JBL Stage A170 Loudspeaker Review Page 2

For the bulk of my listening I had the Stage A170s set up as a stereo pair for music, but later switched them over for 2.0 home theater duty. Experimenting with positioning, I found I could I keep the speakers fairly distant from each other at around seven feet, while a 2.5-foot distance separated the back of each speaker from the front wall. With its 6-ohm impedance and 89-dB sensitivity rating, the A170 presents a pretty easy load to any quality amplifier. I used an older Peachtree Audio integrated amp for most of my listening, but also pressed an Onkyo TX-NR787 A/V receiver into service. Music was streamed from Qobuz, with additional cuts on CD and SACD, along with Blu-ray movies played on my Oppo UDP-203.

I noticed a couple of surprising things about the performance of the Stage A170s even during the break-in period before I started my critical evaluation. An amazingly well-focused center image made it sound like there was a center-channel speaker hooked up and playing in my system even with mono sources like news-type TV shows. This ability to focus also translated into a soundstage of impressive depth and width, with sound extending well behind and out beyond the sides of the speakers. I'm normally not an imaging freak, but the big soundstage cast by the A170s really caught my attention.

After a few days use, I sat down for some intensive listening, starting with the track "Ham Hocks and Cabbage" from jazz bassist Christian McBride. This piece, which includes plenty of soloing by Mr. McBride on his standup bass, sounded tight and tuneful through the A170s, with no hint of boominess. Deep bass reach was pretty darn good for a speaker with just a pair of 5.25-inch woofers, although I did hear a bit of an overemphasis in the upper bass—a pretty common trick used by speaker designers to make smaller speakers sound like they're playing deeper than they really are. In this case, however, it didn't detract from the A170's overall performance because it still conveyed each bass note with power, precision, and tonal accuracy.


For me, "Georgia On My Mind" from Willie Nelson's Stardust album is the definitive version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard, and it happens to be a superb recording, too. Willie's voice has an expressiveness that's hard to capture, but it sounded big and rich through the A170s. The delicate tone of his famous guitar Trigger was also easy to pluck out of the mix. The little finger cymbal accents that punctuate the song came through as clear and clean, although I'm sure that certain more exotic speakers with fancy tweeters would have endowed them with a bit more lightness and sparkle.

Few tracks can push the boundaries of a soundstage quite as well as "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)" from Dead Can Dance's 1992 album Into the Labyrinth. The A170s got the presentation right: the core drums and vocals were focused in the center while the percussion and sound effects swirled around my head. The low bass gong didn't have quite the ultra-deep power I've experienced on some larger systems, but that didn't detract from its ability to provide a foundation for other sounds in the mix.

JBL's professional division supplies the sound systems for lots of movie theaters, so it's no surprise that JBL speakers work well in a home theater setting. Watching the opening scene of Incredibles 2 demonstrated that the Stage A170s could do a convincing job reproducing the whip-crack dynamics of movie sound effects. Dialogue clarity and articulation were also excellent. I'm sure it would be easy to build a potent, yet affordable surround sound system using the A170s along with other matching speakers from JBL's Stage series.

My friend Leonard Norwitz once wrote an essay where he described a method to evaluate audio components that he called "comparison by contrast." The upshot was, the better a component, the easier it is to hear wide-ranging contrasts in tonal color and timbre from recording to recording, and from track to track. Gauged using this method, the Stage A170 is a slam-dunk winner. While some other speakers overlay everything with their "sound," resulting in rather gray overall performance, this is a high-contrast transducer that conveys music in Technicolor, and its tidy presentation makes it easy to listen to over the long haul. The Stage A170 may have been born on the West Coast, but I'm thinking it must have gone to an Ivy League school back east at some point. Definitely recommended for big speaker performance at a small speaker price.

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