JBL SCS300.7 Speaker System

Swing low, sweet subwoofer.

Curse you, JBL, for giving me yet another reason to want to move out of my apartment. As if paper-thin walls, the inability to own a dog, and the desire to dine more than 20 feet away from the toilet weren't enough, I must now contend with colder stares than usual from my neighbors—stares that coincide with the arrival of the SCS300.7 7.1-channel sub/sat system.

The moment I opened the box, I knew that something different from the average sub/sat fare lay in store. The SUB300 is a more-substantial subwoofer than you normally find in these kinds of systems; it was almost as big as the RBH TS-12AP sub that graces my personal system, which cost $150 more than the entire SCS300.7 ensemble. While a 10-inch woofer isn't unusual for a sub/sat set, the sub's 150-watt power rating is twice as much as you'll often find in this category.

The SCS300SAT satellite and SCS300CEN center-channel speakers also exceed their class rating in some respects. Both models use dual 3-inch woofers (a single woofer is much more common in these itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny designs) in an impressively inert, rounded, brushed-aluminum cabinet. Too bad the mesh grilles aren't removable, but you can't have everything. As I dove into the review process, all of the characteristics above made themselves apparent—in a good way.

Follow the Bouncing Speaker
The setup process isn't quite as sugar-coated as it could be in this price range. The speaker wire isn't color-coded by speaker channel; there's only a faint white stripe on the positive wire strand to help you connect each speaker to the correct terminal—which, by the way, is a tiny push-in post. You'll need a keen eye to thread the wire through it.

There's an entire box of screws, brackets, and such to attach each speaker to the supplied tabletop stand or mount it to your wall. I chose to use the stands, and assembling them required a decent amount of coordination, as you have to run the wire through the base, connect it to the speaker terminal, and keep everything aligned and in place as you screw the base to the speaker. You also have to disassemble the stands to remove the speaker wire.

Given the speakers' great build quality, I was surprised by how flimsy and unstable the plastic stands were; the speakers wiggle around in them, and I confess that I had to catch a couple of them midair after accidentally brushing against them and knocking them over. If you don't want to mount these speakers on the wall, you might consider upgrading to the floorstanding, $250/pair FS1000 stands.

2 + .1 = Wow
My gear sits in a low-resting horizontal gear rack below my screen, upon which I set the SCS300CEN. In order to line up the speakers, I began my two-channel review with the left and right SCS300SATs sitting at the same height as the center, spread about 6 feet apart. I quickly determined that the soundstage was too small in this orientation, so I raised the SCS300SATs (I just put them atop my RBH MC-6CT towers); immediately, the stage grew immensely—and impressively. These two small speakers and sub had great dynamic verve, filling my room in such a manner that switching to a surround format like Dolby Pro Logic II didn't make that much difference in terms of envelopment.

Then came my first real subwoofer test: Ani DiFranco's "Little Plastic Castles" begins quietly with vocals and an acoustic guitar, but the volume and pace pick up about a minute in with rapid bass and horn lines. The SUB300 was up for the task, providing the fullest but still distinct bass notes I've heard with this track through a sub/sat system. I'd later have a similar reaction with my movie-demo sub test: "All Together Now" from Yellow Submarine. Perhaps even more pleasing was the fact that the horns in "Castles" never ventured into that overly bright region where they become grating at higher volume levels; I was able to push the volume and still enjoy a well-rounded soundfield.

Peter Gabriel's "Sky Blue" is a densely constructed piece that's truly system-dependent. It can sound really good or really awkward, based on a system's ability to re-create impactful lower frequencies and blend the mids and highs properly to prevent it from sounding tinny and hollow. No, the SCS300SATs and 300SUB didn't exactly match the warm, full-bodied performance of some of the four-figure speakers I've heard at shows, but it sounded much less sterile than it often does through a sub/sat. The vocals and particularly the electric guitar didn't have that anemic, astringent quality that often hinders this song, and the climactic crescendo featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama's harmonies filled the room.

Steve Earle's "Goodbye"—a quiet rendering that spotlights a man, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a bass—is an equally good test of a system's balance. I like to turn up the volume to let the guitar and harmonica envelop me; however, when the wailing sets in, I'm often quick to turn down the volume because the vocals can bite hard through a bright system. That wasn't the case here. I let the envelopment commence and was more aware of the bass line than usual—not because the notes boomed but because they just had more presence than I'm used to.

In general, brighter recordings like Junior Kimbrough's "Junior's Place" and Rage Against the Machine's "Bombtrack" were tamer. I prefer warmer-sounding speakers, so I tend to forgive a speaker that exchanges a bit of high-frequency zing for more presence in the middle; the JBLs came closer to this standard than most entry-level systems I listen to—and that made me turn them up. The only reason I ever felt the need to turn down this system was out of pure guilt for what my neighbors were enduring.

All-Around Sound
As I said, I didn't feel overly compelled to use DPLII during stereo tests, but I did want to see what differences I heard when switching to multichannel music, both standard- and high-resolution. Dynamics obviously remained strong, the soundfield was tonally consistent, and the system still exhibited a good blend through the frequency range, but vocals did sound a bit chestier and boxy through the SCS300CEN than they had in two-channel mode.

This became more noticeable with movie soundtracks and their greater demands on the center channel. I'd say the SCS300CEN performed as well as the better center channels in these smaller, entry-level systems, but it didn't aspire to the greater heights of its SCS300.7 brethren. I was most aware of the boxiness with deeper male vocals, such as those in the rap sequences in chapter 19 of 8 Mile. Elevating the center could alleviate this; it certainly helped the SCS300SATs.

Even so, this is a small price to pay for such a small-priced system that performs quite well and even adds two rear channels to the fray. With a Dolby EX soundtrack like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the SCS300.7 stitched a more-seamless rear soundfield. During the Battle of Pelennor Fields, for instance, the sounds of the enemy's antagonistic calls in the distance were more menacing and distinct. As the Witch King swings his iron ball in his assault against owyn, the weapon's movement from right to left rear is smoother, more complete. Are these effects subtle? Sure; however, when combined with the SCS300.7's dynamics and the truly mammoth low-frequency footballs of the Mmakil, it takes you one step closer to complete immersion and suspension of disbelief—the goals of any speaker system, no matter the cost.

With so many SCS300SATs at my disposal, I ran an experiment: I moved one of the rear SCS300SATs to the center-channel position and configured the system for 6.1 channels in my Pioneer VSX-TX55i receiver. This somewhat alleviated the chesty quality with vocals, but the overall soundstage didn't seem as big, and it didn't blend as well in terms of highs, mids, and lows. Should you buy this system, it's worth running this experiment on your own to see which sound you prefer.

Just out of curiosity, I popped in Dr. Chesky's Magnificent, Fabulous, Absurd & Insane Musical 5.1 Surround Show. The heartbeat sequence in tracks 29 through 36 provides 50-, 40-, 30-, and 20-hertz test tones for your subwoofer. I grabbed my SPL meter (set to 70 dB, C weighting, and slow response), and here's what I got: about 84 decibels at 50 Hz and 40 Hz, about 78 at 30 Hz, and a less forceful but still solid 68 dB at 20 Hz. Many smaller subs don't make a peep at 20 Hz. Not bad for a 10-inch woofer that's part of a $699 7.1-channel system.

Yep, it's safe to say that my neighbors hate me. They've heard many entry-level systems pass through my apartment, but I doubt any of them left the impression that the SCS300.7 did. I know that's true for me. With its enveloping 7.1 soundfield, smoother high end, fuller midrange, and fantastic subwoofer, I'd gladly bear scornful glances to enjoy this system a bit longer.

• One powerful sub
• Seven speakers means one complete soundfield

(516) 255-4JBL