One of the industry’s most enduring loudspeaker brands, JBL, even while flourishing mainly in the professional audio realm, continues to produce a wide range of consumer loudspeaker products spanning many different categories and price points. Part of its ‘ES’ series, the $399 per pair (MSRP) ES20 is the second of three bookshelf models (ES10/20/30).
Weighing in at 10.3 pounds, the ES20 offers a unique, interesting, and appealing appearance. With the side panels finished in either a pretty Black, Beech, or Cherry vinyl, the top of the speaker curves directly into the baffle, all finished in a lighter, brushed dark gray. The speaker’s enclosure elegantly tapers from front to back, which also provides a sonic benefit by reducing internal standing waves and, in turn, the cabinet’s vibrational sonic signature. More and more loudspeaker companies have been employing this type of cabinet design. The black grill extrudes from the front baffle, with a top and bottom finished with a neat strip of silver. The ES20 provides gold-plated 5-way binding posts with a textured finish for easy gripping. The ES20 provides a high level of fit and finish, with pretty looks and seams and holes lined up and fitting solid and tight. A three-way design, the ES20 employs a 5-inch PolyPlas woofer crossed over at 3/3kHz (24dB/octave) to a ¾-inch Polyester-film ring radiator mounted in JBL Elliptical Oblate Spheroidal (EOS) waveguide, which crosses over at 12kHz (18dB/octave) to a ¾ inch Titanium-laminate dome super tweeter in EOS waveguide. According to the company, the super tweeter plays out to 40kHz. PolyPlas employs a special lightweight polymer coating to increase stiffness, while EOS improves high-frequency dispersion. The ES20 employs a rear-firing port that fits neatly into the top of the back panel with a silver outer ring.
The ES20 presents a nominal 8 ohm load with an 86dB efficiency. The speaker needed a good-quality power source to perform its best, with average quality receivers failing to measure up. Moving up in scale to better quality receivers and separate amplifiers, the sound improved significantly. I listened to the ES20s with music sources, mounted on stands in a stereo setup. The ES20 offers no on-board mounting hardware.
Read more about the sound of the ES20BK on Page 2.
The ES20s sounded terrific right from the outset, when driven
properly. They threw a deep, wide soundstage with very good imaging and
focus. In particular, the bass exhibited real punch and excellent
depth, with minimal port noise. The extended highs sounded very smooth,
and blended into the upper midrange nicely. The midrange had surprising
realism, with a bit of honk but overall a solid tonality with both male
and female voice. Piano sounded delicate and crisp, and had a nice,
woody feel in the lower registers. The ES20 stretched very well across
all types of acoustic and electric material, and could play very loudly
when pushed (although their low efficiency requires some very good
quality power to do this right). Closer to a wall, the soundstage
compressed a bit, and the mids, in particular, lost a bit of their
depth. But, overall, the ES20 retained a large portion of its great
sound even in this position. It must be noted again, however, that the
ES20 requires a good receiver or amplifier to really shine. Budget
products dragged it down quite a bit. But with the proper power source,
the sound quality of the ES20 makes quite an impression, as it draws a
great balance and never overexposes any given range of frequencies. The
high end maybe could have been a tad smoother and the upper midrange a
bit more lush, but those kinds of requests usually are reserved for
much more expensive speakers. For the price, the ES20 delivers all the
goods and then some.
• The ES20 provides excellent performance and a very well balanced and enjoyable listening experience.
• The ES20 performs well over all kinds of music material – classical,
jazz, rock, vocal, etc., and can play loudly without breaking up.
• The ES20 looks terrific with or without the grills, and comes in two different wood finishes in addition to Black.
• The ES20 needs good quality power to perform its best, and didn’t sound nearly as good with budget receivers or amplifiers.
• The ES20 doesn’t provide any on-board mounting hardware.
• The ES20 needs to sit at least 10-12 inches from the wall to sound its best.
The JBL ES20 offers sound quality on par with the best speakers in its
class. It’s smooth, detailed, punchy, airy, and transparent, with tiny
flaws that never overly intrude into the presentation. Its coherence
and balance really shine, and its versatility over many types of music
material doesn’t hurt either. Potential buyers must consider, however,
that a good quality receiver or amplifier is a necessity to get the
ES20 to perform its best, as well as a bit of space around the
speakers. That said, the ES20 deserves a spot on the short list of high
performance, affordable bookshelf speakers to audition.