Hands on: JBL Link Bar review

Assistant comes to the living room in a big way

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

JBL’s new soundbar seems like a winner for home theater enthusiasts who require several 4K-enabled inputs. Google Assistant only adds to this intriguing formula.

For

  • Slim profile
  • Four-way 4K passthrough
  • Encourages remote-free use

Against

  • Price is unknown
  • Doesn’t include a subwoofer

The JBL Link Bar might seem rather basic on paper, but underneath the hood, it’s anything but. This soundbar not only packs a punch (its sound endured even during the busy noise of Google IO 2018), but its built-in Google Assistant and Android TV combo with HDMI passthrough make it a potent contender for one of 2018’s top entertainment center products to look out for when it releases later this year.

Google wasn’t ready to talk pricing on specs on the production unit that it showed to TechRadar at its developer-focused conference, but it was in full, impressive operation.

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Design

The Link Bar looks like the soundbar as you know it. It’s long, slim and basically unremarkable. This makes it all the better to mesh into your entertainment center with little friction.

On its top is where you’ll find the button controls and around its sides, the concave design is such so that the sound can really rattle around, delivering a surprisingly robust sound that defies its small size.

Google said that it will ship with an equally unremarkable remote that allows for near-field voice communication to search for content. But really, the focus is on doing everything with your voice. When you beckon for the Assistant using the keywords “Hey, Google”, the front LEDs light up just like the Google Home. But beyond lighting up on the bar itself, the Link Bar also is able to display a slick Google Assistant interface over your content - no matter which HDMI source you’re using.

Speaking of HDMI sources, the Link Bar has four HDMI passthrough ports, supporting 4K resolution. It supports a 200W subwoofer, but details on that are scant currently and it won’t come included in the package.

Performance

It’s difficult to judge the true quality of something like a home audio product amongst the bustle of a small event, let alone a massive crowd. As such, we won’t place definitive judgment on the JBL Link Bar until the final review.

But even in our limited demo, we’re pretty impressed with the sound quality. Its 100W of power gets it up to impressive volume and it seems pretty robust, even without a subwoofer accompanying it. There was a PS4 Pro playing Driveclub and the whir of the motor was adequately punchy.

Even more impressive was the blending of Google Home and Android TV. Not only is Assistant skilled at executing Android TV-based actions, like booting into a movie on Hulu, but it can also dim the lights and perform other IoT tasks.

When asked if this product was essentially a blend between the ill-fated Google Nexus Player and the Google Home, a Google rep plainly said “yep!”. Take those two things and add some quality audio to it and you’ve got a pretty alluring package.

Early verdict

As with all home tech products, the price will dictate who this is aimed at. Google Assistant-packed products are largely affordable and angled toward the masses and it’s likely that JBL’s Link Bar will follow suit.

But pricing aside, the market isn’t exactly full of soundbars with four-way HDMI passthrough at 4K. So if Google can keep improving this product over time, it may be the best soundbar investment to make in 2018 and after.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.