JBL recently expanded its soundbar lineup to include some intriguing 2.1 systems. The $499.95 JBL Bar 5.1 Surround fits somewhat in the middle in terms of pricing, and is not to be confused with the non-surround JBL Bar 5.1. This version consists of a single soundbar and a large subwoofer. Its surround capabilities are of the virtual variety—this isn’t a true 5.1 surround system with rear channels, but it does utilize “multibeam” technology in an attempt to fill the room with immersive, theater-like audio. The bass capabilities here are strong, though we wish there were more adjustable EQ options and/or listening modes. For the price, this is a solid system, but those seeking true surround or serious power may want to explore other options.
The Bar 5.1 Surround is available in a matte dark gray, with a main soundbar that measures 2.3 by 40.0 by 3.9 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.2 pounds, and a wireless subwoofer that measures 17.3 by 12.0 by 12.0 inches and weighs 23.4 pounds. The two pieces link up automatically when powered up. The bar can sit flat on a tabletop, or be mounted on a wall with the supplied brackets and screws. The front face is all metallic speaker grille, with a white LED readout that tells you what sound source you’re connected to.
Behind the grille, the soundbar employs five racetrack-style drivers and two side-firing 1.25-inch tweeters delivering 5 channels of 50 watts each, while the 300-watt sub utilizes a 10-inch down-firing woofer, as well as a bass port on the rear panel for efficient air movement. The system as a whole delivers 550 watts and a frequency range of 40Hz-20kHz.
There are connections across the back panel of the soundbar for HDMI (video in for 4K resolution pass-through), HDMI ARC (TV), optical, USB (for both service and audio playback), and the included power cable. The subwoofer has a power/pairing button on its rear panel, just above the connection for the included power cable. There’s an HDMI cable included, but no optical cable.
The remote control runs on two AAA batteries (included), and has buttons for Power, TV (HDMI ARC), Bluetooth, Bass Level, HDMI (This is the video input for 4k resolution pass-through), Volume Up/Down, and Mute. Unlike many of the soundbars we test, there’s no selection of audio modes here, like Movie or Music, which is not necessarily a drawback, but it would be nice to have more robust, precise EQ controls rather than a simple bass level range of Low, Mid, or High to choose from. There’s no way to adjust treble, for instance. The volume range is 1-31, and at max levels, the system gets quite loud.
There’s support for Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Cast. There’s no built-in mic or smart controls on the bar or the remote—this is app-based support that you’ll need to control via your phone.
The Bar 5.1 Surround supports Bluetooth 4.2 and AAC codecs. The USB port supports playback for MP3 and WAV files.
Blade Runner 2049‘s crash scene, in which Ryan Gosling falls from the sky in something that looks like a military-grade Lamborghini that flies, features multiple explosions and gunshots. Through the Bar 5.1 Surround, they sound modest at low and mid bass levels, and powerful at high. So for movies, especially the kind that pack a lot of low-end like this one, both in sound effects and in the score itself, you’re going to want to maximize the subwoofer’s output. The dialogue is clear and crisp, and even with the sub at max, there’s a solid balance between lows and highs.
When the Death Star explodes in Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the Bar 5.1 Surround delivers solid thunder, especially when the bass is set to max. With the system’s volume maxed out and the bass at its highest, you get a near-theater experience in terms of rumble, but it’s not necessarily as loud as you might expect. The lows are strong, and the volume is high enough, but the overall power here feels lower here than it does with music. In other words, if you like watching movies really loudly, this system tops out slightly lower than you might want, despite delivering serious rumble.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” with bass levels at mid, the Bar 5.1 Surround delivers intense low-frequency response that will appeal to bass lovers. Even at the maximum volume levels—for music, quite loud—the bass doesn’t distort on this track regardless of its setting. At high levels, the thunder here is palpable, especially at top volumes, with wall-shaking power. We suggest a starting point, for music at least, of Mid, and working with low and mid bass levels more so than high, which tends to upset the balance.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the Bar 5.1 Surround’s general sound signature. At moderate volumes and with bass set to mid, this track actually sounds pretty balanced and accurate. The drums get some modest extra depth without sounding overly thunderous, and Callahan’s baritone vocals get an appropriate balance of low-mid richness and treble edge. The acoustic strumming and higher-register instrumentation pack a bright presence that stands up against the bass depth without issue. Raising the volume and switching to high bass levels, the sound signature changes dramatically. Now the drums have subwoofer thunder and Callahan’s vocals sound too bass-heavy—somewhere in between this and the previous sound signature will be the ideal setup for most listeners.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop gets enough high-mid presence for its attack to retain its punchiness. The drum loop also gets beefed up by the subwoofer substantially, even at mid bass settings. Surprisingly, the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat take a backseat to the drum loop’s thunder—this is not usually the case when a system is capable of doling out a big bass sound. It’s typically the ominous sub-bass synth hits that make the room shake, but those lows taper off through the Bar 5.1 Surround, while the drum loop’s bass depth is delivered with gusto. It’s a powerful sound regardless, and when the lows are set to mid, the track has a solid balance throughout the frequency range. The vocals here are delivered with excellent clarity and no added sibilance.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound crisp with solid bass anchoring the mix. The subwoofer setting here has far less impact than it does with other genres, mainly because there’s less bass to alter in this mix, but we still suggest either low or mid settings for classical and jazz. Generally speaking, the Bar 5.1 Surround is capable of delivering a robust, dynamic, balanced sound signature, but you may have to actively adjust the bass levels to get there.
In short, the lack of a Movie or Music mode simply means you have to create your own settings for movies and music—films seem to want far more volume and maxed-out bass, and music wants more modest bass and volume. It’s not a big deal to manually adjust, but only having three basic EQ settings—and for the bass only—is a little disappointing.
The JBL Bar 5.1 Surround system is powerful, and it works well for both film and music. But the lack of user-adjustable parameters beyond three bass settings means it can sometimes be tough to locate the ideal sound signature for a given movie or track. Still, for the price (and we’ve seen it for significantly less on JBL’s website recently), the Bar 5.1 Surround represents a solid deal. For less, the $280 Sony HT-S350 delivers a strong 2.1 audio experience, as does the super-budget-friendly $180 TCL Alto 7+. On the flip side, the $1,300 LG SL10YG is our current top-tier favorite, but it’s more than double the cost of the Bar 5.1 Surround.
JBL Bar 5.1 Surround Specs
|Physical Connections||HDMI, Optical|