JBL Cinema SB400 soundbar

The JBL Cinema SB400 is a fine sounding soundbar with convenient home theatre-style functionality and Bluetooth, marred by some unfortunate operational issues.


8.0
CNET Rating


The JBL Cinema SB400 is a couple of steps up from the SB100 in the company's model hierarchy, and a bit more than twice as expensive. But for that you get better and more drivers in the soundbar — two proper 25mm tweeters and four bass/midrange ones. Also, double the power (60 watts peak per channel). Plus a subwoofer with a 203mm driver and a 100 watts of its own power. And a wireless connection.

You also get more inputs: including three HDMI ones and a HDMI output to match. This last is Audio Return Channel enabled so that your TV can control the soundbar automatically, and feed sound back down this HDMI cable to the soundbar. Because of the three inputs you can use it pretty much like a compact home theatre receiver. If your TV doesn't support ARC then you can just plug the TV's optical output into the soundbar.

It's 1100mm wide but quite compact otherwise, only 95mm tall and 64mm deep. It comes with a metal bracket for wall mounting, but can also sit on your TV's bench (if it's wide enough — the bar's legs are a good metre apart).

In addition to the physical connections the unit supports streaming audio via Bluetooth. There's an iOS app called JBL Music that's supposed to be an optimised music player for this unit. Perhaps, but it would not run on my iPad Mini, crashing out within a second of starting. I just used the regular music apps on both iOS and Android to stream Bluetooth and these worked fine.

In Use

Unusually the subwoofer and soundbar are not pre-paired (perhaps because they come in separate cartons, so inventory management could be tricky). Doing the pairing is easy though. Just press the appropriate buttons on both units within thirty seconds of each other. That worked perfectly first go.

Another thing you should do is set the level of the subwoofer so that it is appropriate for the soundbar. That presented a problem, thanks to a miscalibration that you can't adjust.

When you have small speakers — including a soundbar — the subwoofer has two jobs to do. One is to reproduce the bass that is in the main five channels, but is too deep for them to handle. The other is to reproduce the standalone Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel provided in such audio formats as Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The ".1" is the LFE channel.

So the first thing I did was balance the subwoofer (you have to dart over and adjust its level knob) using the LFE channel in a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital test disc. But once I had that right the voice of the narrator on the test disc sounded terrible. It was horribly boomy, to the point where the bass components of the voice sounded quite disconnected from the rest of the voice. The LFE was the right level, but the bass redirected from the other channels was way too high. I used another test disc — stereo only this time — to adjust that to the correct level, and the LFE channel from Dolby Digital content was too low. Ten decibels too low in fact.

I left it like that anyway. The sound was intolerable otherwise, and with many movies the LFE channel is rather less employed than you might expect.

(Credit: JBL)

That was a rather unhappy surprise. But there were pleasing surprises as well. The first was when I'd spotted the HDMI inputs and outputs. The second was when in use, it became clear that the soundbar was capable of generating its own on-screen messages. Adjust the volume and a bar indicator appears on the screen for a second or two. Likewise for changing the bass boost or the surround mode. That worked at all resolutions, even with 3D video.

JBL hasn't put a Bluetooth selection key on the remote, although all the other inputs score keys. But you don't have to walk over the the soundbar to change to Bluetooth. There's a simple workaround. Just turn the soundbar off, then start playing music from the paired device and the soundbar will switch back on in Bluetooth mode. Only one device can be paired at a time.

The system sounded really quite good, both with movies and music. I watched a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead, and within seconds forgot that I was using this system rather than the AU$20,000 worth of gear I normally use. But The Walking Dead doesn't have a lot of surround, and this system doesn't do such a good job there. The front sound stage though was well balanced and solid in performance. Music was tonally balanced with a very slight tendency towards brightness, while voices in movies were clear and coherent. The whole system when quite loud as well, filling my largish office with plenty of clean sound.

A couple of aspects of performance were strange. For one thing, there was a lag between the audio starting — say, the start of a song — and the subwoofer kicking in. Not just the lag in waking up after the system had gone to sleep, but even after the briefest of interruptions, such as skipping a track. I timed it at about 0.9 seconds before the subwoofer would join in with the soundbar. That doesn't look like a long time, but it was quite disconcerting in listening.

Likewise, the soundbar itself seemed to take a fraction of a second to latch onto an incoming digital signal, so at the start of each song on a CD it missed the first beat or two of each track (except for those tracks which flowed on without a break from the previous one).

Properly balanced, the unit delivered a remarkably wide frequency response of 40 hertz to 20,000 hertz. At the listening couch in my office the upper bass/lower midrange was recessed by about four decibels compared to the treble, which made the system a touch bright and made the subwoofer more obvious when its level was too high. Measured up close the subwoofer was good down to about 36 hertz, which is pretty impressive for what is quite a low cost unit.

Conclusion

What a pity about those operational issues. Because, aside from them, the JBL Cinema SB400 is not just a good soundbar and subwoofer combo, but a HDMI and Bluetooth-enabled home theatre in a box.



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