JBL XPL-160 loudspeaker Page 2

The rear connection panel, site of the bi-wire terminals and the tweeter-level control, was a bit small and cramped when used with heavy-gauge audiophile cables—when will manufacturers stop recessing these panels? And one of the terminals on one of the XPLs came loose during the testing. It never lost electrical contact, but had to be tightened with caution to keep from twisting and (possibly) breaking the internal contact.

The cabinet finish of the XPL series is noteworthy. Our 160s were dressed in a flawless, high-gloss black lacquer which would not be out of place on a top-quality grand piano. Matching spiked stands are an option I strongly recommend. Removable grilles complement the cabinet handsomely, but though of reasonably open construction, they are not a low-diffraction design, and I did all of my listening without them.

JBL clearly had quite a challenge with their XPL-160 loudspeakers—indeed, with their whole XPL line. Could they retain the lively, up-front sound they've been noted for in the past, yet at the same time satisfy the fussy audiophile, who gladly sacrifices at least some of these qualities (though not always consciously) for neutrality and lack of coloration? Could they (or would they) open their dance card to those who court the likes of MartinLogan, Apogee, Snell, Quad, Thiel, Vandersteen, and a handful of others without getting their toes stepped on?

When first unpacked, the XPL-160s appeared to be functioning properly. When I returned to them some weeks later for serious auditioning, however, something had gone very wrong. The two loudspeakers had substantially different balances. One was decidedly dull, though the tweeter appeared to be at least functioning. Measurements indicated this to be the case: the tweeter in the right-hand loudspeaker had lost several dB of output. I was puzzled. JBL was alarmed. To shorten a long story, at JBL's recommendation I swapped tweeters between the two systems. When the problem followed the tweeter, it was apparent that the difficulty lay in the drive-unit, not elsewhere in the system. JBL fired out a new tweeter to Santa Fe, and proper operation was restored.

Finally the XPL-160s were ready to go. I set them up on their dedicated stands, toed them in toward the listening position, and set their tweeter-level control on normal. Some experimentation with positioning ensued, but the position finally chosen was very close to the position normally used in my listening room with forward radiators, well clear of rear and side walls. Spikes were inserted and serious listening began.

It was immediately apparent that the qualities on which JBL has built its reputation were intact. The words "lively," "punchy," and "dynamic" immediately came to mind. All in a very positive sense; all without going over the edge. The soundstage was definitely forward and attention-grabbing; lateral imaging was precise, depth respectable though not arresting. I was impressed; the XPL-160 was clearly a JBL but, at the same time, did not fit the JBL stereotype. Like most stereotypes, this one involved a heavy dose of fiction. But was any of it real?

In one sense, it was. I continued to be favorably impressed by the XPL-160's sparkling, vibrant, and open sound in the upper octaves. Its was hard to resist its attractions. The Chesky Records Jazz Sampler Vol.1 (Chesky JD37) opened like gangbusters, with a crystalline clarity that never let up. Percussion was there. Voice was fully present and accounted for, but with well-controlled sibilants—indicating at least a clean response up to a minimum of 10kHz. The ragtime piano on Ragtime Razzmatazz Volume 1 (LP, Wilson Audio W-808) shimmered, but was free of the slight fuzz which I have heard from this recording on a number of loudspeakers (and was beginning to suspect was in the recording). And the whistle on "My Pony Boy" from the same album will roll down your socks!

JBL seemed to be on to something. There's a quickness to the lower treble which seems to be directly attributable to that 3" midrange driver, a quickness which the typical cone midrange would be hard-pressed to approach. To be sure, it isn't invariably a joy; I did note an occasional hardness. But it was a rare occurrence, on isolated recordings (but ones which have not demonstrated this quality on other loudspeakers); I was only marginally tempted to use the –2dB position of the tweeter-level control, a setting which I found generally shaved off a bit too much of the top couple of octaves and caused the low treble to dominate. Not a plus, in my opinion. More often than not, however, I marveled at the lack of hardness or Technicolored qualities in the upper treble. Indeed, the highest octave even seemed a trace slow and softened compared to the quickness of the octaves just below it—I sometimes wished for a bit more air and missed a certain subtle delicacy at the very top. But I would not want to purchase it at the expense of a zippy, top-heavy high end, qualities which the XPL-160 did not demonstrate during my listening sessions.

The JBLs also presented a large, impressive, yet articulate soundstage. This was more impressive in lateral placement than in depth, however. While I can't recall any specific instance where I was struck either by a great lack of depth or a profusion of it—within the limitations of the program material—my general impression was of some flattening of overall perspective. Very definitely not two-dimensional, but unlikely to provide thrills for those seeking the ultimate front-to-back dimensionality, either.

Although the XPL-160 demonstrated a sure-footed ability to produce life without hype from the upper midrange through the top of the audible band, it began to run into difficulties below that. These difficulties weren't immediately obvious. Boxy colorations remained commendably low, and solo instruments, voices, and small groups had appealing presences without overdoing it. And the bass foundation seemed reasonably secure and extended.

But my uneasy feelings about this range—not coincidentally, I feel, the range covered by the 10" woofer—persisted. The woofer, which covers a good deal of the midrange, simply could not match the level of detailing provided by the exceptional midrange and tweeter. Leo Kottke's guitar on A Shout Toward Noon (CD, Private Music 2007-2-P) was decidedly too warm. Gordon Lightfoot's voice on If You Could Read My Mind (CD, Reprise 6392-2) was a bit thickened through the lower midrange. While Jay Leonhart's voice on Salamander Pie (DMP CD-422) fared better, his bass accompaniment didn't, and the slowness of the region covered by the woofer was apparent compared with the quickness of the upper registers. And the chorus on Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony (EMI CD-EMX 2142) was not particularly transparent, the interplay between the various sections lacking definition.

The low-bass extension of the XPL-160s was good, though some of the warmth of the ranges above it continued. It did not plumb the depths in quite the same way that some of the competition does, however, and at its price I found the subjective extension somewhat disappointing. It may be the price paid for the XPL's excellent sensitivity: 3.5dB more sensitive than the PSB Stratus Golds (A-weighting, footnote 2). The low-end extension on Rhythm Devils (LP, Wilson Audio W-8521) was evident, but did not attack the room in quite the same way that it can given the right loudspeaker. The bass power on Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117) was not lacking, but didn't have the gutsy, visceral drive that, say, the less expensive PSB Stratus Golds bring to it. To be fair, the low-end extension of the JBLs certainly appeared to meet their specified –6dB at 40Hz. Actually, it sounded subjectively somewhat better than that. And its bass power handling was excellent.

In what appeared to be the other end of the woofer's range, the mid-to-upper midrange, I noted a hint of coloration—a subtly "canned" quality (I'm tempted to say nasal, but that would greatly exaggerate the effect) which detracts from the realism and adds to the sense of a "reproduced" sound. I consider it less of a problem than the lower-midrange warmth and reduced bass-midrange clarity relative to the top octaves, but it may well bother some listeners more than it did me. It sounded like it was somewhere in the woofer-midrange crossover region; it may actually be coming from the low end of the midrange driver. I've heard such colorations before, although far more severe ones, associated with driving a dome drive-unit close to its resonance.

Compared with the PSB Stratus Golds, also reviewed in this issue, the JBLs were considerably livelier and more open through the upper midrange and lower treble. They were, as I've already pointed out, also considerably more sensitive. But the PSBs were slightly more neutral through the upper midrange, decidedly more transparent from the lower midrange through the upper bass, and definitely more solid and extended in the extreme bottom. The PSBs sounded faster and more open in the high treble, though they sometimes displayed a trace of tizz which the JBLs did not; the latter handled vocal sibilants more gracefully. Both loudspeakers were comparable in imaging capabilities, but the PSB was more convincing in its recreation of depth.

Of the two amplifiers I used to drive the JBLs, the Threshold monoblocks were the more effective. The Krell was somewhat brighter—which the JBLs did not need. And the Threshold did a better job of controlling the JBLs' midbass and lower midrange—which surprised me.

Following what I've already said about some aspects of the XPL-160's sound, you may be surprised when I say that I enjoyed my listening sessions with them. Their clarity continued to impress. What impressed even more was their ability to provide this clarity without overdoing it. If you're looking for an aggressive, punchy, Technicolor sound, this loudspeaker will not give it to you unless it's present at the input terminals. Its midrange driver and tweeter are superb, and if the latter seems to slow down a bit at the top of its range, it does so gracefully, becoming neither tizzy nor dull in the process.

My reservations begin and end at the XPL-160's woofer. It may be that it's being asked to do too much. The 800Hz low-to-mid crossover is a stretch for a woofer of this size, a stretch I have rarely seen accomplished without penalty (footnote 3). It does the job far better than I might have imagined; the need to elaborate on its problems as I see them very likely makes them sound more severe than they are. There are, I'm sure, readers who will not be troubled by them. But placed side-by-side with that exceptional midrange driver, and reflecting on the asking price and the probable competition, they are nits which I feel compelled to pick.

I have not heard the models in the XPL line whose prices flank the XPL-160's. But based on my experience with the latter, both may be worth investigating. The XPL-140 substitutes an 8" woofer—which may possibly mate more smoothly with the upper-range drivers. Surprisingly, JBL specs the XPL-140's –6dB low-frequency cutoff at 5Hz lower (35Hz vs 40Hz) than the larger XPL-160, though at a 2dB sacrifice in sensitivity. Even more intriguing is the XPL-200, which puts a 12" woofer in a larger enclosure and mates it with a 6.5" woofer covering the range from 300Hz to 1100Hz—an appropriate range for such a driver. It is significantly more expensive than the XPL-160 (about $3400/pair), but may definitely be worth investigating if you're shopping in its price range.

My reservations about the XPL-160 will keep it out of Class B of "Recommended Components" (the only class that makes sense for it, considering the price). But the technology behind the XPL-160 is a strong indication that JBL is not a company which high-end–oriented audiophiles (and competitors) can afford to overlook in the future.

Footnote 2: It may also be the price we pay for JBL's large market in Japan, where, I'm told, sensitivity much below 90dB/W/m is considered bad form.

Footnote 3: One of these, the Avalon Ascent, does it, but at a far higher cost.

JBL Consumer Products
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(516) 594-0300