With JBL launching so many retro style models in recent years there is a tendency to forget that this is an up to the moment, technologically driven company that also makes modern loudspeakers. The brand has enviable heritage for sure but that doesn’t mean it can afford to keep on making speakers the way it did in the seventies, however much a small minority might like that.
The JBL HDI-3800 is a big ass speaker there’s no getting away from it, if you have the space and confidence it’s an awful lot of high class loudspeaker for the money. It must be twice the physical volume of models from many brands making speakers at this price, and that means it has an air moving capability that you can’t get without a speaker that has presence in the room. It looks like it was developed for big home cinema rigs and there are centre, rear and subs available to match, but this the flagship of the range is also a very entertaining and revealing loudspeaker for music and one that is really a bit too good for most sound tracks.
Although it stands just over a metre high the 38 kilo weight indicates that this is a serious loudspeaker, but you only have to look at the three eight inch drivers to realise as much. The HDI-3800 is a two and a half way design which means that the top one of those woofers covers both midrange and bass, only two are purely for low frequencies. In fact that should be lower frequencies because the crossover point between mid/bass and bass is a high 800Hz. The cones on these drivers look fairly normal but are actually aluminium and sit in cast frame chassis for maximum rigidity.
The tweeter is a horn loaded compression driver, a technology created to allow typically low powered small drivers to be able to deliver concert level sound pressure levels. They can do this because the sound produced has to pass through a compression chamber and exit via hole into the horn which significantly increases sensitivity. A driver normally ‘sees’ the whole room, but by compressing its output the dome works with an impedance that is a much better match for its abilities than open space. JBL uses a one inch Teonex driver in the 2410H-2 tweeter on the HDI-3800, this is a plastic material that is actually donut shaped rather than a dome, what’s more it doesn’t require a suspension because there’s enough elasticity in the material to allow the small amount of movement required.
The horn itself is not as simple as it looks, typically horns are used to increase power handling and deliver high volume levels but they have never been renowned for producing an even tonal response. In fact that’s why they are rare in domestic loudspeakers where wide dispersion is something of a necessity if you want a reasonably flat response in the room. JBL have tackled this by developing HDI waveguide geometry which is intended to deliver both high definition and wide dispersion so that you get the same frequency response in different parts of the room. We enthusiasts might like to sit in the sweet spot but, apparently, not all music lovers are so inclined.
Horn technology may be uncommon in domestic loudspeakers but it has remained very popular in PA systems and this means that it has continued to develop almost as rapidly as more conventional speaker tech. Here it helps to give this JBL a high 92dB specified sensitivity albeit in the context of a four Ohm load. Which means that it still needs a bit of amplifier welly behind it if you want to enjoy its full dynamic potential. These speakers don’t just look as though they can handle power and they need power if the bass is to remain in control.
Driving them with the 150 Watts of a Moor Amps Angel 6 proved to be a good move, this is a surprisingly warm and relaxed speaker given the presence of the horn tweeter, such things can be on the fierce side but the work that JBL’s engineers have done means it’s as civilised as a decent dome and plenty revealing with it. I enjoyed a wide variety of music including Rymden’s Pitter Patter, the live version of which is excellent, here the bass power on offer made for a convincing live sound even with the volume at a domestically harmonious level. And the quieter tracks on the album were equally captivating not least because the piano was handled so well, this instrument can sound overly hard edged when played at a reasonable level but these JBLs can deliver the dynamics of the instrument without losing composure which is very appealing.
It also has a large, flat top making it a great place to put record sleeves as I found when spinning Bonnie Raitt’s Taking My Time, an album whose vintage was apparent but not so much as the quality of the performance which on Kokomo Blues is particularly high. The bass lines are tight and the vocal spot on, again JBL have done a great job on the tweeter and its horn. They love fuller figured productions too, revelling in sumptuous low frequencies, twin reflex ports mean that you need a bit of space around the cabinets so that the bass isn’t overblown and I would recommend at least a couple of feet to the rear wall, possibly more.
Give them enough space and they will project very strong imaging, this was obvious on Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall as well as Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree where the voice stands out clearly with a machine like drone all around it. I like the way that the HDI-3800 can produce a lot of bass but it doesn’t smear the mid and treble, and the dynamics mean that this track has a torquey menace that gives it real presence in the room. JBLs have long been popular in studio control rooms, a pair can be seen on the back of Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy alongside a weary looking group of great musicians after a night at the coal face. The rather more contemporary To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar sounds so good on these JBLs that it’s easy to imagine that they had something similar in the studio when it was put together. It sounds clear, dramatic and three dimensional in a way that’s rare for hip hop albums, the track How Much a Dollar Cost being a great example.
I also played a lot of vinyl through these speakers and that always worked well, Lou Donaldson on Blue Note was full of energy and groove, the JBLs revealing the character of the recording as well as the brilliance of the performance with ease. The Enleum AMP-23R amplifier that I enjoyed so much last year happened to be in the system at the same time and while it doesn’t have enough power to deliver the full bass potential of the JBLs it did deliver some inspiring tunes. The emphasis on the musical message came through as well as it did on smaller speakers and voices sounded superb, the combo proving very good for exploring new music by bringing out the best in a wide variety of material. Even dub sounded good with this amp, the emphasis on tunefulness over power making even the heaviest mixes easy to enjoy at sensible levels.
This may not be the prettiest of loudspeakers but its size means that moving air is rather easier than it is for smaller boxes. This means prodigious bass but equally inspiring mid and treble, it’s a richer and more forgiving speaker than your typical audiophile offering but if you have some space it’s a lot of serious loudspeaker for the money. Don’t judge this book by its cover, there are sonic riches waiting to be revealed from within.