The JBL Link Bar really has everything going for it. It’s a TV soundbar; it’s an Android streaming box; it’s a Google Assistant speaker.
On paper, it’s everything you want in a living room rolled into one device: an all-in-one solution for a smarter home theatre.
And it is! Aside from delivering much better audio than what your TV is capable of, it feels futuristic — magical, even — using voice commands to play and watch whatever you’re looking for.
That is, when the JBL Link Bar actually works as it should be. At the end of the day, the long black bar sitting on your TV console is a jack of all trades, but not very good at any one of its roles.
Perhaps JBL should have delayed the launch date a bit longer to properly get rid of its kinks. It's insane how long we had to wait for this one, especially since the JBL Link Bar was first hyped up at the Google I/O conference in May last year.
It was supposed to be launched in late 2018, but rounds of delays pushed the release date even further. And now that it’s finally here, the results are… meh.
As a painless audio set-up for home entertainment, the soundbar is legitimately great in that sense. Meant for folks who don’t want to mess around with surround sound speakers, the JBL Link Bar makes everything a cinch by simply requiring the TV to be connected to the soundbar via the HDMI-ARC connection. And that pretty much settles things on the audio and video front.
It frees up the ports from the TV too, because everything else — your Apple TV, your PS4, etc — just needs to be hooked up to the soundbar, which will act as a hub. Sign in to your Google account (Netflix and Spotify too, might as well) and you’re ready to roll.
As a brand, JBL delivers decent sound, and the company doesn’t drop the ball here. Even without a subwoofer (which will only arrive in Singapore at a later date), the soundbar works respectably on its own, pumping out full-bodied audio with bass rumbling out with royal weight and punch. It certainly enhanced my experience of watching The Crown, with all the orchestral swells of composer Martin Phipps sounding richer with every dramatic turn.
Sadly, the experience was marred with inconsistent performance — there were several times when the soundbar clipped the audio momentarily as if the monologues of Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth proved too majestic to handle.
The JBL Link Bar also boasts the integration of Google Assistant, which is absolutely splendid for someone like me with a Google Assistant speaker in each room of the house. So it was especially heartbreaking to find out that the handy virtual assistant isn’t so handy on the soundbar due to the noticeable lag in hearing and executing commands.
In theory, this should have been its most lauded feature. It should have been pretty seamless to switch between HDMI inputs with voice commands — like switching from The Irishman on Netflix to jumping into Death Stranding on the PS4 — without even touching the remote.
In real life, the soundbar was irregular in processing requests, taking up to ten seconds to carry out the command or ignore it entirely. In the end, it was just a lot faster and less frustrating to switch inputs via the remote control.
The main reason why I’ve got Google Assistant speakers installed throughout the entire house (privacy issues be damned), is that I use the network as a multi-room sound system to stream music. The JBL Link Bar could have been the icing on the amplifier-filled cake, if not for its stubborn insistence in turning the TV on to display Spotify’s “Now Playing” screen every time I asked to play music. All I wanted was to pump some tunes in the living room, and the harsh lighting from a TV screen is ruining the vibe.
And now we move on to the third functionality of the JBL Link Bar, which is being an Android TV streaming box. The user interface on the home screen is not that great, and being in Singapore means that there just aren’t enough apps to make it worth sticking to. In the end, the soundbar's Android TV feature wasn't even necessary to run things because my smart TV's inbuilt capabilities were much quicker and accessible.
The included remote control is minimal enough to use, but it just feels so plasticky and cheap. It makes sense, though — JBL probably expected folks to just use voice commands in lieu of clicking the remote. Alas, things didn’t pan out that way.
At this point, it’s hard to recommend the JBL Link Bar. Mad props for its sheer ambition in housing everything into one sleek nondescript device, but it just wasn’t able to live up to its lofty aspirations. Which is a damn shame, because at $499, it could have been an affordable, de facto starter soundbar for every new homeowner… if everything worked perfectly.
Unfortunately, it feels like a product that’s still locked in the beta phase. Better luck in the next iteration, JBL.