The JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass keeps things simple. It's a single soundbar and wireless subwoofer combo with Bluetooth streaming. There's no fancy video like the Roku Smart Soundbar or the flawed JBL Link Bar, no multiroom audio like the Sonos Beam, no built-in Alexa or Google Assistant like, well, pretty much every other speaker these days. Instead it just sounds good -- in large part because of, you guessed it, deep bass.
The JBL puts more bombast in your TV viewing than either of its under-$300 competition I've reviewed recently, namely the Polk Signa S3 and the Vizio V21 . The larger sub gives the JBL an impressive dynamic range, which is most helpful with blockbuster movies. What this soundbar lacks in refinement and atmosphere, it compensates with pure brawn.
While the JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass may not be as good a deal as the Vizio V21, it definitely kicks more butt. If you have some extra cash on-hand from not going to the movies any more, and you crave that theater thump, this soundbar is the next-best thing.
Small bar, big sub
Despite having a similar name, the JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass is separate from (and doesn't replace) the earlier JBL Bar 2.1, and it offers different features including a new sub and simpler remote control. The main speaker is small, a popsicle stick-shaped, 28-inch bar clad in the company's customary gunmetal grey. It has a set of controls on top for volume, power and source, and the grill-covered front includes an LED readout which is relatively easy to comprehend, especially compared to Vizio's.
Whereas some soundbars include Chromecast or AirPlay Wi-Fi streaming, the JBL is limited to Bluetooth for playing music from your phone. It also has optical digital, two HDMI inputs (one with ARC) and Dolby Digital decoding. The main soundbar's speakers comprise four full-range drivers and two 1-inch tweeters.
As you'd guess from the name, the wireless subwoofer is a monster. It's 9 inches square and 14.6 inches tall with a rear-mounted port, houses a 6.5-inch driver and looks not unlike the new Xbox Series X.
The control scheme is too bare-bones for my taste. The remote has almost nothing to adjust at first glance, just the subwoofer level and volume. There are no traditional sound modes like Movie, Music and Voice, which I find helpful on other bars when listening to different types of content.
You can make one mode change but it's not easy. The soundbar is set in "smart" mode by default, which boasts "rich sound effects." To turn this mode off you have to press and hold the mute button until "TOGGLE" appears on the display, then press Volume Up. The display will then read "OFF SMARTMODE." Unfortunately the smart mode will engage again if you turn the soundbar off, so unless you want to go through that process every time you're pretty much stuck with it.
How does it sound?
Speakers are limited by the laws of physics -- small drivers can't reproduce the full audio spectrum -- so soundbars fill the resulting hole in the bottom midrange in a number of ways. The JBL compensates by adding some presence sparkle to its hefty bass response, which helps boost the intelligibility of dialog as well as the impression of detail.
While the cheaper Vizio V21 has a wider soundstage thanks to DTS Virtual:X surround processing, it's a much smaller speaker physically and lacks the JBL's muscularity. The Vizio can send sound effects whizzing around your room, but the JBL trumps it for home theater thrills -- and it's all because of the big subwoofer.
Compared to the Vizio and the Polk, the JBL Deep Bass 2.1 sounded the most thrilling when I watched the Thanator chase from Avatar. The larger sub was able to catch more of the low-frequency effects -- from the pad of the creature's footfalls to the gentle roar of the waterfall -- and the jungle came alive with insects and running water. While the Vizio was able to make the jungle seem three dimensional thanks to Virtual:X, it couldn't match the JBL for the slam inherent in this frenetic scene.
Setup was more finicky than the Polk and Vizio soundbars due to that larger sub. The single bass button has three levels, and I felt that it needed another step between medium and high as the top level was overwhelming. This lack isn't an issue with movies but became obvious when I listened to music.
On the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' breakout hit Maps, I was unable to get a satisfactory blend between the sub and the 'bar. The medium setting or above was too boomy and the midrange also sounded limp and lackluster. The issue also varied per track. Moving from Karen O's soprano to Nick Cave's tenor was sure to expose the same problem, I thought, but the JBL actually handled Cave's Red Right Hand better, sounding both balanced and evocative. The bass line was a little muffled but distinct from Cave's vocals whereas some soundbars may smoosh the two together.
If you really want to show off what the JBL can do with music, pull out a copy of Dead Can Dance's Yulunga (Spirit Dancer). The soundbar delivered the song's wide stereo effects, excellent dynamics and deep, deep bass on the large drums.
Should you buy it?
The JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass offers a decent approximation of your local cineplex in the comfort of your living room -- no mask required. The lack of surround sound (simulated or otherwise) is only a minor letdown compared with the absolute wallop that its hefty sub can put out. If you want a minimum of fuss, features and setup times then, the JBL offers excellent sound quality for a reasonable price.
First published Sept. 21.