Of all the things we missed out on last year, trips to the cinema rank pretty highly. On the plus side, we had plenty of time to watch more movies at home during the various lockdowns, but there’s nothing quite like the big screen and the rumble of a great surround sound set-up.
Perhaps that’s why we were even more excited to test this JBL HDI 5.1 speaker package than we might have been 12 months ago. And if blockbuster scale and authority are your priorities when it comes to home cinema audio, there’s little chance this sextet of speakers will disappoint.
The right and left channels are the positively massive HDI-3600 floorstanders – though you could go even bigger if you wish, with the HDI-3800. Surround duties are handled by the HDI-1600 bookshelves, and the centre is the HDI-4500. An HDI-1200P subwoofer handles the lowest end of the register, just in case you haven’t quite yet rattled all the plaster off the walls.
The HDI here refers to JBL’s patented High-Definition Imaging waveguide technology, with this set of speakers sitting just below the flagship Summit Series that, as the name suggests, is perched atop the company’s loudspeaker tree.
JBL says its HDI waveguide geometry is the result of much intense research into the nuances of waveguide design, and aims for exceptional high-frequency detail and neutral response both on and off axis.
So these are expensive, but you’re getting a lot for the money. You’ll notice the JBL’s distinctive 2410H-2 high-frequency compression driver on all the speakers apart from the sub, while the woofers benefit from cast aluminium frames, cutting-edge motor structures and Advanced Aluminium Matrix cones.
The HDI-3600 floorstanders sport three of these woofers in a 2 1/2-way design, while the HDI-1600 are essentially just the head of that speaker with one mid/bass unit. The HDI-4500 centre is one of the bulkiest we’ve come across, with a quartet of 13cm drivers straddling its 25mm high frequency compression driver, and a footprint that is just over 31cm deep.
The sub here is similarly robust, and delivers its considerable weight with a 30cm driver powered by its 1000W amplifier. It offers the option of RCA and XLR line-level inputs, alongside a full complement of controls to tailor performance directly from the unit.
This JBL HDI 5.1 package needs a little warming up to sound its best, but you might be surprised how quickly it hits its stride. Though gains are to be made with a few overnight sessions running in, within just a couple of hours we get an idea of the might and scale these speakers are able to deliver.
Frequency response 38Hz – 30kHz
Dimensions (hwd) 98.6 x 25.5 x 34.2cm
Frequency response 40Hz – 30kHz
Dimensions (hwd) 37 x 23 x 28.9cm
Frequency response 50Hz – 30kHz
Dimensions (hwd) 19 x 84.1 x 31.2cm
Dimensions (hwd) 43 x 41.4 x 45.1cm
Weight 31.8kg (each)
You don’t choose a surround system this size if bass isn’t a primary concern, so let’s praise that first. In short, it’s difficult to know where the response from the HDI-3600 ends and where the sub takes over. That is testament not only to how much low-end is produced by your right and left channels, but also to how detailed it is overall; this is not a case of blobby low frequencies designed purely to shake your armchair, but those that match the insight and texture of the rest of the presentation.
It’s well balanced, too. The rumbles and blasts are exciting, but those high-frequency compression drivers are working well to make sure bass doesn’t overpower the performance. The treble is rich and unharnessed, and there’s plenty to pick out in the midrange too.
The HDI 5.1 isn’t perfect, of course. So bold and authoritative are the front speakers, that it can make the standmounts producing the surround channels sound slightly lightweight.
The HDI-1600 offer much of the same richness and detail as the HDI-3600, but the discrepancy in size is audible. If we’re noticing the speakers as effects travel around the room, that is not quite the immersive sound field you're entitled to expect for nearly £10k. We’d suggest if you’re going for these JBLs, it might be worth saving up to have floorstanding speakers in all four corners.
The main reason this system loses a star, however, is that despite all its bombastic scale and energy there is a disappointing lack of expression. Dialogue isn’t quite boring, but lines are delivered without the kind of verve or emotion we’d expect for this amount of money.
It’s an issue uniform to all of the speakers in the range, not only the centre where it matters most, which is a positive in terms of matching but leaves us a bit cold when it comes to overall performance. It's not impossible to find a speaker package that pairs the huge cinematic presence of these JBLs with a more dynamically expressive presentation, but if we had to compromise we’d always go with something less authoritative if that meant better storytelling.
This doesn’t mean you should discount the JBL HDI 5.1 surround speaker system altogether, but you will have to be careful with system matching. Any amplifier or source that lacks life will not make a good partner; you need something that can feed the JBLs with power while majoring on dynamics.
At the end of it all, though, we really have to say thank you. It has been almost a year now since we were last able to safely visit the cinema, and JBL has given a little reminder of what that was like.
If you’re after a home cinema experience that brings the scale of a blockbuster, this package has to be on your shortlist.
- Sound 4
- Compatibility 4
- Build 4
Read our guide to the best speaker packages