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With movie theaters still closed in most places, the home theater experience is more important than ever. A spiffy Atmos surround sound system can take your viewing experience to the next level, but maybe you don’t want to run wires or have speakers permanently installed around your room. Well, that happens to be the niche JBL is targeting with the JBL Bar 9.1. It’s an Atmos-enabled soundbar with a whopping 820W of power and detachable satellite speakers that you can place around the room when you need them. It also has full integration with Google’s Chromecast platform, so you can manage it from the Home app. While the audio experience is great, the price is not. JBL wants a cool grand for the Bar 9.1, which is more than most people should pay for the convenience.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The Bar 9.1 looks like your average soundbar with its gray casing and various speaker grilles, but it’s a big boy at almost 35 inches wide. The top and sides are metal, but the bottom and back are plastic. Around back, you’ve got your ports including power, USB, optical, ethernet, and two HDMI ports (ARC audio and 4K HDR passthrough). The 10-inch subwoofer is very physically plain, but it is big. Ideally, you want the sub at least a few feet away from the soundbar, which may not be possible in smaller spaces.
There’s no real display on the soundbar—all it has is a “dot-matrix” panel on the front that can show you a few characters at a time. This makes fumbling with settings pretty annoying, usually requiring you to hold one or more buttons on the remote and then wait for messages to scroll across. The soundbar does have a few physical control on the top surface, but they’re all replicated on the remote. The remote, too, is very understated. There are only a few buttons, so again, you’ll want to keep the manual handy to look up the button combos you’ll need to change settings.
You can choose to set up the Bar 9.1 with cables and call it a day. However, it also has Wi-Fi connectivity, and to use that, you’ll need the Google Home app. This is how you get the bar connected to your WiFi and how the bar keeps its firmware updated. Once it’s added to your account, it appears in the Home app like any other Chromecast-enabled speaker. You can add it to speaker groups and play to it from any local device. There’s also Bluetooth and Air Play 2 support if you’re not in Google’s home ecosystem.
The satellite speakers attach magnetically to the ends of the bar to charge, and they’re on there very securely. If you didn’t know about the removable satellites, you’d probably never know they come off. When disconnected, the satellites will sync wirelessly with the rest of the system. I’ve had no connectivity issues during my testing, either. The satellites are supposed to offer 10 hours of playback, and that seems roughly accurate based on my time with the Bar 9.1. It’s probably a bit less, but you should have no trouble watching a few movies back-to-back without docking the speakers.
This is a $1,000 audio system, so you’d expect a few extras in the box. There’s the remote, soundbar, satellite speakers, and subwoofer, of course. There are also power cables, an HDMI cable, and a wall mounting kit. Be careful if you decide to go that route; the soundbar with speakers attached weighs more than 10 pounds.
Audio and features
While the Bar 9.1 has “9.1” right in its name, it’s actually what’s known as a 5.1.4 setup. The “best” Atmos systems have overhead speakers, which you don’t get with the Bar 9.1. However, the soundbar can bounce sound off the ceiling to create a more immersive experience. You’ll have to calibrate the speakers to your room, which is one of those things that requires an esoteric combination of button presses. Because of this speaker setup, the Atmos “height” channel is weak compared to systems with dedicated overhead speakers. If you’ve never had an Atmos setup at home, though, you’ll probably still be impressed.
Luckily, that’s the only negative thing I have to say about the audio quality. Everything from movies to concerts sound amazing on the JBL Bar 9.1. On default settings, the soundbar has powerful but not overwhelming bass, crisp highs, and nice, rich mids. Even with the bass cranked all the way up, it’s intense but not overwhelming for the rest of the audio. This is hands-down the best sound system in my house.
The Bar 9.1 supports both optical and HDMI connection options, but you should go the HDMI route if at all possible. Optical only supports DTS and Dolby Digital, and even then you might suffer from bandwidth issues. HDMI has Atmos, DTS:X, and even more advanced lossless formats like DTS-HD Master Audio. One thing to note here: you can only use the HDMI audio option if your TV has an ARC or eARC HDMI. If not, you’ll have to use optical, which doesn’t support all the fancy Atmos things. If your TV’s other HDMI ports use an older spec, you might have to use the soundbar’s HDMI-in port to get 4K content from other sources. This describes my TV, so I’m very pleased to see 4K HDR passthrough support.
Should you buy it?
Maybe, but only if you’re a nerd for high-quality audio—and not so nerdy that you’d install a full Atmos system. The JBL Bar 9.1 offers excellent audio in a compact, attractive package. You don’t have to install speakers or run cables, and it supports every audio format under the sun (over HDMI). I also appreciate that the satellites can remain docked with the soundbar most of the time. It’s easy to grab the speakers and set them around the room when I’m watching something with high-quality audio, and the rest of the time they’re out of the way. I’m also happy to have Google Home integration with the Bar 9.1 because, again, it’s the best speaker setup in my house.
The only hardware issue I’m seeing is the lack of a display. Even a rudimentary menu system would be easier than using button combos on the remote and the simple dot-matrix display. That’s not a major issue, but the price is. The JBL Bar 9.1 is sticking very close to its $1,000 MSRP, even after months of availability.
Buy it if…
- You want high-end audio for your home entertainment system but don’t want to install a bunch of speakers.
- You don’t mind spending a lot on a good sound system.
Don’t buy it if…
- Your TV’s built-in speakers or a cheaper soundbar sound good enough to you.
- You’re so into audio tech that the mediocre Atmos support will ruin the experience.
I’m not going to spend too much time bloviating on the Bar 9.1’s audio quality because I already did that above. It sounds fantastic, still. I’ve spent more time looking at the battery life of the speakers, which caused me a little concern prior to the initial review. I’ve found you can expect the satellites to last through at least three average-length movies before they start to cry for help, and that’s with a fair amount of pausing. The 10-hour battery life claim is a bit generous, but the 7-8 hours I’m seeing will do fine.
I’m using the HDMI passthrough functionality, which has continued to work well almost all the time. Sometimes the soundbar isn’t smart enough to wake up my connected device, and I have to turn everything off and on again. I’d probably chalk this up to a firmware bug. The bar has also simply refused to turn on a few times, requiring me to unplug and replug. These are thankfully very rare occurrences. However, they are frequent enough that my wife has expressed a general dislike of the Bar 9.1. She’s very much of the opinion that a TV should just work without any tinkering or juggling remotes. And I get that. Admittedly, I do wish it had more HDMI inputs.
The Bar 9.1 offers a smoother experience than most high-end audio setups, but it’s not hassle free. If you really want support for all the most impressive audio formats, this is probably still the simplest way to get that. It’s easier than dealing with a receiver and installing speakers, but you won’t get “true” surround sound. If you want excellent audio without much hassle, the Bar 9.1 is a great choice.