“Among the best speak­ers you can buy”

FOR Res­o­lu­tion; com­po­sure; fi­nesse; su­perb bass re­sponse AGAINST Retro ap­pear­ance isn’t to all tastes; size; price

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Feature -

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

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