June 2006JBL Studio L890 Loudspeakers
by David Millman
Fast-forward a few years. (OK, 25 or so, but who's counting?) My own audio interests have led me to a more intimate engagement with music, one with a heightened sense of involvement defined by parameters (soundstaging, detail retrieval, overall musicality) that my 16-year-old self would never have understood, let alone cared about. And to that end, I enjoy exploring the world of specialized audio manufacturers big and small, but all focused on the thrilling, accurate re-creation of music.
So, to get an assignment to review JBL speakers came as something of a surprise, but quite a welcome one. In many ways, it's easiest to review products from small makers -- there's often a compelling, personal story behind them, and one naturally likes to root for the underdog. But it's also important to keep up with what the big guys are doing, given their potential to bring high-level research and innovation to entry-level products. In fact, with various economies of scale and global manufacturing options, a company like JBL should be able to offer extremely competitive loudspeaker designs at all price levels.
In this case, it was also an excuse to learn a bit about JBL, the company named for James B. Lansing and now owned by Harman International (which also owns Mark Levinson, Revel and other high-end marques). Lansing (he also of Altec Lansing fame) was a prolific audio engineer, but, sadly, he took his own life in 1949, a few years before his last company was coined JBL and sales took off.
The L890s ($1598 USD per pair) are the most elaborate design of JBL's Studio L series, which rallies under the slogan "pro sound comes home." Amazingly, there are 18 different speaker series listed on the JBL website, many of which seem to overlap in the niches they fill, especially in terms of home theater. The Studio L series seems to fit into the "nicely designed, not inexpensive, stereo or home-theater use" category.
The L890 is a four-way, front-ported floorstanding design featuring a 3/4" Mylar-dome ultra-high-frequency tweeter, a 1" titanium-dome tweeter, a 4" midrange, and two 8" woofers, all arranged in vertical descent from ultra highs to lows. All drivers are proprietary to JBL. The crossover points are given as 700Hz, 5kHz, and 20kHz -- yes, that uppermost tweeter plays only above what is considered the highest point of human hearing. The L890's frequency range is claimed to be 28Hz-40kHz, and its sensitivity is listed at an above-average 91dB/W/m, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. The L890s are magnetically shielded, which isn't surprising given that they are as likely to turn up in home-theater systems as dedicated audio systems. In fact, the speakers are sold as single units rather than in pairs, further suggesting that they will be used on movie night as well as for critical listening.
At 54 pounds and 39"H x 8-3/4"W x 14-3/4"D, the L890s are sizeable additions to any listening or home-theater room. The review pair arrived in cherry finish (black ash and beech are the other options), which is attractive if not in the furniture-grade league of Dynaudio and others. Each speaker comes with four plastic silver claw feet to which one can attach the provided spikes or rubber pads, depending on the floor material. The drivers are all housed in silver cast-aluminum chassis, which give the speakers a certain retro sci-fi look. Around back there are sets of gold-plated five-way binding posts that allow for biwiring.
My review system consists of a ModWright-modified Pioneer DVD-434 DVD player used as a CD transport connected to a Perpetual Technologies P-3A DAC with Level II ModWright mods via a Jena Labs Digi-Link digital cable. A prototype ModWright tube preamp, a PS Audio HCA-2 amplifier (with ModWright mods), and Vandersteen 1C speakers round things out. As you'll see, I also used a Rotel RA-985 BX integrated amp. Interconnects are Jena Labs Trios, and speaker cables are Audience Au24s. With the exception of the P-3, which is plugged directly into the wall, all electronics route through a Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6, which in turn reaches the wall via a Shunyata Copperhead power cord. I let the speakers play for about two months before I got down to serious listening.
Sound Mk I
The Studio L890s are most definitely a walk on the bright side of the street -- careful system matching is essential. I had hoped the break-in period might relax the sound a bit, but in the end, the associated gear was much more important. Personally, I was glad to have a tubed preamp in my system; as quick as my ModWright preamp is, it still brings touches of tube warmth and dimension, which were needed to balance the speakers' treble-forward character.
This becomes a very interesting proposition when dealing with a whole canon of recorded work that also tends towards the light and vivid side, like the Blue Note classics from the 1960s. At home, I cycle through these CDs all the time -- what's not to love about the works of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, and dozens of others? For my money, the Blue Note house sound from the era tends to capture the midrange, particularly horns, in all its true glory. Bass tends to be a touch thin, and the treble often seems hot, like the needles are riding peak and anything less than a balanced playback system will take the whole sound right over the edge.
A favorite that I often listen to (and have referenced before) is Dexter Gordon's One Flight Up [Blue Note 96505-2]. The Donald Byrd-penned opening track, "Tania," is 18 minutes of guided bliss, a free-flowing exploratory work that revolves around simple themes that are expanded over the course of the track. Through the L890s, the interplay between Byrd's trumpet and Gordon's sax was well delineated, allowing me to meditate on each player's musical decisions, but the horns also came across as brash at certain points, a result of too much treble information seemingly spilling out all at once. At the same, time I was a bit surprised that the L890s didn't seem to reach deeper in the bass, given the stated extension of 28Hz, and I also hoped for something more in the way of tautness and definition. On One Flight Up, the rhythm section of bassist Neils-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Art Taylor played thin, without the authority I'm used to.
Following a hunch, I switched to rock. Perhaps these speakers were better suited to the loud, compressed sound of rock and other modern idioms. First up was Ted Nugent's still-vibrant 1977 celebration of lust, Cat Scratch Fever [Epic/Legacy 65912-2]. Oh, how I'd like to have a dollar for every time this searing classic has played over JBL speakers. I have always loved the title track's opening riff because it's a sound that only an electric guitar can make -- the Nuge's hollow-body Gibson is palpably plugged in to a Marshall stack. But as with the Dexter Gordon album, the presentation was obviously tilted upward, making me reach for the volume control as a way of attenuating the harshness.
Moving into the world of Chicago, I put on the 2002 compilation The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning [Rhino 76170-2]. Hearing the classic songs in all their remastered glory is great fun -- usually. A song like "Beginnings" starts well with the strummed acoustic guitar, but once the horns come in, listening became tiresome. A rock standard such as "25 or 6 to 4" seemed muddy, not alive, and the horn-led opening to the swinging "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" was, once again, too bright and almost honking.
Sound Mk II
By this point, I simply wasn't getting very far with the L890s. Across a wide musical spectrum, I was reaching similar results. Under the category of "Why not?" I inserted my old Rotel RA-985 BX integrated amp, taking out the ModWright preamp and PS Audio amp. I haven't heard any of Rotel's recent gear, but at the time I bought the RA-985 BX, the company was an easy recommendation for anyone who wanted musical budget-priced gear that could glimpse the high end.
On went Cat Scratch Fever and out came the sound I'd been hoping for: clean, clear and exciting rock'n'roll. Without sounding rolled off, the highs had been tamed, and the overall tonal balance was finally right. Sometimes a piece of review gear lets you hear everything thats happening, warts and all. There is a sacrifice here -- some source material just wont be enjoyable any longer. Perhaps this is what was happening with my ModWright preamp, PS Audio amp, and the JBL L890s. Whatever the case may be, the combination of the Rotel RA-985 BX and the L890s was very pleasing, and I imagine that the Rotel integrated is indicative of the kind of electronics that JBL customers might consider along with their speaker purchase.
Popping Chicago back in, the same thing happened. And again with Dexter Gordon, and virtually everything else I initially threw at the JBLs. On a classic like "So What" by Miles Davis (Kind of Blue [Columbia/Legacy 64935]), Miles's trumpet appears correctly, just off center and up a touch. CD after CD, I appreciated the specificity of the JBL L890s' performance. Though not possessed of the warmth and bloom that make my Vandersteen speakers so irresistibly listenable, the sound of the L890s evened out with the Rotel integrated doing the driving, and morphed into something that I could enjoy on a long-term basis.
Soundstaging is one area in which the JBLs excelled without qualification. Recording after recording was laid out in an engaging, precise manner. For example, the Tomasz Stanko Quartet's Soul of Things [ECM 1788] is an audiophile dream -- gorgeous, thoughtful music beautifully recorded, with ECM's trademark icy-cool aura. Michal Miskiewicz's drumming is an essay in tasteful cymbal play, and through the JBLs I could hear every musical thought hanging across the soundstage: a splash here, a gentle hi-hat ticking there. Image size was appropriate, as was front-to-back depth (it's distracting when individual elements are artificially emphasized).
Given the L890's two-tweeter design, one would expect the high-frequency detail to be excellent, and in this regard, the L890s didn't disappoint. That said, over the course of my listening, the difference between detail and nuance became very clear to me. In the former, one hears everything in a stark, almost bas-relief way. In the latter, one hears everything in a more intimate, surprising way, with a sense of discovery and wonder. The 890s are definitely in the detail camp, which many casual listeners will find exhilarating.
Sound Mk III
After the success with the Rotel integrated, I swapped in my trusty Vandersteen 1Cs. These $850-per-pair speakers cost a little over half of the JBLs' price, but they are certainly in the ballpark of consideration for someone looking at sub-$2000 speakers.
Every time, the Vandersteens brought back a significant tonal balance and overall musicality that was simply not present with the JBLs. The 1Cs are not as detailed as the L890s and don't provide as much air in the nether regions of the treble, but these are speakers that define the sonic quality "lovely." On the delightful Alirio Diaz album Masterpieces of the Spanish Guitar [Vanguard 5004], I reclaimed the emotional vibrancy of hearing a virtuoso play his instrument with skill and care. The balance was superb, and I found it supremely easy to listen all the way through the CD.
Not long ago I reviewed the Odyssey Nightingales, which cost $1295 per pair. I didn't have them on hand for a direct comparison, but my memory is perfectly clear on their sonic signature. The Nightingales had spectacular detail, although they also were lacking in bottom-end energy. The biggest difference between the L890s and the Nightingales was the overriding sense of purity that I heard with the Nightingales, the sense that I was hearing the wholeness of the notes without any shoutiness or otherwise indelicate emphasis. The L890s got the detail right, but they missed the context -- that sense of ease and loveliness of the Vandersteen or Odyssey speakers.
Given the right electronics, the JBL Studio L890s are solid speakers that will perform well for many music lovers and, I suspect, an even greater number of home-theater enthusiasts. In fact, there is something charming about the fact that a more affordable integrated amplifier is a better match with the L890s than more expensive (and precise-sounding) separates. As well, it's interesting to note that these speakers are principally sold at big-box stores and large-scale online retailers, where price is more variable. However, at their price point, there is a lot of competition, and one might look elsewhere if intimacy and musicality are the starting points for satisfying listening.
But right now, I'm going to dig up my remastered copy of Van Halen's first album to hear before the L890s are packed up. The party's at my house!
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