JBL Cinema SB350 review: Punchy sound from movies, but barred from music

JBL is the first company we've 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 play back sound from the onboard tuner or smart apps on your ARC-equipped TV. If you want to hear anything from a cable box or other external device, you'll need to use the sound bar's optical cable input.

Like most other products at this price, the SB350 supports Bluetooth -- though at this price it's without aptX. The other inputs include a 3.5mm connector, an optical digital port and a USB port for mobile device charging and software updates.


When we first set up the JBL Cinema SB350, its wireless subwoofer refused to automatically pair with the sound bar. Pressing the pairing buttons on the bar and sub a few times didn't help, but turning the system off and on did the trick.

Once the Cinema SB350 was up and running, we had no further problems, and the blend between sub and bar was very good for home cinema use. The sci-fi thriller "Sunshine" provided its share of low rumbles and tremors that fully exercised the subwoofer. We were pleasantly surprised by the deep and powerful bass coming from this little sub.

The Cinema SB350's Harman Volume feature definitely reduced soft-to-loud volume changes for late-night listening sessions, and the Virtual Surround feature did a great job expanding the stereo sound field. The effect seemed subtle at first when we switched between stereo and Virtual Surround, precisely because the tonal character of the sound was unchanged. That's rare -- most sound bars turn anemic when you engage their surround processing, but this one doesn't.

While Virtual Surround expands the stereo image better than most bars we've tested, the Cinema SB350 can't work miracles. It can't the produce enveloping, room-filling surround characteristic of a system with more speakers. No stereo sound bar can do that.

The Cinema SB350 has Dolby surround processing but lacks DTS, so we couldn't send bitstream audio from our Oppo BDP-105 Blu ray player. That's fine, and most similarly priced sound bars and bases make do with just Dolby. Play a DTS encoded movie and you'll have to remember to switch over to PCM digital, or you won't get any sound. Rather than constantly switch between PCM and bitstream, we used PCM for all of our Cinema SB350 listening tests.

The Cinema SB350, not surprisingly, sounds similar to the JBL Cinema Base, but that model's low bass oomph exceeds the Cinema SB350's. In its favor, the Cinema SB350 sounds clearer overall.

While watching the "Titanic" Blu-ray, we switched between the Cinema SB350 and the Pioneer SP-SB23W sound bar. The Pioneer is one of the best bars we've heard, and we preferred it to the JBL. It sounds fuller and warmer, and the bass has more oomph even though the Cinema SB350 has the larger subwoofer. As the doomed ship goes down, the tremendous rush of flooding water was more viscerally felt over the SP-SB23W, so we turned up the volume and the Pioneer never faltered. The Cinema SB350 sounded less powerful.

The Yamaha YAS-203 sound bar system has Dolby and DTS, and compared to the JBL and the Pioneer it consistently produced the biggest sound fields, clearest dialogue, and also has the most powerful subwoofer. It's a matter of scale, the YAS-203 sounded more at ease pushed to the limit than the other two systems.

We like the Cinema SB350 for its clarity and spacious imaging, but the SP-SB23W's sweeter treble was less fatiguing over hours of use. CDs could sound a bit lean on the Cinema SB350, and its aggressive treble edge curtailed our music listening sessions. The Yamaha YAS-203 was clearer than the Cinema SB350 and SP-SB23W for movies and music.

Compared against the Pioneer, the JBL SB350 sounded boxier and thinner when playing Bluetooth music. We also detected distinct delay from the JBL's subwoofer, which also cut out at times.

The SB350 is still better than the JBL Cinema Base for Bluetooth, however. The bar didn't exhibit the same distortion issues as the Base with the falsetto voices on Arctic Monkey's "Do I Wanna Know?" For that reason, the SB350 would seem the better of the two if you stream music from your phone.


Are good looks and clear dialogue enough to warrant the $400 outlay? Ultimately the choice is yours, but we would suggest checking out the rival SP-SB23W or Yamaha YAS-203 first. They offer much better bang (and crash and whisper and wallop) for the buck.

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