JBL BAR 5.0 MULTIBEAM Review

JBL invariably offers more than you might expect at any given price, and its latest soundbar, the JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam, proves no exception.

JBL is a company which stretches from the lowest to the highest echelons of audio — from real cinemas, studio monitors and high-end home theatres at the top, to the world’s most successful mono portable Bluetooth speakers at the bottom. It’s a breadth of operation which gives it an advantage in terms of economies of scale, in technology licensing — it probably doesn’t hurt, either, to be owned by Harman, with all its broad expertise across multiple audio brands, and beyond that by Samsung, with its extended technology strengths and massive marketing reach.

In short, JBL invariably offers more than you might expect at any given price, and its latest soundbar, the JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam, proves no exception in that regard.

Equipment

The JBL bar is solidly built and nicely compact at 71cm long and just 6cm high, low enough not to cover the screen of all but the very lowest-slung TVs when on a bench-top, and further neatened in many ways by being a bar which requires no subwoofer to support its sound. This is an arrangement we always like for simplicity’s sake, removing the need to site a large bass box somewhere in the room, and the trials of getting this to integrate properly from all key listening positions.

The Bar’s 5.0 designation comes from its five racetrack-shaped drivers, each 80><48mm. Three of these fire forward from the front of the centre section, where all the electronics sit behind them, physical connections to the rear and touch buttons on top for power, volume and source. The other two active drivers fire sideways at an angle from the ends of the curving cabinet, and it is this which gives the bar its ‘MultiBeam’ moniker. Images on JBL’s website show sound from the speaker blasting forward from the three channels from the centre, with sound from the side bouncing off side walls to reach the listener from far out wide, if not actually behind you.

Right near the start of the Bar’s instruction manual there is a diagram specifying a room width of four metres and a listening distance of 2.5-3 metres. So will the Bar not deliver its “incredibly spacious 3D soundscape” unless you have a room that size? We asked Harman, which replied that “These are meant as an ideal set of parameters, not a hard and fast rule, but meant as a relative guide. You will get good results in other size rooms.”

And to assist in those good results, there is a calibration system, rather impressive in a bar of this price. With Automatic MultiBeam Calibration (AMC), “your surround sound experience can be optimized for your favorite seating position”, says the manual.

In addition to those five active racetrack drivers, there are four passive 75mm bass radiators, positioned in two opposed pairs firing up and down (see cutaway opposite). While the racetrack drivers each get a quoted 50W of power (measured with 1% THD), the passive drivers move in sympathy with the energy coming from the back of the active drivers inside the cabinet. So while there are apparently speakers on the top of the bar, they are nothing to do with Atmos or height information. The Atmos implementation here is virtual; an Atmos signal will be decoded and then delivered from the five active drivers, though “Virtual Dolby Atmos” magic may endeavour to convince your ears and brain there is more going on than there really is.

There are two ways the Bar can receive a Dolby Atmos signal. The first is via an HDMI connection with your TV, playing back down the wire using eARC, the ‘enhanced’ version of HDMI’s Audio Return Channel, which can now handle multichannel surround. For this to work you will require eARC on your TV, so a decent recent model. If your TV has the earlier ARC, which delivers stereo only then you can still provide the Bar with Atmos by plugging a media player or Blu-ray player into the other HDMI socket, which is a standard input. We plugged in an AppleTV 4K into this input, and later a 4K Blu-ray player, both capable of delivering Atmos from suitable soundtracks. The JBL will play the audio and pass the 4K video through to your TV; this includes full passthrough of HDR information, including Dolby Vision.

There is also an optical input, in case you don’t have any HDMI ARC at all, or less it doesn’t work. Optical can carry some basic surround formats, but not Atmos, nor multichannel PCM. Indeed many TVs will deliver straight stereo via the optical path.

So those are the connection choices when playing video, but the JBL Bar 5.0 is a two-trick pony as it’s also loaded with options for music playback. Round the back is an Ethernet connection, or you can use the Bar’s dual-band Wi-Fi, and once networked the Bar offers built-in Chromecast audio streaming and also Apple’s AirPlay 2, each of which offers full CD-quality or better for streaming from your smart device of choice. There’s also Bluetooth, but this is not to the same quality, given no codecs above the base-level SBC (i.e. no AAC or aptX). With Chromecast and AirPlay 2 onboard, there’s really no reason to use Bluetooth other than convenience or for un-networked visitors.

The last rear socket is a USB-A slot, which in the USA supports MP3 file playback, but here is used only for manual firmware updates. If you’re networked, these updates can be received over the internet anyway.

Performance

We plugged up the bar and powered it up. Initial set-up was a little extended, with words like LOAD appearing on the bar’s user-friendly LED display, then WAIT… so we did, examining the Quick Start Guide, which indicated that those messages might appear, but offered few actual words of instruction, as JBL has opted for the pictorial style of instruction book. There was no full manual in the box nor a link to one either (“All indications we have is that the majority of customers do not generally look at full manuals in paper format”, said Harman when we asked about this, noting it also as a ‘green’ initiative), but we found it online easily enough. By then the bar’s LEDs were announcing rising percentages — 20%, 30%, up to 100%, then WAIT again, for a long time this time, then LOAD again… then nothing.

After a while we tried the power button — not always a sensible call when a firmware update is apparently underway, but yes, ‘HELLO’, it said, and started up.

We had made the HDMI eARC connection to our eARC-compatible Samsung, which announced it had a ‘receiver’ attached — we selected it, but no sound emerged. We tried optical from the TV and that worked immediately. We later removed the optical cable and the HDMI eARC then burst into life, and worked thereafter. So if at first you don’t succeed, as they say have a good fiddle.

We then had a go at the Automatic MultiBeam Calibration. Here the manual indicates with its pictograms that you hold down the HDMI button for five seconds, so that CALIB appears on the LED display, which it did, followed by around 30 seconds of calibration whoops. With this, says the guide in one of its rare bursts of words, “your surround sound can be optimized for your favourite seating position”. But how did it know where we were seated? What microphone was it using to monitor the whoops? Answer was there none from the guide. We thought perhaps the mike was in the remote control — so that the JBL Bar was now carefully optimising its audio for someone with their head lying on the coffee table. But we needn’t have worried. When we checked with JBL, they told us that “The calibration process is automated, it sends out signals and receives via an internal mic. It creates virtual mapping of the dimensions of the room to fulfil the best MultiBeam parameters of function.”

Which is clever enough, really, though there’s not the stated “optimising for your favourite seating position” — the Bar can have no idea where you’re planning to sit.

Calibration done, we were keen to compare the calibrated sound with the original version

— calibration systems generally allow easy toggling to see if you prefer the calibrated or uncalibrated sound. But this isn’t possible here; indeed the only way to return to uncalibrated sound is to undertake a complete reset of the Bar. “The goal here” Harman told us, “is to create the simplest possible set-up for the consumer – basically a set and forget process.”

Virtual Atmos, the other magic trick here, is activated by a dedicated button on the remote and can be toggled on and off. It doesn’t require the Bar to be receiving a bona fide Atmos soundtrack; it works on anything.

So that’s how we listened for the first week, calibrated and running day-to-day TV viewing, and regularly trying the Atmos button to test its effects on programming of all types.

We were never quite satisfied. JBL’s preferred sound curve tends to soften the top-end, which doesn’t help dialogue achieve cut-through, and we were constantly bothered by a feeling of mild disorientation indicating that something was slightly out of phase.

Furthermore it quickly became clear that the Bar was not simply using the front three speakers as LCR and the side speakers to bounce surround channels from your wall. We played Dammit Janet from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ Blu-ray, which has a surround mix using five (seven, if you have them) channels very discreetly — in this song Brad and Janet sing only from the centre channel, the main thrust of the music comes from L and R, while strings and electric piano are isolated in the rears. But getting up close to the JBL Bar, it was clear that bits of the L and R were also coming from the side drivers. We tried 5.1 and Atmos test tracks, and confirmed that it seemed that much of the treble content for the left channel was coming from the wide left, while a soft version came from at least one of the three central drivers. Even isolated centre-channel audio was leaking from the wide sides.

Was this because we had calibrated the MultiBeam? We did the full reset, and yes, the channel paths were then more clearly defined — no centre leakage at all, if not quite an entire clarity of separation. However, we discovered also that even following a full reset, the Virtual Atmos effect is ‘on’ by default. We turned this off, and thereby enjoyed far more clearly separated five-channel sound. More or less. There was still a little spread between channels, and judging from Fraunhofer test-track voices the surround channels seemed to be granted no bass content — or were out of phase.

Conclusion — if you like things more or less as the sound engineer intended, don’t calibrate the Bar and turn off the Virtual Atmos. If you want to hear what JBL thinks works best, go ahead and play. After all, resetting takes only about a minute — though it removes all personal settings, so if you’re on Wi-Fi or have set up Chromecast, you’ll have to repeat the process again afterwards. subsequent to decalibration. The sound was brighter, improving vocal intelligibility. Did our TV pass Atmos from Netflix down eARC?

The Woman in the

, with the Bar scrolling a message that it was receiving at least multichannel PCM (the same message received when playing Atmos from Blu-ray), and it presented a full and large atmospheric soundstage with fairly accurate tonal voices, a good underpinning of bass strength, and effective screen-wide movement

from left to right. We never heard sounds from much further afield than around a metre either side of the Bar, nor height, whether or not we added the Virtual Atmos function. There was one exception — on the Dolby Atmos ‘Leaf’ demo, certain effects did gain very wide and even surround positioning.

As the swish of the sycamore seed passed behind the listening position it disappeared entirely, but it picked up from a position perhaps E-S-E of our head — and that’s impressive, even though this was demo material rather than an actual soundtrack; the only other front-based soundbar we’ve heard deliver such width is Sennheiser’s whackingly more expensive Ambeo. We’d note also that our room was two metres wider than the suggested four metres, which might affect the angled ‘bounce’ of sound, so the effect may be still more apparent in JBL’s ‘ideal’ scenario.

We also played many hours of music through the JBL bar. Electronic mixes were perhaps the most enjoyable, with an impressive emission of bass during the downward slides of the Cornelius mix of The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, playing from Qobuz over AirPlay from a Macbook Pro. Bass was dropping away only in the 50s of hertz, pretty good for a bar without a sub.

Open acoustic music also emerges with warmth and openness. The opener of the new Crowded House album, Bad Times Good, is a small-scale song with tight clarity and ethereal harmonies which the Bar 5.0 MultiBeam presented pleasingly up to a medium level; beyond that the bass became overdominant and tended to mask the detail behind Neil’s vocals. The second track, Playing With Fire, started well, but its complexity soon flattened out the JBL’s sound, so that while the Bar was capable of making a fair old noise, there was little openness and almost nothing in the way of real dynamics. The ‘Atmos’ option is disabled for music streaming.

To finish up we tried calibration again. The effect this time was different, sharpening up the midrange; we compared Leonard Cohen’s ‘Live in London’ take of Tower of Song before and after, and calibration imparted an edge towards sibilance in Cohen’s vocal but also a sense of artificiality, bringing back the slightly phasey ‘suck out’ effect which we’d heard in the previous calibration.

Conclusion

JBL has squeezed a huge amount into this bar, and impressively handles it all without resort to any app of its own. The calibration may be a step too far, given its irreversibility and sometimes negative effects on clarity during our listening, while the Bar’s claims for ‘3D sound’, whatever that may be, were not much borne out by our listening either. Yet it’s a solid enough bar, certainly well- stocked, and enjoyable if not sophisticated for music streaming at most levels, while for TV and movies we found its sound to be best with a high-quality soundtrack, able to play enjoyably to quite high levels, and especially when taken back to its noncalibrated state of clarity. If not our favourite soundbar even at this reasonable price, it certainly offers a high-value combination between facilities and sound quality. E3

JBL BAR 5.0 MULTIBEAM SOUNDBAR

• Great facilities at the price

• Solid and compact design

• No subwoofer required

• Not a very musical bar

• Can’t turn off calibration

Drivers: 48 x 80mm racetrack drivers x 5; 75mm passive radiators x 3

Quoted power: 5 x 50W(no envelope stated, THD1%) Connections: H Ml eARC (output & TV audio), HDMI in x 1, optical digital, Bluetooth, USB-A (service only), Ethernet, Wi-Fi, AirPlay 2, Chromecast

Dimensions(whd): 61x6x10cm

Weight: 2.8kg

Contact: Harman Australia

Telephone: 02 9151 0376

Web: www.jbl.com.au

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