JBL S38 loudspeaker Page 2

Further up the frequency spectrum, I noticed that the speaker exhibited an emphasis in the upper midrange and lower high frequencies that manifested itself differently, depending on the instrument involved. All percussion sounded natural, but on well-recorded jazz discs, such as Bill Evans' Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve/Classic V88762-45, 45rpm), ride cymbals sounded more closely miked than they actually were. Woodwinds and female vocals, such as the clarinet, piccolo, and soprano in Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul (from Festival, Stereophile STPH007-2), sounded natural but seemed to increase in volume when the melodic lines escalated into higher registers. On that same recording, violins sounded a bit steely as well.

The trumpets in the ensemble passages of Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch/Classic RTH-79478) sounded more forward and, well, brassy than they did through other speakers. At times, classical guitars (George Crumb's Quest, Bridge 9069) sounded as if their nylon strings possessed a slight steel coating. Whether this particular timbral characteristic of the S38 is viewed as an attractive characteristic or as a detriment will depend on the individual's listening biases, musical tastes, and associated gear.

The S38's bass performance was mighty impressive. In my large listening room, I was able to achieve tight, clean bass extension down to 35Hz, although I noted slight emphases at around 50Hz and 100Hz. Rock recordings with significant midbass content—such as Sade's Love Deluxe (Epic EK 53178), which is heavy with bass synthesizer and drum machines—sounded spectacular on the S38. Sade's rich, silky vocals floated over the churning, driving rhythmic foundation. In the 35-55Hz region, the organ-pedal tones in John Rutter's Requiem (Reference Recordings RR57-CD) were reproduced forcefully and without coloration, but did not sound as breathy or as airy as I've heard them through such speakers as the PSB Image 4T or Acarian Systems' Alón Petite/PW-1 combo.

But I just loved cranking up the volume on hard rock music with the S38s. Hole's Celebrity Skin (Geffen DGCD-25161) was reproduced with vibrant rhythm and drive, and the S38's slightly forward midbass actually made it easier to follow the bass-guitar lines of this texturally simple and not-very-well recorded musical gem. However, more densely orchestrated rock recordings, such as the bridge passage of Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different," from Bachelor #2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (Super Ego SE 002), were not as articulately defined as I've heard from other speakers.

More sophisticated art rock, however, fared well with the JBL: the intricate and delicate interplay of Peter Gabriel's voice and Steve Hackett's guitar, from Genesis' Nursery Cryme (Charisma/Classic CS 1052), was so intriguing and involving that it inspired me to mine more deeply the early works of this underrated supergroup.

But there were two areas in which the JBL S38 performed better than any speaker under $2000/pair I've ever heard:

First was its ability to play at extremely loud volumes without coloration or strain. If you want to set up a disco in your basement for your teenagers, look no further than the S38. During a break from my JBL listening sessions I was reading an issue of Vintage Guitar, in which I discovered a rave review of the 1963 Fender Tweed Champ amplifier. VG waxed enthusiastic about the sound of this amp when paired with a Les Paul guitar and cranked all the way to "12" (yep, even higher than "11"). Hmmm.

I got my old Tweed out of the closet (it hadn't been played in years) and plugged in my 1954 Les Paul Standard (recently tweaked by master luthier Scott MacDonald). I put on Blue Oyster Cult's compilation CD, Workshop of the Telescopes (Columbia/Legacy C2K 64163), and let 'er rip, playing along to "Cities on Flame" and "Buck's Boogie." To achieve the proper instrumental balance against my instrument, I needed to crank the S38s up to about 100dB (the wife and kids were not home), but I heard not even a hint of distress—the JBLs retained their composure as well as their timbral and dynamic personality. I'm no Buck Dharma, but I haven't had as much fun playing along with a recording in years.

Second, the S38 had the widest dynamic contrasts of any budget speaker I've heard. Just in case you were beginning to think that it's only a rock speaker, I found the S38's low- and high-level dynamic performance on dramatic orchestral works to be jaw-dropping. In Taberna, Part II of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony, Telarc CD-80056), is very difficult to reproduce convincingly, with its massed shouting chorus and cacophonous battery of percussion. Small, inexpensive speakers usually compress, congest, or crap out completely. But the sense of ease with which the S38 reproduced this bombastic music reminded me more of the sound of my Alón V Mk.IIs ($5500/pair) and Alón Circes ($12,000/pair) than it did of any other affordable speaker I've heard.

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