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JBL Bar 9.1 review: Dolby Atmos sound in a relatively compact package

JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar

The JBL Bar 9.1 is an excellent choice for those looking for a Dolby Atmos system that’s easy to set up and sounds great.

Techaeris Rated 9.5/10

Decent audio is a must for movie buffs and gamers. Audio technology has developed over the years and Dolby Atmos is currently the system to strive for. An improvement over surround sound, Atmos adds a third overhead element, allowing audio to be precisely placed and move in three-dimensional space. Dolby Atmos started, as most audio technology does, in theatres and has moved to home cinema, mobile devices, laptops, computers, game consoles, and more. A proper setup can comprise of over 19 speakers and a subwoofer; however, popular setups consist of 7 or 9 speakers and a subwoofer. As you can imagine, these configurations can take some time for proper setup — and cost a pretty penny. Our JBL Bar 9.1 review takes a look at a soundbar that offers up a 5.1.4 configuration in a relatively small and affordable package. Read on for our full review and find out why it earned a Top Pick of 2020 here at Techaeris!

Specifications

The JBL Bar 9.1 has the following features and specifications:

ModelBAR 9.1 CNTR (soundbar unit)
BAR 9.1 SURROUND (detachable speaker)
BAR 9.1 SUB (subwoofer unit)
Sound System5.1.4
Power Supply100-240V AC, ~50/60Hz
Lithium Battery3.635V, 3282mAh
Total Speaker Output Power820W (Max @THD 1%)
Soundbar Output Power400W (Max @THD 1%)
Surround Speaker Output Power2x60W (Max @THD 1%)
Subwoofer Output Power300W (Max @THD 1%)
Soundbar Transducer4x racetrack drivers
2x up-firing full range drivers
3x 0.75″ (20mm) tweeter
Surround Transducer (per piece)1x up-firing full range driver
1x 0.75″ (20mm) tweeter
Subwoofer Transducer10″
HDMI1x HDMI input
1x HDMI HDCP 2.3 output with eARC
Frequency Response34Hz – 20KHz
Audio InputsOptical, Bluetooth, USB (USB playback U.S. version only)
USB Specification (US version)Type A, 5V ~500mAh, MP3 support
BluetoothVersion 4.2, A3DP V1.2, AVRCP V1.5
Wi-Fi2.4GHz/5GHz
DimensionsSoundbar: 34.8 x 2.4 x 4.7″
Detachable Surround Speaker: 6.8 x 2.4 x 4.7″ (each)
Subwoofer: 12 x 17.3 x 12″
WeightSoundbar: 8.0 lb
Detachable Surround Speaker: 1.6 lb (each)
Subwoofer: 24.5 lb

What’s in the box

  • 1x Soundbar
  • 1x Subwoofer
  • 2x Detachable Surround Speakers
  • Remote control
  • 2x AAA batteries
  • 2x Power Cord
  • HDMI Cable
  • 4x Side Caps (specific regions, not included with U.S. version)
  • Wall mounting kit for soundbar and detachable speakers
  • Product information
  • Wall-Mounting Template
What's included with the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar
What’s included with the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar.

Design

As far as design is concerned, the JBL Bar 9.1 is a pretty stark-looking soundbar system. Black in colour, I personally think it would have been nice to have some fabric-type finish like the JBL LINK BAR. That being said, it doesn’t look bad at all and is rather nice once it’s all set up.

Soundbar

The soundbar itself is just over 34 3/4-inches wide, just under 2 1/2-inches in height and just under 4 3/4-inches in depth. The entire front of the soundbar has grille holes for the front speakers and the LED display. The LED display is behind the grille and can’t be seen unless something is being displayed on it.

On the top, the grille holes extend from the edges in about 6 1/2-inches with rounded corners towards the inside. The control panel is centered on the top of the soundbar and contains four buttons (power, volume +/-, and source) centered between two microphones. Centered under the control panel is the JBL logo.

The control panel on the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar
The control panel on the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar.

The back of the soundbar is where you’ll find your power and other ports. When looking at the back, from left to right, is your power port, USB Type-A for software updates or MP3 file playback (U.S. only), optical port, RJ-45 Ethernet jack, HDMI OUT with TV eARC, and HDMI IN. As you can see, there is only one HDMI input on the soundbar. More on that in a bit.

Each end of the soundbar is slightly hollowed out with a four-pin array in the middle and two nubs on the top. This receptacle is where the detachable surround speakers connect to the main soundbar via magnets when recharging. As well, depending on region, this can be covered with the removable soundbar caps for a cleaner look. Unfortunately, these are not included with the U.S. version of the soundbar so we can’t comment on how they fit or look.

Finally, the bottom of the soundbar has two rubber-like strips about one quarter of the way in. This elevates the soundbar ever so slightly when placed on an entertainment unit or other flat surface. These would be removed when using the wall mounting kit should you choose to do that instead.

Detachable Surround Speakers

Like the soundbar, the detachable surround speakers are covered with grill holes around the front, sides, and top. The inside edge of each speaker bulges out and has four metal pin plates recessed in the center. As mentioned above, this is how the speakers connect to the main soundbar for recharging.

One of the detachable surround speakers from the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar
One of the detachable surround speakers from the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar.

At the top of this bulge is a power button to turn the speakers on should they go to sleep when not being used. Near the back of this bulge is a small cutout with a Micro-USB port which can be used for power or charging the speakers. In line with the power button and under the top speaker grille motif is an LED light which indicates speaker status. Solid white means it is connected to the soundbar, flashing red means the battery is less than 20%, solid red means it is charging, and off means it is off or charging is complete (if plugged in or attached to the soundbar).

Subwoofer

The subwoofer is pretty standard fare. Box-shaped with rounded corners, it stands about 17 1/2-inches in height and is 12-inches wide and deep. The only branding on the subwoofer is the JBL logo near the bottom on the front.

The bottom of the unit has four legs to raise the subwoofer up a bit off the floor. The reason for this is that the 10-inch subwoofer is also located of the bottom of the unit.

Bottom view of the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos subwoofer
Bottom view of the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos subwoofer.

The back of the unit is where you’ll find the cone in the top half with the connection status indicator and power port below it. The connection status indicator is white when connected, flashes white when in pairing mode, flashes white slowly when reconnecting or exiting pairing mode, and solid amber in standby mode. It would have made more sense to have this on the front of the subwoofer but understandable from a design aspect to put it in the back. To be honest, once set up, I didn’t have to look at the status indicator once as the subwoofer always activated/connected when required.

Remote

The remote is pretty small and thin and has 11 buttons on it. These buttons are (from top to bottom) for power, TV and Bluetooth, Atmos intensity and HDMI, volume up/down, mute, and bass and rear surround intensity. The JBL logo is printed on the remote at the bottom.

Setup

Setting up the JBL Bar 9.1 is pretty simple. If you have a media cabinet, you can set the soundbar on the top of it (depending on height) and plug it into the wall. Next, the subwoofer can be placed about 3 feet away from the soundbar, also at the front of your room. It also needs to be plugged in. The two detachable surround speakers can then be removed and placed slightly behind your seating for an optimal audio experience.

Next, plug the HDMI cable into an HDMI (ARC) port on your TV and into the HDMI OUT (TV ARC) on the soundbar. If you have other devices already plugged into your TV, like a Blu-ray player or game console, you’re all set. You can plug these devices directly into the HDMI IN port on the soundbar as well.

The ports on the back of the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar
The ports on the back of the JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar.

While that configuration works well for most setups, you may need more than one input. In my case, I have a projector with an Xbox One X, Nintendo Switch, Xbox 360, and cable box connected to a receiver. In the case of the JBL Bar 9.1, you’d have to get an HDMI splitter or swap out whichever device you were using at the time to the HDMI IN on the soundbar. It would have definitely been nice to have two or three HDMI inputs on the soundbar for expandability and to cover other setups outside of a traditional TV setup.

If you wish to wall mount the soundbar and detachable surround speakers, JBL has included all the necessary hardware. The soundbar itself mounts view L-shaped brackets. The detachable speakers also include a pair of wall-mounting brackets. A bracket support is then attached to the speaker and the speaker just slides in and out of the bracket support from the top. We didn’t mount ours but the mounting system does look pretty straightforward and solid.

Ease of Use

Once you’re set up, the JBL Bar 9.1 is super easy to use. Pressing the power button on the remote will turn it on. The soundbar will display HELLO on the screen then may tell you to turn on the surround speakers. Pressing the TV button will allow you to access content and audio from any of the devices connected to your TV. Pressing the HDMI button will allow you to use the device you have connected to the HDMI IN on the soundbar.

Selecting the Bluetooth button on the remote will allow you to pair with and stream music from a Bluetooth device. You can also set up the soundbar to connect to your home network through Google Home or AirPlay. Setting up with Google Home was easy and straightforward and allows you to then cast content to the JBL Bar 9.1 with ease.

I’ll discuss this more in the next section but the remote also allows you to adjust the Dolby Atmos and rear surround intensity (low/med/high). You can also adjust the bass levels from 1-5 and, of course, the volume.

Overall, the JBL Bar 9.1 is super simple to set up and use.

Sound Quality

As Dolby explains, a Dolby Atmos system can be identified by three digits. JBL Bar 9.1 is the official name of this soundbar which, to audio enthusiasts, indicates nine surround channels and one subwoofer so the name is a bit of a misnomer. However, in actuality, it is a 5.1.4 channel system. As such, the 5 refers to the number of traditional surround speakers (front, center, and surround). The one, as expected, indicates a single subwoofer. Finally, the 4 refers to the number of overhead or upward-firing (in this case) speakers which is indicative of Dolby Atmos systems.

A typical Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 setup (courtesy Dolby).

So just how does the JBL Bar 9.1 give the same effect as separate speakers? Quite simple. The soundbar covers the center, left, right, and two upward-firing speakers. Each detachable surround speaker covers two more channels each — left/right rear surround and left/right rear upward-firing. Add in the subwoofer, you have your five surround, subwoofer, and four upward-firing channels.

During our time with the review unit, we set it up in our basement which is roughly 16′ wide by 23′ long and 7 1/2′ high. The soundbar sat on our media center just below the projector screen. The detachable surround speakers were placed just behind our couch on either side (roughly 16′ from the soundbar), sitting on existing speakers from our 5.1 surround system.

The first thing you’ll want to do is calibrate the sound. This two step process is done using the remote. Remove the detachable speakers and place them beside you. In my case I set them on the couch seats on either side of me. Press and hold the HDMI button until 1-CALIBRATION is displayed on the soundbar. After the countdown, the calibration tone will sound and calibration begins. Once 1-DONE is displayed on the screen, you can proceed to the next step.

Move the speakers to your desired location and then press and hold the HDMI button down again until 2-CALIBRATION is displayed on the soundbar. The system will run through the calibration again and once 2-DONE is displayed, you’re good to go!

The JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar with detachable speakers set up on a media stand
The JBL Bar 9.1 Dolby Atmos soundbar with detachable speakers set up on a media stand.

Once calibrated, we started to test out the soundbar with both Dolby Atmos movies and games on the Xbox One X. While all content sounded decent enough with the Dolby upmixing, it was Dolby Atmos content that really excelled. Games like Gears 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and Forza Horizon 4 were extra immersive. My son really enjoyed it in Rock Band 4 and said it made him feel like the crowd was all around him. He was definitely bummed to see the soundbar go back.

Movies like Baby Driver, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse were an audio delight to watch and listen to. Want a real treat? Fire up Avengers: Endgame on Disney+ and watch the final battle scene on 20. Talk about immersive. I also ran the JBL Bar 9.1 through a few sound test videos from YouTube and Netflix. As far as I could tell, the channels are accurately represented based on the information being broadcast from the videos.

As mentioned above, you can cycle both the Atmos and rear speaker intensity between low, medium, or high. The subwoofer bass can also be adjusted between 1 through 5. Depending on the content, you can definitely notice a difference and after some playing around, we left the Atmos and rear speakers on high and the subwoofer on 5, sometimes dropping it down to 4.

The soundbar’s maximum volume is 30. Anything lower than 5 — while audible — was definitely lackluster. With the volume set between 10-15, the Atmos effects were great, and anything above that really rocked and rumbled the room.

Battery Life

The JBL Bar 9.1 detachable surround speakers have a battery life of 10 hours according to the company. During our testing, I never had them run out. A typical day would have us remove and place the rear speakers when we started watching TV or playing games. An average day saw between 6 and 10 hours of use between gaming and TV/movies. At the end of the day, we’d place the speakers back on the soundbar and let them charge overnight.

When the battery is low, the LED light on the detachable surround speakers will flash red. Of course, you may not see this but the soundbar also indicates low battery by displaying CHARGE SPKR BATT LOW on the front display.

Once depleted (and before first use), JBL says it takes about 3 hours to fully recharge them. If you do plan on using them longer, you can also plug them in via Micro-USB if you have an outlet nearby.

Price/Value

With an MSRP of US$999.95, the JBL Bar 9.1 isn’t exactly cheap. However, by the time you factor in the cost of a Dolby Atmos receiver and, in the case of a 5.1.4 setup, five speakers and a subwoofer, it’s actually pretty reasonably priced. Not only that, many of the available Dolby Atmos soundbar options these days don’t have detachable wireless speakers you can place behind you for a fuller sound stage.

Wrap-up

If you’re a gamer or movie aficionado looking to upgrade to a Dolby Atmos system that’s easy to set up and sounds great, the JBL Bar 9.1 is an excellent choice. While an actual five or nine-speaker setup with a subwoofer may sound better, this solution from JBL is easier to set up and more affordable while still sounding fantastic. As a result, it easily earns a Top Pick of 2020 Award here at Techaeris.

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JBL Bar 9.1

US$999.95

Design

9.5/10

Setup

9.5/10

Ease of Use

10.0/10

Sound Quality

9.5/10

Battery Life

9.5/10

Price/Value

9.0/10

Nailed it

  • Compact design
  • Fantastic sound
  • Easy setup
  • Google Home, AirPlay, Bluetooth support
  • Comes with wall-mounting hardware
  • Decent battery life on detachable speakers

Needs work

  • Only one HDMI input
  • Subwoofer connection status indicator on back
  • End caps only available in some regions
  • MP3 playback only available in U.S.
  • Limited EQ/sound settings

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