JBL Link Bar review: Solid sound and Android TV smarts, but Google's a step too slow
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 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.
All this and the kitchen sink
JBL's tagline for the JBL Link Bar makes the intended audience for the product a little more unclear: "Legacy TV Made Smarter." Great idea in theory, but shouldn't that mean it has an analog video output? There aren't many legacy TVs that have an HDMI ARC port but don't have smart TV.
Android TV has support for most apps, either by downloading them through Google Play or at the very least enabling Chromecast connectivity. You'll need to use Chromecast to stream Amazon Prime Video on the Link Bar since it lacks a dedicated Prime Video app (found on Sony TVs and the Nvidia Shield, but not the Link Bar).
Connections include three HDMI inputs plus HDMI ARC, optical digital, a 3.5mm analog and Bluetooth. The internet comes in through either a 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac connection or via Ethernet.
If you want to add bass, there's an optional $300 wireless subwoofer, the SW10, which is a much more affordable option than the $500-plus subs from rivals Sonos and Bose . In my tests, I found that the system sounds even better with it attached. Meanwhile, though some sound bars offer the ability to add rear speakers, there's no facility to do so with the Link Bar.
Hey, Google, why so slow?
I've used Google Assistant for many years, both on mobile devices and on smart speakers, and it can still be frustrating at times. Sometimes the speaker doesn't hear the wake word, or it just hears something completely different to what you asked -- usually when it comes to requesting songs. The JBL, however, takes this frustration to another level.
Sometimes Google Assistant can be slow -- really slow. It took up to 10 seconds to even acknowledge the wake word through an onscreen prompt or the four "Assistant" LEDs on the front of the bar. Other times it just didn't respond at all. You'll ask Google something multiple times and the Link Bar will simply sit there until you goad it into action by pressing the assistant button, for example.
Maybe Google will roll out an update that improves performance, but for now the Link lags far behind the responsiveness of Google Assistant on the Sonos Beam, or Alexa on the Beam and Polk Command Bar.
Good sound quality, no sub required
While the tag team of Android TV and Google Assistant has its flaws, there's one thing I can say about this product for sure -- it sounds really good! It offers a sense of authority that the Sonos Beam lacks at the same price. The JBL is physically larger than the Beam and it sounds fuller -- you don't really need a separate sub to enjoy it like you do with the Sonos.
Both JBL and Sonos have built their reputations on reproducing music, so I started there. While the Beam's ultrawide parlor trick is impressive -- bouncing sound off the walls to fill the room -- New Feeling by Talking Heads sounded slightly throaty and congested on the Beam. The JBL Link Bar was not able to sound as big but it was more immediate and natural.
Moving to one of of our CNET test tracks, 3WW by Alt-J is the kind of song the Sonos Beam is made for. The track simply dripped with atmosphere, creating a crazy-wide image with the left/right shaker eggs setting up camp in the corners of my testing room. With this song there was a tiny bit more bass on the JBL but there wasn't as much enjoyability in it.
Where the JBL pulled ahead of the Sonos Beam was with movies. The better bass response means the Link Bar's able to stand its ground when confronted with explosions, cars ploughing into fruit stands, butts sliding across hoods -- that kinda stuff. The JBL Link offered better bass on Mad Max: Fury Road with the thump of car doors and wrecks pitching over in the desert, while the Sonos Beam delivered a wider sound that was less locked onto the TV screen. The downside of this spaciousness is that the Beam sounded a little puny in comparison -- especially on the chesty vocals of Tom Hardy.
Should you buy it?
Judged on sound quality alone I would choose the Link bar over the Sonos Beam. But the Link Bar is all about smarts, and that's what ultimately lets the product down. Maybe it's worth waiting six months to see if some of the lag and nonresponsiveness can be smoothed out. Until then, more polished products like the Beam and the Polk Command Bar are better buys right now.