You're Surrounded! Page 2

JBL Northridge E Series You might think that in naming its speaker series Northridge, JBL was trying to capitalize on the massive 1994 earthquake centered near Northridge, California. But the simple reality is that the company's manufacturing headquarters is located in this sleepy Los Angeles suburb. Nonetheless, with its bone-rattling dual subwoofers and rugged durability, there's something about the system that suggests a shifting of the earth's crust. JBL Northridge E Series

Design-wise, the JBLs are pretty unassuming - the E20 front left/ right bookshelf speakers and EC35 center speaker all have black, boxy cabinets and cloth grilles that taper in slightly at the outer edge. Strip off one of those grilles, and you'll see a titanium-laminate tweeter ensconced in what JBL calls an Elliptical Oblate Spheroidal waveguide (try saying that three times fast). Whatever it is, it's meant to disperse sound over a wide angle.

jbl backEach E250P sub combines a 12-inch driver and a 250-watt digital amp in a slim cabinet that's styled to match the front trio. JBL's E10 surround speakers, though, represent a slight aesthetic departure. Designed for wall mounting, the slim, 5 1/4-inch deep E10 radiates sound from a single set of drivers mounted on the front baffle, while each tapered side accommodates a port.

If you use the subwoofer's line-level input, a switch lets you engage or bypass the built-in crossover. And if you do use the crossover, a frequency control with settings from 50 to 150 Hz will help optimize the sub's blend with the other speakers. There's also a 0/180° phase switch.

Setting up the JBL system was no trouble - I placed the two front bookshelf speakers on stands at either side of my projection screen and put the center speaker on a low table directly below it. The surrounds went on high stands located near the side walls to the left and right and slightly behind the listening position.

In an average-size room, you could probably get away with using only one E250P sub and save yourself 450 bucks in the process. However, JBL recommended that I double up on subs to ensure maximum performance with the system, so that's the way I listened to it. One advantage of using two subs is that it can help even out bass "bumps" created by the physical layout of your listening room. Sure enough, I found myself getting smooth bass response from the pair of E250Ps after only minimal level tweaking and fussing with placement.

With two subs operating in our 21 x 13-foot listening room, I expected lots of bass, and the JBLs didn't disappoint me. As I watched a scene from Freddy vs. Jason where a dreaming girl wanders through Freddy Krueger's industrial hellhole, the throbbing bass effects delivered by the system created a persistent sense of menace. The sounds of dripping water and creaking metal pipes coming from the surround speakers also added to my sense of being in a thoroughly icky, cavernous environment. And in a scene where a cop discusses strategies to eliminate Krueger with a group of terrified teens (at seven sequels and counting, I don't think they can do it!), dialogue coming from the EC35 center speaker sounded consistently clear even at off-center positions on my couch.

With such a good start on movies, my high expectations for the JBLs continued as I slipped Led Zeppelin's DVD into the player's tray and cued up the band's 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert. In "I Can't Quit You Baby,"both John Bon­ham's kick drum and John Paul Jones's bass sounded full and powerful - the dual subs displayed excellent low-end extension without ever being boomy. The system rocked on "Dazed and Confused," capturing the wide dynamics of the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and imparting a sense of the live performance as the surround speakers enveloped me with the sound of swirling guitars and screaming fans.

The E20/E250P combination also proved capable of delivering realistic performances on stereo recordings of acoutic instruments. On a reference Richard Thompson track, "King of Bohemia," the imaging was solid, with a realistic sense of depth - Thompson's voice emanated a few steps back from dead center, as it should. Vocals sounded clean, and there was a natural sense of decay from the plucked guitar strings.

Priced below $1,600, JBL's Northridge E Series system is an amazing value that delivers exceptional sound. And for that price you get not one, but two subwoofers! To be honest, you could probably live happily with just one sub, but given the system's reasonable price and my positive experience with it, I'm not gonna second-guess JBL's recommendation to use two of them. PDF: Fast Facts