JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar review

hcc_recommendedJBL enters the Dolby Atmos soundbar market with a flexible 5.1.4 model. Mark Craven listens up

When is a soundbar not a soundbar? When it's JBL's Bar 9.1. On the face of it, this is a premium soundbar/subwoofer system with Dolby Atmos capability, but with its front left/right enclosures able to be removed and used as discrete surrounds/Atmos units, you get a 5.1.4 setup with minimal fuss. Which is how we like it.

It's not a new idea, of course. JBL has previously offered multichannel soundbar systems with battery-powered surrounds (such as the still-on-sale Bar 5.1). But this is its first such Dolby Atmos model (and first Dolby Atmos model at all, in fact) with the promise of an audio performance dramatically more immersive than a regular stereo or 5.1 system.

There's a premium price attached. At £1,000 the Bar 9.1 is far from an impulse buy, and more expensive than the flagship models of some rivals. But in the small market of seven-/nine-channel systems, it's probably the most affordable around, undercutting the likes of LG's SN11RG, Sony's HT-ST5000 and Sennheiser's Ambeo.

Ready To Race
The main soundbar spreads racetrack drivers (size unspecified) and 0.75in tweeters across its L/C/R channels, plus two full-range upfiring units. Each surround enclosure also gets a side-firing tweeter and full-range upfirer.

Build quality appears rock solid and the design is straight from the JBL soundbar playbook, which means it's neat and tidy with curved corners on its dark grey chassis; mesh grilles across its front and sides; and a few control buttons on the top plate. There's no colour touchscreen display, though – a feature of sister company Harman Kardon's Citation MultiBeam soundbars that I'd love to see ported across to JBL's premium models.

1120jblsb.remThe Bar 9.1 comes with a slimline remote control that's generally easy to use, with handy keys to adjust the level of the system's rear, Atmos and bass levels. Yet, as seen on other soundbars recently, accessing more in-depth features requires some button combination presses, which you'll only discover if you read through the full online manual. These include instigating JBL's auto calibration system, adjusting lip sync, and switching the Smart Mode – which applies EQ and surround processing to sources – off.

Note that Smart Mode is on by default, so if you switch the soundbar off, you'll have to go through this process again if you want to listen to content in Standard.

Connections are a single HDMI input (supporting 4K HDR) and HDMI eARC output, plus optical digital audio input, Ethernet, and a USB port for service updates. There's no 3.5mm aux input, but smartphones can be connected via Bluetooth, Chromecast or Apple AirPlay for music streaming. Wi-Fi setup is handled by Google's Home app, making it quick and stress-free – the app also enables multiroom playback to supported hardware.

Leave the surround enclosures docked to the main bar (which you will have to at times to recharge their batteries – a flashing red light signals when they're running out of juice) and the chassis width is approximately 1.2m wide, a good fit for a 55in TV. Remove them and the soundbar might seem somewhat dwarfed by a 65in set.

Engineered To Excite
The Bar 9.1 has a pleasingly bass-rich, dynamic and attacking sound that means it's at its most exciting with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X mixes. In terms of offering cinematic audio, this nails the brief.

Going straight to the jugular with the insanely frenetic hotel lobby shootout sequence in Bad Boys For Life (4K), the Bar 9.1 impresses with its sheer verve and sense of fun. There's a real meaty feel to the track's low-end elements, thanks to JBL's potent 10in (wireless) subwoofer, and with upfiring speakers fore and aft, you're nicely cocooned in the OTT action. It's a nimble presentation, too, with plenty of zip to effects.