If you want an Atmos experience in your living room, but want to walk the way of AV receiver plus nine speakers, this year has more choice than ever in terms of Atmos sound bars. We find a very intriguing copy at JBL. The Americans usually aim for the cheaper side of the market, but the JBL Bar 9.1 soundbar is a high-end model with everything on it.
JBL Bar 9.1 soundbar
JBL is typically a manufacturer with an extensive marketing department . It was fixed in committee that they decided there to name this soundbar. It eventually became the “JBL BAR 9.1 True Wireless Surround with Dolby Atmos”, a mouthful that nevertheless does not fully explain what this soundbar does. The True Wireless section refers to the fact that you can disconnect the ends of the soundbar and use them as rear speakers. But what that 9.1 does not make clear is that this soundbar is one of the few on the market that really offers 5.1.4. The rear speakers therefore provide not one channel, but two (surround back and rear height). That is distinctive, because until recently Samsung was the only one that offered the same. That with the current HW-Q90R and the recently announced HW-Q950T. Does Samsung suddenly have a rival for their top-end soundbars? Yes – and no. JBL is of course part of the Samsung holding company. So it is a form of internal competition. Moreover, there is still a difference: JBL is about rear speakers (with battery) that you place temporarily behind your sofa, at Samsung you place them permanently and hang them separately from a socket.
The JBL Bar 9.1 costs 999 euros and is therefore not a cheap soundbar. But at the same time, that amount is sharp, because you get a full package for that price. With major rivals, such as the Sonos Arc, you have to invest extra in additional speakers to get that true surround experience. The rival sound bars that do come with the included rear speakers cost the same or more. In any case, the concept of the JBL Bar 9.1 is slightly different. This is a sound bar that leaves you in one piece for ordinary TV viewing, which takes up less space in your living room. If you want to watch a movie, only then disconnect the rear speakers from the two ends of the soundbar and place them at the back. A huge plus: JBL has provided a calibration function that optimizes the sound for the room. And that is useful if you work with rear speakers that are not always perfectly placed.
We ourselves do not find the design language of JBL sound bars very successful. It’s not that the Bar 9.1 is ugly, but the gray color and plastic finish deliver a functional industrial design that doesn’t integrate with your interior. It is there. Not a stumbling block, but not something tempting. JBL sister brand Harman Kardon has arranged it better in that area. The use of handsome furniture fabrics from Kvadrat, for example, makes that Harman Kardon Citation Multibeam 700 really smarter. Anyway, JBL does offer you a good portion of sound technology to make up for it. Also positive: the large display is behind the front speaker grille and is only visible if you adjust something. This way you will not be distracted by a glowing display during movie watching, which is never fun in a darkened room. Here, when you start watching a piece of content, you can clearly see which surround format is being processed.
The Bar 9.1 presents itself out of the box as a relatively large soundbar of approximately 123 cm. It’s just as long as the width of the 55-inch LG C9 we use for our living room tests, and its rounded ends further soften its presence. The height of 6.2 cm is no exaggeration; only with certain TV models that have very small feet, there will be a problem where the soundbar comes over the bottom edge of the screen. Please note: this is a Dolby Atmos and DTS: X compatible soundbar with overhead speakers. So do not slide it under your TV (or in a niche of a TV cabinet), because those top speakers must be able to point freely towards the ceiling to create a three-dimensional sound image.
The Bar 9.1 includes a wireless subwoofer, a essential if you really like spectacular movie sound. It is a big thing (30.5 x 44 x 30.5 cm), best placed in the front of the room and not too far from the soundbar itself. Hiding this sub subtly is a bit more challenging.
This subwoofer also contributes to the spectacular 820 Watt label that JBL hangs on this soundbar. We can already tell you that Bar 9.1 is indeed a very powerful display, but those numbers are of course purely a marketing thing. Anyway, every brand does the same.
The speakers come loose!
The Bar 9.1 will of course become a lot smaller if you pull the ends to disconnect the separate speakers. No, you didn’t destroy it. This is the core of the Bar 9.1 concept. Pulling it off requires a little bit of force, which is good. That way, those separate speaker units will remain connected during normal use and will certainly charge. If you pull the two units from the soundbar, you end up with a compact Bar 9.1 of approximately 88 cm long. Each separate speaker unit is 17.3 x 6 x 12 cm in size. Flat, but quite long, so. That is different from the Samsung HW-Q90R, where the rear speakers are upright columnar devices. The practical advantage of the JBL speakers is that their flat shape allows them to be balanced on a wide back of a sofa or window sill. They will not suddenly fall over.
According to the supplied manual, it is best to place the rear speakers behind you, with the longest side parallel to the back of your sofa and not too far. During the test period, we also placed them to the left and right of our sofa, and they actually do. Just make sure that they point straight at your ears and that they are not, for example, extremely close to the ground.
It is quite unique that the Bar 9.1 rear speakers each have two speakers: one for surround sound at ear height and one to radiate sound upwards so that you (together with the top speakers in the soundbar) get full Atmos coverage. If it works well, that is a big step in terms of experience compared to Atmos soundbars that only emit sound upwards at the front of the television. With those sound bar models you can already get a very good experience, but sometimes moving sound effects stay a bit “hanging” on / above your television screen. For atmospheric noise (such as the sounds that give you the impression of actually sitting in a cathedral or a small room) less of a problem, but for sound effects that contribute to the action (helicopters or spaceships flying overhead), this still gives a less good result on. Bar 9.1 shouldn’t have that problem. Because of the double speakers in the rear units, sound effects should have full 3D freedom.
The idea of speakers that you disconnect from the mother ship – ahum, soundbar – we saw before. We are not sure, but we believe Philips was the first to present this concept. That was a long time ago, with a 5.1 model. The Bar 9.1 is much more sophisticated. One thing remains: the separate speakers work with their own battery. This provides maximum flexibility. You place the speakers where it suits you and you don’t have to look for a socket. That is different from most competitors. In many LG and Samsung soundbars (and therefore also the Sonos Arc with extra speakers) those rear wireless speakers are meant to always remain in the same place.
The rear speakers at the JBL do have a limited duration in which you can use them autonomously, but according to the specifications (and our experience) that is more than enough for an extensive movie evening. You have to develop the habit of connecting them to the soundbar again at the end of your viewing session. For example, the batteries recharge via magnetic contacts. It takes about three hours from empty to full, so you can continue the next day. In our opinion, JBL deserves a pat on the back that they offer you a way to power those rear speakers when they are still behind your sofa. You can charge via a micro-USB cable that hangs from a smartphone charger – two times, of course. Because you have two rear speakers. For example, JBL gives you the choice: place the rear speakers as temporarily only during movie nights at the back or give them a permanent place behind you. With many competitors it is one or the other.
Connections and streaming
We expect a bit more in terms of connections on a more expensive soundbar. It is not really incredibly spacious with the Bar 9.1, but actually this fits in with the new thinking at manufacturers. The Bar 9.1 is namely eARC compatible – which is a must from 2020 – and at eARC the philosophy is that you connect all sources to the television, not to the sound device. Still, one extra HDMI input is provided in addition to the HDMI eARC port, so you can connect a console or Ultra HD Blu-ray player. Always handy when the HDMI ports on the TV are all occupied. The additional HDMI port supports HDCP 2.3 (which can become important with next-gen consoles) and lets 4K pass through, with support for Dolby Vision. However, JBL does not mention the support for other HDR standards. In addition, there is an optical input and a USB port into which you can insert a stick with music files. If you want to listen to music, it is much more convenient to just stream. This is possible via Bluetooth, but Chromecast and AirPlay 2 offer much better sound quality and are actually also practical to use.
Thanks to that Chromecast and AirPlay 2 support, connecting the JBL Bar 9.1 Soundbar to the network is very easy. You can work with an Ethernet cable with this JBL – which is becoming rare – but if you choose WiFi, you can work via Google Home or the WiFi settings of your iPhone or iPad. In Home, the Bar 9.1 may be automatically found (if not, check whether your Bluetooth is switched on), after which you follow a simple step-by-step plan to connect it to your wireless network and immediately establish the link with Google Assistant. The Bar 9.1 may not own a microphone, but you can control it with voice commands via Google Assistant or Siri.
We are not going to talk about eARC in detail in this review, because a background will soon appear in which we fully illuminate this new standard. In our review of the Sonos Arc we also discussed it extensively. An important point is that eARC is in line with modern TV viewing, as evidenced by figures. Physical sources become much less important in this (with the exception of consoles), the main focus is on streaming services such as Netflix and Disney + that work via apps on the TV. These services have therefore become the main source of films and TV series with Dolby Atmos soundtracks (see also this background article about streaming services for a good overview). However, the Bar 9.1 can also handle Atmos from Ultra HD Blu-ray discs (embedded on Dolby TrueHD) and DTS: X (and older DTS codecs). This means that film lovers with a collection of film discs will not be left out in the cold. With some new TVs, DTS support is completely gone, even in passthrough mode, which makes that extra HDMI port on the JBL Bar 9.1 even more convenient. You can then connect your Blu-ray player directly to the soundbar.
Keep your remote handy
When you take the remote control that comes with the JBL Bar 9.1 Soundbar out of the box, you probably think: “Well, this is not really luxurious ”. This miniding is very minimalistic and sober. But keep it handy. Yes, you can adjust the volume via the box of your television. But the JBL remote provides access to many interesting features, such as an Atmos level and separate volume controls for the subwoofer and rear speakers (when disconnected). That Atmos level (with three steps) is one to try out. In “Formula 1: Drive to Survice” (Netflix, Dolby Atmos) we found the High setting much more atmospheric than the other two. And that in a series that alternates spectacular images and sound from the cockpit with a lot of interviews. Not the first type of content that you think of when you want to demonstrate Atmos, but certainly the first season has moments with beautiful surround soundscapes.
It is also with the remote that you activate the calibration function that significantly can improve. However, you will search fruitlessly for a “calibrate” button or something similar on the remote control. JBL does explain it in the manual, but you have to know which buttons you have to press. We hear from the Harman group that they will provide the remotes at the bottom with a sticker with extra explanation.
Calibration works in two steps and is intended for when you place the separate speakers separately. In a first step, place the two speakers to your left and right in the seat. Really next to where you are, so. Then long press the HDMI button, wait until “1-Calibration” appears on the screen and then put your fingers in your ears. The measurement takes about ten seconds, and the test sounds are really loud. For the second step, place the rear speakers where you normally park them. Then you long press the HDMI button again until “2-Calibration” appears. The fingers? It will put you in the ear again.
Working with two steps is a bit cumbersome, but the result was much better in our living room. We also think it is really good that JBL first measures your seat and only then the final setup, which should ensure a more accurate result. After all, standing waves and other acoustic problems are sometimes located in a room; you notice them more in certain places than others. By the way, it is worthwhile to put on a film after the measurement and adjust it to your own taste via the Rear button.
Keep your remote at hand
When testing, we not only looked at how the JBL Bar 9.1 Soundbar performs if you place the two speakers behind you and go through the calibration, but also if you just leave it in one piece. After all, we know from experience that you do not always bother to disconnect those extra speakers, for example if you just watch something casual.
The film enthusiast who has invested 1,000 euros in this soundbar does of course make the effort to remove the rear speakers and take the measurement. Hopefully, because that calibration makes a real difference. We quickly notice that the rear speakers do not play very loud even on the High mode. They work fine, but you shouldn’t place them three meters away.
The JBL scores well when going through the Atmos test tracks from Dolby himself. With “Audiosphere” the high tinkling sounds are also very high in the room, and we really experience that the ball sounds as if it is in the right place. At Horizon, the large spaceship with room-shaking basses flies past the ceiling, and the two battleships to the left and right pass us. In terms of positioning, the Bar 9.1 does well, although we think at “Shattered” that the sounds coming from the Atmos speakers at the back do not seem to be full enough. This means that the transition with a sound effect that goes from front to back is not completely smooth. In an action movie that may be less noticeable, but here.
We watched, among other things, ‘Rise of Skywalker’ via Disney + (luckily the Atmos streams have recovered), to the battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on the water planet Kef Bir, among the debris of the devastating Death Star. It’s a very spectacular scene with lots of water sounds that create a lot of atmosphere, and the JBL conveys that well. The sound effects might be a bit more present at the back, but we are completely along with the film. The crackling lightsabers that touch each other are really powerful, so you feel involved in the battle between Light and Dark. The great thing about the Atmos version of the Star Wars films is that the music of John Williams is very well mixed, also via the rears, and is played very large in space by the JBL. We also notice that in “1917”, the Sam Mendes blockbuster that flows like few other films thanks to that (apparent) one-shot recording. Just as we imagine the battlefields of WWI, there are always sounds of explosions and artillery in the background, along with menacing music that always make you feel uncomfortable. In the scene where the two main characters take a break in an abandoned farmhouse and an aerial battle takes place above them, the planes are indeed high in the air – until a German craft crashes over the hill straight at the camera. The crash in the shed and the shouting is fine, we miss a bit that the action continues to the rear.
Since the Bar is 9.1 DTS compatible, we include ‘Kin’, a not very successful SF movie with a great soundtrack with music by Scottish prog rockers Mogwai. First thing to notice: Although it is a DTS: X soundtrack, the Bar 9.1 identifies it as DTS Neural: X. We also have this in mind with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”. That may be due to something the C9 does – and we’ll investigate that further and update this review where necessary. In any case, the JBL handles these DTS soundtracks in a clever way, while we note that the Mogwai tracks are best presented musically. The sub also gets an excellent workout when the volcano erupts on the dino island – in terms of mighty experience, this can count. So there is a lot of that 820 Watt! This thing can be loud, say.
The JBL Bar 9.1 Soundbar is one of the best Atmos soundbars of the moment. There are some minor flaws, such as the duller design, the hefty subwoofer and the somewhat unclear calibration procedure, that’s right. But the points on the plus side make up for it. Full support for Dolby and DTS codecs and the calibration function are two things that will definitely convince the movie lover looking for a near cinema experience. The concept is also distinctive: with normal TV viewing you have a somewhat hefty soundbar on a TV cabinet, during a movie night or when gaming, you disconnect the two speakers and place them at the back. The result is very compelling, thanks to the almost-unique 5.1.4 reproduction that is just a bit more exciting than with average Atmos soundbars.