JBL Performance surround speaker system Page 3

The Performance system sounded unpromising when I fired it up—pinched, tizzy, almost shrill—but these shortcomings rapidly diminished with use. I didn't have to give the Performances a prolonged break-in period, as I usually do; they started to sound better after just an hour of listening, and stabilized within a few days.

I listen to very little amplified music because I prefer the sounds of acoustical instruments, and I get to hear a live orchestra once or twice a month, so I'm as picky about realism as any reviewer. Because realism is one of the Performance's strongest suits, someone who hears live music rarely probably won't share my enthusiasm about the system, but if you're interested in realistic reproduction, you'll love what these do—with size, for instance.

Size—the apparent dimension(s) of reproduced sounds—is a quality that's completely ignored in most reviews because it's relevant only to acoustical instruments and other real-life noisemakers. Every brass instrument, for example, ends in a flared bell that gives it that horn sound—variously described as an awk or an ah or an a (as in at) vowel coloration, depending on the size of the bell. The same is true of other instruments: A viola sounds bigger than a fiddle and a cello sounds bigger than a viola because, each being bigger in actuality, its wooden sound box resonates at a lower frequency. If a system makes instruments sound the wrong size, it bothers listeners who know what they should sound like. Correct size is important for home theater because so many of the sound effects used in films are intimately familiar to all of us. If a Mercedes door-slam sounds like a Renault, or a Sherman tank sounds like a bulldozer, it elicits a "Huh?" response that can undermine our involvement with the film. Not many speaker systems do size right; the JBL Performance did it much better than most.

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, all of whose concerts I record, has a somewhat dark timbre that is the conductor's trademark sound, and the Performance system pretty much nailed it. There was a slightly lean quality—in the sense that some of the ballsy, stentorian quality of large brasses and lower piano strings was missing—the extreme high end was a bit sweet rather than open and airy, and the system was a bit short of the "bite" that enables some professional monitors to reproduce the crackle of a brass player's vibrating lips or the rattle of a saxophone reed. But did the Performance ever sound steely (or titaniumy, if you will), as befits metal diaphragms? Well, they got a little brighter at very high listening levels (over 95dB), but there was absolutely nothing to distinguish that brightness from the brightness I've heard from some paper, polypropylene, and polyethylene diaphragms. All instruments sounded pretty much their correct sizes, as did sound effects in movies, and the overall sound was considerably more alive and realistic than from most home-theater systems. The Performance stood my hair on end almost as often as ATC's top-priced System 4, which costs more than 14 times as much as the JBLs. Movie sound effects were often so real as to be absolutely spooky. Many times I was startled by sounds that seemed to come from within the room—the ambient breathing in the dream sequence near the beginning of Fugitive made my scalp crawl.

The Performance had truly impressive output-level capabilities. At THX-standard playback Zero, it easily cranked out peaks measuring almost 103dB on my Radio- Shack meter (which reads a few dB low because its mechanical meter has some inertia), although a hint of strain started to set in at around 98dB. The subwoofer was amazing, cranking out a clean 100dB at 35Hz, and over 106dB (continuous) before overload started to become evident. This is LOUD bass. Below 35Hz, output diminished very rapidly, with the result that, despite its reflex loading, it never bottomed-out on deeper material, like the sub-killer passages—the Aladdin rock drop and pre-Geronimo war drums—that TJN loves to use for tests.

The JBL Performance won't be everyone's snifter of cognac, but it's certainly one of mine. People who know real music, as well as film buffs, will almost certainly love it. The Performance is by no means cheap for someone on a tight budget, but compared with some of the storied high-end stereo speakers, many of which are considerably less accurate, it's a bargain. Highly recommended.

Oh, and the audiophiles are right: You can hear materials—but not always as much as you might think.