JBL XPL-160 loudspeaker

jbl160.250.jpgA visiting manufacturer recently told us here at Stereophile of an ongoing informal "survey" he was conducting. He would ask strangers to name three brands of loudspeakers. Their responses were not what I would have expected. They almost invariably named Japanese companies—two of the most commonly mentioned were Hitachi and Panasonic. Other than my spell-checker insisting that I change "Hitachi" to "hibachi," I have nothing in particular against these two manufacturers; they are well-recognized in many product categories. But loudspeakers? I can only guess that the respondents were dredging up the only consumer electronics companies that came readily to mind.

My list for most recognized loudspeaker brands would most certainly have included JBL. How could it not? They have been involved in home high-fidelity since 1954. And for years before that in professional audio—primarily motion picture theater sound, a field in which they are still active. In short, they were around before there was such a thing as "hi-fi."

Audiophiles, of course, are very much aware of JBL products. But beyond that point we run into a curious split. While audiophiles of almost every description are familiar with the JBL name, the high-end audiophile has tended to overlook their loudspeakers for years. They were simply not "in" as perfectionist audio products. But they continued to have a strong following in wider audiophile circles (footnote 1).

I don't know where the divergence began, but it seems likely that it occurred in the '60s, when the concepts of "East Coast" and "West Coast" sound originated. Back then, it was easy to define the two. "East Coast" was AR and, perhaps, KLH. Loudspeakers designed primarily for the home. Linear, refined, and maybe just a bit bland. "East Coast" more often than not was also called "New England sound," since most of the manufacturers were located in and around Boston. "West Coast" meant excitement. Flash. Powie zowie sound. Not particularly natural, but who cared? It was like, happening, man. And, not coincidentally, the West Coast also meant Hollywood, where the bending of reality was an institution.

There was also more than a trace of cultural snobbery involved. East Coast sound meant classical, West Coast meant rock. And when you thought of West Coast sound, you thought first of JBL. It was also no coincidence that JBL, located in the heart of the Los Angeles pop recording and film industries, found its way into the hearts (and studios) of the vast majority of pop recording engineers.

The terms East Coast and West Coast sound ceased to have meaning years ago. Loudspeakers which roughly fit both stereotypes are now produced everywhere. In at least one important respect, however, East Coast sound won the war—loudspeakers from all points of the compass are substantially more natural-sounding and linear today than they were 20 years ago.

But JBL's very success in the recording-studio business branded them as a "rock speaker" in the hearts of a significant number of audiophiles. The first glimmer that this would not forever remain the case came in the mid-'80s, with the introduction of JBL's 250Ti loudspeaker, reviewed in Vol.8 No.6. It was a serious attempt to cater to high-end tastes, which, commented JGH in his review, could no longer be ignored as the high end was becoming an important and influential market segment.

That early model incorporated a titanium-dome tweeter. Metal-dome tweeters were just beginning to make an impact—largely in British designs. (It was Celestion which awakened interest in this technology in the early '80s when they designed a metal-dome tweeter for their then-new SL6 loudspeaker system.) While JGH had serious reservations about the 250Ti's overall sound in his 1985 review, he raved about its high-frequency response: "Gorgeous!" (italics and exclamation point his). JBL's latest high-end–oriented effort—the XPL series—is an entire line of loudspeakers incorporating the latest version of that tweeter. And a lot of other new developments as well.

The XPL-160 is one step down from the top of the line, but incorporates most of the line's technology. First off, of course, is that tweeter. Its titanium dome is embossed with a rib pattern to improve rigidity, its pleated surround is made of the same material to reduce nonlinearities, and its metal frame and ferrofluid loading aid in dispersing heat. The latter helps minimize dynamic compression (a change in linearity with increasing level), one of the primary objectives of the XPL series. A two-position tweeter-level control—normal and –2dB—is provided on the back panel.

Below 4kHz the new tweeter crosses over to a 3" metal-dome midrange. Early versions of this driver have been showing up for two or three years now in JBL's CES demos—in products which never made it to market. Metal-dome drivers of this size are rare; the only other one I know of is an MB used in the Avalon Ascent and the Thiel CS5. The MB, however, uses aluminum for its diaphragm, the JBL titanium. As was the case with the JBL tweeter, the midrange has a ribbed diaphragm and a pleated, titanium surround. It's a fascinating driver, said to be capable of linear response from 500Hz to 7kHz with a sensitivity of 94dB. JBL's measurements show that the high-frequency resonance of this driver lies at about 17kHz—common with metal diaphragms and well above the crossover point as used in the XPL-160.

Protective wire-mesh grilles cover both the midrange and tweeter diaphragms, which are very fragile. These grilles may be removed with some difficulty and a lot of caution. I don't recommend it—you'll probably void your warranty. Metal domes dent rather easily and, unlike soft domes, once dented, cannot be repaired and must be replaced. I did all of my auditioning with the grilles in place.

The XPL-160's low-frequency driver uses a polymer-coated fiber cone with a heavy cast frame. Reflex loading is used, with a rear-mounted vent. The crossover is configured for bi-wiring, and internal wiring is Monster Cable.

The XPL-160's enclosure is not your average box. The midrange and tweeter (which are offset slightly on the baffle—the left and right loudspeakers are mirror-imaged pairs) are set back slightly from the woofer to improve the time coherence of the drive-units (a slight tilt provided by the dedicated stands provides further offset), and a 6mm-thick layer of Neoprene covers the top half of the baffle to help control diffraction. The very unconventional baffle is constructed of medium-density fiberboard combined with Reaction Molded Foam—a material used in automotive bumpers. The foam adds thickness to the baffle and has good damping properties. The trapezoidal cross-section of the enclosure adds visual interest and, together with internal bracing, minimizes cabinet colorations. The classic "knuckle-rap" test produced a well-damped, high-pitched sound.

Footnote 1: High-enders often forget that there is a large group of audiophiles, and an interested but non-audiophile public, which often covets equipment very different from what they do.
JBL Consumer Products
1718 W. Mishawaka Road
Elkhart, IN 46517
(516) 594-0300