When the Google Home Max debuted in 2017, we asked Google if the smart speaker would be compatible with TVs as a soundbar. The answer was no, but the company is finally placing some emphasis on Google Assistant-powered soundbars. The first product in this category is JBL’s Link Bar. It’s an Android TV streaming box, soundbar, and smart speaker all in one. Though it debuted in 2018, it’s only now — as of July 11, 2019 — available for purchase, for $400. We’ll hopefully get our hands on a review model soon, but in the meantime, here’s what we learned after spending some time checking it out at Google I/O 2018.
Soundbars are slim and don’t take much space, and they’re a relatively affordable way of improving the audio capabilities of your TV. The JBL Link Bar looks like any other soundbar: It’s sleek and its presence is subtle, with physical controls for volume on the top, including a mute switch. What makes it different is that it not only has Google Assistant smarts, but it’s also powered by Android TV.
In a nutshell, this means that not only can the soundbar do everything a Google Home speaker can do, but it can drive your TV as well. That would be impressive on its own, but Google Assistant, which was added to Android TV last year, takes things to a whole new level.
Using the familiar phrase “Hey, Google,” you can search for movies and TV shows, or pull up videos on YouTube. You can control smart light bulbs, play music, or ask for the weather, and the best part is that you don’t need to turn your TV on to use the Link Bar. If the TV is off, the Link Bar will only turn the display on when it detects a visual component to your query. For example, if you ask it to play your favorite TV show, the TV will automatically turn on. If you’re simply asking it about the weather, the TV will stay off.
The Link Bar has two far-field microphones that can pick up your voice easily.
When you call for Assistant when the TV is on, it only takes up a small portion of the bottom of the screen. Like with Google Assistant on Android TV, you can control your entire navigational experience. What blew us away, however, was switching between TV inputs with just our voice. If you have multiple devices connected to your TV’s HDMI ports — like a Nintendo Switch, a DVD player, or a PlayStation 4 — you can just tell the Assistant to “Switch to PlayStation,” and that’s it — time to game.
In practice during our short demo, it all worked relatively well. The Link Bar has two far-field microphones that can pick up your voice easily, even while blasting sound.
So how does it sound? Not too great, but we only had the chance to listen to it very briefly. While it easily got incredibly loud, the Link Bar lacked bass, so music sounded incredibly flat. We’re hoping for improvements to audio quality in the final version of the Link Bar.
The good thing is you can expect to see more soundbars like the Link Bar toward the end of the year. Google said JBL’s device is just the first in a planned series of hybrid devices powered by Android TV and Google Assistant. The tech is sound, and the interface is intuitive. We can’t wait to see other third-party manufacturers developing these soundbars.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a soundbar will less built-in smarts, take a look at our list of the best soundbars you can buy.
Updated on July 11, 2019: Updated with purchase information.