For absolute home theatre simplicity, it's hard to beat a soundbar home-theatre-in-a-box (HTIB) system. One long speaker, no AV receiver required and no long pesky wires running all over your living room.
The JVC TH-BA1 does the standard configuration one better by including a wireless subwoofer, so the only cables you'll need are behind your TV cabinet. Aside from the wireless subwoofer, the TH-BA1 includes a standard assortment of features, but it stands out from the pack with its better-than-expected sound quality and ease of use. The lack of HDMI connectivity is the major knock against the TH-BA1 — and you'd be wise to check out the Yamaha YSP-3000 if you need HDMI ports, but otherwise it's one of the best deals we've seen, especially compared with the more expensive Denon DHT-FS3.
The TH-BA1's exterior design isn't its main selling point. Its style is bland, and the red indicator lights and basic LCD display make it feel less than cutting-edge. The long pole-like shape is designed to fit under your TV; it's worth checking the dimensions of your own set to make sure the 124mm-high TH-BA1 won't obscure the screen.
There's a black speaker grille covering the drivers, although it's transparent enough that you can still make out the four 8cm drivers. The TH-BA1 is self-amplified and delivers 30 Watts per channel. (If that sounds low to you, don't fret, as most manufacturers inflate their power specs.)
We appreciate that the TH-BA1 at least has a basic LCD screen on the front panel, unlike some of the TV add-on speakers we review. The screen is dark in most scenarios, but lights up when you adjust the volume or switch inputs, then goes dark again once you've made your adjustments. We also liked that you could dim or turn off the blue light in the centre of the unit; unfortunately, the smaller red lights are unchangeable.
The included remote is excellent. It has just enough heft to feel like a step-up from those cheap credit-card-style remotes, and the button layout is refreshingly basic. There are separate buttons for each input, a button rocker, a mute button and individual controls to adjust speaker levels. If ease of use is a big priority, the TH-BA1 fits the bill nicely.
The JVC TH-BA1's set-up chores are nice and easy. First, you can connect up to three sources to the two optical digital inputs and the stereo analog input. Next, either wall- or table-mount the TH-BA1 speaker. We did the latter, placing it directly on the shelf that supports our display.
Our review sample's wireless subwoofer didn't automatically "pair" with the main speaker, so we followed the straightforward instructions on the single-sheet instruction page. It worked in about a minute.
The sub doesn't have a volume control, but you can adjust its level directly from the remote. It's not a particularly powerful sub, and sounded too lightweight when we first started testing it. The sub was around 4 feet from the front and sidewalls; moving it within a few inches of the front wall significantly improved its sound. That means that just because the sub is wireless, it doesn't mean you can put it anywhere; place it too far away from the speaker and you'll start to become aware that all the bass is coming from the sub. Try to keep it within 5 or 6 feet of the speaker.
Like we said, the TH-BA1's remote can also directly adjust the speaker's centre and surround channel volume levels. That sort of adjustability is nice to have, and we regularly took advantage of it with movies and music.
The TH-BA1 is what we call a "sound bar home-theatre-in-a-box system (HTIB)". That's a mouthful, but all it means is it's self-amplified (no AV receiver needed), uses a single speaker cabinet, and includes AV inputs for connecting external devices.
Like most products in this category, the TH-BA1's connectivity is limited to audio inputs — there are no video inputs. That means you need to run separate video cables directly to your TV and fumble with multiple remotes to make sure the TV and TH-BA1 are on the right input. (Of course, a quality universal remote can take a lot of the pain out of this.)
There are two optical digital audio inputs and a single stereo analog audio input. It's worth pointing out that none of those inputs are "shared" inputs; it's possible to connect three separate devices and select them from the remote. This connectivity package is a little less than competitors offer; the Yamaha YSP-900 can handle four devices at once, and the Denon DHT-FS3 can handle five.
As soon as we started watching The Taking of Pelham 123 DVD, we knew the TH-BA1 had the right stuff. The plot is standard thriller material: Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a New York City subway dispatcher who finds himself in a battle of wits with subway train hijacker Ryder (John Travolta).
But the soundtrack is superb, and the subway cars' screeching metal wheels echoing through underground tunnels is incredibly realistic. The film's mix put us right in the thick of it, and the TH-BA1 did an amazing job recreating the clamour of the subway. When Ryder and his gang fired their weapons, the sound bar didn't muffle or stifle the gun blasts.
But that's exactly what we heard from the film when we played it over a Polk SurroundBar. The Polk dulled the subway's metallic shriek and the police cars' sirens. The Polk's subwoofer did a better job than the JVC's in terms of power and oomph. Neither soundbar produced anything like a room-filling surround effect, but the JVC was slightly better in that regard. It was also better with dialogue intelligibility during action-packed scenes.
The TH-BA1's Dynamic Range Control compressed movies' soft-to-loud volume swings without overtly forfeiting sound quality. You can turn the Dynamic Range Control on and off via the remote.
The TH-BA1 is a very clear-sounding speaker, and it even handled brute force dynamic range assaults like the naval battle scenes in the Master and Commander Blu-ray reasonably well. The TH-BA1 is above average in that regard, but it's nowhere as powerful sounding as some rivals.
The TH-BA1 again surprised us with CDs. Few soundbars sound as good with music as they do with movies, but acoustic jazz and even hard rock came across well on the JVC.
Summing up, we were very impressed with the TH-BA1's performance, but it's still not the equal of a 5.1-channel speaker/subwoofer system. Then again, no soundbar, even a high-priced model, can do that.