Manufacturer: Harman International Industries, Inc.
spent nearly six years working as a sound engineer in Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this rather short period of time would change my way of thinking so much, and turn out to be so enriching. And that even a dozen years later I would still draw on these experiences.
The company's founder, James Bullough Lansing, was born James Martini on January 14th, 1902, in Macoupin County (Millwood Township), Illinois. From young age he showed interest in DIY and radios. Little did he know, however, that his life would be associated with transducers, and his initials would for many become synonymous with speakers. It all started in 1930 when Western Electric created a department to provide support and to design speakers and electronics for use in movie theaters, which was the beginning of Electrical Research Products Incorporated (ERPI). In 1938, WE sold its shares in this department, and a year later they were bought out by a group of engineers from that company who gave it a new name – Altec Service Company (Altec as in "all technical"). The company was doing well, however, in order to grow it needed production facilities to manufacture its own products. For this purpose, in 1941 it purchased Lansing Manufacturing Co., which was on the verge of bankruptcy, and changed name to Altec Lansing. In a short time, it was awarded a government contract for the development of magnetic detectors for U.S. submarines. The research in that field resulted in creating Alnico V magnet material for speaker use.
After his mother's death in 1924, James Martini moved to Salt Lake City, where he founded Lansing Manufacturing Company, producing car speakers. In order to grow, the company was moved in 1927 to New York.
JAMES B. LANSING SOUND, INCORPORATED
Jim Lansing became vice president of the new company, Altec Lansing. In those years he developed the A-4 theater system that became the cinema standard for many years. Unaccustomed to work under someone else's leadership, after his five-year contract expired in 1946, he left Altec Lansing and on October 1 of the same year started a new company, Lansing Sound, Incorporated. The principals of this company were James B. Lansing, Chauncey Snow and Chester L. Noble. Since the name Lansing was commonly identified with the former company, Altec Lansing lawyers objected to it being used in the new company name. It was finally agreed that the new company change its name to James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated, or JBL for short. Although its first designs were very promising, the company headed for financial disaster. James Martini may have been a brilliant engineer-designer, but he was a lousy businessman. Devastated by rising debts, as a result of depression he committed suicide on September 24, 1949.
The Paragon, mentioned above, the iconic product of the early JBL years, was referred to as company’s second “Project” speaker. The first one was the Hartsfield. In 1980s there arose an urgent need to develop a new flagship system, or the third “Project” speaker. The Project Everest was the brainchild of Bruce Scrogin who was the President of JBL International. Since the Paragon, whose production ended in 1983, was sold almost exclusively in Japan, it was decided that the new flagship speaker would be targeted exclusively at that market. Keizo Yamanaka, one of the best-known Japanese audio journalists, was hired by JBL as a consultant (such co-operation between audio journalists and manufacturers is quite common in Japan and almost every prominent editor has a contract with one of the big companies).
The Project Everest was a giant success: over 500 pairs of these speakers were sold, which, given their price, is a staggering number. It remained in production until the launch of the smaller K2 in 1989. Design work on the latter began a year earlier, as it was planned to introduce a flagship speaker every four or five years. While the Everest was a single speaker system, the K2 was designed as an entire series of speakers. The basic premise was a two-way speaker looking similar to the Everest, but with a simpler design. The top-of-the-range model was the K2-S9500. The concept for the K2 came again from Bruce Scrogin who assembled a team of engineers and designers, almost the same as before, to execute the design. All the drivers and crossovers were designed from the ground up for this project, unlike the Everest that used already existing drivers. The K2 featured Bi-Radial horn design. The K2-S9500 and K2-S7500 were presented to the press in 1989. In 1993, they were joined by the smallest K2-S5500. I happen to perfectly remember its European debut at the IFA show in Berlin. Harman Kardon rented the entire Berlin Opera to hold demonstrations, concerts and associated events. It was the one and only time when I spent full six days at an audio show… The K2-S5500 pioneered a crossover design referred to as "Charge-Coupled Linear Definition Dividing Network", which used a battery to maintain a constant biasing voltage. It was to help minimize distortion by keeping the music signal from crossing the dielectric zero-point of the capacitors. Although the smallest in the series, the speakers looked fantastic and sounded just as good.
It just so happens that in the same year 2013, during the CES show in Las Vegas (USA) JBL presented one of the least expensive so far incarnations of these speakers, the S3900, a three-way design with a 250 mm woofer and a medium-high frequency driver covering the range from 850 Hz to 12 kHz. Jim Garrett, director of sales and marketing for HARMAN Luxury Audio Group and Loudspeakers says that one of design objectives was to create speakers that would be easier to set up and position than the S4700 introduced a year earlier, while maintaining the advantages of the Project Everest DD67000 and Project K2 S9900.
Albums auditioned during this review
Horn speakers, regardless of whether all or only some of their drivers are horn loaded, have several features in common. It does not matter what company they come from, what design idea stands behind the that finally take the shape of these tubes - their sound is big, fast, and the sound waves seem to reach us in no time ; generated by the drivers seem to at the same time hit the eardrums of our ears. This is largely similar to listening through headphones, but with a tangible, physical bass and without any spatial location problems.
Although I went with them through most of the musical genres that interest me, I could not help but start the auditions by playing an album that features double bass in the leading role. Double bass, like two bass drivers in front of me – perhaps not the closest possible association, but one that turned out quite accurate. I bought the album None But The Lonely Heart by Charlie Haden and Chris Anderson, released in 1997 on Naim label, straight after its release, on the wave of enthusiasm for the hit (if it may be so called) disc Beyond The Missouri Sky on which Haden played with Pat Metheny.While I absolutely loved Beyond…, Haden and Anderson’s duo seemed to me downright boring in comparison. I had a problem both with album’s length, about 30 minutes too long, and track selection. Some ten years later my musical preferences made a U-turn and it is now the album with Metheny that I consider to be flashy and empty musically. It also turns out to be far inferior in terms of sound production to the album recorded by Ken Christianson, chief sound engineer for the Naim label. The JBLs confirmed my assessment and showed even more explicitly than most very expensive speakers what the power of piano and double bass duo is.
The lows were strong and dense. At the same time they also had high resolution – high enough to leave me with no doubts that Christianson had recorded Haden’s instrument using only two microphones visible in the pictures, in stereo configuration (they look like the AKG C414B-ULS, though I'm not sure), although the sheer bass power could indicate a third close-in mic, picking up direct sound. That’s not the case here, though. This recording is in Naim’s patented True Stereo technology, and it was the JBL’s slightly stronger and more resolving bass, which was heard immediately. The piano was shown by the S3900 as it should have been, that is from a distance yet with great definition and beautiful acoustic environment. The horn loaded mid-high and ultrahigh-frequency driver proved great as complementing the low and upper bass, without sounding detached and without attracting attention. It's actually most unusual, because the horns are always audible. They generate specific distortion, usually on the edges of the acoustic range. The JBLs are not free from that, but it does not attract our attention on most recordings. The duo’s album sounded thick and dark, in the sense that the treble could be “deduced” from the sound, rather than being heard as something separate. Superb!
Speaking about distortion, I would like to mention how the use of horns affects the S3900’s sound. Let us not have any illusions that it doesn’t. Part of the crossover range, around 800-900 Hz, is emphasized. This frequency range is responsible for midrange body and the so-called ‘presence’. The JBLs did not sound aggressively, in that they did not irritate with the attack. Yet the lower range of female vocals, part of the violin sound, especially if recorded slightly higher, as on Deutsche Gramophone CDs, will sound stronger and somewhat nasal. There’s no trace of brightening, “ticking”, or glassiness: the American speakers sound absolutely coherent and well thought out, with which they embarrass many other expensive horn speakers.
It was different with stringed instruments whose sound is located lower, like on the album Lachrimae or Seaven Teares performed by Jordi Savall and his Hespèrion XX. The latest Alia Vox release sounded equally thick, with accent on the lower midrange, as the Haden’s album. This was due to another characteristic of the JBLs, namely their ability to build a full, mature midrange, particularly with male vocals and instruments having a tonal center in that range. Playing Nat “King” Cole or listening to Dominic Miller’s Fourth Wall, or even Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on the latest Platinum SHM-CD release, should be convincing enough. If you do not have these albums, use others that are characterized by a saturated lower midrange, "opened up" by the top end not allowing it to close off in a thick pulp. What you’ll get is something that happens with best warm tube amps and fast speakers: the unity of tonality and micro-dynamics, tangibility and soundstage depth, and most of all instruments/vocals.
It proves beneficial to calm instrumental and dynamic vocal music, but also to electronica. That is why I’ve mentioned Oldfield. The JBLs offer a very large, intensive sound. They perfectly convey spatial aspects, including those around the listener, at least when we talk about the foreground. What is further up is of less importance; the foreground takes a clear preference. Hence the fantastic Cole’s vocals, but also the thick sound of electronic instruments and the sense of fullness with this type of albums.
In addition to small classical and jazz ensembles as well as electronica, the S3900 were also tested with Megadeth, Metallica, Depeche Mode, Portishead and old recordings from the 1930s. They were all very interesting and had proper “power”. The sound was dynamic, big and strong. The first planes seemed to be most important, as the guitar, drums and vocals were shown slightly before the speaker line and had a large volume, i.e. size combined with body. These are speakers that do not pretend to be “correct”. But neither do they make a “point” of their differences. They are not interesting just because they are different.
High sensitivity speakers, especially horn designs, are usually associated with small tube amps. There is lots of truth in that. Many such designs, especially speakers from the 1930-60s, work best with less than 10 Watts, preferably SET, amplifiers. Many modern speakers also sound better paired with low power tube amps. However, in my opinion, the JBLs sound best with powerful high-end solid state amps. It is with the latter that they can achieve their maximum capability and sound really magical. I was driving the S3900 with my Soulution 710 amplifier and it was an optimal pairing.
The S3900 is the distant heir of the Everest project, and a direct successor of the S9900. Slightly smaller than the latter design, housed in a simpler cabinet with smaller midrange driver and tweeter horns, they have two 250 mm woofers in place of a single 300 mm unit. It is, however, still a three-way, partially horn loaded, ported design.
Technical Specifications (according to the manufacturer):
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One