Audio

Sound system without the clutter

I have yet to invest in a home theatre system because I have limited electrical outlets and cannot stand the sight of wires running across the living room.

I doubt I am the only one with these concerns. But the new JBL Bar 9.1 solves my headache with a wireless solution consisting of a soundbar, two detachable, battery-powered wireless speakers and a 10-inch wireless subwoofer.

Cables are kept to a minimum - only the soundbar and subwoofer need to be plugged in. The two detachable speakers are recharged by attaching them magnetically to the two ends of the soundbar.

When fully charged, these speakers can last about 10 hours. They also have a micro-USB port so those with a free electrical outlet nearby can keep them plugged in all the time.

To conceal the charging contacts on the soundbar and the wireless speakers when the latter are undocked, plastic end-caps (available in Singapore, but not in all markets) are provided. Brackets to mount the JBL Bar 9.1 to the wall are also included.

A scrolling LED front panel on the soundbar gives helpful information, such as the battery status of the wireless speakers and the volume.

The soundbar's rear connectors include an HDMI output which supports the enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) protocol that connects to the television's HDMI ARC (or eARC in newer models) port - if available. The soundbar also has a single HDMI input that connects to source devices such as a 4K Blu-ray player.

While the soundbar has a rear USB port, it is dormant in the Singapore variant. Hence, unlike the version sold in the United States, it cannot play MP3 songs from an external storage drive.

But I am nitpicking here because most would probably use a music streaming service instead. And the JBL Bar 9.1 has this covered with support for Chromecast and AirPlay.

While it is marketed as a 9.1 channel audio system, the JBL Bar 9.1 is, to be precise, a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos system with four upfiring speakers (two in the soundbar and one in each detachable speaker), five surround speakers and a subwoofer.

Setting up the soundbar is straightforward. The wireless speakers are calibrated using a sound test with the remote control.

  • FOR

    • Powerful bass

    • Immersive Dolby Atmos technology

    • Detachable wireless speakers are convenient

    AGAINST

    • Could do with more HDMI inputs

    • No dialogue enhancement

    • No built-in smart assistant

    SPECS

    PRICE: $1,799

    OUTPUT POWER: 820 watts

    CONNECTIVITY: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi

    PORTS: HDMI input, HDMI (eARC), Optical, Ethernet

    SOUNDBAR DIMENSIONS: 884 x 62 x 120mm

    WEIGHT: 11.1kg (subwoofer), 0.72kg x 2 (detachable surround speakers), 3.6kg (soundbar)

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3.5/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

Ideally, you want to place the wireless speakers behind your couch. The remote control also lets you adjust the intensity of the bass, the Atmos effects and the rear surround sound.

The bass from the downfiring wireless subwoofer is powerful enough to rattle the glass cabinets in my living room. Anything higher than level three (out of five) is too much for my taste. Explosions and other effects, though, are punchy.

Boosting the feeling of being immersed in a movie are the Dolby Atmos effects produced by the upfiring speakers. The sound effects seem to come from all around me.

There is a downside. Dialogue often plays second fiddle to the loud and bombastic effects and soundtrack. The JBL Bar 9.1 does not have any dialogue enhancement feature. Nor does it have any equaliser settings to tweak the balance for different use cases and genres.

Vocals sound clear enough during music playback. But the audio seems to come primarily from the soundbar with minimal input from the rear surround speakers. The mids can also sound muddy and not as distinct as I would have liked.

In short, the JBL Bar 9.1 is great for those who want the immersion of the cinema in their homes, but it is only adequate for music.

While the $1,799 JBL Bar 9.1 is more expensive than a similar wired home theatre system, the convenience of its wireless speakers is definitely worth the price for some.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2020, with the headline 'Sound system without the clutter'. Print Edition | Subscribe