JBL recently launched a range of four soundbars, rising from the economical ‘Bar Studio’, a 60cm bar-only design, through the subwoofer-equipped Bar 2.1 and this Bar 3.1 up to the rangetopping Bar 5.1, which has the clever solution of sections at each end of the bar which can pull off and operate as battery-powered wireless rear speakers — a notion we first saw in a Philips Fidelio product some years ago.
For our review we have the Bar 3.1, which offers three channels of sound at the front, plus an impressively-sized wireless subwoofer to handle the bass. It’s priced at $699 in Australia (comparing well with its US pre-tax price of $499), and is particularly notable in offering three HDMI inputs on the bar, all of them fully compatible with 4K UHD signals and the necessary HDCP2.2 copy protection required by the skittish Hollywood folk to allow permission for such signals to pass.
The Bar 3.1 arrives in one of the chair-shaped boxes now common for bar and subwoofer packages. First out was a box of bits, with instructions and remote controls, an HDMI cable, a wallmount template and, rather impressively, eight separate mains cables (though only two of them suitable for Australia, so we packed the rest away again).
We slid out the subwoofer and unpacked it — surprised to find it quite the size, larger than most of the compact add-ons you get for soundbars, and sensibly designed vertically to minimise its footprint, which is a touch over 30cm square, while it stands 43cm high including its feet. The subwoofer ports to the rear above its power input, but its large 25cm (10-inch) woofer fires down between its feet. Being a wireless subwoofer it has no other connections save a minijack socket for firmware updates, and no controls other than a press button for pairing.
Finally out slides the Bar itself, again not one of your overly compact designs; this is just over the full metre in width, yet slender at only 7cm deep and 5cm high. With TVs getting ever closer to the benchtop, this was just right to sit benchtop without obscuring the bottom of the screen of a visiting Sony TV. The JBL Bar looks pleasingly purposeful yet unobtrusive and non-reflective with its mesh grille, a subtle JBL logo on the front and four large cartoony buttons on top for power, volume up/down and input selection (see below).
It carries, as the name suggests, three channels of audio to reproduce left, centre and right, each using three drivers, so there are in total three 32mm tweeters and six oval woofers (specified as 57mm, their other dimension difficult to determine through the grille).
Set up is mainly a case of considering your inputs. The Bar has a generous three HDMI inputs and an ARC-equipped HDMI out — ARC allows the output to (hopefully) play audio from the TV’s own sources as well passing the bar’s own sources through. There is an optical digital input, and an analogue auxiliary jack, and a USB slot which can charge devices. Finally it has Bluetooth onboard, which you might use for TV audio if your TV can output via Bluetooth, or else keep for ad hoc music playback from a smart device.
While we had some initial issues with getting ARC to work from the 2018 Sony TV reviewed elsewhere this issue, this ‘input’ later auto-selected itself, so we may not have waited long enough initially for the HDMI to handshake. Meanwhile we plugged our TV audio into the Bar via optical cable, plus three sources via HDMI — a 4K Apple TV, a Panasonic UHD Blu-ray player, and a 1080p Oppo Blu-ray player. We also played music from iPad Pro via both the minijack analogue input and Bluetooth.
It proved an interesting bar in sonic terms. Everything it did, it did rather well. Yet there was one important thing it didn’t do.
The bass levels available were certainly significant. Watching the UHD Blu-ray of X-Men: Apocalypse, there is some terrific near-subsonic pulsing during the resurrection sequence, and again when Magneto is shaking up the entire metallic content of the Earth. That JBL sub was definitely up for such earth-moving frequencies, exciting the room with throbbing in the deep, its highest output levels with signals up to about 75Hz.
Meanwhile dialogue was kept clear as a bell. Even during the most dynamic and bass-rich sequences, there was no difficulty following the actors’ voices, no masking of audio cues in the surrounding atmosphere. Effects were thrown to left and right; bullets and thwacks were sharp-edged and involving, with plenty of level available before any signs of stress could be heard.
So that’s the top and bottom well-handled. What we felt missing was some of the range in between. The bar starts picking up its duties somewhere below 150Hz, but didn’t go deep enough to meet the throbs from the subwoofer up to 75Hz, and vice versa, the sub’s output tailing off before meeting the sound from the bar. So whenever wideband soundtracks were playing, the two parts of the package were often audibly distinct. We could hear the bass pulling to the subwoofer’s position, which was a few feet left of the screen, so we moved it more central to create the best joined-up sonic image. But with an octave of upper bass and lower mids poorly served, there were still deficiencies, and we found them most obvious with everyday TV, and talk TV in particular. During The Chase, the amusing Mr O’Keefe sounded whinier even than is his wont through the Bar 3.1, lacking low mids to give him his due richness. Male announcers were similarly thin-sounding, and even female voices were left unduly nasal, bereft of this frequency band.
We tried raising the bass using the remote control, but that just increased the lowest stuff without rectifying the missing octave, a balance which left us near vaporised by the unexpected impact of some dramatic booms of doom during a House Rules trailer. Even at default bass levels and only moderate volumes, the emphasis down deep could cause the subwoofer to overperform during ads and TV trailers — a heartstopping drop-tone of bass beginning a trailer for Code Black, an annoying doof-doof of beat under every other lifestyle ad. We tried the various sound modes, hoping ‘Standard’ or ‘Music’ might deliver a flatter response than the ‘Movie’ we’d had on for the UHD Blu-ray. But if anything these removed some warmth, and the ‘voice’ option most of all.
There’s a ‘surround’ option, but it’s fake surround, and quite nasty if you’re centrally seated before the bar. ‘Tin!’ shouted the missus when we tried it, and yes, ‘tin’ it was.
Predictably, then, music was not the Bar 3.1’s finest hour either. The Bluetooth pairing was quick and effective, indeed there was little apparent difference between Bluetooth and using the physical minijack input other than some clarity of cymbals and other elements that suffer most under Bluetooth’s compression. But with such a sonic split between sub and bar, the sound varied depending on your position, and an effective blend was only achieved when sufficiently far away from both, such as in an adjoining room. Even then the same gap in frequency coverage was always apparent, and this left music thuddy down low, but thin in the mids. Again we ran through the available sound modes with little benefit — ‘movie’ remained the best, if only marginally. We note one of the slogans attached to the Bar 3.1 is “feel the bass, hear the voice”. It’s ironic that this is achieved admirably, but the area between the two neglected.
You’re getting a lot for $699 here — a sizeable subwoofer, plenty of 4K connectivity, and Bluetooth. But the musicality is let down by the gap in response between subwoofer and bar, while the choice to apply significant emphasis at those lower frequencies can annoy during daily TV use, and leaves announcer-type voices either thin or split into two bands. While the bass and connectivity is certainly impressive here, there are other soundbars on the market with a more joined-up and musical sound.
JBL Bar 3.1
Bar drivers: 3 x 32mm tweeter; 6 x ‘57mm’ racetrack drivers
Subwoofer driver: 1 x 254mm (10-inch)
Inputs: 3 x HDMI (4K), 1 x optical digital, 1 x minijack analogue, USB, Bluetooth
Output: 1 x HDMI (4K) with ARC
Quoted power: 450W total (no split, no criteria)
Bar dimensions (whd): 1018 x 58 x 78mm
Bar weight: 2.3kg
Subwoofer dimensions: 440 x 305 x 305mm
Subwoofer weight: 12.1kg