Google Teams Up With JBL for Android TV-Powered Smart Sound Bar

Google’s next Android TV device is a sound bar: The company has teamed up with speaker maker JBL for the JBL Link Bar, a sound bar with integrated Google Assistant and far-field voice control that doubles as a full-fledged Android TV streaming device, it announced Monday morning.

The sound bar will be available to consumers later this year, with pricing and other details scheduled to be announced this fall. Google will show off the device at its Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, Calif. this week, where the company will also preview the changes it is going to bring to Android TV with the next version of Android, currently code-named Android P.

The JBL Link Bar will allow consumers to turn any TV into a smart TV, capable of running apps like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now. It will support 4K HDR video streaming, and ship with a remote control, which will be able to interact even with older TVs, thanks to added IR functionality.

It also comes with two integrated microphones for far-field voice control, and it can function as a smart speaker similar to the company’s Google Home speaker when the TV is not in use. Addressed with a wake phrase like “Okay Google,” 4 LEDs behind the sound bar’s front grille lighten up, just like they do on a Google Home Mini or Google Home Max speaker, signaling that the device is now listening for voice commands.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Google

The JBL Link Bar up close: Behind the front grille are four LEDs, signaling that the Google Assistant is listening for voice commands. The buttons on top: Input selection, Bluetooth button (BT input, BT remote pairing, BT smartphone pairing w/LED indication), volume down, volume up and a physical microphone mute switch.

During a demo given to Variety last week, Google senior product manager Matt Crowley showed off searching and playing TV shows and YouTube videos. Then, he said: “Okay Google, turn off the TV.” The TV screen turned black, and the sound bar effectively switched into smart speaker mode, capable of playing music, controlling internet-connected lights and answering queries for Google Assistant. Asked to “show me my agenda,” it turned the television back on and used it to visually display Crowley’s calendar

Crowley said that the far-field voice recognition capabilities of the sound bar will be comparable to a Google Home, if not better. “This will be optimized for the living room,” he said. And for anyone who doesn’t always want a microphone in the room, there’s a physical mute button to shut it off.

Google isn’t the first company to add some TV streaming smarts to a sound bar. Earlier this year, Roku announced that it was licensing its new home entertainment technology to TCL and other consumer electronics manufacturers to build Roku-powered sound bars. However, Roku’s approach to smart sound bars is a bit different. The company is developing its own entertainment-focused voice assistant, and the first generation of sound bars is primarily focusing on music playback. Consumers still need a Roku TV, or any other smart TV, to stream videos from Netflix and other online services.

Google on the other hand decided to put all of the smarts directly into the sound bar, which means that it can effectively run with a dumb TV that isn’t connected to the internet at all — or an older smart TV that doesn’t have up-to-date apps, for that matter. Part of the reason for that was to make adding apps and voice control more affordable. “It’s easier to upgrade your sound bar than your TV,” said Android TV director of product management Shalini GovilPai.

Integrating the smarts into the sound bar also allows Google and JBL to do things that aren’t possible with streaming sticks or boxes. The JBL Link Bar comes with 3 HDMI in ports to connect game consoles, Blu-ray players and other external devices. Consumers can switch between these input devices with the sound bar’s remote control, a physical input button on top of the device as well as voice commands.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Google

The ports on the back of the JBL Link Bar: Power (power supply is internal, so no extra bricks to add to your TV setup), service port, optical in, analog audio in, Ethernet (Wifi works as well), 3 HDMI in ports, ARC HDMI out and a subwoofer pairing button.

But the Link Bar doesn’t just pass through HDMI signals. It also overlays some of the Google Assistant functionality over those input sources, making it possible to for instance show your agenda, or the local weather, on top of a movie playing on your Blu-ray player without the need to switch back and forth between apps and inputs.

JBL will sell a separate subwoofer for the Link Bar, and consumers will be able to use it for Chromecast multi-room audio in combination with other Google Home speakers, or speakers equipped with a Chromecast Audio dongle. However, there are no immediate plans to make the same available for audio during TV viewing — so don’t expect to build your own home theater setup, complete with satellite speakers, with this soundbar.

Android TV director of engineering Sascha Prueter readily acknowledged that the device may not be the be-all-end-all for home theater fans or high-end audio enthusiasts. Instead, it’s meant to improve the sound of your TV, work as a smart speaker, and add some TV streaming to boot. “The majority of TVs do not have great sound,” he said.

Android TV got a big facelift at last year’s Google I/O, when Google announced a new user interface for the platform as part of its roll-out of Android O, a.k.a. Oreo.

This year, the changes are more under the hood. Android P, which will become available for Android TV later this year, will feature some performance improvements to make it work on low-powered devices. New users will also be greeted with a streamlined setup that is supposed to take away the need to enter usernames and passwords for streaming apps you already have on your phone. The setup of a new Android TV device will be 33 percent faster with Android P, said Prueter.

Google is announcing the Android TV sound bar with this promotional video: 

Google first introduced Android TV in 2014. The company initially sold its own streaming box, the Nexus Player, but had some difficulties establishing the device next to more successful streaming devices from Roku, Amazon, as well as Google’s own Chromecast streaming adapter.

Android TV has been more successful with ISPs and pay TV service operators, with Prueter telling Variety that more than 30 such companies already use the platform across the globe. Another 30 or so have signed up to launch Android TV-powered devices for their customers in the coming months.

The platform has seen its biggest uptake as a software solution for smart TV makers, with Sony, Hisense, TCL and building TVs that use the company’s operating system. Prueter said that Android TV’s user base has been doubling every year.

Streaming devices that squarely target cord cutters, or bring apps to otherwise dumb TVs, are still a bit of a sore spot for Android TV. The aforementioned Nexus Player has long been discontinued. Xiaomi’s Mi Box, which was announced at Google I/O 2016, never really got off the ground in the U.S.. The only Android TV streaming device that has seen some modest success is Nvidia’s Shield, which doubles as a game console, but also costs significantly more than your average Roku or Fire TV.

“It’s a smaller part of our footprint in the market, but it’s one that we are looking to grow,” admitted GovilPai while talking about streaming devices. Part of that effort is also to bring Android TV to new audiences and devices, as the company is trying with the JBL Link Bar. That smart sound bar will be just a first example for such hybrid devices, said Prueter, suggesting that we may see Android TV in more unexpected form factors down the road.