JBL S38 loudspeaker Page 3

The sound of Stravinsky's The Firebird (Mercury Living Presence/Classic SR 90226) summed up the strengths and weaknesses of this intriguing speaker. The explosive dynamics and ease with which the S38 reproduced the orchestra in full cry was much more reminiscent of the performance of many large floorstanding speakers I've heard—throughout this densely orchestrated work, it was very easy to follow each individual instrument on the S38s' open and airy soundstage. But while the JBLs produced a very wide soundstage, with precise imaging and considerable depth in the center of the stage, the soundstage depth was rather constricted at the extreme right and left. The soundstage was shaped like an inverted U, as opposed to the rectangular stages I've heard with other speakers in this price range. Finally, the violins sounded a bit steely and forward on this fairly bright recording.

The competition?
I paraded out my usual suspects for the budget-speaker lineup: the Paradigm Reference Studio/20 ($700/pair), the Alón Petite ($1000/pair), and the Mission 731I ($299/pair, discontinued, replaced by the m71 ($250/pair; stay tuned for a report!). All of the speakers shared the same natural, open, transparent reproduction of voice and piano when playing Janis Ian's ballad "Some People's Lives" (from Breaking Silence), but began to differentiate themselves on more complex material.

Although the Paradigm Reference Studio/20 also had a slightly forward high-frequency presentation, it was noticeably less bright than the JBL, and was airier and more delicate in its reproduction of the upper partials of woodwinds. It was also a shade more detailed and transparent than the JBL throughout the frequency spectrum, and its midbass reproduction sounded a bit more natural. The Paradigm also presented a tight, dynamic sonic picture with large-scale rock and orchestral recordings, but was no match for the JBL's dynamics at high levels, particularly at high levels.

The Mission 731I continued to impress me with its natural, detailed, and transparent midrange presentation, and although both frequency extremes were truncated compared with the JBL, its timbral personality was very balanced. Bass was tuneful but effectively missing in action below 60Hz in my large listening room. Unlike the JBL, however, the Mission congested and lost definition on complex material at loud volumes.

The Alón Petite was a league beyond the other speakers in transparency, low-level dynamic articulation and nuance, and high-frequency naturalness and extension—as, at $1000/pair, it should be. However, although the bass was tight and tuneful down to 60Hz, it rolled off rapidly below that in my large room. (I usually pair the Petites with the PW-1 subwoofer in my large room, which extends the bass response to the mid-30s and the price to $1500.)

Summing up
The intriguing S38 puts JBL on the serious audiophile map at a very attractive price. Although its timbral personality might not be everyone's cup of tea, its loudness capabilities and dynamic contrasts place it in the league of speakers that cost more than three times as much. A close friend and sometime musician and audiophile music reviewer reacted to the S38 while listening during a recent party at my house: "I've heard better, but it's great for the money...." That about sums up my view as well. Bravo to JBL's Greg Timbers and Dr. Floyd Toole!

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Woodbury, NY 11797
(800) 336-4525