One of the best—and worst—things about the Android TV platform is that it allows for weird, ambitious products like the JBL Link Bar.

While it looks like a typical soundbar, the $400 JBL Link Bar doubles as an Android TV player for streaming video from apps like Netflix. It also responds to “Hey Google” voice commands, and it has three HDMI passthrough inputs, so you can see Google Assistant’s responses on the big screen without switching away from your cable box or Blu-ray player.

This is the kind of wild idea that you won’t see from Roku, because Roku licenses its software only to smart TV and cable-box manufacturers. You will encounter a few soundbars with Amazon Alexa integrated, but not Amazon’s Fire TV media streamer, although at least one of them—Polk Audio’s Command Bar—has a USB port that you can plug an Amazon Fire TV stick into.

I’m glad JBL and Google gave it a try, but rolling a soundbar, smart speaker, and streaming box into one device only works if the individual elements can stand on their own. With the JBL Link Bar, each piece feels compromised, and combining them into one unit just doesn’t provide enough of a benefit.

JBL Link Bar performance as a soundbar

The JBL Link Bar is a 40-inch soundbar with a pair of 0.8-inch tweeters and four “racetrack” drivers—each measuring 1.7 inches by 3.2 inches—powered by an amplifier that delivers 100 watts maximum power. The enclosure is a medium-gray plastic with a fabric speaker grille.

While the Link Bar does have a Toslink optical audio input, which is typically most useful for TVs or A/V receivers that don’t have HDMI (or that have older HDMI ports that don’t support HDCP 2.2 copy protection), you’ll want to connect it to your TV with an HDMI cable, because that’s the only way you can stream Android TV video to your TV. The soundbar is also Chromecast compatible, and it supports Bluetooth for streaming music from a mobile device. Finally, there’s a 3.5mm analog stereo input for connecting legacy audio gear.

jbllinkbarrear Jared Newman / IDG

Around back, the JBL Link Bar has optical, auxiliary, and HDMI inputs, but only HDMI for output.

At $400, the Link Bar is on the pricier side for a standalone soundbar, but it offers great clarity in a medium-sized room. While watching Snowpiercer on Netflix, for instance, the clanking and crashing of the film’s first big action scene rang out more than they did on a cheaper sound system, and and while listening to Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner – Volume Two, the intricacy of Michael League’s basslines were easier to identify.

Still, a soundbar alone is no match for a proper surround system and subwoofer, especially since the Link Bar’s low-end frequency response cuts off at 75Hz. While you can spend an extra $300 for JBL’s SW10 wireless subwoofer, there’s no way to add wireless surround speakers, so you’ll always be stuck with stereo audio. JBL’s system isn’t compatible with Dolby Atmos or DTS:X for soundtracks with object-based sound effects, either.

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