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JBL Cinema Base review: Little sound base is all about that bass

The speakers in your typical flatscreen TV have become sort of like the free toy in a box of corn flakes. They're usually an afterthought, so to get decent audio you'll need to buy a sound bar or some other speaker set instead.

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7.6

JBL Cinema Base

The Good

The JBL Cinema Base offers exciting home-theater sound in a compact package. Its bass is excellent considering its small size and lack of a dedicated sub. The inclusion of HDMI ARC offers some flexibility.

The Bad

The sound can be too bright for music and becomes screechy if pushed; Bluetooth quality is poorer than most; it has a terrible remote.

The Bottom Line

The JBL Cinema Base is a likable smaller sound base that offers easy hookup and packs a home-theater punch.

The problem is, sound bars can be impractically tall if you're not planning to wall-mount your TV. A sound base solves this problem by acting as the base for your TV -- you just set your set atop it. They run about $350 in the US, £300 in the UK and around AU$600 in Australia. If you're paying around that much, there are plenty of good options available; the Sony HT-XT1 comes to mind for a start. While not quite as accomplished as that unit, the JBL Cinema Base is a plucky little speaker with plenty to offer.

The JBL is well-built, easy to set up, and has surprisingly deep bass for such a compact unit. But it's not without its downsides. Firstly, the Bluetooth implementation is pretty bad, and the addition of an HDMI output without offering an HDMI input or an onscreen display is kind of perplexing. Also, while it can go loud, it's already bright sound can become steely and unpleasant if pushed too hard. Despite these faults, the JBL Cinema Base is a solid entrant in the under-your-TV sweepstakes, especially if you love bass.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Cinema Base is seemingly small as far as speaker bases go, but it's still a little larger than the Vizio S2121w-D0 . JBL claims the base will support televisions up to 60 inches in screen size on its 23.6-inch-wide and 15.8-inch deep top. Just make sure your TV's stand isn't bigger than the Cinema Base itself. Even if they technically fit, bigger TV stands like the one on our 55-inch Panasonic ST60 (above) look a bit more precarious than they do on bigger bases like the Pioneer SP-B03.

The front of the speaker features an attractive curved grille and above it sit the controls and "display." Like many other speakers at this price, the chosen input indicator is a color-coded LED rather than a readout.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The JBL includes a remote, which handily comes with a separate bass control (usually these type of devices crank the bass too loudly by default). It's not much chop otherwise. All of the buttons are smooshed together, with seemingly little rhyme or reason. Hopefully you have an alternate way to control the Base, like with a universal remote, cable box or TV clicker.

Though the Cinema Base includes an HDMI output, there is no onscreen display.

Features

The JBL Cinema Base is part of a growing form of sound bar that lets you place your TV on top of it and is presented as a single unit without a subwoofer. Instead of a sub it includes two 3.5-inch bass drivers in addition to dual 2.5-inch full-range drivers. These help the Cinema Base to deliver a claimed 45Hz - 20kHz frequency response.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The speaker supports Dolby Digital soundtracks -- though not DTS -- and comes with a couple of extra processing modes, including a virtual surround mode called Harman Display Surround mode and a "night time" mode called Harman Volume. Like other modes of this kind, the latter is designed to compress the dynamic range of soundtracks so commercials aren't too loud and explosions won't wake your loved ones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The JBL is the first speaker product we have seen that includes an HDMI output but no HDMI input. This "output" uses HDMI ARC -- which is a two-way HDMI channel -- so it can broadcast anything playing via the onboard tuner or smart TV of your display. If you want to hear anything from a cable box or other external HDMI device, you'll need to use the base's optical cable input.

The other inputs include a 3.5mm connector, an optical digital port and a USB port for mobile device charging and software updates. The Cinema Base also supports Bluetooth -- though at this price it's without aptX.

Performance

The Cinema Base's prime design emphasis seems to be maximizing sound quality in a smaller-than-average sound base.

As soon as we started playing movies and music, the first thing that stood out about the Cinema Base was the bass: there was lots of it. Way too much, so we turned it way down. Even then bass was generous, but the Cinema Base's definition and kick were mighty impressive. With Eminem's "Live From New York" concert DVD, hip-hop beats reached way down, outdoing Pioneer's larger and highly accomplished SP-SB03 sound base.

The Pioneer sounded fine, but the Cinema Base's brighter tonal balance was more exciting, and not necessarily in a good way. The SP-SB03 sounded more laid back, so it's easier to listen to for long periods of time.

Neither base projected the larger, more room-filling soundstage we heard from the more expensive Yamaha SRT-1000 sound base. That one's bass was just as nimble as the JBL's, but midrange and treble detailing were clearer. The JBL Cinema Base can play as loud as the SRT-1000, but it sounds strained when pushed; the SRT-1000 holds it together better at high volume.

The sound-leveling Harman Volume control on the remote really flattens abrupt soft-to-loud volume changes, but also drops the overall volume quite a bit. The Virtual Sound processor spread the soundstage a little beyond the edges of the speaker.

With the "Flyboys" Blu-ray, the Cinema Base easily handled the World War I air combat scenes' machine gun fire and explosions, but the SP-SB03 projected a bigger soundfield, and dialogue sounded more natural. The Cinema Base's dialog is leaner, but intelligibility is still clear; even so it sounds more like everything is coming from a small speaker than it does with the SP-SB03. Then again, the SRT-1000 does an even better job of liberating sound from the base. It's also significantly clearer and more dynamically alive than either the SP-SB03 or Cinema Base.

Using an HDMI cable to connect to our Sharp Elite television we were able to utilize HDMI ARC to stream audio from Netflix directly to the Cinema Base, so there's a use case right there: audio from smart TV functions.

Finishing up with CDs, the Cinema Base handled rock music with greater ease than most small sound bars and bases; it's not afraid to party. Its prodigious bass oomph gets at least some of the credit for that; the SP-SB03 can't challenge the Cinema Base's low-end authority. However, the Pioneer does sound more credible on acoustic jazz, while the Cinema Base's treble brightness can sound too aggressive on some recordings.

The Cinema Base was able to stream "sounds good on everything" material on Bluetooth like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," but when it came to the falsetto vocals of "Do I Wanna Know" by The Arctic Monkeys, the JBL broke up with bleating static artifacts. This is something the more relaxed-sounding Pioneer Sound Base didn't do, managing to keep its composure. If you stream lots of Bluetooth music, don't choose the JBL.

Conclusion

The Cinema Base may not be the most polished or refined sounding base, but we came to admire its spunky personality. The little guy likes to push its weight around, and its killer bottom-end lets you feel the full measure of home theater effects from a compact design. The HDMI situation is a little unusual and the Bluetooth implementation isn't even barely adequate, but in all the JBL is still a likable sonic upgrade for your TV.

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7.6

JBL Cinema Base

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Sound 7Value 8