How about a review of the JBL Studio 530 compact speakers? The idea came to us a little before the holidays as the U.S. brand decided to review the price of its studio series. A quick look at the technical specifications and we were already reassured, as these speakers are not much to look at. We have to acknowledge the fact that JBL is not afraid of going off the beaten track as far as design is concerned, to the point that we sometimes wonder if it’s not just for shock value.
Yet this speaker gets good reviews, even excellent reviews and like many hi-fi enthusiasts we have really good memories with JBL products. We then felt compelled to give this compact speaker a try, but is it really a compact speaker?
As you probably already noticed, the JBL Studio 530 is fitted with a horn. This aspect of the speaker, inherited from the good old gramophone has a very precise function: to optimise the sound of the tweeter by mechanically enhancing the medium frequencies, thus avoiding the need for a dedicated driver.
The goal here is not to avoid the cost of an extra driver but to take advantage of the tweeter cone’s low mass and its excellent transient regime to deliver medium frequencies up to 1 kHz.
A medium driver with a thicker (thus heavier) membrane can’t be as fast as a horn loaded tweeter. Besides, the horn “carries” the sound straight to your ears so you don’t have to focus harder to hear details.
Why is it so rarely used?
A poorly designed acoustic horn can deliver overwhelming and aggressive sound, as the flaws of the tweeter are also amplified. A manufacturer cannot start using an acoustic horn without going through a lengthy development period. JBL has mastered this craft for decades due to its experience in acoustic engineering (concerts, cinema, etc.).
Besides, the tweeter of the JBL studio 530 is not your average silk dome tweeter. It is, in fact, a Teonex cone (Polyethylene Naphthalate or PEN) with a resonance frequency which makes it able to deliver frequencies between 1 kHz and 40 kHz without being harsh. By comparison, it’s not the case with Klipsch models as some of their horn loaded tweeters can be quite aggressive when used poorly.
One of the features that grabbed our attention was the sensitivity of the JBL Studio 530. With only 86 dB at 1 m for 1 W, the speaker delivers 6 decibels, in other words four times less than a Klipsch RB-51, which also uses a 5″ driver and a horn.
It is obvious that JBL is aiming at an overall linear frequency response, in which the low-medium/bass driver has the same role as the tweeter. The announced frequency response is 45 Hz to 40 kHz within a 6 dB margin.
Opening the box
The JBL Studio 530 compact speakers are shipped in one box and are protected by an anti-scratch cloth. The acoustic fabric cover is pre-installed and is also the lower part of the horn. The tweeter is concealed behind a thin grill at the bottom of the horn.
With its 47 cm height, the speaker is relatively bulky. The use of a horn entails a larger size, which also means a greater air volume for the lower-medium/bass driver.
We are thus expecting generous bass from this speaker. The bass driver is also partially horn loaded, probably to improve its reach rather than to augment its sensitivity.
A small, circular bass-reflex port tuned relatively low is placed at the back of the speaker. Right under it is a bi-wiring, bi-amplification terminal compatible with banana plugs.
The vinyl finish is elegant without being too luxurious.
We listened to the JBL Studio 530 with several different amplifiers: the Yamaha AS-2000, NuForce DDA-100 and Denon Ceol N8. We also used different speaker cables: Viard Audio Silver HD12, Audioquest StarQuad Type 4 and AudioQuest Rocket 88. We inter-connected the terminal’s binding posts by using parts of a Viard Audio Premium HD cable. Then we varied the sources as we listened to web radios (via the Ceol), FLAC files (via the Ceol and our Pioneer N-50) and a few films in DTS format (stereo, streamed from a Zappiti Player Mini connected with a Toslink Audioquest Vodka cable).
As often, we started our test with FIP radio, streamed via the internet using the Ceol N8, connected to our speakers with Viard Audio Silver HD12 cables. What is instantly impressive with the JBL Studio 530 is their balanced response, as the bass driver is just as reactive as the tweeter. During the break-in period, the bass driver can be slightly domineeering until the membrane becomes more flexible.
The sound is different from other horns we heard before, especially with Klipsch or DIY solutions used along with Beyma or B&C Acoustic tweeters. The horn doesn’t project the sound here, it carries it towards the listener. The medium is soft and smooth. JBL seems to have avoided all the usual pitfalls inherent to acoustic horns. Even before being broken-in, the tweeter is clean and goes up high, with no sound colouration.
We even wondered if the passive filter could be equipped with a Zobel network in order to lower the impedance to the level of the tweeter resonance frequency as there is absolutely no harshness with frequencies around 2 kHz… absolutely none. Hats off!
Despite its low sensitivity of 86 dB/w/m, the JBL Studio 530 knows how to make itself heard, and most of all, it does it in a coherent way even when the listener is several metres away. A strong quality.
A few tracks we listened to
Avicii, Wake Me Up (FLAC 16/44)
The opening guitar is not too high. Aloe Blacc’s vocals are not oozy (as they often are) and the electronic drum kit is loud and clear. The reverb on the country chorus is convincing. You may think that this is no great music, but playing this song without turning it into mush is a difficult test to pass for a speaker.
Fortune (introduction), Carmina Burana, Carl Orff (FLAC 16/44)
The horns deliver a detailed and soft chorus, the timbales are firm and the cymbals sharp.
Stromae, Papaoutai (FLAC 16/44)
The funfair sounding keyboard doesn’t take over the artist’s voice, the flow is well delivered.
Life on Mars (A Reality Tour), David Bowie (16/44)
Horns are known for doing a great job with concert recordings and the ones on the JBL Studio 530 are true to their reputation. We can hear the audience sing with no effort. Bowie’s vocals are full of details to the point that we can even hear it getting slightly raspy at times. A balanced and lively listening experience.
Personal Jesus (Tour of the Universe), Depeche Mode (16/44)
The electric guitar sounds delightfully rough throughout the intro, the kick drum sounds insanely good. A slight bump around 60 Hz can be heard without pushing the bass too much.
Perfect for home cinema use
Breaking Bad, season 4 (Blu-ray, stereo DTS 16/48)
We will be discussing the advantages of using a good optical cable as the Audioquest Vodka cable we used was a great surprise to us. People who are familiar with the TV show probably remember that the audio engineers were, at times, heavy handed with low frequencies. We have honestly rarely heard a 5″driver thundering like this without shying away. In comparison, the Klipsch RB-51 and Dali Zensor 3 we recently used sounded rather average. Yet, we are not claiming that the low frequency range is flawless, and the Studio 530 might be overdoing it at times, but it sure delivers a very enjoyable sound. The fact that the horn loaded tweeter is constantly highlighting the action makes it even more pleasant. The dialogues’ texture is truly great.
Avatar, (Blu-ray, DTS 24/48)
The wide movements in the dynamic range are under control. The more we turn the volume up, the wider the sound stage becomes. Without having to use an Olympic trained amplifier such as the Yamaha AS-2000, a simple integrated amplifier like the Denon Ceol C8 will do the trick. The JBL Studio 530 never gets too aggressive when turned up to high volume. The bass is satisfactory without having a truly physical impact.
The JBL Studio 530 speakers bring together the advantages of the acoustic horn (wide spread sound stage, long distance presence) without showing any of the flaws this technology sometimes entails (harshness, projected sound). The bass driver is truly surprising, although you shouldn’t expect the massive delivery a floor-standing speaker with two 6.3″ drivers can provide. Nevertheless, these JBL Studio 530 are doing better than the Dali Zensor 3 and their 7″ driver.
As we previously mentioned, we tried several combinations of amplifiers and speaker cables. The most balanced results were obtained while using the NuForce DDA-100 and the Denon Ceol N8. As for the speaker cables, although we had a preference for the Audioquest Rocket 88 (we will go back to this model in the near future), the results are absolutely satisfying with the Viard Audio Premium HD cable.
The JBL Studio 530 speakers should perfectly get along with integrated amplifiers such as the NAD D3020, NAD C356 DAC, Yamaha R-S500, Magnat MC20, Onkyo CR-N755, Cambridge Audio 651A, Cambridge Audio Minx Xi or Arcam Solo Mini for instance.
The different combination possibilities are numerous since these speakers will deliver a satisfactory sound with only 20 Watts, regardless of the type of music.
If you decide to purchase a pair of JBL Studio 530, be aware that these are not your average speakers but a model able to deliver off-the-chart performances with great musical qualities.This post is also available in: French