(Pocket-lint) - The JBL BAR 9.1 is a 5.1.4-channel soundbar that supports the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based audio formats. Unlike the majority of soundbars, the BAR 9.1 is able to deliver a fully immersive experience thanks to four upward-firing drivers and a pair of wireless rear speakers.

These rear speakers are attached to the main unit for charging, then simply moved to the back of the room whenever you want to be completely surrounded by effects or immersed in your favourite films. This all-in-one cinema soundsystem is a clever, tidy and very lifestyle-friendly solution. 

JBL has concentrated on sound quality and effective delivery of multi-channel audio, so there's no frippery like proprietary multi-room functionality or built-in smart assistants. However, there are useful features like eARC, automated audio calibration, a proper display, and a decent remote.

Sleek and slimline

  • Soundbar: 884 x 62 x 120mm; 3.64kg
  • Subwoofer: 305 x 440 x 305mm; 11.1kg
  • Rears: 173 x 60 x 120mm; 0.72kg

The JBL BAR 9.1 looks suitably contemporary, with a sleek, slimline and curvy design. The grilles are solid, and while the finish is dominated by black plastic, the overall build quality is commensurate with the price. Importantly, this soundbar will sit comfortably under TVs up to 65 inches in size without drawing attention to itself or blocking the screen

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At either end of the soundbar are the detachable wireless rear speakers. JBL includes side caps to attach to the ends of the soundbar and speakers if you plan on primarily leaving them at the rear of the room. There is the option of recharging the speakers using Micro-USB, and JBL includes brackets for wall-mounting the main unit and the surrounds. 

The soundbar has some basic touch-sensitive controls on the top centre, while a proper display lives on the front right. The latter is particularly pleasing, especially in the absence of any dedicated remote app, and it clearly and effectively shows what the BAR 9.1 is doing.

The system includes a wireless subwoofer that's constructed from MDF but matches the styling of the main unit.

JBL BAR 9.1 features

  • 5.1.4-channel audio
  • Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
  • Wireless active subwoofer
  • Wireless rechargeable rear speakers

The JBL BAR 9.1's primary feature is not only its ability to decode Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, but also the fact that it can deliver both object-based audio formats using a fully immersive 5.1.4-channel speaker layout.

To achieve this it has three forward-firing speakers on the soundbar itself for front left, centre and right, along with a pair of upward-firing speakers. These are composed of four racetrack drivers, three 20mm tweeters, and two upward-firing full-range drivers, with 400W of amplification.

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The wireless rear speakers each have a 20mm tweeter and a full-range upward-firing driver, with 60W of built-in amplification. According to JBL, the rears take three hours to fully charge, and should last up to ten hours before needing recharging.

Finally the wireless active subwoofer provides a solid low frequency foundation to the whole system, thanks to a 10-inch downward-firing driver and a rear bass port for added depth. There's 300W of grunt built-in, and JBL claims this bass monster can reach down to 34Hz.

The BAR 9.1 works with the Google Home app, which makes setting up the Wi-Fi connection easy and allows for automated firmware updates. There's no dedicated JBL remote app, nor is there a proprietary multi-room system, or a built-in smart assistant like Amazon Alexa.

Connections and controls

  • 1x HDMI input; HDMI-eARC output
  • 1x optical digital input; 1x Ethernet
  • Wi-Fi; Bluetooth; Chromecast; AirPlay 2

The JBL BAR 9.1 boasts a solid selection of connections, although there's only one HDMI input. On the plus side, the HDMI output does support eARC (enhanced audio return channel), allowing users to connect other devices directly to a compatible TV and send lossless audio back to the soundbar via HDMI-ARC.

The HDMI connections can pass 4K/60p, HDCP 2.3, HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but the BAR 9.1 can't currently pass HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma) and HDR10+ - although that's not a massive loss. In terms of other connections, there's an optical digital input, and an Ethernet port for a wired connection. There's also Bluetooth 4.2 and dual-band Wi-Fi, along with support for Chomecast and Apple's AirPlay 2.

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There are a number of options for controlling the BAR 9.1, including the touch-sensitive controls for power on/off, volume up and down, and source select found on the soundbar itself. There's also limited control available through the Google Home app, Apple AirPlay 2 or a TV remote if the JBL is connected via HDMI-CEC.

The included remote control is 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. JBL has simplified the layout - which is good because no-one likes being faced with dozens of buttons - but may have gone too far because you'll definitely need to consult the manual to work out all the dual function keys.

Object-based nirvana

The JBL BAR 9.1 is staggeringly easy to install, thanks to some really useful features included by JBL. All you need to do is place the soundbar in front of your TV (stand or wall mount), making sure you don't block the upward-firing speakers. You then place the subwoofer in the front left or right corner, and attach the rear speakers to charge them up.

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Once charged, you place the rears either side of the main seating position and run the first auto audio calibration sweep. After that place them either side of and just behind the main listening position and run the second auto audio calibration sweep. You can fine-tune the effect of the rears, upward-firing speakers and sub using controls on the remote - and you're good to go.

The entire process takes minutes, and it's worth it. The BAR 9.1 impresses right out of the gate, with a full-bodied and immersive performance. While the front soundstage could be wider, there's good stereo separation between the left and right speakers, and the dedicated centre channel ensures clear dialogue that's focused on the screen.

The rear speakers connect automatically and retain a robust wireless connection, delivering well-defined and precise surround effects. The upward-firing drivers at the front and rear are also highly effective, bouncing sounds off the ceiling to create the illusion of overhead channels above and behind you. As is always the case with this technology, its effectiveness will depend on your ceiling: the lower, flatter and more reflective it is, the better.

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The wireless subwoofer also connected without any issues, and it's a bit of a beast. The 10-inch driver easily goes down to the depths quoted by JBL, and depending on your room you might have to rein it in a bit. However it creates a fantastic low-frequency foundation on which the rest of the system builds the overall sound field.

Gravity and 1917 both have highly directional soundtracks, which allow the BAR 9.1 to effectively demonstrate its superiority in terms of immersion. Sounds move around the room in a clearly defined three dimensional space, with plenty of audio cues behind and above you. The sub does its part equally well, giving low frequency effects greater impact thanks to integrated bass. The JBL also handled Atmos content from Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV without any issues.

A no-holds-barred DTS:X mix like Atomic Blonde sounds brutal, with body blows and gunfire hitting with percussive precision. The East German crowd scenes really envelop you in noise, while the numerous 80s pop songs are delivered with gusto.

Whatever your filmic tastes, this soundbar is sure to please with a performance that conjures immersive fun in a lifestyle-friendly package.

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There are a few sound modes for non-Atmos/DTS:X content: a default Smart mode with on-the-fly processing; a Standard mode that applies no processing; and a Night mode for late-night bingeing sessions.

The inclusion of Chromecast and AirPlay 2 also allows for easy access to music, and while the BAR 9.1 produces a clean and solid performance, it's not really this soundbar's strong-point.

Verdict

The JBL BAR 9.1 certainly delivers on its promise of producing an immersive object-based experience with little compromise. Perhaps more importantly, it does so in a way that's elegant and lifestyle-friendly thanks to a space-saving design.

The detachable rear speakers allow the JBL to create a full 5.1.4-channel system - something very few soundbars can do - without imposing on its surroundings. It also includes an automated audio calibration feature that makes setup a cinch.

Throw in support for Atmos and DTS:X, along with eARC, Chromecast and AirPlay 2, and you have a well-specified soundbar at a price that won't break the bank.

Best of all it sounds superb, with a big and encompassing soundstage that perfectly complements many of today's big-screen TVs.

Also consider

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Samsung HW-Q90R

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This complete package offers a full 7.1.4-channel system with extra side-firing drivers for increased width, and supports for Atmos and DTS:X. It also supports eARC and can pass both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision. It's larger, better built than the BAR 9.1 and also includes a second HDMI input - but it's pricier, and there's no support for Chromecast or AirPlay. However, if you have slightly more to spend, this is the soundbar to buy.

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Vizio SB36512-F6

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This offers best bang for your buck, but does suffer from some limitations. For a start it's a 5.1.2-channel system, so while there are rear surround channels there are no rear heights. The rear speakers are also wired, which won't be for everyone, and there's no eARC or DTS:X, nor can it pass HDR10+. However, it does produce a surprisingly big soundstage, and is very capable when it comes to Atmos.

LG SN11RG

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This sports all the strengths of the Samsung (above), but builds on them with a host of new features. It has the same 7.1.4-channel system and Atmos/DTS:X support, along with eARC, two HDMI inputs and Dolby Vision passthrough. However it adds an automated setup, Google Assistant, and Chromecast. The only fly in the ointment is an inability to pass HDR10+, but otherwise the LG is an impressive multi-channel soundbar solution.

Writing by Steve Withers. Editing by Mike Lowe.