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JBL’s Android-powered soundbar does a lot of things right

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But do you trust Android TV?

Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

We just took a quick look at a 3D-printed prototype of the recently announced JBL Link Bar, a soundbar that also happens to be a set-top box running Android TV. It’s not coming out until later this summer, and a lot of stuff isn’t quite working yet. But the core ideas are pretty smart. Basically, it puts a relatively smart set-top box into your soundbar, making it a sort of a hybrid between a smart TV, an HDMI switcher, and a smart speaker. It’s a lot of things crammed together in honestly clever ways.

So if you’re just looking for an Android TV set-top box, this thing does that. It has Google Assistant, YouTube, and all the standard set-top box apps you’d like. As with other Android TVs, you can ask Assistant to do stuff like “Play Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu,” and it’ll jump right into that show.

But the clever bit is that the soundbar is a smart speaker, and it can “overlay” Google Assistant on top of any of the three HDMI inputs. So you can say “Play PlayStation.” Then, while you’re playing PlayStation say, “Show me God of War videos on YouTube,” and it’ll just work, even though you’re, you know, playing that game. Assistant works via audio just like Google Home but can also display stuff on the TV, even over those other inputs. In a demo, we looked at a calendar while playing a racing game.

It also works as just a plain smart speaker, knowing not to turn the TV on when you just want to listen to music or hear a news update or whatever. It has two far-field microphones, those three HDMI inputs, HDMI ARC, and optical and analog in. The early version we looked at wasn’t quite able to recognize “OK Google” hot words with music playing yet, but that should work when it ships later this year.

So: smart HDMI switcher, Android TV set-top box, Google Assistant-powered smart speaker. It’s a lot, and my only concern is that, given how often people tend to update their soundbars (not often), it’s maybe more than I want packed into it. But assuming you trust Android TV to stay updated on this device (Google is handling software updates directly, I’m told), it could be a nice way to reduce the number of gadgets you have underneath your TV.