“Among the best speakers you can buy”
FOR Resolution; composure; finesse; superb bass response AGAINST Retro appearance isn’t to all tastes; size; price
For many people, owning a pair of JBL’S K2 S9900s will be a non-starter. Even putting the massive price tag to one side, folk won’t get on with their determinedly retro appearance, their unfashionable proportions – which make them wider than they are deep – or like the fact that they use horn technology for everything above bass frequencies.
Those people will be missing out. The K2s achieve superstar status, delivering a performance that’s as informative as it is fun. We can’t think of an alternative that has had such an addictive effect on us. What makes them so good? As usual, it’s never just one thing; more a combination of engineering and tuning decisions that have turned these monster speakers into one of the finest pairs of floorstanders we’ve ever heard.
Appreciate the scale
Monsters? First off, these speakers are huge. Each one is about the size of a stout fridge and weighs as much as one too: they are 120cm high, about half as wide, and weigh in at a hefty 83kg. Don’t try to install these JBLS alone – your back won’t thank you for it.
Other numbers say a lot about these speakers – 38cm bass driver, 93db/w/m sensitivity and an 8 ohm nominal impedance with a minimum of just one shy of that. From these figures you can expect plenty of bass action with no shortage of sonic authority, and the ability to deliver high volumes – even when fed modestly powered amplification.
While these speakers sound perfectly happy with a good quality 50W amplifier, their power-handling figure of 500W suggests they may come into their own when driven by high-quality, high-power amplification. Indeed, much of the design work on these was done with sister brand Mark Levinson’s products – those never want for grunt.
The S9900s are three-way speakers. That large, rear-ported, paper-coned bass driver works all the way to 900Hz, at which point a 10cm magnesium compression driver takes over. This unit is far more than just a midrange as it handles most of the treble too, right up to 15khz where the 25mm beryllium compression super tweeter takes over.
The integration between these drivers is handled seamlessly through a high-quality, but relatively simple, biwire crossover. The aim with this circuit is to maximise detail and dynamics while still providing an even frequency response.
While horn speakers don’t have a particularly stellar reputation as regards a smooth frequency response, these JBLS prove things don’t have to be that way. The engineers have taken great care with the horn profiles to ensure good and balanced dispersion.
A considered design
That curved front baffle provides the sidewalls for the main horn while the top and bottom sections are made of precision-moulded Sonoglass. The super tweeter is also horn-loaded; in this case it sits behind a dedicated Sonoglass horn.
Two MDF layers of differing thickness go into making the 25mm thick cabinet. These layers are decoupled from each other, but together with extensive bracing, make the K2’s cabinet a surprisingly rigid and inert structure.
Fit and finish is as good as we expect at this level. Each cabinet edge is beautifully crisp and the finish of the wood veneer is flawless, just as it should be. There are two standard finishes – the wood grain of our review sample and Zebrawood. Add another £11,000 to the K2s’ price and you can have a choice of seven high-gloss options. These are built to order – taking around four months – and hand-finished.
Positioning is remarkably easy. These may be massive speakers but they
“The K2s achieve superstar status. We can’t think of a speaker that has had such an addictive effect on us”
don’t need a particularly large room to shine. Our 7 x 5m listening room was perfectly acceptable, though we have no doubt a larger space would result in an even bigger sense of scale, more agile lows and the opportunity to push the speakers harder.
We position them about a metre from the back wall and well away from the sides, with just a bit of angle towards the main listening position. It’s worth playing around with the angles, as it’s possible to dial-in the stereo image scale pretty well. Even once you’ve got things optimised, if you sit notably off-axis the soundstage isn’t as convincing as if you are centrally seated, although the JBLS’ sonic character remains intact. Choose carefully It also pays to take care with partnering equipment. While the K2s are surprisingly easy to drive, they’re also wholly transparent to the quality of the source and amplification, right down to the cables used. If your equipment has flaws or a distinctive sonic characteristic, these speakers will reveal it.
”A er a few seconds we sit back and laugh at the ease with which the K2s deal with that distinctive bassline”
Simply put: don’t skimp on the rest of the system. If you’re planning on buying speakers at this level, expect to pay a similar high-end price for the rest of your set-up. We use our reference Naim NDS/555PS music streamer, Clearaudio Innovation Wood record player/luxman EQ-500 phonostage and Gamut D3i/ D200i pre/power amplifier combination to good effect.
It’s hard not to approach speakers such as these JBLS with preconceptions. They’re huge and have a massive bass driver, so high volume levels and seismic bass are firmly on the menu. Horn design? That must mean high sensitivity and punchy presentation, plus a bit of shoutiness thrown in, right? Well, yes and no.
Most of these things ring true. We start off with one of our favourite bass torture tracks, the classic Angel by Massive Attack. After a few seconds we sit back and laugh at the ease with which the K2s manage to deal with that distinctive, insistent bassline.
Heard like never before
Low frequencies are rendered with utter conviction. Yes, they are extended and powerful but, less predictably, they bristle with agility and texture. We can’t recall hearing this track laid bare with such skill or reproduced with such composure, especially at volume. This is a sound that you feel as much as hear.
Most speakers change their sonic character noticeably as the volume changes, but not these. The K2s retain most of their sparkle, even at a whisper, and from there continue with an unchanging balance as the watts mount. They stay clean and controlled while refusing to harden up, even at very high levels. Trying to break them, we found our limits came first.
But the K2s are about more than simply bass and volume. Move higher up the frequency range and you’ll find an immensely engaging midrange that captures vocals with considerable skill. Voices are strongly projected with a great deal of clarity. That nominal midrange driver covers everything from 900Hz to 15khz, so there’s none of the vagueness we hear from conventional speakers (whose crossover point tends to be planted in the heart of the midrange).
Smoothing rough edges
Crossover networks, while necessary in speakers, invariably add a degree of phase distortion while compromising transparency and dynamics. The K2 has moved these unavoidable issues to frequency points where they’re much less likely to be heard.
Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar OST plays right to the K2s’ strengths. It’s a chance for the speakers to show off their great authority, their ability to deliver large dynamic shifts and display their skill at organising a complex production without pulling the music apart.
The K2s sound clean and clear, handling the most fragile instrumental strands with all the care they deserve. Yet, they’re fully capable of generous portions of scale and power when the music demands. Just a short listen to Mountains is enough to convince of that.
No piece of hi-fi is perfect
Flaws? We’ve heard speakers that convey the tonality of an instrument more convincingly, though few, if any, that deliver its dynamic nuances better or match the palpable sense of presence. While these JBLS paint a fairly convincing soundstage, it’s not as expansive or as out-of-the-box as some we’ve heard.
In our experience, even the very best hi-fi remains some way from perfection. But make no mistake – we consider the JBL K2 S9900s to be among the best speakers money can buy. They can charm and thrill. They can make us sad or happy, just as the music demands. We can’t get enough of them.
With the grille in place the JBLS take on the fullness of their retro looks
At 120cm high they’re visually imposing, but that’s nothing compared with their sonic impact
1 IN DETAIL 1 The midrange horn handles frequencies right up to 15khz. Its top and bottom sections are made of moulded Sonoglass 2 We love the deep bass reach, texture, effortless volume and dynamic dexterity of the mighty 38cm driver 3 Bass frequencies are tuned by the JBLS’ rear-firing port, which sits just above the high-quality speaker connections 3 2
Expect the JBLS to reveal previously unheard subtleties within music