JBL BAR 9.1 Soundbar Review

Look ma, no wires!

SRP: £899.00

What is the JBL BAR 9.1?

The JBL BAR 9.1 is a 5.1.4-channel soundbar that supports both of the main immersive audio formats – Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. There’s a wireless active subwoofer, and a pair of wireless rear speakers that attach to the main soundbar for recharging. This isn’t a new idea – Philips was doing it years ago – but it makes for a tidy solution.

As well as being able to decode both object-based audio formats, the BAR 9.1 is also able to deliver a genuinely immersive experience. This isn’t just because of the surround channels, but the upward-firing drivers built into those rear speakers and the soundbar as well. There's also a proper display, a decent remote, automated audio set up and eARC.

JBL has wisely decided to concentrate on performance and key features, rather than less important niceties like proprietary multi-room capabilities or built-in smart assistants. As a result, the company has been able to keep the price down, with the BAR 9.1 costing £899 as at the time of writing (June 2020). So let’s see if it’s the bargain it appears to be.

Design

The JBL BAR 9.1 looks sleek and modern – all clean lines and plain black finish. The construction is primarily plastic, but something had to give to hit the price point and the overall build quality remains surprisingly good. Importantly for a soundbar it doesn’t draw attention to itself and, at just 62mm high, it shouldn’t block the screen.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 right hand view

At the top centre of the BAR 9.1 you’ll find a set of basic touch-sensitive controls for power on/off, volume up and down, and source select. There’s also a microphone to the right of these controls for the audio calibration (more on this later). To the front right there’s a proper display, which makes a nice change from an arcane set of lights.

 

The construction is a bit plastic, but the design is sleek and shouldn't block your TV screen

The detachable rear speakers are at either end, and if you’re planning on leaving them off permanently, JBL includes side caps for the two speakers and soundbar itself. There are also Micro USB ports on the rear speakers, so they don’t need to be attached to the ‘bar in order to be recharged.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 close-up

The soundbar itself measures 884 x 62 x 120mm (WxHxD), and weighs in at 3.64kg. The detachable rear speakers are 173 x 60 x 120mm, and each weighs 0.72kg. This means that with the rears attached, the main unit’s total width would be 1230mm. The matching wireless active subwoofer measures 305 x 440 x 305mm, and weighs 11.1kg.

Connections and Control

The JBL BAR 9.1 has a decent set of connections, although at this price you’d expect more than one HDMI input. However, the HDMI output does support eARC (enhanced audio return channel), which means you can connect other devices directly to a compatible TV and send lossless audio back to the soundbar via HDMI-ARC.

 

There's only one HDMI input, but at least the HDMI output supports eARC

Of course, if your TV doesn’t support eARC, then you’re limited to a single lossless source. On the plus side, the HDMI connection can pass 4K/60p, HDCP 2.3, and high dynamic range – specifically HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The BAR 9.1 currently can’t pass HLG (hybrid log-gamma) and HDR10+, but it’s debatable whether their absence is a particularly big deal.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 connections

In terms of other connections, there’s an optical digital input, and an Ethernet port for a wired connection. JBL includes a USB port, but this is only for firmware updates – which you can just as easily do over the internet. There’s also Bluetooth 4.2 and dual-band Wi-Fi, along with support for Chomecast and Apple's AirPlay 2.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 controls

As mentioned previously, at the top centre of the soundbar there's a basic set of touch-sensitive controls for power on/off, volume up and down, and source select. There's no dedicated remote app, but limited control is available through Google Home, Apple AirPlay 2 or a TV remote thanks to HDMI-CEC.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 remote

The BAR 9.1 comes with a decent remote control, that’s large enough to comfortably hold and use with one hand. It has the same plastic finish as the rest of the system, and is reasonably well made. While JBL has sensibly kept the number buttons to a minimum, it does mean that some have more than one function which can be frustrating.

At the top is the power button, beneath that are buttons for selecting TV (ARC), Bluetooth and the HDMI input. There’s also the volume up/down control, mute, and buttons for setting the Atmos (overhead), rear and bass (subwoofer) levels.

 

The remote is fairly decent for a soundbar, but the dual function buttons can be frustrating

You can also press and hold the mute button for five seconds to select Smart, Standard or Night modes, do the same with the HDMI button and you run the auto set up, and if you press and hold the TV button for five seconds you can adjust for any audio sync delays.

Features and Specs

The JBL BAR 9.1's headline feature is its ability to deliver both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X with a genuinely immersive 5.1.4-channel speaker layout. There are plenty of soundbars that decode Atmos and DTS:X, but they rarely include rear speakers, and as a result the soundstage is very front-heavy.

Not so with the BAR 9.1, and while there are a couple of other soundbars that come with wireless rear speakers, you need to plug them into mains power sockets. The rechargeable nature of the JBL rears makes for a tidier solution, and gives you the option of only using them when you're actually watching content with a surround or object-based soundtrack.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 full system

The rear speakers don't only add surround channels, they also have upward-firing drivers which when combined with those in the soundbar itself produce front and rear overhead channels. According to JBL it takes three hours to fully charge the rear speakers, and they should be good for 10 hours before needing recharging – good enough for anything other than a Lord of the Rings Extended Cut marathon!

 

This soundbar delivers a genuinely immersive experience thanks to a 5.1.4-channel speaker layout

The soundbar itself has three forward-firing speakers composed of four racetrack drivers, combined with three 20mm tweeters. There are also two upward-firing full-range drivers, and a total of 400W of amplification. The rear speakers each have a 20mm tweeter and a full-range upward-firing driver, with 60W of built-in amplification.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 detachable rear speakers with covers

The wireless active subwoofer is beefier than you usually get with a soundbar, and boasts a 10-inch downward-firing driver and a rear bass port for added depth. The sub's amplification can generate up to 300W, so it's capable of producing a serious low-end foundation for the overall system, with JBL claiming a total frequency response of 34Hz-20kHz.

As already mentioned, the BAR 9.1 includes eARC, Bluetooth, Chromecast and AirPlay 2. It also works with the Google Home app, although there's no dedicated JBL remote app available. There's no proprietary multi-room system, nor are there any built-in smart assistants, instead JBL has wisely decided to concentrate on delivering genuinely immersive surround sound and object-based audio.

Related: Immersive surround sound formats - what are they?

Set Up and Operation

The JBL BAR 9.1 comes with everything you need to install, set up and optimise it in the box, but before we get on to the good stuff, a quick gripe: the included two-pin power cables for the soundbar and subwoofer are ludicrously short at 0.9m. So, unless your power sockets are fortuitously close to both units – mine weren’t – you’re going to need to replace them with longer cables.

That moan aside, everything you need to have a fully-functioning 5.1.4 sound system is present and correct. Aside from the ‘bar, sub and rears, there’s also an HDMI cable, and the aforementioned side caps. There’s also a template and wall mounts for the soundbar, along with mounts for the rear speakers that you can hook them on to when they’re in use and unhook them when you want to recharge them.

 

Everything you need to set up and optimise the BAR 9.1 is in the box, even if the power cables are ludicrously short

In terms of placement, make sure the upward-firing drivers aren’t being blocked and for the best results you’ll need a reflective ceiling. JBL recommend sitting between 2.5 and 3m from the main unit, and a ceiling height of about 3m. For best results make sure the surround speakers are just behind you, and at about ear level. The sub should go at the front of the room, in either the left or right hand corner.

In terms of connections, you can attach the soundbar directly to the HDMI-ARC input on your TV using the provided cable. If your TV doesn’t support ARC, you’ll need to use the optical digital connection. If your TV supports eARC, you might as well connect all your sources directly to the TV because you can send lossless audio back via HDMI-ARC. That approach also makes sense if your TV and 4K disc player both support HDR10+, but if your TV doesn’t support eARC (or you have a lot of sources) you can use the HDMI input on the bar instead.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 main soundbar with rear speakers detached

If you want to connect a Bluetooth device just press the dedicated button on the remote and pair the two. If you want to connect a different Bluetooth device, press and hold the Bluetooth button for three seconds, this will clear the previous device and allow you to pair the new one. To connect to your home network, you can either use a wired Ethernet connection or set up a wireless connection using the Google Home app or AirPlay for iOS devices. Both are straightforward, and by doing this you can not only enjoy the benefits of Chromecast and AirPlay 2, but you can also easily update the BAR 9.1's firmware, although when doing this the rear speakers must be attached to the main unit.

Once everything is connected and you’ve powered up the system, the subwoofer should wirelessly connect automatically (although this can also be done manually if the two need reconnecting). The rear speakers will take three hours to fully charge, and should also connect to the main unit automatically when detached. There is the option to charge the rear speakers without connecting them to the main unit by using Micro USB, but initially you need to attach the speakers to the main unit so they wirelessly connect.

 

Unlike a lot of soundbar manufacturers, JBL has included an automated audio calibration feature

When the rear speakers are charged and connected, place them on either side of the seating position (sweet spot), and press and hold the HDMI button on the remote for five seconds. There’s a countdown from five to one, before the audio calibration starts. When 'Calibration-1 Done' is displayed, the calibration of the listening zone is successfully completed.

Then place the rear speakers in their desired position, and press and hold the HDMI button on the remote again for five seconds. Once again there will be a countdown from five to one, before the second audio calibration starts. When 'Calibration-2 Done' is displayed, the calibration of the position is successfully completed.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 left hand view

This is a great feature, and something of a rarity with very few soundbar manufacturers offering an automated audio calibration feature. The Atmos setting defaults to middle, but you can choose low or high if you feel you’re not getting enough of an effect. The same goes for the Rear setting, and the Bass setting defaults to 3 but you can go down to 1 or up to 5, depending on the low frequency response of your room.

The Smart mode is the default setting, and this automatically applies processing to non-Atmos/DTS:X content. If you’d rather use the Standard mode which applies no processing, press the mute button for five seconds and then ‘+’ on remote. Conversely, if you want to engage the Night mode so as not to disturb others, press the mute button for five seconds and then ‘-’ on remote. Note that the BAR 9.1 will revert back to Smart mode every time it’s turned off or in standby.

A few other useful dual controls on the remote include checking the battery charge on the rear speakers by holding the mute button for five seconds and then pressing the Atmos button on the remote. You can restore the factory settings by holding down the power and source buttons on soundbar for more than 10 seconds. Finally, if you want to know which software version your Bar 9.1 is running without using Google Home, hold down the source and volume down buttons simultaneously for 10 seconds and it'll appear on the bar's display.

For testing I connected a Panasonic DP-UB820 4K Blu-ray player to the soundbar using the available HDMI input, while a Manhattan T3-R Freeview set-top box was connected directly to the TV and its audio sent back via HDMI ARC. The soundbar's ARC capability with Atmos was tested using the built-in Netflix and Amazon apps on an LG 77C9, and the UB820 was also connected directly to the C9 to allow lossless audio to be sent back to the BAR 9.1 to test its eARC capabilities.

Performance

The JBL BAR 9.1 proved to be a superb performer in testing, delivering exactly the kind of immersive soundstage that it promises. There are countless soundbars that support Dolby Atmos, and some that also include DTS:X, but most are simply ‘bar and sub combos. Quite a few of these soundbars resort to psychoacoustic processing which never really convinces, but even those that use upward-firing drivers to create the overhead channels always suffer from a front-heavy soundstage that only fills the first third of the room.

The BAR 9.1’s rear speakers mean that you’re genuinely enveloped with surround, which immediately creates a more immersive experience. There are numerous soundbars that offer expansion packages that add rear speakers but, with the notable exception of the Samsung HW-Q90R, the JBL is the only one to also include upward-firing drivers in the rear speakers. This produces front and rear overhead channels, ensuring users are completely immersed in their favourite Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks without any compromises. There are no problems with drop-outs in the connection to the surrounds, although this can sometimes be an issue with wireless rear speakers.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 in 5.1.4-channel mode

Watching the Dolby Atmos Amaze trailer immediately reveals how effective this system is at creating an immersive hemisphere of sound. Effects move around and behind you, a bird flies across the room, thunder rumbles overhead and rain pours down all around you. I’ve heard this trailer countless times in my 9.2.6-channel home cinema, so I have a very real reference point, and the BAR 9.1 did a great job of replicating the experience. It’s not as good of course, but for a system that’s so easy to set up and unobtrusive in your front room, it’s genuinely impressive.

 

This 5.1.4 system genuinely impresses with an immersive hemisphere of sound that extends above and behind you

Running through Atmos and DTS:X test tones showed that the auto set up had done a pretty good job, but there’s the ability to fine tune the overhead, rear and sub levels if necessary. The default settings all proved fine and, if you’re a fan of big bass, the JBL’s subwoofer will definitely put a smile on your face with a surprisingly powerful delivery that lays a solid foundation of bass under the entire system. The centre channel was also clear and focused on the screen, and my only complaint would be that the front soundstage is fairly narrow, but given the nature of the soundbar's design that’s understandable.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 rear speaker close-up

Running through a series of familiar demo scenes, the BAR 9.1 acquitted itself with an energetic and enjoyable Dolby Atmos experience: from the disembodied voices at the start of Mad Max: Fury Road, which seem to float in the middle of the room, to the Japanese Zero that tears across the soundstage during the bombing run in Unbroken. The limo crushing scene in San Andreas had plenty of overhead effects, as did the invisible boy on the roof in Goosebumps, while the opening bass notes of Blade Runner 2049 were handled well by the subwoofer. The highly directional sounds in Gravity and 1917 also really showed the benefits of a 5.1.4-channel system, with good tonal balance and some excellent steering of effects.

JBL BAR 9.1
JBL BAR 9.1 in 5.1.4-channel mode

Switching to DTS:X and the performance was equally as impressive, whether it was the brutal body blows in Atomic Blonde or the over-the-top action in Fast Five as the gang drag a giant safe through the streets of Rio. The BAR 9.1 handled TV shows just as well, reproducing the scores with clarity and the dialogue clearly. When it came to music the sub sounded tight and well integrated, the treble was un-congested and the high end bright without becoming strained. The system as a whole as boasts plenty of power, and can go loud without distorting or losing its overall cohesion.

Verdict

Pros

  • Fully immersive 5.1.4-channel system
  • Doby Atmos & DTS:X support
  • Detachable, rechargeable wireless rears
  • Easy to install with automated set up
  • Well made, informative display, decent remote
  • HDMI output supports eARC

Cons

  • Front soundstage is a bit narrow
  • Only one HDMI input
  • No HLG or HDR10+ passthrough
  • No dedicated remote app

JBL BAR 9.1 Soundbar Review

Should I buy one?

The JBL BAR 9.1 is an impressive soundbar that delivers a genuinely immersive Dolby Atmos and DTS:X experience thanks to a 5.1.4-channel speaker layout. The design is functional rather than flashy, but the detachable and rechargeable wireless rear speakers are a quick, easy and elegant solution to adding surround channels without making a mess of your lounge.

The system is simple to set up, and there's even an automated audio calibration feature, which is a nice touch. The display is informative and easy to read, and the remote is decent for a soundbar, even if JBL might have gone a bit too far with the dual-function buttons. There's no dedicated remote app, but you do get Bluetooth, Chromecast and AirPlay 2.

There's only one HDMI input, but on the plus side the HDMI output supports eARC, allowing you to send lossless audio back from a compatible TV. The BAR 9.1 can pass HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but not HLG and HDR10+, which is a shame but not a deal breaker. Most importantly, this JBL soundbar sounds great and, while the front soundstage is a bit narrow, the sub is a monster.

The JBL BAR 9.1 isn't cheap but when you consider all that you're getting it starts to look like great value for money. It would certainly cost a lot more than £899 to build a 5.1.4-channel system using an AV receiver and a speaker package, and that approach would be a lot less lifestyle-friendly. So when you consider the price, performance and features, this particular BAR is a bargain.

What are my alternatives?

There are two obvious soundbar alternatives, one that's a bit cheaper and one that's slightly more expensive. First there's the Vizio SB36512-F6, which delivers a 5.1.2-channel system thanks to a pair of wired rear speakers. The latter might not be for everyone, there's no DTS:X support or eARC, and the performance isn't quite as big or immersive, but at £599 the SB36512 is three hundred quid cheaper, so it's worth considering if you're on a limited budget.

The only direct competitor to the JBL is the Samsung HW-Q90R, which currently costs £1,199. This soundbar also comes with wireless rear speakers and can produce a full 5.1.4-channel system. It supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and thanks to a recent firmware update it now has eARC. It also has a wider front soundstage and two HDMI inputs, plus the design and construction is generally better. Overall, the HW-Q90R remains the best immersive audio soundbar you can currently buy, but the BAR 9.1 runs it a close second for £300 less.

Best Buy

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
9

Ease of use

10

Sound Quality

.
9

Features

.
9

Value for Money

10

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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