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JBL has had a long history in audio, but its recent soundbars have been a little inconsistent, ranging from the ambitious but deeply flawed JBL Link Bar to the basic but excellent-sounding JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass. The JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam has ambitions of its own, taking on streaming-centric, compact soundbars like the Sonos Beam. The JBL looks good, offers superior bass to the Sonos and it can sound especially impressive with movies. I also like that JBL's virtual Dolby Atmos, ample Wi-Fi connectivity and second HDMI port offer extra flexibility.
Some of JBL's design decisions are a little perplexing however. There's no dedicated app, like Sonos has, and incongruous button input mechanics make it harder to adequately tune your system. In addition, there is no upgrade path to add a subwoofer or extra speakers. There's also the fact that it costs a bit too much for what you get.
In the end I liked the JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam well enough, but the counterintuitive controls and high(er) price are off-putting. I think most buyers will be better served buying rivals such as the more-polished Beam or cheaper Polk React.
The Bar 5.0 shares a similar look to all recent JBL soundbars -- they kind of remind me of tongue depressors -- and the Bar 5.0 is also a very similar size and shape to the rival Sonos Beam. The top of the gun-metal bar includes a set of controls for volume, power and source, and the grille-covered front includes an alpha-numeric LED readout which is relatively easy to read.
There's lots of "stuff" onboard the MultiBeam, but the most unusual is its ability to use Amazon Multi Room Music. JBL is the second soundbar manufacturer to implement it after Polk. Unlike the cheaper Bar 2.1 Deep Bass, the MultiBeam also includes Wi-Fi streaming from Chromecast built-in as well as AirPlay. Ports include optical digital, Bluetooth, and two HDMI inputs (including one ARC).
The main soundbar's speakers comprise five (hence the name) 48mm, 2-inch-by-3-inch racetrack drivers -- three along the front and two side-mounted. Though the speaker offers Dolby Atmos processing, there are no ceiling-pointing height drivers on this product, which is a shame. Instead there are two 3-inch-wide passive radiators.
Unlike the cheaper Polk React, the Sonos and numerous other single-speaker soundbars, the JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam is sadly not upgradeable. Polk enables you to add rears and a subwoofer if you want, while the JBL lacks the capability. It's something that the otherwise inferior JBL Link Bar allowed, with its dedicated SW10 subwoofer, and it would have been great to be able to add that hefty sub to the MultiBeam too.
The remote control looks cool but is simply too bare-bones. The paucity of buttons makes some setup activities too complex, requiring long-presses and other nonintuitive actions. It's like JBL wanted to take the Apple route and present a simplified experience, but got it all wrong.
For example, there are no traditional sound modes like Movie, Music and Voice, just a control for Dolby Atmos -- which adds Atmos-like effects to non-Dolby Atmos material -- and a hidden toggle for the always-on Smart mode. To turn it off you have to press and hold the mute button for four seconds 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 it's a good thing it doesn't hurt the sound.
Likewise, the remote hides its ability to let you adjust the bass -- you have to hold the "TV" input button for 3 seconds and then "-". You read that right, and yes, it's just plain weird. The one good thing is that once it's set, you won't need to touch the bass control again. Finally JBL claims the remote has the ability to calibrate sound -- holding down "HDMI" until "Calibration" is displayed -- but I was never able to get it to work properly.
Speaking of things that didn't work, it's worth mentioning I had two separate JBL Bar units, the first of which was much more uncooperative than the second. For instance, the first model wouldn't upgrade to the latest firmware no matter what I tried, and I experienced other technical issues with it as well. After much to-ing and fro-ing, I swapped it for the second unit, which worked as expected.
Once I managed to wrangle this soundbar into submission, it was capable of very good sound. The JBL is at its best with an action movie like The Matrix, where it can help suspend disbelief better than any compact soundbar I've tested. Compared against the Sonos Beam, the movie's lobby scene filled the room with ricocheting bullets and spent casings. The synth bass score was never pushed to the background and helped drive the kinetic feel the movie demands. By comparison the Beam was a bit subtler -- particularly when it came to falling casings, but it lacked the JBL's cohesion and didn't have the same deep bass response.
Smart mode can really add depth to a movie's sound, something I heard during Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (42:40) when Spider-Man and Miles decide to team up to turn off the collider. After a bit of walking on walls, Peter Parker heads down the alley wall, toward the viewer and out of the frame, and the sound follows him. With Smart mode on you could hear this effect, but not with it turned off.
Though the soundbar is good with films out of the box, it needs a little bit of tweaking to get right with music, especially if you like heavier styles like dance or rock. Most tunes sounded good with excellent separation of the instruments, but this came undone when I played Alt_J's 3WW. By default the bass drum sounded really weird -- like someone beating wet sheets with a wooden spoon. By contrast the Beam didn't have the ever-present bass bed that the JBL could capture, but as a counter the drum didn't sound distorted and broken. I did manage to fix the JBL by changing the default bass from level 3 to 2, but as noted above, making that adjustment wasn't as easy as pressing a volume button.
Most of my hesitation about recommending the Bar 5.0 MultiBeam comes down to the controls. The remote is counterintuitive in the way it makes adjustments that are necessary to get the best sound. In addition, it would have been great if what appear to be ceiling-pointing height drivers actually were, given that this model has Atmos capability.
With perseverance, the JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam is capable of excellent sound but at the end of the day it isn't very easy to set up, and it's more expensive than models with subwoofers like the JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass.