Speaker-Roundup Rodeo JBL Studio Series

JBL Studio Series
Whatever happened to the good old days when you could read the propaganda on a set of speakers and actually know what some of the materials they were talking about were? I went to high school for seven years, and I'm no dummy. Yet I still have no clue what these "exotic materials" are that some manufacturers are using nowadays.

When I first learned of the new Studio speaker series from JBL, this was indeed my first reaction. The literature read more like the fine print on a shaky investment opportunity, with the same kinds of terms used in the presidential campaign.

Where are they going with all of this? What does it mean? Can listening to a diet of nothing but "polymer-coated cellulose fiber" speakers really help me lose weight? I wanted to answer all of these questions and more, but first I had to plug them in . . . .

The Studio speakers are by far the most stylish-looking speakers in this roundup. The ensemble consists of four S26 bookshelf-style speakers that act as the front L/R and rear surrounds, as well as the S-Center center and the PSW-D112 sub. The S26's shape has some appeal to it (with or without the grille), unlike the other speakers I tested here. This is one reason why JBL has quickly become known as a company that offers both style and performance.

When I removed the S26's grille, however, I had to scratch my head a bit. First, a single 1-inch titanium-dome tweeter resides in a hornlike setting, called the EOS waveguide by JBL. The idea and application are quite simple really—recess a tweeter in the waveguide, and you can curtail its direction and improve both on- and off-axis response. This also effectively brings the tweeter out in front of the rest of the speakers in the given configuration, so it acts as sort of a natural amplifier.

Below the tweeter is a single 6-inch PolyPlas midwoof. When I read the term PolyPlas in the owner's manual, I must admit that I had to refer back to my Audio Bible for the definition. (Of course, it wasn't in my version.) Reading through JBL's literature, I learned that PolyPlas is a new polymer-coated cellulose fiber material found exclusively in JBL speakers (naturally).

Although I was slightly disoriented by all this jargon, I continued on with my review . . . .

The S26 has a frontward-firing design, with the port located just below the PolyPlas woofer. The back of the enclosure features binding posts for connectivity. Overall, the enclosure has fairly good build quality.

Moving right along, the S-Center speaker has a unique trapezoid shape (with rounded sides rather than straight ones). A 1-inch titanium tweeter resides in an EOS waveguide and sits just above a 4-inch midrange. Flanking both sides of the tweet/mid configuration is a 5 1/4-inch PolyPlas midwoof. The S-Center uses binding posts for connections and has no threaded insert for mounting.

This is the only ensemble in the roundup that features a 12-inch subwoofer. The woofer enclosure is average for a 12-inch ported design. On the front of the subwoofer is a huge plastic grille with about 1,000 holes drilled into it, creating a very cool-looking pattern—but I question the effectiveness of the plastic, other than for declawing your house cat. There's a small area on the upper-right corner of the enclosure that is not covered by the grille. A volume control is located here, along with an LED labeled Video Contour. JBL is the only company both in this roundup and in the industry that is smart enough to put the volume control on the front of the sub—big points on the Ergonomics rating, fans. But enough with all the funky details... it's time to get into the evaluation.

To remain consistent, I used my Eagles Hell Freezes Over DVD. Right from the get-go, I noticed a touch of brightness in the tweeter section from both the left and right mains. It's important to keep in mind that the JBL system measured very flat in the lab; in fact, it had the flattest response of any ensemble in the roundup. After listening for several minutes, I concluded that the tweeter almost sounded as if it was staged slightly in front of the midwoof. This is exactly the kind of effect the waveguide or horn can have on a tweeter without a crossover network to compensate. On the S-Center, the waveguide seemed to add a touch of sibilance to the overall sound of the speaker, but it was barely noticeable. In fact, the S-Center performed just as well as the Cambridge SoundWorks center.

The subwoofer was a bit boomy during music tracks, in which bass is supposed to remain tight, and it never seemed to get the bass notes right on any of the selections. The more volume I added, the worse it got. Moving the subwoofer out of the corner of the listening room definitely helped, and the sub eventually responded very flat and right on par with the rest of the JBL system. There was clearly a hole between the large sub and the main L/Rs. JBL offers a larger tower speaker that would probably be a better match.

The rear-channel S26s presented a very wide soundfield with excellent diffusion. In terms of performance, they almost seemed like a different speaker than the L/R S26s.

The Studio ensemble definitely wasn't the best performer in the group on music selections. Again, this is partly due to the bass hole between the subwoofer and main L/Rs.

I quickly moved on to the cinema evaluation in hopes that the JBL system could redeem itself as a theater system. First, I chose Starship Troopers. From the opening scene to the mind-bending climax, the Studio system was a much better performer in this realm. It almost sounded like an entirely different ensemble than the one I had just listened to during the music evaluation.

The center channel sounded especially nice for such a small design. I still detected a touch of sibilance at higher volume levels, but this did not appear in the opening of The Mask of Zorro, so I suspect the program material was the problem. Overall, the JBL center was very impressive for its size and displayed excellent impact with onscreen information.

The left and right speakers still seemed to have a touch of brightness, which could be due partly to the material I was evaluating them with. An important note is that the JBL Studio speakers are very revealing in that they reproduce exactly what is fed into them. If the program material (music or cinema) is recorded bright, the speakers will sound bright. (Starship Troopers has a lot of lasers and what-not.) Some people like a touch of treble in everything they listen to—if this describes you, then this is an ensemble worth considering.

Even though the same speaker was used for front- and rear-channel effects, I felt the S26 worked much better as a rear than a main when matched with the large subwoofer. Again, the speaker emitted a very wide and diffused soundfield and produced large sound for a rear speaker.

The subwoofer is most certainly designed to shake the coffee table and produce bass accurately. For those who like to wake the neighbors, it never hit me in the chest, but it did make my tooth fillings tingle. You could certainly play around with the placement to match your listening requirements.

I recommend the JBL ensemble for people who tend to listen to their music flat, with no enhancements on bass or treble. The JBL Studio ensemble offers excellent bang for the buck for those who are looking to get their feet wet in home theater. If you've got a few extra bucks to spend, I'd recommend getting the floorstanding speakers in the Studio series and using them as your L/R mains.

HT Labs Measures: JBL Studio Series

This graph shows the quasi-anechoic (employing close-miking of all woofers) frequency response of the Studio series' S26 mains/surrounds (top trace), PSW-D112 subwoofer (upper-left trace), and S-Center center channel (lower trace). All passive loudspeakers were measured at a distance of 1 meter with a 2.83-volt input and scaled for display purposes.

On-axis response of the S26 L/R measures +1.7/-1.4 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. The -3dB point is at 48 Hz, and the -6dB point is at 43 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 5.32 ohms at 162 Hz and a phase angle of -56.91 degrees at 82 Hz. Sensitivity is 86 dB from 600 Hz to 2 kHz.

On-axis response of the S-Center center measures +2.7/-2.0 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. The -3dB point is at 76 Hz, and the -6dB point is at 60 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 3.86 ohms at 188 Hz and a phase angle of -70.32 degrees at 111 Hz. Sensitivity is 90 dB from 600 Hz to 2 kHz.

Close-miked response of the PSW-D112 subwoofer, normalized to the average level from 40 Hz to 80 Hz, indicates the lower -3dB point is at 37 Hz and the -6dB point is at 31 Hz. The upper -3dB point is at 118 Hz.—AJ