Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
It seems that from the 1950s right up to the 1990s, adventures in Hi-Fi were about exploring the limits of what was technically possible in terms of faithful sound reproduction. Size, look, and cost seemed to be of lesser concern to Hi-Fi manufacturers and the proud owners of the gear at the higher end of the market. Monstrous receivers, such as the Kenwood KR-9400 of 1974 to 1976, and loudspeakers the size of wardrobes, such as the Electro Voice Patrician 800 of the mid-70s to early 80s, all stood testimony to this fact. The primary music source of this period was the vinyl record, of which Hi-Fi enthusiasts tended to own impressive collections.
With the advent of more compact music formats, such as the CD (Sony 1982; Philips 1983), the DAT (Sony 1987), and ultimately the MP3 player (Saehan 1997), the audio market was intrigued to learn what else could be made smaller and more convenient. After years of bigger and better devices, the focus of the new millennium was about the question of how much size, weight, and cost could be sacrificed, before the magic of what once was music was lost. Mainstream Hi-Fi engineering therefore began building smaller and lighter gear. Loudspeakers became tall and slim to hide in the living spaces rather than dominate them. Consumers were attracted to smaller speakers that would offer much of the sound of their taller cousins.
Speaker cables first disappeared into the walls, before they were ultimately replaced by WiFi or Bluetooth and disappeared altogether. The KEF LS-50 and 'LS-50 wireless' of 2012 to 2022 are cases in point. The LS-50 are compact bookshelf loudspeakers that can best show their sonic virtues when positioned on proper Hi-Fi stands, taking into consideration the dimensions of the room, etc. The wireless version, which is slightly more expensive, offers the added advantage to the Hi-Fi newbie that nothing can go wrong in terms of grounding, interconnects, and loudspeaker cables. It is no surprise that, at the time of writing this article, the versatile and unobtrusive KEF LS-50 have been in production for over 10 years. And yet, the LS-50 is still a conservative home speaker design. Other manufacturers that have taken versatility to the next level.
The JBL 'Xtreme 2' were the second generation of JBL’s Xtreme Bluetooth speakers, and the pair that is on display here, was owned and given to me for testing by my long-time friend Thomas Kubalsky, who had previously helped me with a number of Hi-Fi issues. He had originally bought them that he could listen to music on his lengthy bicycle tours. To Thomas, the advantages were that the JBL’s canister-shaped body could easily be attached to his load-carrying bicycle, that they were water-proof, and that they had quick-charging batteries that would provide a playback time of up to 15 hours. Bluetooth connectivity had been a positive asset to him as well, but not an absolute must, given the close distance between cellphone and speakers when attached to his bike. By the time these photos were taken, his JBLs had already accompanied Thomas and his bicycle on numerous trips for at least 10,000 kilometres through excessive heat, dust, and rain.
On the day I decided to take the JBL Xtreme 2 home with me, they had already played a few hours of music at our children’s summer fest at the kindergarten. Thomas had shown me how to pair two Xtreme 2 speakers with my smartphone to create a small array. Although the JBLs had two sets of loudspeakers built in to each unit to allow for stereo playback, the intelligent Bluetooth profiles allowed for left and right channel allocation, when two Xtreme 2s were present. In fact, the profiles allowed for the inclusion of up to 100 loudspeakers in a single array. This amount of speakers should have been enough to power any cocktail or beach party. What really attracted me, though, was the opportunity to learn about the sound quality of such a versatile system with Bluetooth connectivity. How would this hold up in a listening comparison with some real Hi-Fi speakers?
Similar to other small cabinet designs, the JBL Xtreme 2 used passive radiators to suggest a larger cabinet volume and to improve the bass extension of the two smallish dynamic drivers. This was not a new principle but had been used on many famous speakers, such as the KEF Calinda, built from 1975 to 1976, and the Epicure EPI 500, built from 1973 to 1981. And while the Calinda had one passive radiator at its front, the EPI 500 used one radiator on each side of the cabinet, just like the JBL Xtreme models. And since I still had the EPI 500 set up in our second listening room and was perfectly happy with their sound, what better place to set up the small JBLs. To allow for quick A-B comparison, I placed the Xtremes on top of each EPI speaker with their drivers being flush with those of the EPIs.
In setting up the EPI 500 speakers, I had taken special care to achieve the perfect balance of dampening and support. By placing the Xtreme 2s directly on top of the Epicures, therefore, I was sure to benefit from that same advantage. During my listening tests, I made sure to raise or lower my ears to the level of the tweeters when switching between speakers. At the time of the test, the EPI 500s were still powered by our Kenwood KR-9400 receiver, a combo that offered an agile and forward sound with lots of natural bass slam. At the same time, the Epicures’ natural timbre was maintained, which made this combination quite enchanting, especially when it came to the playback of real-life music events. It would be interesting to learn, just how much of the original music event would be transported through the smallish JBL Bluetooth speakers. I was fully prepared to believe that this was just another convenience gadget with few other merits than being small and portable.
When comparing equipment, I tended to listen to the same albums played over and over again. Tonality, agility, transients, and natural bass were just some the characteristics I was interested in. The Epicure speakers could sound anything from muddy to sharp, depending on how they were positioned, supported for stability, and decoupled from the floor. If these aspects were in harmony, they were capable of superb tonal balance, and natural bass. Although with the Epicure bass was not extremely structured, I enjoyed that it was neither laid on too thick nor too lightly when paired with a good amplifier, such as our Becker ST-200, Dynavox VR 70, or even the Kenwood KR-9400 receiver. I put on Diana Krall's album 'Turn Up The Quiet' and listened to this via the EPI 500s first.
When I switched over to the JBL Xtreme 2s, I again had to wake the Bluetooth connection from its sleep and noticed that the unit I had paired as slave woke up only five seconds later. There was also a small amount of lagging and crackling involved, before the connection was perfectly established. At the same time, I was impressed with the palpable image that the JBLs created smack-centre between the speakers. This effect was instantly familiar to me from well-conceived wired connections. The next aspect that caught my attention was the great similarity in tonality between the EPI 500s and the Xtreme 2s. Both speakers presented Diana's voice in a highly believable fashion and with very similar timbre. The Epicure speakers did manage to separate the vocals from the upper bass a little better and therefore sounded slightly less muddy in this area. This difference, however, was much less than I would have expected.
The JBLs remained particularly faithful to the source material during slower and more organised passages of music. The louder and faster the music became, the more the speakers began to reveal their natural limitation. This is not to say that they sounded at all bad or poorly designed, it was just that some of the attack and order of the Epicures was not present when listening to the same track via the JBL speakers. To be honest, I would not have thought that portable Bluetooth speakers would even merit such a comparison, but with the JBLs, it did not seem all too far-fetched. This impression was also reflected back to me by my colleague Landon, who walked into the office smiling, saying: "Karsten, I would not have thought to see the likes of them in this office" while pointing at the Xtreme 2s. Upon giving him a demonstration, however, Landon seemed perplexed and, like me, had to confess that he would have assumed the difference between the speakers to be much greater. "So, they are really not bad, huh?" Landon said as he walked over to his desk.
When pairing the two Xtreme 2s for the first time, they were automatically set to 'Party Mode', which meant that each speaker was playing the full stereo image. This had the advantage that they could be positioned far apart, without sacrificing music information at the point of listening. To set them up in 'Stereo Mode', I had to first download the 'JBL Connect' or 'JBL Portable' app from the App Store. Switching the devices into Stereo Mode only took a few seconds, however, I did experience an issue by which I had some trouble in trusting the music information to be intact. This impression may have stemmed from sudden changes in channel volume that I consciously noticed on a few occasions. The stereo image also seemed overly emphasised at times with a strong but rather unpredictable three dimensional effect and a slightly hollow sound. [This was possibly due to a timing issue between the two channels called Hass effect. Thank you, Jens.] In consequence, there was a slight strain on my ears, which I had not experienced with the speakers set in 'Party Mode'.
Hence, I switched the speakers back into 'Party Mode' (or mono, in that case) and instantly felt much happier with their performance. In conclusion, I was able to report that the Xtreme 2 were acoustically well-engineered loudspeakers with excellent tonality, whose merits remained sadly concealed by a rather unstable Bluetooth connection. In 'Party Mode', with each speaker playing the full stereo signal, some aspects of vocal and instrument playback were similar to the better speakers of this world. In 'Stereo Mode', however, Bluetooth made the speakers lose all sense of proportion, flinging individual notes at random into the room. The occasional drop in volume, or even the disappearance of one channel altogether, put a strain on the listener and took away from the relaxing and reassuring aspect of the music. In short: A better connection would have turned these into far better speakers, because, physically, they really had a lot going for themselves.