JBL ES20 Speaker System

Looking like a winner right out of the box.

Producing loudspeakers at mass-market prices is a thankless task. It takes the resources of a big company like Harman International to do it right. I’ve determined in one review after another that JBL has long been a budget-speaker champ. You could even call me a JBL fan. But I was still surprised when I took the ES20 loudspeaker out of its box. Its tapered non-rectangular form announced that this was no low-end junk-in-a-box speaker, even at $399 per pair. And the surprises didn’t end there. This is the first budget speaker I’ve reviewed that boasts a super-tweeter in addition to the usual tweeter and woofer.

Dangerous Curves
JBL’s ES line consists of two floorstanding towers, two bookshelf speakers, a center, and two subs. I reviewed the ES20, which is the smallest of the group, along with the ES25C center and ES250P sub.

A graceful curve joins the front and top of the ES20. The medium-density fiberboard (MDF) cabinets are covered with dark-gray vinyl with a brushed-aluminum texture. That’s some great-looking vinyl. Separate side panels add contrast with a black or cherry finish. The MDF on the front and top measures 0.75 inches thick, while 0.63-inch MDF covers the sides. The enclosure tapers from front to back, which gives the speaker a non-rectangular form. Overall, it’s both attractive and relatively resistant to acoustically undesirable internal standing waves.

The ES20 speaker’s fit and finish are remarkable for the price. I discovered this when I pried off the grille, a three-piece construction in black with decorative top and bottom stripes in gray. The six plastic pins held so snugly in their rubber holes that I had to carefully unseat them one at a time—and it took all the strength in my fingers. The back of the ES20 features gold-plated binding posts with a knurled surface that’s easy to grab. The posts plug in the back, as most products conforming to CE safety rules do these days. However, I could insert my banana-plug speaker cable into holes in the sides of the posts.

Despite its modest 12.5-inch stature, the ES20 is a three-way speaker with a 5-inch woofer. The woofer is made of PolyPlas, or polymer-coated cellulose. Instead of a midrange and tweeter, the speaker contains a tweeter and super-tweeter. In JBL-speak, these are called “high-frequency” and “ultrahigh-frequency transducers.” The tweeter is a 0.75-inch version of JBL’s familiar titanium-laminate dome, in a shallow waveguide. It crosses over from the woofer at 3,300 hertz. The super-tweeter at top is a 0.75-inch polyester-film ring radiator, in a deeper waveguide, with a phase plug in the center. According to JBL, it crosses over from the tweeter at 12 kilohertz and extends out to 40 kHz.

Let me be the first to admit that I cannot hear high frequencies at 40 kHz or even half that. If I could, you would be addressing me as Spot and feeding me dog biscuits. I prefer Breeder’s Choice Active Care Biscuits and Healthy Joint Treats. I might also be partial to Advanced Pet Diets Select Choice Pumpkin & Apple K-9 Snak Bars. The theory behind super-tweeters is this: If a speaker reproduces frequencies you can’t hear, it will allow for a more accurate (or at least more interesting) harmonic structure in frequencies you can hear. Woof woof.

The ES25C is a horizontal center speaker that tapers at both sides. The cabinet has two supports with rubber feet. The supports aim the speaker at a fixed, straight-ahead angle. The driver array is the same as that in the ES20, with the addition of a second 5-inch woofer.

My standard warning about this kind of woofer-tweeter-woofer design is that it may cause lobing or uneven midrange response throughout the listening area, especially with a crossover point as high as the specified 3 kHz. The super-tweeter and tweeter are in the center, positioned one above the other when you place the speaker horizontally. The ES25C’s rated sensitivity of 90 decibels is notably higher than the ES20’s 86 dB.

The ES250P subwoofer’s 12-inch polymer-coated cellulose driver is driven by an amp rated at 400 watts RMS and 700 watts peak. The driver is forward-firing with a bottom-mounted port. It’s a good-looking sub that uses similar tapered top and side panels as the speakers do. Additionally, the power LED is on top instead of the back and is cradled in a JBL logo badge.

I reviewed the ES Series system with my usual Rotel RSX-1065 A/V receiver, Integra DPS-10.5 universal player, Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player, Rega Planar 25 turntable, Shure V97xE cartridge, and NAD PP-1 phono preamp. Because the speakers have relatively little bass, I set the subwoofer crossover at 100 Hz initially, which is a bit higher than my usual 80 Hz. Even this may have been on the low side—the sub’s manual recommends from 120 Hz to a sky-high 150 Hz for “smaller bookshelf speakers.” After my movie auditions, I raised the crossover to 120 Hz.

Riveted to the Sofa with the Dylan Blues Again Good speakers make me notice music popping out of a soundtrack. You’d have to work pretty hard not to notice the music in I’m Not There. The affectionate art film is built loosely around the legend, words, music, and quotations of Bob Dylan, with multiple actors in the leading role. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” grabbed me so viscerally that I watched the whole movie without hitting pause. The center delivered natural-sounding vocals that made the most of the fine distinctions between original and newly interpreted Dylan.

I was also struck by the modest music in the Dan in Real Life (BD) soundtrack, in uncompressed PCM. When the music plays quietly—like the jaunty acoustic guitar that plays during an in-car family brawl—it lightens the movie’s mood with an ingratiating sweetness.

Untraceable injects the compelling Diane Lane into a scenario that combines Internet savvy with serial torture and murder. Lane’s distinctive, slightly husky soprano was faintly audible in the sub at the 100-Hz crossover (one reason why I didn’t go to 120 Hz till I got to music). It did not sound objectionable to me, and if I hadn’t been listening for it, I might not have noticed it. The satellites’ off-axis response was excellent. The tweeter kept me in the loop when I moved around on the sofa.

Sub Settings Revisited
At this point, I realized that my usual subwoofer settings were on the low side for these speakers and sub. So I raised the sub volume from one-third to one-half of its range of settings. I also raised the receiver’s LFE output from –4 dB to –1 dB, and most reluctantly, I raised the crossover from 100 Hz to 120 Hz. I thought these changes would result in an overwhelming amount of added bass, and I planned to reverse at least one of them. But to my surprise, the result sounded just right for music.

After I finally nailed the adjustments to optimize the low frequencies, I put on my vinyl copy of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. (You saw that coming, right?) Then I started fooling around with the super-tweeter. With a quick-and-dirty method, I covered the super-tweeter with a square of paper and masking tape to A/B the system with and without it. This rarely made an audible difference, and even when it did, the difference was so subtle that I could’ve imagined it. But I thought I heard more detail in the beautiful lead acoustic guitar that appears in the right channel of “Desolation Row.” On the other hand, I was absolutely positive that the high-frequency presentation was much more satisfying with the grilles off, so I left them off.

The next piece asserted the ES20’s bid for budget-speaker greatness. This was the PentaTone SACD, Beethoven/Mendelssohn. In the SACD, Sir Colin Davis conducts Beethoven’s fifth and Mendelssohn’s fourth symphonies with the BBC and Boston symphony orchestras. The original 1970s analog source tapes were quad. This eliminated any possibility of a dodgy center-speaker match (although the center did match pretty well with other material). As a result, I got a deeply rewarding middle-row-of-the-hall feeling with a rich string sound and slick integration of instrumental texture and hall ambience. The highs were extended but not hyped or fatiguing. A larger/pricier speaker might have developed the lower mids more lavishly. Overall, the JBLs sounded better than the majority of audio demo rooms at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). They even sounded better than the ones with tube amps that cover half the floor and speakers the size of football players. By this time, the JBLs had gotten a few extra days of break-in. That may have helped along with the sub adjustment, which brought out the cellos and basses. In any case, the sound knocked me flat. My further experiments with the super-tweeter turned up no new impressions.

John Zorn’s Lucifer: Book of Angels, Volume 10 is a work for string sextet with an engaging blend of Yiddish-inspired melodies, jazz, and surf guitar. Again, the strings sounded beautiful. Marc Ribot’s tremolo-inflected guitar shimmered against a background with plenty of open space, and the drum kit was in the right proportions. The JBLs produced a deep, involving soundstage in stereo and created a movingly spacious soundfield in Dolby Pro Logic II Music surround. (I found out about the CD from Fred Kaplan’s jazz blog: blog.stereophile.com/fredkaplan.)

My only reservation about this system is that it requires a high sub crossover, which can limit your sub placement options. To blend with the speakers, the sub needs to be in the front, as near to the center as possible. This is standard procedure for all sat/sub sets and many “bookshelf” speakers. Incidentally, you should never place “bookshelf” speakers on bookshelves if you want them to sound good.

The JBL ES20 and crew are champions by budget-speaker standards. They deliver a refined top end that is nearly impossible to find elsewhere in this price range. How much of that is attributable to the super-tweeter may remain one of life’s mysteries. I’ll certainly look forward to reading the measurements published with this review. In any case, this is an excellent way to get a starter system started.

Tapered non-rectangular design looks like an expensive product
Woofer, tweeter, super-tweeter
Refined top end

JBL Consumer Products
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