Compared to media-streaming rivals Roku, Amazon Fire TV and even Apple TV, Google’s Android TV system has never taken off in the US. Among major TV makers only Sony uses Android TV in its television lineup, while other devices are as niche as the Nvidia Shield and the Channel Master Stream Plus.
No one asked for Android TV in a sound bar, but JBL went ahead and did it anyway. The $400 JBL Link Bar is the only sound bar with a full media-streaming operating system built-in, and it’s every bit the oddball you’d expect. It works fine as a regular sound bar, but it also has its own streaming apps (Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and so on) it can feed to any TV, smart or otherwise. And as there’s Google Assistant built-in too, you can just say, “Hey, Google” and stuff happens.
Unfortunately, it happens too slowly. The Google Assistant integration should be the glue that binds the product together, but in practice the system lagged too much or simply failed to respond to my voice commands. With some further updates it’s possible the Link Bar could succeed where the Google Nexus Q failed — to become a great all-in-one Google-powered entertainment system. Right now, however, despite its solid sound quality and oodles of features, it’s tough to recommend over rivals such as the Sonos Beam ($399 at Amazon) and Polk Command Bar.
The look of Link
The JBL Link Bar is attractively built with its smooth, plastic top and cloth grill, resembling a stretched-out version of the Sonos Beam. The top of the unit has a minimum of controls including a Bluetooth and an input selector, and there’s also a physical “privacy switch” to turn the microphone off.
The unit is 40 inches wide and 2.4 inches high (122 by 8.7 cm) and so should fit under most TVs. It can also be wall-mounted, and the bass ports are located on the ends of the sound bar, which helps prevent boominess when up against a wall.
In addition to Google Assistant, the other main method of interaction is via your TV and the Android TV interface. This is the same interface as you can see on a Sony TV and is one of the better arranged smart TV systems. That is unless you want to change anything about the sound bar itself. For example, you can’t change audio settings without exiting an app. I wanted to adjust the sound mode on the music I was listening to: I had to exit Spotify, go to the home screen, then to settings, then relaunch the app. The sound bar should have a sound mode button or at least a settings option.
Furthermore, unlike every other Assistant speaker I’ve used, you need to plug it into a TV to set it up — you can’t use the Google Home app on your phone. The sound bar asks you to sign into your Google account straightaway upon plugging it into the TV. I did like the option to use my phone to sign in rather than the remote, however. Once setup, the Assistant will work with the TV on, including on-screen prompts and results, or off.
The remote has similar styling to the sound bar. Its button layout is sensible and includes a Google Assistant button. This activates the microphone on the remote itself, in case you’d rather use that instead of saying the “Hey, Google” wake phrase.