JBL Link Bar review: A soundbar, Google Assistant, and Android TV rolled into one big compromise
- 28 August, 2019 20:00
One of the best—and worst—things about the Android TV platform is that it allows for weird, ambitious products like the JBL Link Bar.
While it looks like a typical soundbar, the $400 JBL Link Bar doubles as an Android TV player for streaming video from apps like Netflix. It also responds to “Hey Google” voice commands, and it has three HDMI passthrough inputs, so you can see Google Assistant’s responses on the big screen without switching away from your cable box or Blu-ray player.
This is the kind of wild idea that you won’t see from Roku, because Roku licenses its software only to smart TV and cable-box manufacturers. You will encounter a few soundbars with Amazon Alexa integrated, but not Amazon’s Fire TV media streamer, although at least one of them—Polk Audio’s Command Bar—has a USB port that you can plug an Amazon Fire TV stick into.
I’m glad JBL and Google gave it a try, but rolling a soundbar, smart speaker, and streaming box into one device only works if the individual elements can stand on their own. With the JBL Link Bar, each piece feels compromised, and combining them into one unit just doesn’t provide enough of a benefit.
JBL Link Bar performance as a soundbar
The JBL Link Bar is a 40-inch soundbar with a pair of 0.8-inch tweeters and four “racetrack” drivers—each measuring 1.7 inches by 3.2 inches—powered by an amplifier that delivers 100 watts maximum power. The enclosure is a medium-gray plastic with a fabric speaker grille.
While the Link Bar does have a Toslink optical audio input, which is typically most useful for TVs or A/V receivers that don’t have HDMI (or that have older HDMI ports that don’t support HDCP 2.2 copy protection), you’ll want to connect it to your TV with an HDMI cable, because that’s the only way you can stream Android TV video to your TV. The soundbar is also Chromecast compatible, and it supports Bluetooth for streaming music from a mobile device. Finally, there’s a 3.5mm analog stereo input for connecting legacy audio gear.
At $400, the Link Bar is on the pricier side for a standalone soundbar, but it offers great clarity in a medium-sized room. While watching Snowpiercer on Netflix, for instance, the clanking and crashing of the film’s first big action scene rang out more than they did on a cheaper sound system, and and while listening to Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner - Volume Two, the intricacy of Michael League’s basslines were easier to identify.
Still, a soundbar alone is no match for a proper surround system and subwoofer, especially since the Link Bar’s low-end frequency response cuts off at 75Hz. While you can spend an extra $300 for JBL’s SW10 wireless subwoofer, there’s no way to add wireless surround speakers, so you’ll always be stuck with stereo audio. JBL’s system isn’t compatible with Dolby Atmos or DTS:X for soundtracks with object-based sound effects, either.
The JBL Link Bar is one of the relatively few soundbars to support Google Assistant voice controls, which means you can use voice commands to play music, control smart home devices, and get information, even when the television is off. LG offers several models, with its $600 SL8YG being the least expensive. On the other hand, LG’s soundbars do support Dolby Atmos and they give you the option of adding wireless surrounds. The $499 Bose Soundbar 500 and the Sonos Beam, meanwhile, don’t support object-based audio, but they do offer the option of wireless surround channels.
Bose and Sonos also give you the option of using either Google Assistant or Alexa, although you must choose one or the other in the company’s apps. You can’t say “Hey, Google” with one breath and summon Alexa in the next. But if you’re an Apple household, the Bose and Sonos products both support Apple’s AirPlay 2 streaming technology, where JBL’s speaker does not..
There are downsides to using the JBL Link Bar as a smart speaker, however; Google Assistant can feel slow to respond, and if you have another Google Home speaker even remotely within earshot, it’ll often be the one to respond to your summons even when you’re much closer to the Link Bar. The JBL Link Bar doesn’t support multi-room audio with other Google Assistant devices, either; so when you try to create a speaker group within the Google Home app, the Link Bar won’t appear as an option. Google says it’s working on a solution that will allow Cast-enabled speakers and Android TV soundbars to play together, but the company can’t say when that might be available.
JBL Link Bar as an Android TV box
The big selling point for the JBL Link Bar is that it’s more than just a soundbar or even just a smart speaker. It’s also an Android TV streaming player that can replace your Roku, Fire TV, or smart TV software. Just plug the Link Bar into your TV over HDMI, and it will play video on the television while feeding audio through the soundbar.
Judged strictly as a streaming box, however, the JBL Link Bar isn’t much better than low-budget Android TV players like the Xiaomi Mi Box S. It currently streams 4K video, but Google is still working on an update to support streaming in HDR, which provides brighter imagery with better color detail with 4K HDR content on supported televisions. Performance is adequate, but not nearly as zippy as the Nvidia Shield TV, and unlike many other Android TV boxes, the Link Bar doesn’t have a USB port for connecting TV tuners, hard drives, or other accessories.
The bigger problem is that the Link Bar also doesn’t support 60-frames-per-second video in most live TV streaming apps, including Hulu with Live TV and Sling TV. (Other cheap Android TV devices have the same problem.) Even worse, PlayStation Vue is unwatchable on the JBL Link Bar due to constant video stuttering. (Google says it’s looking into it.) The one exception was YouTube TV, which quickly loaded channels at the higher frame rate.
And while Android TV has made some recent strides in app support, it’s still missing a small number of apps that are available on other platforms, including AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now), Nick Jr., and Discovery apps. Amazon Prime isn’t available either, despite a recent promise by Google to roll it out on more devices, although you can at least use the Link Bar’s built-in Chromecast capabilities to access the service.
Android TV does have some neat features. Google Assistant is great at pulling in search results from video apps such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, and it can also handle detailed genre searches, such as “indie sci-fi movies” or “comedy shows from the 90s.” With the Link Bar, being able to execute those commands hands-free is a nice touch.
Built-in Chromecast support is also handy for launching videos and music from your phone, or for showing off Google Photos albums on the big screen. Even the “channel rows” on the home screen are coming along with broader app support, so you can find things to watch across Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and more without having to jump into lots of different apps.
Still, if you’re really into the Android TV platform, the Nvidia Shield TV remains a superior option, with faster performance, a proper Amazon Prime Video app, full 4K HDR support, and none of the Link Bar’s frame-rate issues.
JBL Link Bar as an HDMI switcher
One of the JBL Link Bar’s best features is that it’s outfitted with three HDMI inputs where most soundbars offer just one, expecting you to plug additional devices into your TV and rely on ARC (audio return channel) to send their audio on to the soundbar. If you’ve ever struggled getting ARC to work with your Blu-ray player or set-top box, you can see why having three HDMI inputs on the soundbar is a vastly superior alternative. And unlike the Link Bar’s Android TV feature, these HDMI inputs do support 4K video with HDR.
What’s more, Google Assistant responses will appear as an overlay on whichever HDMI input is active, so you don’t need to switch back to the Android TV menu to see answers to your voice commands. You can use voice commands to switch HDMI inputs, too.
I did, however, encounter a significant problem using the JBL Link Bar’s HDMI input with a Nintendo Switch gaming console: Latency. I would venture to guess that the speaker is performing some kind of signal processing, because while I was playing Super Mario Bros. 3, there was noticeable lag between pressing a button on the controller and seeing Mario jump on the screen. The game was still playable, but it wasn’t as responsive as it was when I had the console connected directly to the TV’s HDMI input.
And that would be the workaround for any scenario where latency is an issue: Plug the console directly into the TV and rely on ARC to send game audio on to the Link Bar. But you’ll probably need to fiddle with your TV’s settings to make this work. You might also discover, as I did with my Vizio TV, that the HDMI-ARC on your TV is limited to a lower refresh rate or 4K color depth than its other HDMI ports. (Most TVs have more than one HDMI port, but typically only one of them has ARC.) Since the one HDMI port with ARC on my Vizio TV is limited to a refresh rate of 30Hz, the quality of video that passes through the Link Bar could be compromised.
It’s also worth noting that the JBL Link Bar’s remote control can’t control your other devices. You can use it—or a voice command—to adjust the volume or switch inputs, but you’ll need to pick up a separate remote to use your cable box, DVD player, or secondary streaming device. If managing multiple inputs with one remote is the goal, a device like the Caavo Control Center or a universal remote such as the Logitech Harmony (or the Alexa-powered Harmony Express) will be a better fit.
JBL Link Bar as the sum of its parts
Granted, the JBL Link Bar is cheaper than the total bill for all the devices it aims to replace (namely, a soundbar, a smart speaker, and an Android TV box). The Sonos Beam costs the same, for example, but you’ll need to spend anywhere from $40 for a Roku Streaming Stick to $180 for an Nvidia Shield TV. And the Beam doesn’t come with a remote at all (you’re expected to use voice commands or your smartphone to control it).
But a $400 soundbar that forces you to choose between relying on ARC and compromising video quality, or putting up with latency while gaming; one that can’t deliver HDR video streaming; a speaker that doesn’t support optional wireless surrounds; and a Chromecast speaker that doesn’t support multi-room audio in any capacity is just not a good value.
Google and JBL announced the JBL Link Bar a full 15 months ago. One would not only expect that these issues would have been ironed out by now, but that the speaker would support new technologies that have come to the fore in the meantime, including eARC (enhanced audio return channel, which adds support for 5.1 audio, Dolby True HD, and DTS Master Audio). (For the record, the Bose Soundbar 500 supports eARC, but the Sonos Beam does not.)
Now Google did say back in May 2018 that the JBL Link Bar would be the first in a series of hybrid soundbars. Let’s hope future efforts are greater than the sums of their parts.