JBL Studio L Series Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Sunday, 01 October 2006

I started my journey in home theater some 10 years ago with the biggest home theater of them all, a 12-screen multiplex. I was a projectionist for the Colorado division of the famous Mann Theatres chain. Six days a week, I got to play with some of the coolest gear on the planet and at the heart of it all was none other than JBL. In fact, during all my years as a projectionist, every theater I worked for featured JBL sound systems. When it came time to build my own home theater some years ago, I went with what I knew. Since then, my system and tastes have gone through countless changes, from electrostatics to single-ended triodes. Yet, when I look back at my early days in home theater, what I remember most is the stupid grin on my face every time I fired up the JBLs.

JBL is the brainchild of loudspeaker pioneer James B. Lansing. Lansing was responsible for creating many of the early speaker designs that are still seen today, as well as jumpstarting the consumer audio marketplace. Harman International acquired JBL in 1969 and the rest is history. No other brand in the history of audio has managed to permeate almost every facet of American life the way JBL has. From concert venues to movie theaters to your iPod, almost everyone has had an experience with JBL. However, JBL’s home theater products have fallen a bit by the wayside lately as other manufacturers continually raise the bar in price and performance, leaving a lot of the once “untouchable” manufacturers struggling to keep up. Well, the Studio L Series speakers are out to challenge the new status quo and hope to help propel JBL out of a dark age and into the spotlight once again.

I had heard rumblings about the Studio L Series for some time before they were officially unveiled late last year. From the press release, I could tell this was something new for JBL, and I had to have them. Well, a few phone calls and e-mails later, they were on their way. It took the shady side of forever for them to finally arrive, which gave me plenty of time to reminisce about the days of old. One thing I had forgotten about, though, was the fact that JBL likes to build full-range loudspeakers. And like all good full-range loudspeakers, the Studio Ls were big. Once at home, I tore into the Studio L boxes like a kid on Christmas morning. It didn’t take long before I had all the speakers unwrapped and out for inspection. Damn. That was the first thought that went through my head. From top to bottom, the Studio Ls’ visual presentation was that of style and grace. Sure, they were large, but their wood veneer finish and rounded edges helped to create an aura that made it easy to get over their girth. It’s important to mention that, if this particular speaker package isn’t to your liking or is unlikely to fit in your space, there are smaller, more affordable speakers waiting for you within the Studio L lineup.

Naturally, I focused my attention on the sexy new floor-standing speakers first. Retailing for $799.00 each, the L890s are the largest loudspeakers in the Studio L lineup, measuring in at a little over 42 inches tall by 10 inches wide and 15 inches deep. They tip the scales at 60 pounds apiece, so remember to lift with your legs. The L890s come in three different finishes, Black Ash, Beech or Cherry, and are available at select JBL dealers nationwide. The L890s have a four-way design with an advertised frequency response of 28Hz-40kHz via its five-driver array. The first of the L890s drivers is the ultra-high-frequency driver, featuring a Mylar dome set inside an aluminum chassis and mounted in a horn-like fashion that JBL refers to as a bi-radial design. Below that is your more typical high-frequency transducer, which is a one-inch pure titanium dome set inside JBL’s own EOS waveguide aluminum chassis. JBL’s EOS waveguide technology reportedly helps disperse the speaker’s high-frequency information evenly across a larger listening area, resulting in a broader sweet spot for multiple listeners. The speaker’s midrange is handled by a fairly traditional four-inch PolyPlas cone, while the bass is divided between two eight-inch PolyPlas cones and large FreeFlow bass port located on the front of the speaker. With so many drivers, I was expecting to see a dip in the L890’s sensitivity, but the L890 is rated at 91dB into a fairly benign eight-ohm load. The L890 is a bi-wire design via two sets of gold-plated binding posts that will accept either bare wire or spade connectors. Lastly, the L890 features a set of cast-aluminum feet that help couple the speaker to the floor via threaded spikes.

The center channel speaker is arguably the most important in any home theater, and from the looks of it, the LC2 isn’t going to disappoint. The LC2 is large compared to a lot of the center channels that have graced my room recently. Retailing for $599.00 and measuring in at one foot tall by 22 inches wide and five inches deep, the LC2 isn’t going to be mistaken for anything but a speaker. Weighing in at hefty 29 pounds, it’s also not going to be mistaken for lightweight. The LC2 is basically a wall-mount design. I say this because a: it comes with wall-mounting brackets and b: at only five inches deep, it’s not incredibly sturdy standing on its own. The LC2, like the L890, is a four-way design. The LC2 has the same driver array as the L890, but it trades two eight-inch bass drivers for dual six-inch ones. Due to the slightly smaller bass drivers, the LC2’s frequency response ranges from 50Hz to 40kHz. The LC2’s sensitivity differs slightly from its big brother at a reported 92dB into eight ohms. Just like its floor-standing partner, the LC2 is bi-wireable via two pairs of gold-plated binding posts.

Most rear speakers are downright pathetic-looking when compared to the Studio L820s. Then again, most rear speakers can’t pull double duty as left and right mains like the L820s can if you’re a little tight on space. Retailing for $750.00, the L820s are slightly smaller than the LC2 center channel at 12 inches tall by 15-and-a-half inches wide and five inches deep. Like the LC2, the L820’s placement of choice is going to be on the wall, but at 19 pounds, you’re going to want to make sure they’re fastened securely. The L820’s driver array is exactly the same as both the LC2 and L890, but instead of dual low-frequency drivers, the L820 uses a single six-inch cone. The L820 also has a reported frequency response of 55Hz-40kHz and a sensitivity of 90dB into eight ohms. The L820s are also bi-wireable. There really isn’t much more to say about the speakers in the Studio L package, except to mention that they’re all relatively full-range and should blend seamlessly together sonically to create one heck of a large sound field.

No home theater is complete without a subwoofer and the matching L8400P is sure to rattle a few floorboards. Retailing for a $1,099.00 and coming in at 16-and-a-half inches tall by 15-and-a-half inches wide and 15-and-a-half inches deep, the L8400P isn’t the type of sub that is easily hidden from view. Then again, the ones that are don’t move the kind of air the L8400P does. Utilizing a 12-inch driver, the L8400P can reach depths as low as 22Hz with the help of its 600-watt internal amplifier. As for input options, the L8400P can be connected to your system via its gold-plated binding posts or left and right line-level inputs that can also be switched to a single LFE input if you so desire. The L8400P features a continuously adjustable crossover when used in conjunction with its speaker-level connections. The L8400P also has an adjustable volume control, as well as 180-degree phase switch to round out its list of control options. Throw in a hardwired power cord and some matching feet and you’ve got the L8400P in all its glory.

Having recently moved, my near-perfect listening room has been transformed into a less than stellar one, complete with hardwood floors, high ceilings and glass. Lots and lots of glass. Looking past the acoustics, I was able to place all five of the speakers in my room with little trouble. With the help of a stud finder and JBL’s included mounting templates, I was able to hang the rear speakers and center channel with ease. While I was always able to properly anchor one side of the speaker to a stud, I wasn’t always as lucky with the opposite corner. A trip to the hardware store and a few dollars worth of heavy-duty drywall anchors can go a long way toward easing your nerves that your new speakers aren’t going to come crashing down around you. I connected the Studio Ls to my reference receiver, the Denon 4806, using Monster’s M line of speaker cables. I connected the L8400P to the Denon 4806 via a single LFE cable from Monster. I utilized my Denon 3910 universal player for both music and movies for the duration of the review. Since the last set of speakers I had in my system were the diminutive DefTechs, it was crucial to revisit a few of my receiver’s settings. A quick jog through my receiver’s set-up menus and I was in business. I had to play around a bit with placement here and there, but for the most part, I was pretty successful with my placement right from the start. The Studio Ls aren’t difficult or finicky when it comes to placement, provided you don’t park ‘em up against a wall or directly in a corner.

Music and Movies
It’s been a while since I’ve had floor-standing speakers in my room and you never quite realize what you’re missing until either it’s gone or it’s been returned to you. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I threw on one of my favorite albums, Busted Stuff, from the Dave Matthews Band (RCA). I always look forward to seeing Dave live in concert and, while I may have to wait a bit until the band’s next show, it didn’t deter me from trying to recreate the experience in my listening room. During the track “Where Are You Going,” I noticed that the piano, usually contained in the darker regions of the soundstage, danced freely between the speakers and beyond. It was a nice touch and, regardless of whether or not it was intentional, given I’d never heard the piano portrayed in such a way, I sure liked it. The drums were lifelike in every sense of the word. Their scale, weight and brute force were unlike anything I had experienced in my house in a very long time. That’s not to say the bass wasn’t nimble. On the contrary, the L890s, mated with the L8400P, cooked up one hell of a rollercoaster ride, complete with highs and lows and everything in between, and they did so without seemingly breaking a sweat. The highs, even in my acoustically challenged room, never sizzled or became harsh. In fact, with the help of some of Denon’s room correction software and careful speaker placement, I was able to experience some of the sweetest, most airy highs I’ve ever heard from a loudspeaker. It didn’t take long before I was tapping my feet and playing air guitar as Dave’s vocals reverberated with all the warmth and raspiness I’ve come to expect from a live show. In terms of sound stage, the Studio Ls clearly favor width over depth, but then again, my speaker placement is counterproductive when it comes to image depth. Beyond their sound stage, the L890s simply “disappear” unlike any speaker in their class, leaving you with seamless musical experience. Moving on to the track “Digging a Ditch,” the L890s’ sheer musicality was cemented in my eyes. The cymbal crashes had such a presence that, with little effort, I began to “see” the drum kit materialize in front of me. The depth with which the L890s portray texture and nuance is truly remarkable given their relatively modest price tags. The music was effortless, dynamic and, above all, moving.

I didn’t want to go too easy on the Studio Ls, so I quickly grabbed another favorite, Nirvana’s third album, In Utero (Geffen Records). During “Heart Shaped Box,” the L890s proved they could rock out without losing their composure. Even at earth-shattering volumes, the L890s remained musical and composed, despite Kurt Cobain’s best efforts. That’s not to say the L890s glossed over Nirvana’s unbridled sound; they simply didn’t add any grunge of their own. The L890s were so clear in their presentation that I could hear deeper into the recording than ever before. On the track “Rape Me,” the opening guitar riffs were so natural sounding that they felt close enough to touch. During the track “All Apologies,” the L890s recreation of space was phenomenal. When the string quartet kicked in, I could hear the quiver of the bow along the strings. There was an emptiness to the recording space that could be felt during the song’s quieter moments that created a sort of emotional void in my listening room that only added to Kurt’s haunting vocals. Dynamically, the L890s are hard to beat, and their top to bottom coherence is nearly flawless.

Satisfied with two-channel fare, I popped in the DTS audio disc of Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow (DTS Entertainment/Capital). I’m not really a fan of Everclear, but I am a fan of DTS audio discs, so I set my personal tastes aside for the time being. Starting off with “Everything to Everyone,” I was immediately enveloped in a seamless surround sound experience. Normally, I can hear the transition between a system’s main speakers and its smaller rear channels, yet try as I might, I could not easily detect any sonic gap between the L890s and their slightly smaller L820 counterparts. Getting past the Studio L’s surround sound for a moment, its multi-channel performance proved you can get more of a good thing. The bass became even quicker, adding a greater sense of control and detail over the stereo recordings. The treble gained a bit of energy and showed the earliest signs of glare. However, I am confident this had more to do with my room than with the speakers themselves. On the track “I Will Buy You a New Life,” the organ solo was simply overwhelming, in a good way. The entire front wall of my room became an almost floor to ceiling pipe organ, yet retained all the aforementioned detail, air and dynamics. The Studio Ls can go big, very big, and remain incredibly nimble in the process. Likewise, the drum solo towards the end of the song sounded pretty close to live and simply drove me to crank the music until my walls flexed. I’m happy to report the Studio Ls can play at rock concert levels without breaking a sweat or becoming offensive, which should bode well for those of you with large rooms or a propensity for taking it to 11. To test the vocal strength of the center channel, I switched to the track “White Men in Black Suits.” Right off the bat, the center channel proved to be more or less an extension of the singer vs. a reproduction. The vocal track had the appropriate weight and scale while retaining just a hint of warmth that made the medicine go down just a little smoother. The midrange throughout the Studio L’s performance is rich and inviting without becoming too thick, slow or blurry.

Switching to movies, I started with the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). From the get-go, the Studio Ls brought this rock and roll epic to life. The opening sequence features the inmates of Folsom Prison banging and hollering for Cash to perform. The sheer impact of the inmates’ enthusiasm was enough to rattle my double-pane soundproof sliding doors, as well as the faucets in my kitchen, and surrounded me in such a way that I felt front row center for one of Cash’s most memorable performances. Yet, despite my room and best efforts, I was never able to make the bass become overly bloated or boomy. During the scene where Cash (Phoenix) and his band audition for a local record producer, they’re initially met with a bit of trepidation. The Studio Ls were so natural with Phoenix’s vocals that as a viewer I too shared the record producer’s lack of enthusiasm, yet when Phoenix breaks into “Folsom Prison Blues,” the Studio Ls translate his internal turmoil in such a way that the music becomes more “alive” and heartfelt. Phoenix’s low voice could spell disaster for most center channels with their limited bass response, but the LC2 was able to present a focused, dimensional and full-bodied sound that brought Phoenix closer to becoming Cash with each breath. The Yin to Cash’s Yang was the sparky folk singer June Carter, played by Witherspoon. While the Studio Ls, mainly the LC2, could handle the lower registers easily, Witherspoon’s vocals were anything but low. However, Witherspoon’s portrayal of June Carter never sounded harsh or etched against Phoenix’s, even when she was at her most excitable. Overall, the Studio Ls presented “Walk the Line” in such a larger than life way that my 50-inch Vizio plasma screen hardly seemed big enough to convey Cash’s story.

I wrapped things up with the action classic “U-571” (Universal Studios Home Video). There isn’t much that needs to be said about the film “U-571,” except that it remains a reviewing staple for many reasons. For starters, the dynamic swings can wreak havoc on a great many systems, as can its use of sonic subtlety and surround sound mixing. Skipping ahead to Chapter 15, the Studio Ls placed me squarely in harm’s way and never let up as I was pummeled time and time again by the charges’ relentless assault. For this review, I had placed the rear speakers on my side walls not too far behind my main listening position, yet when the charges began to fall into water, I could hear them sinking around me as if I had placed two more rear channels behind me. Keep in mind the L820s as rear speakers are not bipolar like so many of today’s designs. That, my friend, is what they call wide dispersion. The most impressive aspect of the Studio Ls during my viewing of “U-571” was their ability to speak softly. It’s often hard for speakers in the Studio L’s class to convey sonic subtlety, yet the Ls managed to convey every creak in the hull amidst an ocean of sound. While “U-571” is loud more often than not, the effect given off during the film’s more subdued moments was jaw-dropping and helped sell the overall effect of being trapped inside the foreign submarine.

The Downside
I was so incredibly pleased with the Studio Ls’ performance that I’m having a difficult time finding reasonable faults. I was a bit disappointed by the speakers’ binding posts. They can accept bare wire or spade lugs, but they are quite large and my Monster M Series speaker cables wouldn’t fit without some coaxing.

Also, I would have like to see some way of routing speaker cables behind the wall-mounted LC2 or L820s without having to cut holes in the drywall or have excess pressure placed on the connections themselves.

Last is the issue of the speakers’ feet. I liked their appearance, but didn’t much care for the material and found them to be the cheapest-looking part of the Studio L package.

No speaker or speaker system is perfect, despite my seemingly endless praise for the Studio Ls. At a little over four thousand dollars for the package, you can spend less and you’ll get less. You can spend more, but you’re entering into the realm of diminishing returns when it comes to besting the performance of the Studio Ls. The Studio Ls belong to a class of loudspeakers that border on becoming truly state of the art without costing an arm and a leg. In a nutshell, the Studio Ls are the Corvette of loudspeakers, with all the performance and handling one could want without having to pay Italian sports car prices. They are a true reference point in their class and maybe more than that. I’ve been on the look out for a true full-range loudspeaker system for some time now. As of this moment, my search is over. As I said before, JBL and I go way back, and just like old friends and family, it’s always nice to come home.
Manufacturer JBL
Model Studio L Series Loudspeakers
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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