplicity.