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JBL Boost TV review: A mini sound bar for small TV screens

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As TV screens have gotten thinner, their speakers have shrunken accordingly. That often makes for audio that can sound less robust than some of the old tube TVs of yore. But there is something you can do about it. While home theater in a box systems and sound bars have been offering affordable alternatives for many years, we're now entering a realm of "mini sound bars." Zvox has its upcoming 17-inch wide Accuvoice TV speaker. And Sony's SRS-ZR7 is a supercharged wireless speaker with an HDMI input for doubling as a TV speaker. Now along comes a third option: the JBL Boost TV.

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7.8

JBL Boost TV

The Good

The JBL Boost TV is simple to set up and gives you better sound than almost any television. The unit is compact and includes the most-used connections. The speaker sounds better than many portable Bluetooth speakers at the same price.

The Bad

The Boost can sound shouty at high volume or with bright music. There's little stereo separation. You can buy a full sound bar and subwoofer system with streaming features for the same money.

The Bottom Line

The JBL Boost TV offers a simple, effective upgrade to your existing television sound with the option of Bluetooth streaming thrown in.

This is a foot-or-so long speaker which offers Bluetooth and TV connectivity all tied up in a tidy design. While it's not perfect -- it can sound a little harsh at volume or with the wrong music -- the JBL does what it says it will: It amps up your TV's volume.

The JBL Boost TV retails for $200 or £170 in the UK, putting it under the price of most good sound bar systems, but in line with many of the top-notch Bluetooth wireless speakers you can buy. (It doesn't appear to be available in Australia, but the price translates to about AU$260.)

Design and features

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The JBL Boost TV is a compact speaker which offers Bluetooth connectivity is addition to an optical input

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Boost TV is shaped like a football and features two large bass ports at either end. The unit is smaller than most sound bars at 14.8 inches long and 3.3 inches high (37.6 by 8.4 cm).

The speaker features two 50mm "transducers" which appear to wrap around inside the top and front of the unit. This arrangement was presumably designed so you could wall-mount the speaker, though it lacks any way to actually mount it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Connections include digital optical and 3.5mm analog, plus the aforementioned wireless Bluetooth, so you can play audio from nearly any smartphone, tablet or computer source. Bluetooth also allows "multi-room" connectivity via the JBL Connect feature. As a sound bar, the JBL does offer Dolby Digital decoding, though not anything greater than CD resolution. In other words, the best possible Blu-ray and hi-res music options are out.

The JBL has a Harman Display Surround feature but it's a phasey-sounding wide mode. I don't suggest you use it.

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You won't need this remote for long.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The remote control is as disappointing as any other remote at this price level. It's a small credit-card model which you can dispense with after you program your TV remote to control your speaker.

Performance

Given that the Boost TV is a Bluetooth speaker in everything but name, we stacked it against other speakers at the price, namely the UE Boom 2, and the similarly not-quite-sound-bar-ish Sony ZR7. And the JBL surprisingly came out on top.

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Controls on the speaker.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nothing else we tested was able to match the Boost for TV dialog. With male voices the speaker sounded natural with enough chestiness to make it realistic, but plenty of articulation in the upper registers as well. The Samsung TV we compared it to sounded indistinct and flat with dialog. While you will potentially get better explodey bits -- and something approaching real stereo separation -- from a system such as the subwoofer-inclusive Vizio SB3821-D6, the bass the JBL dishes out is enough to suggest a much bigger sound.

Comparing the JBL to the Sony ZR7 over a bout of James Cameron's "Avatar," we found that the Sony sounded a bit more constrained in the bombastic Thanator attack scenes. The JBL was better able to capture the soundtrack's subtleties in the opening shots of this scene -- of Norm drooling into the sample he is collecting and the buzz of insects. When things heated up, when the Thanator is scratching at Jake as he cowers in the roots of the tree, the Sony just wasn't able to conjure as much force as the JBL -- it sounded small. The JBL was less "boxy" and able to reproduce more bass.

The JBL was also more successful at music but we did notice something interesting -- that it could sound grainy with rock music, as if something was rattling around in there. It could also turn harsh at volume. But to my ear, it did a better job on at least some tracks than one of our favorite Bluetooth speakers for the money, the UE Boom 2, which sounded comparatively thin and distant with the confessional "16, Maybe Less." The JBL's talent with voices really helped bring out the vocals of this track.

Better TV sound in a small package

Yes, you could probably find something that performs better with music or has more features, but the JBL does one thing, and that one thing pretty well. As such the Boost TV meets the expectations its own name places upon it: it makes your TV sound a lot better (and sure, it can also play music at a pinch).

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7.8

JBL Boost TV

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Sound 7Value 8