Skip to main content

JBL Link Bar review: three devices rolled into one average soundbar

JBL Link Bar review: three devices rolled into one average soundbar

/

A soundbar, a smart speaker, and a streaming box in one

Share this story

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

First announced way back at Google I/O 2018, the JBL Link Bar is an ambitious device that aims to combine the functionality of a soundbar, an Android TV streaming box, and a Google Assistant smart speaker. Now, over a year later, the $399.95 soundbar is finally available to buy, and we can find out if you’re really getting three devices seamlessly merged together, or a Frankenstein’s monster. 

Occasionally, when the stars align, there are glimpses of an amazingly convenient device here. In the right circumstances, you can use a voice command to simultaneously turn on your TV and soundbar, find the content you want to watch, and start playing it, all without picking up a remote. 

Most of the time, however, the JBL Link Bar never manages to combine its three strands of functionality into a cohesive whole. Yes, it might be cheaper than buying a streaming box, soundbar, and smart speaker separately, but this way you end up with one temperamental device, rather than three functional ones.

The JBL Link Bar has the physical appearance of your typical soundbar. Contained within its 40-inch length are six drivers in total, including two 0.8-inch tweeters, and four 1.7-inch by 3.2-inch drivers. Together, these offer two channels of audio. You can also pair the soundbar with an external wireless subwoofer, JBL’s SW10. Around the back is a decent selection of ports, including four HDMI 2.0 inputs that JBL tells us support 4K, HDR10, and Dolby Vision passthrough; one HDMI 2.0 output; aux in; optical in; and an Ethernet port. What these ports mean is that it’s possible to connect your external devices like Blu-ray players and games consoles directly into the soundbar, and then have the soundbar pass their video stream onward to the TV.

The first sign that there’s more going on with the JBL Link Bar than your typical soundbar comes when you take a closer look at the top of the speaker. Here you’ll find a Google Home-style microphone switch alongside an HDMI selector, volume buttons, and Bluetooth button. This mic switch is necessary, because the JBL Link Bar is equipped with similar far-field microphones to a regular Google Assistant smart speaker. If you leave it on, the Link Bar will be constantly listening out for its wake word, with no need for you to hold the Google Assistant button on its remote first.

In theory, this means that you should be able to make your way around the Link Bar’s Android TV interface largely without needing to pick up its remote, which has a dedicated Google Assistant button alongside a typical selection of navigation, volume, and input selection buttons. I found the amount of buttons on the remote struck a nice balance between functionality and simplicity, and the interface was relatively responsive. I was thankful for this, since I had to rely on the remote whenever the soundbar’s voice commands came up short. This happened a lot.

During testing, there were some simple use cases where having a voice assistant-enabled soundbar felt really helpful. When playing games on a Nintendo Switch console that was docked and plugged into one of the soundbar’s HDMI inputs, for example, it was really helpful being able to quickly use a voice command to raise or lower the volume mid-game, without having to take a hand off the controller. 

For more complicated requests, however, there were frequently times when it either took a long time for the soundbar to process my voice requests, or it just didn’t seem possible to get the results I wanted while using my voice. The experience also seemed to be very buggy.

Agree to continue: JBL Link Bar

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

In order to use the JBL Link Bar, you’ll need to agree to three non-negotiable license agreements from Google. 

Along with these three mandatory agreements, there are other agreements you may have to enter into depending on which apps you want to use with the JBL Link Bar.

Final tally: three mandatory agreements from Google, plus further agreements depending on which apps you want to use.

Streaming music should be a pretty simple bit of functionality since it forms a large part of what the Google Assistant is able to do on smart speakers. For whatever reason, however, I found that Spotify playback would frequently pause a couple of seconds after a song started, forcing me to use a second voice command to restart it. It would also insist on turning on my TV to show me Spotify’s “Now Playing” screen, which felt a little redundant when all I needed was audio. I ended up connecting my phone to the soundbar via Bluetooth when I wanted to use it to play music, as this provided a simpler user experience overall.

When playing video content, voice controls were even more hit-or-miss. There were occasional moments when the functionality worked well. I asked Google to “play There Will Be Blood” and it correctly pulled up the film’s Google Play Movies & TV listing, with an option to either rent or buy the film from Google. Unfortunately, it then wasn’t able to recognize a voice command when I asked to rent the movie, so I had to resort to using my remote for the final steps in the process. It was a similar story on YouTube. Simple requests to play a channel’s most recent video worked, but attempting to do anything more complicated was unreliable, and I was better off just using the remote. 

Step outside of Google’s own apps, and things got even more limited. Asking to play something on Netflix, for example, would often leave me stuck on the profile-selection screen, forcing me to pick up a remote to log in. Other times it would open on whichever previous show’s page I was using, rather than opening the specific content I wanted to watch. I could then use my voice to navigate to the page for a specific show, but the process often felt like it took one too many steps. 

Suffice it to say, I didn’t find it feasible to use voice commands for the majority of my interaction with the soundbar. 

JBL Link

The app selection on the JBL Link Bar varies a lot based on where you’re located. In the US, it’s full-featured. Amazon Prime Video is missing, but otherwise the soundbar has popular apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, HBO Go, Showtime, CBS All Access, Vudu, and Sling TV. However, in the UK where I’m located, it’s a very different story. There’s no Now TV, BBC iPlayer, or Channel 4’s All 4 streaming service. Despite encouraging me to install the ITV Hub as I was setting up the soundbar, attempting to open the app generated an error saying that the necessary rights had not been secured to allow the app to run. Re-installing didn’t fix the issue. JBL tells me that it’s waiting to receive a license to be able to offer this app, but didn’t offer any information about when this might happen.

Theoretically, there are a couple of workarounds for this issue. If these apps are available as built-in software for your TV, then you should be able to run them there and have your TV output its audio to the soundbar via its HDMI Audio Return Channel (which the Link Bar’s setup process encourages you to connect with the soundbar). However, in my testing, it was hard to get this functionality to work. Sound would either come out of the TV’s speakers, or the TV would say that it was outputting sound via the soundbar while the soundbar remained completely silent. I managed to get it to work once, but I’ve not been able to replicate this since. 

Of course, you could also get access to additional apps by plugging a second streaming device into one of the soundbar’s rear HDMI inputs. Doing so seems to miss the point of the JBL Link Bar, but it should work.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The second workaround is to use these streaming apps on your phone, and then use Google Chromecast to stream them to the soundbar. However, the user experience here is far worse than being able to control the apps natively on your TV. You can use the Link Bar’s remote to play and pause your video content like usual, but you’ll need to use your phone for everything else, and the whole experience can be inconsistent. On some occasions, I wasn’t able to get the app to make a successful Chromecast connection to the soundbar at all.

All of these issues are a real shame, because at its core the JBL Link Bar offers a modest improvement over the sound quality of your TV’s built-in speakers. When I used the soundbar to provide audio for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch, its audio added a satisfying rumble to the game that had weight and punch to it. I did find that the out-of-the-box settings erred a touch too much on the bass-y side, but this was easily remedied by adjusting the soundbar’s EQ settings to set its bass level down to “-2.”

It was a similar story when watching There Will Be Blood, which features Jonny Greenwood’s exceptionally haunting soundtrack. Again, the soundbar was able to handle the film with heft, filling my room with sound without overwhelming the film’s dialogue. That said, at times the soundbar felt like it had the sound signature of a big Bluetooth speaker rather than a home cinema device. When I played a track by Three Trapped Tigers, the bass overwhelmed the sound stage slightly, preventing every part of each track from standing out.

The JBL Link Bar tries to combine three devices into one, but all three have different issues. As a Google Assistant smart speaker, it’s laggy and slow, it turns on your TV when you just want to listen to music, and it can be hard to use your voice to navigate video content. As a streaming box, it has a limited selection of streaming apps in the UK. Even used purely as a soundbar, it’s difficult to get audio to output from your TV’s built-in apps to the soundbar over HDMI-ARC, meaning you’re more or less restricted to relying on the soundbar’s own apps and devices that are plugged directly into it.

The JBL Link Bar is an ambitious device, but its different elements never manage to come together into a satisfying whole. In most cases, you’d be much better served by buying three separate devices with more limited, but better realized, functionality. The JBL Link Bar aims high, but whether it’s due to the limitations of Google Assistant, HDMI-CEC, or the soundbar’s hardware itself, it fails to deliver on its lofty promises.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Not just you

E
External Link
Emma RothTwo hours ago
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.