JBL Stage A170 loudspeaker

In the realm of loudspeaker reviews, John Atkinson's measurements and my empirical observations have one important equivalency: Both are meaningless abstractions until confirmed by your listening experience.

Both are contingent on factors that are necessarily obtuse and not especially controllable.

Fortunately, the only loudspeaker assessment that really matters depends entirely on consensus: you and your buddies, and your buddies' buddies, and their children, and their children's friends, listening, analyzing, debating, then listening some more—then buying and selling over periods of time. In the end, there is little middle ground: A loudspeaker either slips silently into obscurity or sits heralded on a mountaintop, like the original Quad ESL, the BBC LS3/5a, or the Klipschorn. In my view, long-term user satisfaction is the only reliable assessment of a speaker's true value.

Complicating assessments even further are audiophile expectations. Expectations are preconceived prejudices that can, and usually do, affect consensus. The worst expectations involve price. The expectation that a $500 loudspeaker could not possibly perform as well as a $5000 loudspeaker s an obvious example, and one that I personally wrestled with during my Magnepan LRS, Klipsch RP-600M, and Wharfedale Linton reviews. During my first weeks with JBL's $499.99/pair Stage A170 tower speakers, I kept saying to myself, "Are these skinny things really as good as they seem? Or am I missing inadequacies in their performance?"

Description
JBL's new Stage series of loudspeakers replaces the company's much-admired Studio series—which, by comparison, had a more styled appearance. The Studio-series speakers also featured horn-loaded tweeters, which the Stages do not.

The smallest and most affordable speaker in their three-speaker line, the Stage A170 ($499.99/pair) is a slender 36.7"-tall box that measures only 7.5" wide and 10" deep. Each Stage A170 weighs 31.6lb and comes with easy-to-attach "outrigger" supports that can be fitted with either threaded spikes or rubber feet. Outfitted with outriggers and with their black-fabric grilles in place, the A170s, which come in either black or two-tone faux wood vinyl veneers, look almost luxurious.

I remember, from a past life, examining the cones of a few JBL 4350 monitor woofers. Their trademark white cones appeared to be made of pressed corrugated paper pulp with some sort of white-tinted lacquer-like coating. If memory serves, JBL called that original coating "Aquaplas," later replaced with a cone material called "PolyPlas"—but that was long ago. (At the time, I assumed those "plas" coatings were a main factor in the creation of JBL's characteristic sound.) Like the aforementioned 4350 monitor speakers, the Stage A170 has two white cones, but these are much smaller (5.25" vs 15" in the 4350) and made of what JBL now calls Polycellulose.

JBL says the Stage A170 is "a 2.5-way design": The top woofer operates as a mid-woofer in a traditional two-way loudspeaker and crosses over to the tweeter at 2.8kHz; the bottom woofer is rolled off sooner, at 1.8kHz. The main intention of this strategy is to broaden the A170's dispersion in the tweeter/mid crossover region, while adding cone-area and piston-power to the midrange and bass regions.

The Stage A170's high-frequency driver uses a 1" aluminum dome in something JBL calls a "high-definition imaging waveguide." I translate that to mean: The tweeter's dispersion is controlled on both the vertical and horizontal axis. You can translate that to mean the A170s are engineered to image well.

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On their backside, the A170 sports two round reflex ports and two sets of three-way binding posts, allowing users to either biwire or biamplify. I used only a single run of loudspeaker cables (AudioQuest GO-4).

Setup
When I unpacked the Stage A170s, I just plunked them in the places where speakers usually go in my room: about 6' apart and 8' from my listening position. Out of the box, they sounded unusually full and not sharply focused.

After a few days of moving them about, I realized that the Stage A170s are not fussy about setup or toe-in. They seemed well balanced anywhere, as long as they were more than 20" from the front or side walls. Then, over time, the main setup thing for me was minimizing a 75–150Hz "room bump," which required the rear-firing ports to be at least 30" from the wall behind them. That put the cabinets about 6' apart and my sweet spot about 7' from the tweeters.

In that position, the Stage A170s projected an enormous, nicely detailed soundstage: one that appeared unusually detached from the speaker towers. Frequency response seemed extremely flat above 300Hz. High frequencies were easy on my ears. (I listened to the A170s with grilles both on and off. The difference was barely perceptible, but my ears felt a need for as much high-frequency energy as possible—so all of my written observations were made with the grilles removed.)

Listening (Schiit Aegir)
The first song I played that felt worthy of mention came to me in the middle of a "Mystery Train" kick. Most people know the Elvis version of this rockabilly classic (7" 45rpm, Sun Records 223), recorded by Sam Phillips in 1955. That swinging, artfully sung, masterfully played version reached the top of Billboard's country charts. But I hope some of you remember the original version, composed and sung by Junior Parker and recorded by Sam Phillips in 1953 (7" 45rpm, Sun Records 192). That single didn't chart at all, but it was dynamic and soulful. It moved like an actual steam locomotive, it was achingly plaintive, and it swung a wide sonic and emotional arc. It contributed mightily to what we now call the Memphis Sound. (You can access both versions on John Lurie's original soundtrack album to Jim Jarmusch's darkly moody 1989 film Mystery Train: 44.1/16 FLAC, Milan Records/Qobuz.)

The JBL Stage A170s were surprisingly effective in helping me compare these two "Mystery Train" recordings. The A170s showed how much the Elvis version depended on vocal artistry, framed by an extraordinary backup band as well as Sam Phillips' simple, solid production. What surprised me was how obviously the JBLs displayed Presley's emotional detachment, and how mournfully expressive they showed the Junior Parker version to be. I had never before noticed these emotional aspects and was thankful for the realization.

I was noodling on Tidal, still looking for every version of "Mystery Train," when the Tidal bot put on this dark, bass-heavy, languorous version with the opposite of driving-wheel momentum: the one by the Doors, from Strange Nights of Stone (44.1/16 FLAC, Bright Midnight Archives/ Tidal). This strange version inched forward slowly, focusing at first on John Densmore's improvised drumming, coupled to Ray Manzarek's dense, oozing organ notes. This version sounded like a Dadaist torch song, not a rockabilly classic. In the third minute, it picked up speed and got louder, emitting power waves of electric keyboard doubled by scratchy rhythms from Robby Krieger's guitar. Then the Lizard King appeared: "Train I ride, it is sixteen coaches long." There followed a pounding, mushroom-fueled delirium. This was a live recording of a rehearsal for a May 2, 1970, concert in Pittsburgh, PA. When it finished, I knew that these almost-free JBL loudspeakers were gonna make a lot of rock aficionados really happy. They could move a song along better than most speakers—even $5000 ones.

The JBLs easily outdanced and out–rhythm'n'blues–ed every speaker I had in the house. They rolled music forward with ridiculous ease and, always, an unexpected sense of sophistication. How could this be? Manzarek's Vox Continental organ sounded more live than it should from a speaker at this price point. Dynamics were relatively unrestricted (94dB peak, C-weighted). I was driving the A170s with a $799 Schiit Aegir amplifier and the Chord Qutest DAC. My only complaint (on the Doors recording) was how the leading edges of transients seemed a touch rounded.

COMPANY INFO
JBL division of Harman International Industries Inc.
8500 Balboa Blvd
Northridge, CA 91329
(800) 336-4525
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
mtrot's picture

Looking around online, the price seems to be $600/pair.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be the tariffs are the reason for the price increase? :-) ........

invaderzim's picture

In an age where everyone and their uncle is a 'reviewer', that just talks about how great each product they get sounds, this is what a real review is. I was there listening to them with you and can tell which speakers you mentioned would likely do best with which amp I'd use.

And at the same time it is reviews like this that make me want to go out and listen to more speakers, to experience them in person. I miss the days when audio stores were all over and I could stop by and check them out. I spent a couple hours picking out the first speakers I ever bought and I still have them and use them daily, thirty years later. No online purchase has ever lasted me that long.

philipjohnwright's picture

No not the speakers, Herb. He knows his stuff for sure, it's the quality of his writing that shines through though. Words crafted like a true artisan, meaning conveyed by how he writes as much as what.

Art's quite good too :-)

Phil

AaronGarrett's picture

That might be the first time Beachy Head was ever used in an audiophile review! I hope you listened to "Hot on the Heels of Love" as well.

Ortofan's picture

... might be the Studio 590 speakers, presently on sale for $1,000/pair.

https://www.jbl.com/loudspeakers/STUDIO+590.html?cgid=loudspeakers&dwvar_STUDIO%20590_color=Black-USA-Support#start=1

mtrot's picture

Yes, I saw that when checking on the A170!

Anton's picture

And beautiful!!!!

Zavato's picture

Definitely $600 a pair

tonykaz's picture

Your darn Toot'n!

Because:

1.) Loudspeakers are expensive to ship properly, wreaking havoc on their re-sale values. My Oldest Son just purchased a Mint Pair of OHM Walsh 2 Loudspeakers, at a Garage Sale, for $125. Another Son bought a nice pair of 3.3 Magnepans from a Pawn Shop where they collected dust for a few months.

2.) There are closets full of useful Electronics made available on eBay.

3.) High Quality Music Sources are now easily accessible for any Library Member.

4.) A dam nice "Audiophile" Grade Audio System is within reach of anyone that has a stable home and time to listen. ( not having to work 3 jobs )

5.) All for dirt Cheap!!!

I can recall when any decent System would have a Starting Price of $5,000.

6.) Now, an Apple Computer, Schiit Asgard 2, a $100 DAC and a Pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones will reliably achieve $50,000 Big System Sound Quality. ( without the chest thumping bass, of course )

This is the "best time ever" , no doubt about it, especially compared to what we had to go thru from 1950 to 2010.

Now we even have reliable guidance from Stereophile's best writers & reviewers. We NEVAH had that before.

It's a Great Time to be an Audiophile!!!

Tony in Venice

Long-time listener's picture

"Now, an Apple Computer, Schiit Asgard 2, a $100 DAC and a Pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones will reliably achieve $50,000 Big System Sound Quality."

Your points are mostly very well made. But: The Sennheiser HD600s don't have any deep bass at all (whereas a good pair of $100 in-ears will), and I disagree about the $100 DAC. I think it will be OK with headphones but in a setup with speakers it won't get you anywhere near the resolution, tone and timbre, bass, or soundstaging you'll need. Best regards, LTL

tonykaz's picture

Of course, I might have been exaggerating or even Extrapolating ( considering what Schiit are turning out, quality wise )

I own Sennheiser HD600s that can reproduce the ultra Low frequencies that Bob Katz puts into his Bombay Dub Orchestra Mastering . ( under 10hz ) But, of course, they don't deliver Chest thumping Bass, as you accurately describe.

You might be right about those $100 DACs but I rather doubt that the average Audiophile could sense or perceive much difference until a comparison is made directly with one of PS Audio Ted Smith DACs. Then, get out the American Express Card and kiss your next year's disposable income good-by, adios!!!

But:

I contend that the average Citizen is a Music Loving Audiophile with only a Sound Bar and not even knowing that they have a $100 DAC built into their Music Device or/and a Car with multiple speakers as part of a $5,000 Dash package option.

Back in 1970 we needed a Stereo Speciality Shop to buy Mac Tube Amps and Bozak Loudspeakers. Now we only need an internet connection, a few dollars and 125 VAC.

Audiophiles have Won Life's Lottery.

Tony in Venice

ps. I'll help those working on getting Health Coverage as freely accessible as Music has become.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

See the review of the Devialet Expert Pro integrated amp with the SAM (speaker active management) technology, in the recent issue of TAS ........ It can be useful with passive speakers ........ It is somewhat different from the DSP currently being used in some active and with some passive speakers :-) ........

AJ's picture

2010??
Tony, Harmans other brand Infinity was making similarly well engineered/cost effective speakers in the late 90s. These JBLs are obviously a bargain.
Btw, just fyi now that you are in Venice, the Suncooast Audio Society (tampa/st pete) is host a touring Brazilian cellist and pianist - playing on hosts home Steinway baby grand this weekend. The performance will be digitally and analog recorded in situ, then played on the hosts stereo system (Einstein/Hegel/Quad ESL63/Gradient subwoofers) afterwards.
If you are interested in that sort of thing. If not, enjoy the weather ;-).

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Sony is introducing '360 Reality Audio' and Dolby is introducing 'Dolby Atmos' audio ....... Both formats are intended for audio only .... not for video and movies ....... Both formats are intended to deliver 3-D sound ...... Both formats can also be heard through headphones/IEMs .......... See S&V website :-) .........

tonykaz's picture
tonykaz's picture

Can you purchase that Sony System and do a nice review for us?

We've been hearing claims like this for the last 5 Decades, haven't we.

We should inquire with Kal who just abandoned reporting on these things.

So:

I suppose it's up to you to fill in the empty spaces, read between the lines, do an in depth investigation and write up a proper 5,000 word report/review.

I promise that I'll read each and every word and even make a few opinionated comments.

You could be our next Stereophile Reviewer. for gods sake !!

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Sony is having a demonstration at their store in NYC right now from Oct 16th to Oct 20th ......... I mentioned about it to Mr.Austin in another forum ........ May be some of the Stereophile reviewers could attend that demo and tell us about it :-) .........

tonykaz's picture

I'm about one hour south of these lads via I75 interstate.

Here in Florida, from now on, I'm bicycle, which confines me to an approx. 20 mile radius, or so.

Of course I still Fly, with two nearby International Airports .

Thank you for pointing out this Musical Event.

However, I'm transportation support for the Bernie Sander's Campaign and things are beginning to get busy for all of us.

Still:

I'm anxious to subscribe to Tampa's Music scene. I'm hunting for a kindred spirit here in Venice. Fingers crossed.

Thanks for taking the time to write.

Tony in Venice

AJ's picture

Just remember, here in Florida, you're not a pedestrian or bicylist. You're a target. For cel phones driving around, with human things attached.

joemariano's picture

Mr. Reichert - Great piece as usual. Really digging the structure and how you showed what was compared to what. You are 110% correct: reviews and measurements are "meaningless abstractions" until confirmed by the listener's own experience. I hope I can hear these (and everything else you review) someday! Will you get a second Schiit Aegir to play in mono style? It could make for an interesting followup!

MFK's picture

1

MFK's picture

Thank you for another entertaining and informative review. You are truly one of the very best writers on audio ever. The review confirms my contemporary experience that we are in a golden age for high value hi-fi products, particularly speakers. I remember attending a presentation in the 2000s by an elite US based speaker manufacturer (still in business). The representative was advocating spending 75% of a system's cost on speakers. I wonder if he still has the same opinion. My DAC, preamp and power amp in combination are worth more than three times the price of my speakers. After many years in the hobby I've found a system that I have no intention of changing.

smileday's picture

The port tuning frequency of this JBL is quite high compared to that of another 2.5way tall-boy (not very tall indeed) speaker reviewed by Stereophile, Spendor D7.

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