We speculated that Google would have some Android TV announcements at I/O 2018, and here's the first of the bunch: a new partnership with JBL to launch a soundbar that pulls triple duty as an Android TV device and Google Assistant speaker.
It's called the JBL Link Bar, and it's the first product in an expansion of Android TV beyond standalone set top boxes and TV integration to new multi-purpose form factors.
Soundbars are incredibly popular for people who want to inexpensively upgrade from their TV's built-in speakers but can't go all-in with a multi-speaker surround system, and now there's a soundbar that can provide more than just a sound upgrade. When you get the JBL Link Bar hooked up to your TV, you get a complete Android TV experience just like a standalone set top box including voice commands. It also has four HDMI ports — three in, one out — and supports HDMI switching in the soundbar itself, so it can act as a basic AV receiver. (Other i/o includes optical audio, 3.5 mm audio and Bluetooth.)
The HDMI switching is integrated with voice control, so you can tell the Link Bar to switch to your game console or blu ray player, for example, and it'll handle all of the switching. Better yet, the speaker's voice controls are still active when using the other device, and it can even display the voice control interface over whatever you're watching. A simple "Ok Google, go home" will send you back to the Android TV experience.
We don't have specific speaker specs just yet, but Google is quoting 100W of power out of this multi-speaker soundbar — pretty typical stuff for a mid-range unit, and a step up from JBL's base soundbar that offers just 30W of power. JBL is first and foremost an audio company with lots of experience in this realm, so you can expect the Link Bar to sound good — it can also pair up with JBL's wireless subwoofers, if you want to step up your home theater a bit.
When your TV isn't on to provide video, the JBL Link Bar continues to work as a standalone Google Assistant speaker as well with "Hey Google" always-listening capabilities and audio responses without firing up the TV. And with its rather large size and multiple speakers, it can provide an experience more akin to the Google Home Max than a standard Home. Voice control can come through a microphone on the Link Bar's remote, or entirely hands-free using far-field array microphones just like a Google Home offers. A set of LEDs on the front of the soundbar give you a visual cue that it's listening, and a hardware mute switch on top clearly shows you when it isn't.
Unfortunately, we're still a handful of months off from the JBL Link Bar being available. Google is simply giving the time frame of "fall 2018" for its release, and isn't providing pricing information yet. JBL's standard soundbar of roughly the same size retails for about $299 including a subwoofer, so my best guess would be a price of about $300-400 for the Link Bar given its extra capabilities.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.