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.