Metal fatigue – I'm tired of metal drivers, which have taken the notion of 'fashion' to new and ever more ludicrous extremes. For every speaker thus equipped which actually sounds good (and there are quite a few) there's another which sounds awful, so I hate the way that this trend in speaker design has taken on the tone of 'universal solution', much in the way that many hawked thin-strand cable as a one-size-fits-all panacea. And it didn't put me in too good a mood for the JBL's XPL 90, which sports yet another variant.
My experiences so far with metal driver systems suggest that the technology is no guarantee of superior performance, which points
us back to the synergy of a speaker's constituent parts as one of the keys to a successful design. So, although JBL's pure titanium, ribbed, ferro-fluid-cooled 25mm tweeter is the most
distinctive ingredient, it shouldn't overshadow the other details which combine to make this a product worth auditioning.
Yes, the tweeter in this small, high-quality monitor does offer exceptional power handling, much better than average dispersion, lots of information, few sizzles, near-electrostatic speed and a high degree of transparency. But these virtues can be found in a number of other systems, with or without metal drivers. What makes the XPL 90 so special is its activity in the bass department, bordering on the extraordinary for a system with an enclosure measuring a mere 394x241x248mm (HWD). Every product I've ever auditioned has ¬something¬ about it which grabs you within the first few seconds of exposure to it; with the JBL, it's a sensation of weight and solidity which makes a number of other systems in similarly-sized enclosures seem unsatisfactory by comparison.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that the 165mm composite material woofer in its ported enclosure delivers anything like the extension only available from hefty transmission lines or trick woofers with enormous magnets or enclosures at least the size of a small fridge. The JBL's bass satisfies because it goes beyond merely adequate without giving the impression that the speaker is about to burst. There's no strain, no odd bumps to fool you into thinking that the system is flat to 20Hz. It's tailored to the sound of the tweeter, so what you lose in extension – a touch of richness, for example, on discs like Wasserman's ¬Duets¬ – you
gain in control. Best of all, it never sounds overdamped.
The rigid, braced cabinet is clever, maybe too clever because its shape is trapezoidal; the sides slope slightly inward toward the rear, while the edges are contoured. In a world where the vast majority of box-type speakers have parallel panels, designs which don't look drab are at a disadvantage. But JBL's form follows function, so the cabinet and the rubbery baffle, like the bodies on modern cameras, are by-products of the design – not merely stylish touches.
The baffle is made from layers of rigid fibreboard for strength and a shell of 'Reaction Molded Foam' for acoustical damping. The rubbery outer layer is a 6mm sheet of neoprene, chosen because it controls diffraction by preventing smearing the mid and treble signals from re-radiating off the baffle's surface. Additionally, the baffle is 'stepped' in a manner popular a few years back, to control arrival times by placing the tweeter slightly behind the woofer. The almost-rounded back and non-parallel sides help to break up internal standing waves. All of these details combine to create a close-to-dead, resonance-free enclosure, and your ears
reap the reward of smear-free, precise sound.
'Precise' is a word I'm wary of using in connection with JBL, because in the past it meant that signature, West Coast sound of hyper-detail and showroom razzmatazz. I don't want the folks in Slough to get too egotistical about this, but I think that JBL must be paying attention to voices in Great Britain. Regardless of all the high-tech features and the shades-of-Next styling, right down to its mix of greys and blacks, the JBL sounds more 'British' than any speaker they've made in recent memory. You'll never mistake it for a Spendor BC1, but you won't think 'Polk', either.
The tweakiness carries on throughout the design, from the gold-plated binding posts to the internal wiring courtesy of Monster Cable to a crossover bearing such treasures as low-loss,
high current capacitors and the use of bypass capacitors throughout. The only feature not seen on this model (but present in the dearer XPLs) is bi-wiring, but what the heck.
What is an issue with the XPL, and one of which I think too much might be made, is that the speaker is polarity-inverting. In other words, red is 'negative' and black is 'positive' in keeping
with many of the company's professional models. (Which explains why a friend of mine, who thinks hi-fi is for wimps and that only industrial strength pro gear is worth considering, always uses black as positive...) The points which many will miss or ignore are (1) anyone installing a new loudspeaker should always invert the polarity, back and forth a few times, to learn which way sounds better, and (2) how many people know if their CD players, pre-amps, amps, tuners and phono cartridges are non-inverting? (Best advice: buy a pre-amp with a polarity inversion switch. But I'm not going off on that one again.)
In my system, which may or may not be non-inverting by the time the signal reaches the speaker terminals, the JBLs sounded audibly superior using black as the positive terminal. But I also know that if I were to switch but one component for its polar(ity) opposite, then I'd have to switch the speakers, too. So, if anyone ever tells you that a non-inverting component is 'better' than an inverting one, without referring to the system in which it's used, that person should be regarded as an incompetent and removed from your Christmas card list.
I knew that JBL was on to something with the XPL 90 just by gauging the response of the myriad visitors – audiophiles as well as civilians – and the reponses were unanimously
favourable. Even low-key remarks like 'Hey, those are pretty nice!' mean a lot more than some detailed discourse on upper mid-band glare or restricted stage depth (which, I hasten to add,
are not present with the XPL 90). Indeed, the JBL came through its audition as if it were the Infinity RS 2001's big brother. (See 'Potpourri' in this issue.) And, no, the similarity has
nothing to do with the fact that both JBL and Infinity are part of Harman International.
If there has to be a listing of the negatives, allow me to restrict it to a lack of delicacy which may make this more of a hit with rockers than those who cherish string quartets. The
speaker is hungrier than its 87dB/1W/1m rating suggests, too, and it sounds positively irritating with 'budget' amps. Then again, the XPL 90 sells for a serious #699, so I wouldn't expect anyone to drive it with a 30 watter of the pocket-money variety. And that would be an insult to what is the most satisfying JBL I've heard in decades.