JBL Authentics 300 review: Alexa and Google Assistant coexisting

Several companies have taken shots at Sonos over the years when it comes to multi-room audio and self-tuning speakers with built-in voice assistants. These devices are a lot more common in 2023 than they used to be, so there’s a whole host of options if you’re looking for alternatives to the Move or Era. JBL is the latest to give it a go with new additions to its Authentics line of speakers. While audio may be its primary use, these devices are the first to run two voice assistants simultaneously without having to switch from one to the other. And on the Authentics 300 ($450), you get a portable unit that doesn’t have to stay parked on a shelf.

Design

Most wireless JBL speakers fit into three categories. They’re either rugged and compact, modern-looking boomboxes or internally-lit party units. For this new Authentics series, the company opted for a more refined design: all black with a gold frame around the front speaker grille. It’s certainly an aesthetic that fits in nicely on a shelf, without the raucous palette of some of the company’s smaller options. All three of the Authentics speakers look almost exactly the same with the main difference being size, although the 300 does have a boombox-like rotating handle the other two don’t. That’s because it’s the only portable option in the range with a built-in battery.

JBL describes the Authentics look as “retro,” but I’m not sure I agree. Sure, there’s a classic vibe thanks to the ‘70s-inspired Quadrex grille the company has employed in the past, but the finer details and onboard controls are decidedly modern. Speaking of controls, up top you’ll find volume, treble and bass knobs that illuminate the level as you turn them. Pressing in the center of the volume dial gives you the playback controls. There are also Bluetooth, power and Moment buttons along with a thin light bar that indicates charging status when the speaker is plugged in. Around back is a microphone mute switch, along with Ethernet, 3.5mm aux, USB-C and power ports.

Software and features

JBL Authentics 300
Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

The features and settings for the Authentics speakers are managed inside the JBL One app. Here, you’re greeted with a list of the company’s products you own as well as their connected status, battery level and whatever media is playing on the device. After selecting the Authentics 300, JBL dumps you into the specifics, with battery level once again visible up top. A media player is just below, complete with the ability to sync Amazon Music, Tidal, Napster, Qobuz, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Calm Radio so you can play them directly inside this app.

JBL offers some limited EQ customization. There’s a manual slider with options for bass, mid and treble, but that’s it. You won’t find any carefully-tuned presets or the ability to make more detailed adjustments along the curve. To get to your tunes quickly, JBL offers a feature called Moment. Accessible via the heart button on the speaker, this allows you to save a favorite album or playlist from the app’s list of supported streaming services. You can also specify volume and auto-off timing during setup.

Lastly, a word on streaming music over Wi-Fi. The Authentics line supports a range of options here, including AirPlay, Chromecast, Alexa, Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect, all of which are more convenient than swiping over to the Bluetooth menu and pairing the speaker every time you use it. With Wi-Fi, playing music on the Authentics devices are just a couple of taps away inside of the app where you’re browsing and selecting music or podcasts from. The speakers also support multi-room audio via AirPlay, Alexa and the Google Home app

Double assistants, double the fun

JBL Authentics 300
Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

JBL says the Authentics series is the first set of speakers to run two voice assistants simultaneously. Each of the three units can employ both Alexa and Google Assistant without you having to pick one or the other beforehand. This opens up availability across compatible smart home devices and it means your speaker choice isn’t as limited by your go-to assistant.

The speaker never had trouble hearing my commands and it didn’t mistake a query for one assistant with a question for the other. When you ask Google Assistant for help, a white light shows at the top center of the speaker grille. Summon Alexa and that LED burns blue until your convo is over. When you mute the microphones with the switch on the back of the 300, that light glows red and remains until you turn them back on. As is the case with any smart speaker, the voice command limitations are the general hindrances of the assistants themselves rather than any shortfalls of the speaker.

Sound quality

The Authentics 300 really shines with more mellow, chill music like jazz, bluegrass and acoustic-driven country. There’s a warm inviting sound with great clarity across those styles. When you jump to the full band chaos of metal and hardcore, or even the guitar-heavy but mellifluous tones of Chris Stapleton, the speaker’s tuning overemphasizes vocals and the lack of bassy thump creates a muddy overall sound.

Sure, you can dial up the bass with the physical controls or the EQ in the app, but that doesn’t add the kind of deep low-end that would open up the soundstage. It does improve the overall tuning of albums like Stapleton’s Higher, but there’s still an overemphasis on vocals. You can really hear the impact on The Killer’s Rebel Diamonds as Brandon Flowers almost entirely drowns out the backing synth on “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” from Hot Fuss.

At times though, the Authentics 300 is a joy to listen to. Put on some Miles Davis and the speaker is at its best. Ditto for the bluegrass of Nickel Creek, the mellow country tunes of Charles Wesley Godwin and classic Christmas mixes. However, the inconsistency across styles is frustrating. Interestingly, JBL says the Authentics speakers offer automatic self-tuning every time you power them on, but I didn’t notice much difference as I moved the 300 around.

Battery life

JBL Authentics 300
Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

JBL says the Authentics 300 will last up to eight hours on a charge. Within two minutes of unplugging, the JBL One app already had the battery level down two percent while playing music via AirPlay 2, at about 30 percent volume. That may seem like a low level, but it’s good for “working music” on this speaker. After 30 minutes, the app was showing 88 percent, but things slowed down and I managed to still have 24 percent remaining when the eight-hours were up. During a test over Bluetooth, the percentages fell in a similar fashion, but I had no problem making it to eight hours at 50 percent volume (Bluetooth was quieter than AirPlay at 30 percent).

JBL does offer a Battery Saving Mode to help you maximize playtime when you’re away from home. This setting “optimizes” both volume and bass to extend battery life, according to the company. There’s also an optional automatic power off feature that kicks in at either 15 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour when you’re not connected to power and audio is no longer playing.

The competition

JBL offers two alternatives to the Authentics 300 within the same speaker range. The smaller Authentics 200 ($350) is more compact, but not portable, while the larger 500 ($700) is a high-fidelity unit with support for Dolby Atmos. Both still run two voice assistants at the same time and have both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, along with everything else the Authentics line offers. In order to support that immersive audio, the Authentics 500 has more drivers than the other two, with three 25mm tweeters, three 2.75-inch mid-range and a 6.5-inch subwoofer. I look forward to seeing if the extra components and added 170 watts of output power improve sound quality, but it only has slightly lower frequency response than the 300 (40Hz vs. 45Hz).

If you’re looking for something portable that can also pull double duty at home, the Sonos Move 2 is a solid option. It’s too big to haul around with ease, but it does support both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi along with improved sound and better battery life compared to version 1.0. There’s also startling loudness and a durable design. What’s more, it’s the same price as the Authentics 300 at $449. For something more stationary and immersive, you could get the Sonos Era 300 without paying more. My colleague Nathan Ingraham noted the excellent sound quality on this unit during his review, but he did encounter inconsistent performance when it came to spatial audio. There’s also no Google Assistant support on this model.

Wrap-up

When I try to come up with a final verdict on the Authentics 300, I find myself running in circles. For every thing I like about the speaker, there’s immediately something that I don’t. The company certainly deserves some kudos for being the first to run two assistants at the same time and for figuring out how to do that with no confusion or headaches. However, the inconsistent sound quality is a major problem, especially on a $450 speaker. And while the device offers better-than-advertised battery life, it’s larger size makes portability an issue. So unless you absolutely need to seamlessly switch between Alexa and Google Assistant, there are better-sounding options.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/jbl-authentics-300-review-alexa-and-google-assistant-coexisting-190036434.html?src=rss

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