Affordable. Powerful audio performance with strong, adjustable bass and bright highs. Useful remote. Various sound modes, including virtual surround. Bluetooth streaming.
Light on accessories. Optical cable doesn't stay in place well.
- Bottom Line
The JBL Bar 2.1 soundbar comes with a wireless sub, adjustable listening modes, and a price that feels low for the system's overall quality.
We liked JBL's Bar 3.1 enough to give it our Editors' Choice award, but at $499.95, it's not the most affordable soundbar on the market. If you're looking to spend less, consider the $299.95 JBL Bar 2.1. It offers a lot for the price, including a powerful soundbar, a relatively strong wireless subwoofer, Bluetooth connectivity, and a very functional remote. Sound quality is strong, with deep lows that can be dialed up or back, crisp highs that deliver audio cleanly, and several variations on the sound signature when adjusting bass or listening modes.
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The Bar 2.1 looks pretty similar to the archetypal black soundbar image you probably have in your mind. The bar itself measures 2.3 by 38 by 2.7 inches (HWD), weighs 4.2 pounds, and can be mounted on the wall or rested flat on a long surface (it has rubber feet to prevent movement). Across its top panel, there are controls for power, volume, and a button for switching between audio sources. The rest of the top and the entire front panel are covered in a metallic grille. Beneath this grille, there are four racetrack-style 2.25-inch drivers and two 1.25-inch tweeters, combining for 100 watts of maximum power. Also beneath the grille is a white LED readout that tells you what mode you're in.
The black 11.5-pound subwoofer sits on rubber feet and measures 14.6 by 8.9 by 8.9 inches. It houses a 6.5-inch down-firing driver with 200 watts maximum power, making the system's total max power 300 watts, with a frequency range of 40Hz to 20kHz. The sub's power cable connects to a panel on the back, where there's also a wireless pairing button to link the sub to the soundbar, as well as a large bass port for efficient driver movement. It pairs automatically with the soundbar when both power up, but you can use the manual pairing button if the connection fails.
On the rear panel of the soundbar, there are connections for optical output, HDMI in, HDMI out (ARC), a 3.5mm aux input (cable included), and a USB port for audio in (no included cable), as well as the connection for the included power cable.
The remote control runs on two AAA batteries (included) and is larger than your typical credit card-sized remote that gets lost in the sofa. It also has quite a few controls—Power, Source, Playback, Volume, Track Navigation, Audio Sync Adjustment, Bass (from levels 0 to 20), Mute, Sound Mode (including Music, Movie, Voice, Sport, and Standard), Bluetooth Pairing, Sound Shift (a way to automatically switch between your Bluetooth device and your TV's volume), Shuffle, Surround Mode, Night Mode (a listening mode that limits loud noises), and Dim Display. In other words, there are many parameters to adjust, so the remote is a useful inclusion that adds value to the system, rather than function as an afterthought.
What's missing? The wall mount brackets annoyingly only include screws to attach them to the soundbar—you need to get your own screws for attaching them to the wall. And while the inclusion of an optical cable is nice, it doesn't seem to stay in place very well—the cable easily pops out of the optical port. The inclusion of an aux cable is welcome, but borderline unnecessary given the Bluetooth capabilities—an included HDMI cable would be better.
We tested movies in both Standard and Movie modes, and with the Surround effect on and off. On Chapter 13 of the Pacific Rim Blu-ray, massive robot monsters stomp around and the rumble through the sub is powerful, even at medium levels. Movie mode is heavier on bass, and also ensures the dialogue is conveyed crisply and clearly, even when contending with explosions.
On Chapter 2 of the Casino Royale Blu-ray, the gunfire and punches get some tight thump to them thanks to the Movie mode's ability to dial up the bass without losing the crispness that keeps dialogue and special effects intelligible and engaging. Explosions and other rumbles seem more powerful and ominous in Movie mode, but it doesn't sacrifice balance with the highs.
Surround Mode seems to be more about boosting the overall volume and brightening the dialogue, rather than making the audio feel like it's surrounding you. That said, it sometimes sounded more engaging (when watching films) in this mode, so it's worth experimenting to see what works best for you.
We tested music first in Standard mode, then in Music mode. On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the Bar 2.1 delivers some serious thunder. At mid volume levels, the audio is loud and the bass is full-bodied. At near maximum volume on this track, in Standard mode, the bass begins to distort—especially if you are above 10 on the bass levels. However, at lower volumes that are still quite loud, the bass is powerful and clean.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better idea of the Bar 2.1's overall sound signature. The drums on this track sound round and full at mid bass levels, and intense at higher bass levels—you can really get a wide range of sounds out of the Bar 2.1, from crisp to more low-mids and bass focused, but none of the variables sound muddy.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop receives plenty of high-mid presence, allowing its attack to cut through the layers of the mix, and the sub-bass synth hits sound especially deep and powerful. Again, you can mess with the bass settings to achieve a more crisp or more full sound signature, but the higher frequency definition never disappears.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, pack a little more bass punch than you'd hear on a flat response-style system, but this can be dialed back if it feels too intense. At high bass levels, this track sounds far more bass-boosted than it typically should be, but the spotlight tends to remain with the higher-register brass, strings, and vocals regardless, and some listeners may prefer the big bass sound applied to orchestral tracks.
As for the various listening modes, Movies and Sports tend to have more boosted lows, Voice kills most of the deep lows, and Standard and Music are probably the most alike, with more subtle variations on bass and treble levels than you hear when switching through the other presets. We found the most desirable settings for music to be either Music or Standard modes, with the bass dialed up to around 15, and adjusting to taste from there, depending on what you're listening to. For film, Standard or Film modes, with the bass anywhere between 10 to 15 seemed to be good starting points.
For $300, the JBL Bar 2.1 is an excellent value. You get extremely powerful sub-bass, crisp highs, the ability to adjust the bass balance—essentially the complete package. It may not be as powerful as the more expensive Bar 3.1, and yes, it can distort at absolute top volumes, but at normal listening levels, the Bar 2.1 is a beast with the lows and graceful with high frequency clarity. If you're looking to spend even less, we're big fans of the $200 Polk Audio Signa S1. If you have more room in your budget, meanwhile, the Sony HT-NT5, the LG SJ7, and the JBL Bar 3.1 are all worth your attention.
About the Author
Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear.
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