JBL S38 loudspeaker

JBL speakers remind me of college.

I lived in a very musical fraternity house in the 1970s—almost everyone bought a new system for his room immediately upon moving in. (Not me—I mooched until I could afford the cash and space for a true high-end system, which was well after graduation.) Our house was evenly divided into three schools: the "boom and sizzle" California school had JBLs; the "reserved and polite" New England school swore by Advents—after all, the school itself was located in Advent's home of New England; and the "creative school," who illegally purchased the parts and plans to build Bose 901s for $120, not including lumber and labor (it was an MIT frat house). A dozen of my friends built these "Bose-os," and no two pair sounded alike. One day we had a party and hooked up more than 25 complete systems in parallel in a single room. The sound? Well, let's just say we had a bit of a turntable feedback problem.

Although I voted with the "reserved and polite" Advent camp, I spent most of my time in the JBL rooms, whose residents had the best musical taste. I have fond memories of long, chemically altered nights listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer on JBL's then flagship, the Century L-100. (Hey, I needed a break from Organic Chemistry and Differential Equations!) The Centurys were sure fun, but they lived up to the old California sound stereotype: they were lively, boomy, forward rock speakers, but not the last word in neutrality or realism.

Fast forward 25 years: JBL today is part of the Harman Group and one of the beneficiaries of Harman's Loudspeaker Design and Acoustic Facility in Northridge, California, headed up by acoustician/designer Dr. Floyd E. Toole. As Toole's work on JBL's Professional Series Linear Spatial Reference (LSR) recording-studio monitors have caused quite a buzz among studio cognoscenti, I was interested in hearing a representative of the consumer line JBL has derived from the LSRs, the Studio or "S" series developed by Chief Engineer Greg Timbers. For this review, I chose the S38, JBL's mirror-imaged "bookshelf" design ($599/pair). (The S38 was reviewed by J. Gordon Holt as a rear-surround speaker in the February 2001 Stereophile Guide to Home Theater.)

The S38 is a three-way, front-ported satellite speaker with an unusual appearance: its horizontal dimension is longer than its vertical. It sports a 1" titanium-dome tweeter with rubber surround mounted on JBL's Elliptical Oblate Spheroidal® waveguide baffle. This is basically a carefully profiled short horn which is intended to improve lateral dispersion as well as direct sound toward the listening area. The 4" polymer-coated, cellulose-fiber midrange driver is mounted close to the tweeter on the same bezel, to better approximate the behavior of a point source. The 8" woofer is made of the same material. Like all the models in JBL's Studio series, the S38 is magnetically shielded for potential home-theater applications.

Although JBL describes the S38 as a "bookshelf" speaker, I mounted the S38s on Celestion Si stands filled with lead shot and sand, with the tweeters at the speakers' far, outer edges. I tested the speakers with and without the grillecloths in place. The tonal balance was the same in each case, although the sound was slightly more detailed and transparent with the grillecloths removed. Although I preferred the sound with the grillecloths off, the unusually striking appearance (intentional, according to JBL) of the metallic-gold woofers is a taste that my wife did not acquire during the review process. Small children also found the S38 attractive—I was just able to stop my son's three-year-old cousin from kicking a field goal through the woofer while the speakers were resting on the floor during the break-in process.

I should point out that during the early stages of my listening sessions, I heard an intermittent buzz in one of the woofers. The woofers are bolted to the cabinets using a series of Allen bolts, and I noticed that all of the bolts were loose. A minute spent tightening them with an Allen wrench and the buzz was gone.

Not your father's JBL?
With the first recording I listened to, it was clear that the S38 was a far cry from JBLs of yore. On all of the tracks of Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (Analogue Productions APP 027), vocals and piano highlighted the speaker's superb reproduction of lower and middle midrange timbres, which were as natural and as transparent as those of any speaker I've heard for under $1000/pair. The speakers "disappeared" as Ian's rich, silky voice floated over the center of the soundstage.

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