Surround Sound Speaker Systems

JBL LS 80 Floor-Standing Speakers, LS Center, LS 40 Rear Surround Speakers, and LS 120P Subwoofer

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

This makes it two in a row. Not that I'm keeping score or anything like that, but I've reviewed two consecutive speaker systems that are designed around horn-loaded compression drivers. So this makes it two in a row. The big difference this time is that the JBL LS 80 speaker system includes some big speakers while the speakers in the prior system I reviewed were very small.

The main speakers in this system are the JBL LS 80's. These large 3-1/2-way, dual 8" floor-standers are pretty big, weighing in at 78.5 pounds each. Their physical presence is softened by their rounded contours and the high gloss real wood veneer. The veneer is so very glossy that it almost looks man made. Trust me; the pictures on this site cannot do justice to the look of these speakers. They must be seen in person to be appreciated. In a word, they are gorgeous. The JBL LS 80's are accompanied by the matching LS Center, LS 40 surrounds and the LS 120P powered sub to round out a complete 5.1 surround system.

Specifications

  • LS 80
  • Design:3-1/2-Way, Ported Enclosure, Floor-Standing
  • Drivers: One 0.75" Polyester Film Tweeter, One 2" Titanium Compression Horn Midrange, Two 8" PolyPlas Woofers
  • MFR: 46hz-38Khz (-3dB)
  • Crossover Frequencies: 400 Hz (6dB/Octave); 2.5 kHz and 8 kHz (24dB/Octave)
  • Sensitivity: 90 db (2.83 V @ 1 Meter)
  • Maximum Power: 200 Watts
  • Nominal Impedance: 6 Ohms
  • Dimensions: 44" H x 10.4" W x 16.5" D
  • Weight: 78.5 Pounds/each
  • MSRP: $1,499/each USA
  • LS Center
  • Design: 3-Way, Sealed Enclosure
  • Drivers: One 0.75" Polyester Film Tweeter, One 2" Titanium Compression Horn Midrange, Two 6.5" PolyPlas Woofers
  • MFR: 85hz-38Khz (-3dB)
  • Crossover Frequencies: 2.5 kHz and 9 kHz (24dB/Octave)
  • Sensitivity: 88 db (2.83 V @ 1 Meter)
  • Maximum Power: 150 Watts
  • Nominal Impedance: 6 Ohms
  • Dimensions: 9" H x 26.5" W 9.25" D
  • 31.7 Pounds/each
  • MSRP: $799/each
  • LS 40
  • Design: 3-Way Bookshelf, Ported Enclosure
  • Drivers:One 0.75" Polyester Film Tweeter, One 2" Titanium Compression Horn Midrange, One 6.5" PolyPlas Woofer
  • MFR: 50hz-38Khz (-3dB)
  • Crossover Frequencies: 2.6 kHz and 7 kHz (24dB/Octave)
  • Sensitivity: 87 db (2.83 V @ 1 Meter)
  • Maximum Power: 150 Watts
  • Nominal Impedance: 6 Ohms
  • 8-3/4" W x 19-5/8" H x 13-1/2" D
  • 29.8 lbs ea
  • MSRP: $699.00 ea
  • LS 120P Subwoofer
  • Design: Sealed Enclosure
  • Driver: 12" Forward-Firing PolyPlas
  • Amplifier Power (RMS): 400 Watts
  • MFR: 25-150 Hz
  • Low Pass Filter: 50Hz-150Hz
  • Phase: 0°-180° (Variable)
  • Dimensions: 20.1" H x 14.75" W x 17.25" D
  • Weight: 57 Pounds
  • MSRP: $1,099 USA
  • JBL

Design

The JBL LS 80's are large floor standing speakers. They aren't crazy big like some speakers out there: the LS 80's are built to an acceptable domestic scale. But they are pretty big. I find that large floor standing speakers have an ease and harmonic richness to their sound. These are qualities that many small sat/sub systems can only hint at with their performance. If the speakers are large, chances are their sound will be big.

Let's start out by looking at the 176ND mid/tweeter. This is a 2" compression driver with a pure titanium diaphragm. It has a surround that is formed in a diamond pattern that is said to extend the driver's operation beyond its resonance limit. It has a powerful magnet structure and a lightweight aluminum voice coil. The voice coil is edge-wound with conductors that have rectangular cross-sections. This driver is ferrofluid-cooled as well. JBL claims that this driver substantially reduces thermal compression due to many of these design elements. This driver is loaded into a Bi-Radial horn. This horn provides constant directivity and excellent transient response.

These speakers are equipped with a ¾" super tweeter which is said to have extension beyond 40kHz. The diaphragm on this driver is a polyimide ring radiator which is driven by a high power magnet structure similar to the one found in the mid/tweeter.

The woofers have diaphragms made of Polyplas® which is a special long-fiber cellulose material (paper). It is said to have good internal damping properties because of the material's long fibers. These drivers also have powerful magnet structures and cast aluminum frames/baskets. Many of the design elements of these drivers are focused on providing high power handling, linear response and reduced thermal compression.

A special note must be made of the crossover design, frequencies and slopes. Starting from the bottom, both woofers operate from the tuning frequency to 400Hz at which point the bottom woofer fades out by way of a first-order (6dB/octave) low-pass filter. The upper woofer/mid continues up to a highish 2,500Hz crossover point (24dB/octave) at which point the 176ND horn takes over until it crosses over to the super tweeter at 8kHz. I didn't detect any beaming from the upper 8" mid/woofer as might be expected around the 2,500Hz crossover. Minimizing the potential for beaming is one reason the crossover has steep slopes at this point.

The JBL LS 120P powered sub features a 12" Polyplas® driver in a ported enclosure. It has line level inputs (no speaker level ins or outs). It has a volume control, a low pass filter control and a 0^/180^ phase switch. The amplifier is rated at 400W RMS. Its cabinet is actually a little smaller than I was expecting, but the port is very large diameter and makes a nice handle when moving the sub.

These speakers are available in two real-wood veneer finishes: either black gloss or a streak-ebony finish. My review units were streak-ebony and, as mentioned before, they were downright gorgeous. JBL claims that it takes three weeks to build each cabinet. There are several layers of lacquer and lots of hand sanding/rubbing that goes into the finish. The technique is very similar to the way guitars or fine furniture are finished. The speakers have rugged textured black surfaces on the top, front and back. This is very handy when you have parties and someone leaves a cocktail glass on the speaker . . . no rings!


Setup

I set up the JBL speaker system so that the three front speakers were spaced along a circular arc which had a radius of about 12'. The prime sitting position was at the center of this circular arc. Each of the front speakers was spaced horizontally about 6' center-to-center laterally across the front. I tried to bring the LS 80's out into the room as much as possible while the LS Center was placed in an open-backed cabinet just below the screen. The LS 80's were toed-in to face directly at the prime position.

The LS 40's were placed about 6' off the ground and with about 60^ of separation between them. All this was my attempt to recreate what is generally considered ideal speaker placement for a 5.1 surround sound speaker system. (OK, so the surrounds shouldn't be that high off the ground, but my theater is a real-world space that is used by other people besides myself.)

The JBL LS 80 's come with two kinds of feet: flat rubber or metal cones with metal disks. I used the cones and seated them into the carpet as well as I possibly could.

The sub was placed at the spot along the front of my theater where I typically get the smoothest response possible. This location does not provide much boundary reinforcement, but I don't get peaky response there with the exception of a natural resonance in the room of about 20Hz.

For home theater, I used two different receivers: the Integra DTR 50.1 and the Harman/Kardon AVR 3600. For multi channel movies and music, I chose to run the system sans equalization. I crossed over all the satellites at 60Hz. For 2-channel and 2,1-channel listening, I used the Fatman i452 45 watt per channel integrated amp. I set the LS120P's low pass filter to 50Hz and ran the LS 80's full-range when evaluating the system as a 2.1 configuration.


In Use

"Moon" is a very entertaining science fiction movie about a moon base and its sole human inhabitant/worker, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell). Sam's only companion is a computer named GERTY which is voiced by Kevin Spacey. The base is owned and operated by Lunar Industries to extract Helium-3 from the lunar soil. I missed this movie in theaters partly because I thought it may be a possible uninspired reimagining of 2001: A Space Odyssey. To my chagrin, this movie turned out to be fantastic, original sci-fi.

JBL LS 80 speaker system for Audiophiles

Over the JBL LS 80 speaker system, the movie was rendered with an almost holographic soundscape. This movie has lots of really cool environmental sounds which seemed to originate from infinitely diverse locations around my theater. I also loved the super tweeters right off the bat, especially with high resolution sources. There was great auditory and tactile impact in the rover crash scene: the sub had usable in-room extension down to 22Hz in my theater. These speakers have good start and stop capabilities with a nicely transparent leading edge.

Since these large, efficient speakers were so dynamic and had such great abilities in conveying complex passages, I decided to pull out the Blu-Ray of "Red Cliff", a 2008 John Woo film about early Third Century AD Chinese war lords. Of course this is an epic movie with massive battle scenes and a solid musical score. I watched it in the original Mandarin with English subtitles; I just can't get into overdubbed soundtracks. And this movie is loads of fun, all the way up to its "yeah, right" conclusion.

JBL LS 80 speaker system for Audiophiles

This is another film which features great drum sounds in the score. These drums were well fleshed out over the LS speaker system. All the fundamentals came through naturally. I was impressed with the great air of this system thanks to the super tweeters. Check out the zither duet scene. The sound here was extremely heady the way Zhuge and Zhou play it all haphazard and everything. The greatest thing with these speakers is that they accurately portrayed all the complex battle scenes. There is nothing like hearing the great battle scene with the sounds of all the burning ships or simultaneous sound of a thousand individual arrows in flight.

The "Time Traveler's Wife" is about a librarian from Chicago who gets sporadically transported through time when he is under stress. Although the movie is wrought with practical and philosophical questions that go largely unanswered, this movie still works on a certain level. Although this film tries really hard, it only elicits about 2/3 of the emotional response that I got when watching "AI: Artificial Intelligence". I felt that the JBL LS 80's could sound a little forward at times on this film. The bass response was nicely portrayed and very full when called on.

JBL LS 80 speaker system for Audiophiles

One common impression I had of the LS 80 speakers was of a lucid transparency. Well designed horns can be transparent in a way that is similar to the sound of electrostatic speakers. I also rated these speakers very high in their ability to render human voices. They only sounded chesty with poor source material.

I must admit that I have a new appreciation for the late Michael Jackson's talent (and genius) after watching the Blu-Ray of "This is It". The film is primarily a compilation of footage that was shot during rehearsals for his major concert/tour series that never premiered due to his untimely death. "This is It" feels more like a concert video than a documentary, but there are some interesting parts in the film where you can witness the exchanges between Michael Jackson and the show's director, Kenny Ortega. Let's just say that Ortega must have a strong sensitivity as to who his meal ticket was. The film involves both High Definition and Standard Definition footage. The audio is amazingly well presented throughout in DTS HD Master 5.1.

JBL LS 80 speaker system for Audiophiles

My initial impression was that the bass from the LS 120P sub was much cleaner than I was expecting. I also like subs that roll off at 22 Hz or higher to avoid exciting a natural resonance mode in my theater. I found myself cranking this movie up to live concert levels and enjoyed the high sensitivity of the JBL LS 80 system. I also enjoyed the amazing transient response from the system. Although I found the highs to be a little hard-edged at times, I had no listening fatigue, even after a 111 minute high-energy onslaught. It really was a special kind of experience. I liked the JBL's ability to render the arena space (although some of the ambience may well have been synthesized in the mix).

JBL LS 80 speaker system for Audiophiles

I really enjoyed "Crazy Heart" and couldn't wait to run out and get the sound track on CD as quick as I could. I listened to this CD in stereo over the LS 80's driven by a TL Audio FatMan i452 tube integrated amp. The i452 is a tube amp with 2-6L6 output tubes per side. This amp generates a rated output of 45 watts per channel. I experienced a very expansive sound field on both Somebody Else and Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way. On Joy, there was a lot of mid range and mid bass drive. The LS 80's had good, apparent bass extension into the upper 30 Hz range on Fallin' & Flyin'. I also felt that the system handled complex passages very well on tracks such as Gone, Gone, Gone. Since some of these tracks have been around a while, I was disappointed that the presentation didn't always give me that live sense of the performers in the room.

JBL LS 80 speaker system for Audiophiles

Next up was Melody Gardot's "My One and Only" CD also in stereo and being driven by the FatMan i452. This is Melody's second album in two years. She is a very talented and popular jazz singer. Since all these songs are recent performances that were recorded and produced using modern equipment, most of my concerns over the live sounding nature of the system melted away as I got into this CD. The imaging was almost holographic at various times, despite that I had the main speakers separated maybe a little more than would be optimal for my seating distance. There was a very sweet top end and the strings and horns were naturally balanced. Once again, I felt that the LS 80's had a degree of transparency that was reminiscent of electrostatic speakers. The bass was not as clean as I would have gotten with a top notch sub, but the bass distortion did not detract from the overall listening experience to any appreciable degree. There was excellent timing and pace on this CD. Over the Rainbow was simply awesome!

I generally used the sub output from the FatMan amp, feeding the LS 120P, which made this a 2.1 system. For my tastes, the LS 80's need a good sub to fill in the bottom octave. I think anybody in the market for these speakers should make the additional investment in a sub. It's an important part of the equation in trying to eke out the best that these speakers have to offer.


On the Bench

All measurements shown are in-room response. The first series of measurements were taken at 1-foot on axis.

The upper 8" driver operates up to 2,500 Hz. It produced a very clean spectrum at 90 db and 1 kHz.

The main horn operates in the range between 2,500 Hz and 7,500 Hz. At 90 db and 5 kHz, the distortion was only 0.07%.

The super tweeter picks up at 7,500 Hz. Its THD was 0.14% at 90 db and 10 kHz. These are all very good test results.

The remaining measurements were taken at 1 meter on axis.

The JBL LS 80's began to roll off around 35 Hz in room. Notice the nicely extended treble response due to the super tweeter.

The JBL LS 120 P sub produced a clean spectrum at 50 Hz and 90 db.

There were much more pronounced harmonics when I tested the sub at 31.5 Hz.

The JBL LS 120P sub produced substantial THD distortion when asked to reproduce a 25 Hz test tone, even when I reduced its output to only 81 db.

The JBL LS 120P had decently flat in room response.


Conclusions

I found this review curiously difficult to write. That's because the JBL LS 80 speaker system was extremely neutral-sounding. It is more challenging to come up with descriptive language when speakers just fade into the background and give back what they are getting. But that's what the JBL LS 80 speaker system excelled at . . . neutral, transparent reproduction. It also didn't hurt that they could play at high levels with almost no apparent compression. Plus, they are really gorgeous. Everybody who came by and saw them immediately commented on the luxurious finish and solid build construction of the LS 80s. If these speakers fit within your budget and you have the space, then I would certainly check them out before making a buying decision. They may very well beat out some of the higher-priced competition on your list.