If a soundbar, a surround system and a few Bluetooth speakers were all somehow to be magically whisked together in a tech cauldron, the JBL Bar 5.1 would be the result.
For your £700, you get a transforming soundbar. It looks like a 2.1 system in bar-and-subwoofer configuration, but the ends are detachable, battery-powered speakers.
The idea is that you can plonk them at the back of the room and use the whole thing as a 5.1 surround sound system. If you want to use either setup for some head-banging, Bluetooth-connect your phone and rock out.
The JBL Bar 5.1 is attractive, even for a soundbar system. From the chrome metallic trims to the drilled black metal body, the bar is almost decorative.
Finished in matte black, the subwoofer is reassuringly large and heavy. It has a gravitas that would easily allow it to stand in as a prop double in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Plus, the sound it produces is similarly dramatic – but more on that later.
Basic controls can be found on the soundbar itself for power, volume and source selection, and there’s a light-up display behind the front body. The latter is fairly simple, but does the job so you know where you’re navigating. It even comes with three levels of dimming, making it ideal for low-light use – and, thankfully, it turns off quickly once you’ve made your selection.
Rear access for cables is a little fiddly, since they need to be bent to fit into the small sliding slots. This makes flush-wall mounting easier, but it might shorten the lifetime of those HDMI ports if you’re regularly unplugging/replugging cables.
The JBL Bar 5.1’s remote control feels light, plastic and – frankly – cheap. Nevertheless, it works fine and keeps buttons to a minimum while still offering everything you could want. I like the easy access of the audio sync timing with a plus and minus option.
The whole system was simple to setup. In fact, the challenge was in getting it all out of the box – a step that comes with it own instructions. Yes, really.
The headline feature of the JBL Bar 5.1 has to be the transformation between a 2.1 and 5.1 sound system. This is brilliant – it really works.
As a soundbar with a subwoofer this system is fine, giving a room-filling sound for those who want to keep the setup super-minimal. But if you want real surround sound then you simply pull out the end speakers, held in place via magnets, and place them at the rear of the room.
The system comes with a calibration mic, so you can let it auto-setup the sound within seconds. You need only do this once if those rear speakers will always be placed in the same spot at the rear of the room. These speakers are battery-powered, and go into 5.1 mode as soon as you detach them – you don’t need to do anything.
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The only concern in the 10-hour battery life. However, in reality you’re likely to only use 5.1 mode for a movie or that latest HBO drama that needs full audio effect. Pop them back into the soundbar and they charge automatically.
Also, reverting back to 2.1 for normal TV makes a movie feel more special – that simple setup process really helps add to the excitement of what’s about to happen.
Another useful feature is SoundShift, which allows you to play music from a Bluetooth-connected phone or any of the soundbar inputs and jump between the two. So if you’re watching a film and you hit play on your phone, it will override the TV input and continue playing your music. This can be turned off, so it’s a useful extra – and ideal for advert breaks.
There are a few sound mode options, which are basic but offer a simple way to adapt the sound setup to suit what you’re watching. These include movie, voice, music, sports and standard. You can also up the bass or wireless surround easily using the remote, so finding that perfect audio setup should be possible for most.
A night mode essentially squishes the dynamic range to avoid sudden spikes in volume. This is meant to make sounds less pervasive around the house, and allow others in the home to get on with what they’re doing, without being distracted by hordes of the undead bearing down on their ears as you watch Walking Dead in the other room.
In reality, it doesn’t appear to change the sound much to the listener, so that seems to be a good thing – how well it works for others is another matter.
JBL Bar 5.1 – Performance
When it comes to big sound, JBL doesn’t hold back. As such, if you go loud or pump up the bass then you get a room-shaking experience from the 510W of power available to you. This is far more than the Philips Soundbar speaker alternative can manage; it tops out at the 210W mark.
The JBL Bar 5.1 is great for movies and ideal for music. The subtle bass from the sub adds just enough to feel dramatic, while the punchy mids make for clear voices amid movie sound effects.
The problem occurs when trying to find that same balanced sound at lower levels. If you drop the volume below a certain level, you’ll struggle to hear voices – unless in voice mode specifically. This isn’t ideal, however: voice mode does movies with ecent effects no justice at all.
The inner workings of the JBL Bar 5.1 are superb. Connecting to Bluetooth to change mode from 2.1 to 5.1, the system reacts quickly and automatically. It really is as simple as setting things up once and enjoying them.
If you find that those rear speakers aren’t providing a big enough surround sound effect, there is an option to turn up the “wireless surround” on the remote. That appears to have the effect of making those rear speakers louder, as the setup favours the rear a little more. Again, this is great for louder effects but it drowns out voices; it’s a balancing act, if the volume is below a certain level.
Overall, though, the JBL Bar 5.1 offers a superb setup. Of course there are more proficient sound systems out there, but few that offer the myriad options here for the price.
Why buy the JBL Bar 5.1?
If you want the minimalism of a soundbar but the immersion of a surround sound system, plus a Bluetooth speaker, the JBL Bar 5.1 is for you. It’s capable of a big, bassy sound that makes action movies more intense and sports more immersive. Plus, if you find yourself regularly jumping between TV and smartphone music, this is the ideal setup.
Those who are looking for a more subtle, balanced sound should look elsewhere.
If you have a slim TV and need a means to make the audio bigger and better, the JBL Bar 5.1 is a really great option that will continue to give on many levels.