My ears always perk up when I hear the JBL name. Even before I made the high end a kind of second home, my parents and my friends’ parents all had either Altecs or JBLs blasting away in their living rooms. The white-coated cone woofers and the compression horn drivers exquisitely finished in an ominous black crackle conveyed power and quality. Later, in fact, one of my first real systems was built around the 70s-era JBL L-100, the consumer version of the 4310 studio monitors—yes, the one with the Quadrex foam grille (I’m guessing orange, if memory serves). Today, JBL watchers note that the original L-100 has been recently reinvented as the L-100 Classic ($4000). Of course, back then what I really wanted was a JBL Paragon console or a pair of Voice of the Theatre behemoths in my tiny bedroom, but those were the stuff of dreams for a teenager.
The JBL Stage series is a modestly priced collection that spans both the stereo and home-cinema worlds. The series is a wide-ranging one, designed for mixing and matching depending on the number of channels required, prospective room size, and furnishings. Stage includes a trio of towers, a pair of two-way compacts, two center channels, plus a couple of subwoofers. The largest in the Stage family, the $900-per-pair A190, is a two-and-a-half-way bass-reflex design. Visually the look of the A190 is all-business with no obvious frills. The square-shouldered, 42″-tall tower is imposing and has considerable depth at 14.5″. There are three drivers, including a waveguide-design aluminum-dome tweeter (the waveguide improves tweeter sensitivity and dispersion at the crossover point) and a pair of 8″ polycellulose-cone woofers. The cabinet is constructed from 5/8″ MDF. There are one-inch-thick Dacron panels on the top, bottom, back, and sides of the cabinet to damp internal standing waves. Further strengthening the cabinet are three strategically positioned crossbraces that reduce the transference to the enclosure of vibrations from the transducers mounted to the front baffle.
Surprising though it may seem, in many ways it was not all that great a leap from my early JBL system to the Stage A190. Certain factors inform a company with deep traditions and long reputations. Expectations must be met. Even at their relatively low cost, the A190s, like all JBLs, are carefully engineered. As with their professional forebears, the studio-monitor bloodline is evident from the get-go. Tonally the A190 lays it out rather than laying it back. It outputs SPLs at levels that are not for the faint of heart or the bass-averse. My first impression was of a loudspeaker of low-frequency gravitas and warmish midrange balance, its résumé filled with dynamic sock. From the opening timpani and bass-drum concussions to the blaze of the brass section flourishes during Aaron Copland’s Fanfare, I was aware that I had left the skim-milk world of the compact and the mini-monitor and rejoined the land of fully laden, ear-flapping bass response. There was little in the way of pulled punches when it came to dynamic impact.
From the start the A190 energized the room as only dual-woofers capable of launching a lot of air can. This JBL is an appealing, brawny performer that shows its muscles in the mid- and upper-bass ranges and doesn’t let energy escape its grasp. The A190 provides a rich, fertile environment for cello and bass viol and low percussion, and this created a convincing sense of venue and atmospheric bloom that may carry the day whether you are a classical or jazz enthusiast or someone who just likes to kick back with pop oldies.
I don’t often turn to a rock classic like Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” in an evaluation, but the A190 kind of teases you into doing “naughty things” with volume controls. As output rose to near rock concert levels, the A190 happily spelled out the size of Dave Grohl’s kickdrum in ways so authentic that I could almost take a tape measure to it. Turning to the band’s monster hit “Smells like Teen Spirit,” the A190 seemed to release the full dynamic thrust of the shredding chorus without any hint of back pressure.
Percussive details and bass lines were cleanly represented. Music plays through the A190 like an engine with no mufflers. However, even with all my own provocations the gritty vocal of Kurt Cobain was smoothly and stably reproduced within its acoustic pocket. It was mayhem, yes, but high-resolution mayhem.
In tonal balance, the A190 was commendably neutral, neither etching nor otherwise agitating the treble or port-pumping single-note pulses in the midbass. The frequency response graph that JBL shared with me at my request pretty much matched what I was hearing—a bit of midrange underlining and shallow, short troughs around the crossover points of 1.4 and 2kHz. Essentially excellent response for a modestly priced loudspeaker. Many a speaker that I’ve encountered at much higher price points should be so lucky.
Vocal reproduction and timbre, both female and male, were very good with a slight forward energy that I find far more likeable than designs that “lay back” the performance in a recessive pocket. Singers were well centered on the stage, as well. There was also nice delineation and air between vocalists. There are few recordings that better underscore this ability than the Audio Fidelity Peter, Paul & Mary reissues by Steve Hoffman. Songs like “All My Trials” or “500 Miles” were remarkably unveiled and fast, and the A190 did justice to them. Nonetheless, there’s still a pointed emphasis and “framing” of energy that underscored vocals like those found on Nat King Cole’s mono cover of “Stardust.” It’s a relatively small inter-driver distraction, but it’s there.
What the A190’s substantial midbass output does convey in abundance are the atmospherics of a performance that allow the narrower confines of your listening space to fall away to a large degree. Soundstage creation, at least on lateral and vertical bases, was good for this price segment, displaying orchestral instrumentation nicely arrayed across the stage. However, front-to-back dimensionality was lacking, as was orchestral layering during Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. There were glimmers and glimpses of the acoustic confines of the venue but hardly the specificity and envelopment that I’d hope for.
Occasionally I gathered the impression of the tweeter being a little out ahead of the bass octaves and heard a hint of cabinet coloration or port interaction that thickened familiar bass tracks such as Renaud Garcia-Fons’ “Palermo Notturno” or the crescendos of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Images within the soundspace could be a bit amorphous at times, less rooted in place. During Clark Terry’s One on One, a collection of piano/trumpet duets, I’ve heard a stronger indication of the horizontal movement across the piano keyboard that allows me to visualize the artist’s hands moving over the keys. Here that movement was a little ill-defined. The highest levels of transparency and low-level detail are a bit beyond the JBL’s purview; thus, during Malcom Arnold’s “A Sussex Overture” the crash cymbals were a bit splashy and slightly smeared while orchestral layering and imagery seemed a bit more approximated.
At nine-hundred smackers per pair, there is stiff competition from the likes of personal faves Elac and Emotiva, among others. The former, equipped with a concentric mid/tweeter offers a level of precision imaging that the A190 can’t quite match, while the Emotiva Airmotiv T1 has that delectable ribbon tweeter. The A190 is more of an all-purpose performer, strong across all criteria. Every speaker in this category falls a little short of perfection, but if the goal is musicality and a semblance of full-range, seat-of-the-pants slam and dynamic authenticity, the Stage A190 is one of the best and most affordable real-world efforts I’ve encountered in a long time. A no-brainer of a bargain.
Specs & Pricing
Type: 2.5-way bass-reflex
Driver complement: 25mm tweeter, two 8″ mid/bass
Frequency response: 36Hz–40kHz
Dimensions: 42.1″ x 10.25″ x 14.5″
Weight: 49.7 lbs.
HARMAN INTERNATIONAL INDUSTRIES
8500 Balboa Blvd.
Northridge, CA 91329
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