The JBL Bar 5.1 is the first sound bar equipped with battery-operated, wireless surround speakers. Paired with a wireless subwoofer featuring a 300 Watt amplifier and a 10” (25 cm) driver, this sound bar is compatible with the HDMI 2.0 standard as well as 4K content. A credible alternative to a comprehensive hi-fi system composed of a dedicated AV receiver and subwoofer?
JBL has made a reputation for itself by offering efficient hi-fi and home theater equipment at a highly competitive price. A prime example is the JBL ES80 speaker and its “super tweeter”; another is the JBL ES250PW subwoofer. JBL designs its own drivers and possesses unparalleled expertise in this domain. Evidently, the brand’s new 5.1 wireless sound bar doesn’t aim to be the ultimate home theater solution, but it features convincing specs.
JBL Bar 5.1: a true 5.1 audio system
If you’d like to experience true surround sound without filling your room with audio equipment or running speaker wire along the baseboards of your walls, the JBL Bar 5.1 is worth a close look. The fact that it is paired with a truly wireless subwoofer, which is itself equipped with a first-notch amplifier (300 W peak power) and a 10” (25 cm) driver, is a real advantage. This allows the JBL Bar 5.1 to offer precise and well-articulated lows, even at high volume levels. Another advantage is the JBL Bar 5.1’s detachable surround speakers, which ensure 10 hours of wireless playback.
The sound bar is equipped with three pairs of 2.35” x 2.25” (6 x 5.7 cm) midbass drivers and three 1.25” (3.2 cm) tweeters, separated over three front channels (left, center and right). Each channel is amplified by a dedicated power amplifier module, for a total peak power of 300 W. This is equal to 50 W peak power per channel, or about 20 W RMS, which is more than enough for the sound bar’s drivers.
The sound bar is equipped with three HDMI 2.0 inputs which are compatible with HDCP 2.2 (UHD Blu-ray protection) and 4K content up to 60 images/second and a 4:4:4 color space. While the sound bar does not offer video upscaling, it does not generate signal loss in passthrough mode.
JBL Bar 5.1: “true wireless” surround speakers
The JBL Bar 5.1’s surround speakers are detachable and completely wireless. Each is equipped with a battery designed to ensure 10 hours of continuous use. Since our listening sessions did not last longer than 4 hours, we did not have a chance to verify the battery life. When the speakers are connected to the sound bar (by magnets), the metal pegs serve to stabilize the connection and recharge the speakers. White LEDs light up to confirm charging.
The batteries of the surround speakers will still be charged once the sound bar goes into standby mode. An interesting point: each speaker has a micro USB port to which an external charger may be connected if desired.
As such, the user may opt to not attach the surround speakers to the sound bar and use a wired external charger instead. When running on their batteries, the surround speakers automatically go into standby mode once the sound bar has been powered off for 10 minutes (it is also possible to power them off manually). The surround speakers’ sync buttons need to be pressed to power them back on after powering the sound bar on.
Each surround speaker has a rubber base which ensures stability on most surfaces. Each is fitted with a mid driver and a soft dome tweeter, as well as a digital amplifier and a battery.
Frankly, the idea of wireless, battery-powered speakers is a very good one. They can be placed anywhere and moved closer or farther away depending on the nature of the soundtrack. This can have very concrete advantages, such as making it easier to understand very old soundtracks. For example, we watched The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), which both feature mono Dolby and DTS soundtracks. By using the remote control to activate the MUSIC or VOICE mode, the mono soundtrack is distributed over the surround speakers, and dialogues are easier to comprehend. What’s more, the soundstage is surprisingly immersive, with well-centered dialogues (if the speakers are positioned correctly) and an interesting sense of breadth (although limited by nature due to the mono signal).
Another of the JBL Bar 5.1 system’s advantages is its subwoofer, which is fitted with a 10” (25 cm) driver with an ultra rigid half-roll surround, an enormous, round bass-reflex port, and an amplifier capable of generating 300 W peak power! Such a subwoofer is generally used with a 5-speaker system, as its characteristics enable it to play loud and low without losing energy. A wireless subwoofer is evidently easy to install just about anywhere, and a down-firing driver allows this subwoofer to ensure a harmonious diffusion of lows. While the driver’s cutoff frequency is not adjustable, it is nonetheless not directive.
Compatible audio formats
The JBL Bar 5.1 sound bar handles three audio formats: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital and DTS, received via digital or HDMI inputs, as well as via the TV’s ARC. If a Blu-ray player is connected to play a DTS-HD MA or Dolby Atmos soundtrack, there won’t be any problem as the audio signal will contain a DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 core. Surprisingly, the sound bar does not handle the Dolby Digital Plus format. Consequently, the source must apply on-the-fly transcoding to generate a Dolby Digital signal. All in all, this isn’t anything too problematic.
The different surround modes
The JBL Bar 5.1 sound bar features 5 surround modes. The STANDARD mode distributes the audio signal over the 5 speakers and the subwoofer as indicated by the source. A 2.0 soundtrack is thus distributed over two channels, and a 4.1 soundtrack is distributed over 4 speakers plus the subwoofer, etc. The MUSIC mode applies an equalization which sets the mids back slightly. Also, when the surround speakers are removed, it upmixes the mono signal (voices, for example) before sending it to the surround speakers. As we’ve mentioned earlier, it’s a welcome approach. The MOVIE mode puts the spotlight on the mids for the center channel and sends ambient sounds to the surround speakers while reinforcing the presence of the subwoofer. The VOICE mode reinforces dialogues further still (center channel) while distributing ambient sounds over the surround speakers. Lastly, the SPORT mode distributes ambient sounds from stereo soundtracks over the surround speakers.
The Night mode may be applied to Dolby and DTS sources (not PCM) to reduce the dynamic range.
The remote control may be used to adjust all of the sound bar’s settings. In addition to the system’s overall volume, the volume of the surround speakers and subwoofer may be manually adjusted, with a selection of 12 volume levels for the surround speakers and 60 for the subwoofer. If the included calibration microphone is used, these volume levels are adjusted automatically. Image and sound syncing is also enabled.
JBL Bar 5.1: USB audio and Bluetooth
In addition to HDMI and optical inputs, the sound bar is fitted with a USB-A port compatible with FAT16/32 USB drives. MP3 and WAV files (16-bit / 48 kHz max) are handled, and track titles are displayed on the sound bar’s LED screen. For its part, the Bluetooth receiver is compatible with the SBC codec (universal compression), and the Sound Shift function may be used to instantaneously switch between two paired Bluetooth sources (a Bluetooth-enabled TV or smartphone, for example).
JBL Bar 5.1: test conditions and listening impressions
We connected the JBL 5.1 sound bar to two LG 4K Ultra HD TVs (1 LED, 1 OLED). For video sources, we used an nVidia SHIELD streamer and a Raspberry Pi2. We streamed a few movies and TV series from Plex and Emby in 1080p and 4K format with Dolby and DTS soundtracks (2.0 to 5.1). We used Norstone Arran HDMI cables, which is to say that we only tested the sound bar’s HDMI connectors.
The very first thing we noticed was that the JBL Bar 5.1 sound bar is very easy to install. The wireless surround speakers and wireless subwoofer were automatically detected without any need to pair them manually. The TV’s ARC and single remote CEC control both worked without requiring any adjustments (when the ARC has been activated on the TV and the CEC control has been activated on the HDMI sources).
The placement of the sound bar is definitely key to enjoying an optimized listening experience. JBL provides a wall mounting kit for the sound bar, and we did notice some undesirable resonance when we placed it directly on the smooth surface of our AV furniture. Placing the sound bar on a piece of fabric reduces the random amplification of mids and ensures natural sound restitution.
We placed the surround speakers in different spots in our listening room and even directly on our couch, adjusting their volume accordingly. The fact that the surround speakers may be placed so freely is very practical, as this guarantees immersive sound at low volume late at night.
The JBL Bar 5.1 sound bar left us with a favorable impression, and we liked being able to use the remote control to adjust the volume of the surround channels and change the sound mode to suit the content. The sound bar itself is a bit dry in its restitution, and it excels most of all in the low mids without spilling over into the lows. The surround speakers offer balanced sound while shedding light on the overall sound message, notably for TV programs and classic movies. The subwoofer has power to spare and ensures generous extension in the lows. For movies such as Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars Episode VIII, it skillfully alternates between nuance and enthusiasm. The destruction of the planet Jedha in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was impressive.
The sound bar can’t claim to reach audiophile heights, but it is nonetheless enjoyable in multichannel format, especially for those who prefer immersive, powerful sound to a well-layered soundstage and precise timbres.
The JBL Bar 5.1 sound bar compared to:
Polk Audio Magnifi Max SR: the Polk sound bar is the JBL Bar 5.1’s only real competitor. The former offers more realistic dialogues and a wider front soundstage. The Polk is interesting for its integration of the Google Chromecast music streaming module. For its part, the JBL comes with excellent, completely wireless surround speakers and a subwoofer fitted with a powerful amplifier.
Mission accomplished for JBL. The fact that the JBL Bar 5.1’s wireless, removable surround speakers can be placed virtually anywhere guarantees a personalized and enjoyable listening experience. The sound bar should be decoupled from your AV furniture (with a thick cloth, for example) in order to ensure optimal listening conditions. The subwoofer adds plenty of energy and makes this sound bar a serious contender for any 5.1 speaker system paired with an AV receiver.
What we liked:
- The battery-operated, wireless surround speakers
- The surround modes, which include the surround speakers when playing a mono signal
- The powerful subwoofer
- The ease of use
What we would have liked:
- A bass-reflex enclosure to allow the soundbar to ensure more realistic dialogues.