NEW YORK — When a loudspeaker company pulls out the stops to convince you its latest product is so good even the pros are drooling, well let's just say I brought a skeptic's ear. Especially when those speakers cost a mere $150 each. So I was pleased when I too was blown away.
The company, Harman, invited me to hear its new JBL Professional 3 Series LSR305 Studio Monitors at Jungle City Studios in Manhattan, where Alicia Keys records.
Harman brought along Frank Filipetti, a Grammy-winning music producer, engineer and sound mixer who has worked with Elton John, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor and other music royalty.
With such a buildup, I'd have been shocked if these speakers didn't sound pure. The point of studio monitors is to give an accurate representation of the source material to help people who produce and mix their own music. But given the modest price these monitors could appeal to a budget-strapped developer producing a soundtrack for a video game or the kid who dreams big of becoming the next great superstar.
And you don't have to be a content creator or even an audiophile to appreciate what JBL has drummed up here.
The goal, which JBL more than meets, is for distortion-free audio played with distinction at extreme volume levels — high or low — and reproduced equally at all frequencies. You want to feel like you're in the room with the artist.
At Jungle City, Filipetti didn't rely on most of the expensive equipment in the room. Instead the music — everything from Taylor's Limousine Driver to What's Going On from the Motown: The Musical cast album that Filipetti co-produced — came through via laptop (these were .wav files).
I figured my true test would come later when I tried the JBLs at home. I played tracks off an iPhone and a Nexus tablet and cranked up the volume.
For this review I shuffled through an eclectic mix: Adele, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Frank Sinatra, Al Green, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Nina Simone, Drake, Donny Hathaway, and many others. I can certainly imagine these JBLs fitting in splendidly in a home stereo system where you don't want to fork over a ransom for high-end speakers.
As powered speakers, each of the monitors must be plugged into an AC outlet separately. In turn I connected the phone or the tablet to each speaker using a sub-$10 cable. They are not Bluetooth capable. But then, most popular Bluetooth wireless speakers don't offer the same fidelity, and they serve a different audience. You're reminded of that when you look at the back of the JBL speakers and see volume controls and inputs for connecting professional equipment.
Back at Jungle City, it was a revelation how well the 3 Series monitors sounded compared to JBL's flagship M2 Master Reference Monitor System speakers. They list for $12,000 a pair, on top of which you'd have to add an amplifier. The M2s stand on the floor. The more compact 5-inch 3 Series monitors are based on the same technology used in their pricier sibling. (I did manage to break the internal AC connector when an unsteady monitor fell off a table; Harman had to send me a replacement unit.)
Harman refers to the technology as "Image Control Waveguide," which it says allows you to hear subtleties even in a dense mix of music. There's also an incredibly broad sweet spot that doesn't require you to sit in front of the speakers.
For the techies in the crowd, the 3 Series speakers boast 80-watts of amplified power and have a frequency range of 43 Hz - 24 kHz. They were more than powerful enough in the midsize room that I tested them in. For a large family room you might want something with more power.
Music vet Filipetti claims I wasn't just experiencing great $300 speakers. He says these are great speakers, period. "The speaker at this price point is sick," he insisted.
So I had to ask: Was he saying so because he was being compensated by Harman? He said he wasn't, though he was an unpaid voluntary adviser through the development of the M2.
These JBL studio monitors clearly aren't designed for the most casual listeners. But with the high quality you're getting at a very affordable price, they're certainly worth a listen.
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THE BOTTOM LINE
Harman JBL Professional 3 Series LSR305 Powered Studio Monitor
$150 each; jblpro.com/3series
Pro. Superb sound at modest price
Con. Monitors will be overkill for some. Speakers must be connected to power.