Televisions continue to improve in terms of audio quality, but almost all would still benefit from being partnered with a soundbar. Put simply, there are limits to what can be achieved by the tiny speakers crammed into ever-thinner chassis.
And while much less common, there are still TVs out there that would benefit from the addition of a video streamer. Almost every new model comes with at least Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and BBC iPlayer, but anyone hanging on to a cherished older telly could well be missing out.
The JBL Link Bar is designed to be a soundbar for those people. By combining a 100W speaker system with Android TV, it’s a one-box sound and smarts upgrade.
This is a much wider soundbar than most, measuring just over a metre (the Sonos Beam is 65cm wide and the Sony HT-X8500 89cm), which is roughly equal to the width of a modern 49in TV. But it’s slim enough to be placed in front of a TV without blocking the signals travelling from remote control to television.
Hidden by the fabric grille are six drivers – two 20mm tweeters and four 44 x 80mm ‘racetrack’ drivers – and at either end of the device you’ll find passive radiators.
Many affordable soundbars use ARC to justify the replacement of an array of connections with a single, two-way HDMI socket, usually with an optical input as back-up for those with non-ARC TVs, and sometimes with a single extra HDMI input. The Link Bar goes old-school by including three HDMI inputs (all of which support 4K and HDR10), along with optical and a 3.5mm analogue-in.
The HDMI output is also ARC-enabled, so it can receive audio signals from your TV via the same cable with which it outputs video. It’s not an eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel) connection, however, because the JBL Link Bar doesn’t support higher-bandwidth audio formats such as Dolby Vision and DTS:X.
That might seem a shame, but the Sonos Beam proves that a soundbar can sound great without attempting to recreate surround sound or object-based audio. What’s more, JBL has decided to add value in a different way - by making a soundbar that doubles as a video streamer. To that end, it’s built Android TV into the Link Bar.
Inputs HDMI x3, Optical, 3.5mm aux
Dimensions (hwd) 6 x 102 x 9.3cm
If you have an older TV, the benefits are obvious. It means you can add improved sound and streaming apps in one fell swoop. Even owners of some smart TVs might find that the Link Bar expands their streaming horizons. On board are Netflix and Google Play TV & Movies, giving you access to both subscription-based and pay-as-you-go 4K HDR content, as well as Plex and VLC for streaming locally stored files, and music streaming apps, including Spotify, Tidal and TuneIn.
Disappointingly, the app selection isn’t flawless. It’s not as thorough as that of many other Android TV devices, with Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer and All 4 all absent. The good news is that Amazon Prime Video is due to be added shortly and JBL is working on getting iPlayer on board, but it’s a shame they’re not there from the off.
Android TV brings another couple of benefits. Google Assistant is built-in and enables voice control via the microphone integrated into the bar itself, and Chromecast allows you to stream content via your phone’s apps. Bluetooth 4.2 is included, too.
Playing Lost In Space from Netflix, we’re immediately pleased by the punch and directness of the sound. The midrange is clear and well projected, making dialogue easy to follow. The Link Bar doesn’t go terribly deep in the bass, but what is there is taut and tonally flexible, and there’s a natural richness to the lower midrange.
Compared to many in this class, the sound isn’t particularly big and spacious, and that makes it comparatively less spectacular when presenting big set pieces, but it remains an undeniable upgrade on the sound of a TV.
The simpler, less processed approach also plays dividends with music, with the JBL’s punch, clarity and balance working well with everything we send it via Bluetooth and Chromecast. Detail and dynamics are good, too, with the Link Bar lacking a little in ultimate subtlety, but delivering the meat of any track in satisfying style.
The JBL Link Bar lacks the cinematic spectacle of some of its rivals but gets the sonic basics right. It’s a solid music player and will prove a big improvement over the sound of the vast majority of TVs. That said, the Sonos Beam is an even more musical performer and throws greater spaciousness into the mix, too.
If you still own an older dumb TV, the Link Bar is an excellent way to upgrade smarts and sound in one go. But those who already have a smart TV will likely get more mileage out of the Beam’s better sound and music streaming abilities.
- Sound 4
- Features 4
- Build 4
Read our Sonos Beam review