JBL’s Deep Dive: Synthesis Speakers & Subs

JBL has a deep history in the world of pro audio, one that reaches back to the early days of motion picture sound. Today the company is dominant in live concert and movie theater sound, and it also has a ton of speaker options for custom install applications including its high-end Synthesis lineup. The latter made its booth one of the most impressive at CEDIA 2022.

While CEDIA 2022 wrapped up on October 1, memories from the gathering will live on. It was great to see familiar faces and to experience new products in person. Harman came to Dallas loaded for bear, with a broad selection of products ranging from affordable performance architectural speakers, all the way up to a JBL Synthesis super-sub that shakes things up with its massive output.

In addition to static displays of speakers, Harman’s booth featured two demo rooms, one of which was dedicated to showing off what an $80,000 Synthesis system can do. Which, by the way, is to shake things up on the bass side of things, while creating a bubble of 3D immersive sound that’s crystal clear, cohesive, and enveloping with the mids and highs. This, as has always been the case with the CEDIA Synthesis demos I have attended in years past, is an aural highlight of the show.

Visitors to the Harman CEDIA booth got to see but sadly did not hear the big guns. That’s the JBL Synthesis SSW-1, unveiled back in January 2021. It’s a dual 15” passive ported monster that’ll set you back $8,250 and will suck down 5000 W RMS while reaching 15 Hz (-6dB).

Pre-CEDIA Visit to Harman in Northridge, CA
Normally I’d report on the Harman CEDIA show floor demos and static displays and call it a day. However, this year prior to CEDIA, Harman reached out to see if I’d be interested in a visit to its Northridge, CA facilities for an in-depth look at how some of its CEDIA offerings were developed and turned into a product, as well as to offer demos that go beyond what you can squeeze out of a trade show. Having never visited Harman before and knowing that CEDIA is usually jam-packed and therefore difficult to get into demos, I took the trip.

During the visit, I got to see the process of developing a horn driver and a speaker cabinet. I also saw, heard, and smelled the chamber where the engineers torture-test the gear, sometimes to the point of failure, which is why there’s a burning voice coil smell in the air. We had to wear hearing protecting and when we stepped into the room, the subs you see in the photo below (image provided by Harman) were pounding like a jackhammer, running at their absolute limit.

Knowing that JBL torture tests its gear for durability is interesting but being in that room is no fun. However, I got to hear a lot of the new gear that was at the CEDIA show. The highlight, no doubt, was the JBL Synthesis SCL architectural speakers demo in the John Eargle theater. At Harman headquarters, there was a bit more horsepower behind it than in the CEDIA booth demo, mostly when it comes to the subs. With the demo in Northridge, JBL Synthesis gear easily emulated the effects of motion actuators in the seats by using nothing but sound waves.

The other powerful and convincing demo clip was from The Greatest Showman, where Loren Allred’s character sings "Never Enough." The performance is stunning and if you hear it on a world-class system you get those obligatory goosebumps, even if you’ve seen the scene dozens of times before. Because in the end it’s the signing that gets to you in that scene, and if you have a powerful AV system set up just right, the emotional impact of the performance never fails to impress.

When we watched a demo clip from Top Gun Maverick, the Synthesis system pushed air in ways that genuinely physically move you, which is exactly what tactile bass is about. It’s not just a cliché of feeling an explosion in your chest, the system somehow translated the bass into physical feedback that rang true for a wide variety of effects, including the swooping of the jet.

One imagines that much care was put into mastering the sound for this blockbuster film, and a top-tier demo like the one Harman and JBL put on at their headquarters proves it. A show floor demo at CEDIA provides a solid slice of that but it’s not an optimized space nor a permanent installation, so it’s not quite the same thing as a proper home theater demo in a dedicated room in Harman’s own facilities. This is why I’m glad I took the trip to visit JBL prior to CEDIA but also got to see the booth at CEDIA.

Another cool thing about Harman HQ is there’s a fancy experience center, it’s a showroom on steroids with both consumer and pro gear on display. It’s far beyond any CEDIA booth, that’s for sure. There’s even a huge room that has a full-on concert or club PA system and lighting rig, complete with a huge red button that activates the show.

JBL often is the source of the sound in live music, its dominance in the world of large venue sound is unrivaled. And wow, it sure is a trip to experience a private demo of such a system. You push the button and "The Imperial March" by Celldweller plays along with a jaw-dropping coordinated light show. If only I could fit one of those in my living room. Worth the trip, that's for sure. Check out these 360 tours of the space: