JBL Cinema Sound Speaker System

The well-tempered speakers.

Some speakers start communicating immediately. Ten seconds after I got these JBLs started, I was engrossed. Before I set them up, I'd just gotten halfway through the first disc of Vladimir Feltsman's hard-to-find four-disc set of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. Having just rearranged my reference system to better visual and sonic advantage, I was loath to pull it apart again, but duty called. The Cinema Sound speakers simply picked up where my reference speakers left off. They sounded neutral, substantial, and well able to keep up with both the recording's shifting dynamics and its liquid beauty.

Just because a speaker has morphed into an agreeable shape doesn't mean it will sound good. Slim towers rarely move me. Usually, they sound thin. What probably makes the difference in the Cinema Sound speakers' case is what's inside the tower.

JBL has endowed the Cinema Sound with what they call a HeatScape motor structure to dissipate heat during high-volume blasting. They use Neodymium magnets, which aren't exactly cheap, in both the cones and domes. The woofers are constructed of PolyPlas, a polymer-coated cellulose fiber, and they're in both the towers and the center for better power handling. The tweeters are JBL's titanium laminate—that's titanium deposited on a lightweight GE Ultem substrate. Titanium (laminated or not) is a JBL tradition. No matter how a JBL speaker is voiced, it always has a clear, blue-sky, "I can see for miles" treble. These materials will be familiar to any JBL buff,but rarely has JBL so cleverly deployed them in such a good-looking speaker.

Hey, They're Not Heavy, They're My Speakers
At 17 pounds, the CST55 tower isn't heavy, which is good news in the real world, where people have to dust and vacuum. Its enclosure is painted fiberboard, not the extruded aluminum used in some higher-end speakers of the same shape (like the Cascades from sister brand Infinity). JBL has fronted the silver/gray section that curves around the back with a high-gloss black baffle. The black grille takes up less than half of the baffle, leaving a long expanse of shiny black that may pick up room light. That wasn't a problem for me—I use just a backlight behind my flat-panel set and douse the lights for my front-projection system.

In the back is an oval-shaped 3.5-inch-tall port. You can see the fuzzy, white, spun-polyester damping material inside it and can even touch it with your fingers. The base—a necessity with a tall, slender speaker—is finished in the same shiny-black material as the front baffle. Binding posts are on the base, not the column.

The gold-plated binding posts do not accept banana plugs or pins, leaving spade lugs and bare wire as the only options. Bare wire, my eventual choice, is tricky because the posts are less than 0.125 inches apart. The CSC55 center comes with more conventional five-way binding posts.

The CSS10 sub continues the two-tone color scheme with a black top and front, separated by a distinctive rolled edge and gray sides. It is the best-looking budget sub I've ever seen. A flared 4-inch port is in the front, while the 10-inch driver fires at the floor. There's no crossover control; the crossover is fixed at 80 hertz using the line-level inputs.

Light the Bonfires, Pippin
When I began running my top 10 test tracks, my understanding of the Cinema Sound system deepened, and I discovered that it's not exactly a carbon copy of my Paradigm Reference Studio/20. The top end is very close, which means close to my personal idea of perfection. The midrange is sculpted similarly, so all of the familiar voices came through with their familiar leading edges, timbre, and lung dynamics. The upper bass is a little less aggressive, as the 5-inch towers hand off to the sub, and I think JBL made the right decision here. The sub has enough low bass to move in for the kill and is not unmusical the rest of the time.

No one who loves The Lord of the Rings action scenes (another valued reference) will object to the way the Cinema Sounds handle the DTS soundtrack, with its sieges, battles, creatures screaming through the air, and heavier creatures pounding the earth. My favorite scene, though, is the lighting of the bonfires, a respite from the violent noise in The Return of the King. "Hope is kindled," mutters Ian McKellen's Gandalf, as only a Shakespearean actor can. As the first bonfire flares, the orchestral score kindles a brass fanfare—a nice spotlight for the titanium-laminate tweeters—underscored by sawing strings. It starts quietly and builds dramatically as overhead digital visuals swoop from mountain to mountain, fire to fire.

My key music-video metal track is Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean," from the Madison Square Garden sequence of the two-disc self-titled DVD box (again in DTS). Jimmy Page plays a Les Paul that looks identical to the guitar Gibson is currently hawking in their TV ads. (I'm sure his is vintage and ruinously expensive.) The guitar riffs made my outer ears ripple slightly at 95 decibels, and the top end didn't get nasty, as so many overly bright speakers would make it sound. The power handling was impressive, and I actually got a sense of the arena's acoustics beneath the cheerful mayhem. Metallica's "Enter Sandman," my Venus' flytrap for bright speakers, shined without glaring.

The title track of Steely Dan's Everything Must Go starts with a metallic percussion shower that sounds especially impressive on the surround soundtrack of the DVD-Audio release. It became slightly soft-focused, just the way I like it. When the vocal entered, it was easy to imagine Donald Fagen singing his heart out in front of a microphone, with his eyes scrunched closed, perhaps. Walter Becker's guitars danced in the surround channels, and, while I'd have preferred them suspended between front and back, he's the kind of guitarist who can get up close without making me feel uncomfortable. The groove was good; to make it better, you'd have to move up to a four-figure sub.

I wanted to end up where I began, with a piano recording, and with an orchestra not chained to a motion picture. The logical choice was yet another old favorite, Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto played by Stanislav Ioudenitch with James Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony, from Cliburn: Playing on the Edge, a documentary of the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The Dolby Digital 5.1 recording makes full use of the center channel and delivers a range of dynamics from whispered to full throttle. Both the ferocity of the piano performance and the texture of low-level orchestral passages were well served by the speakers. This is the disc that made me fall in love with my Rotel RSX-1065 reference A/V receiver, and hearing it again through the JBLs was like a second honeymoon.

What else can I say? If you want a set of speakers that's musical, movie worthy, and far from an eyesore, this will do, and then some.

• They're skinny but sound great
• Next-generation look for next-generation displays
• Towers, center, and sub (no bookshelf speakers)

JBL Consumer Products
(516) 255-4JBL