Whaaaaaaaaat? Who decided to match up a pair of budget JBL's against an audiophile quality pair of Ascends? This dude is absolutely bonkers!
I know what you're thinking, "This guy is pranking us, there is no way he is wasting his time with a pair of trash JBLs?". Well you know what? Here's what I'm thinking, "I wonder how a pair of budget JBL's would do against a speaker that is considerably better in almost every aspect. Maybe these JBL's are a diamond in the rough and could be a great pick for people just starting and don't want to spend $600 on a pair of Ascends." Makes sense right? I'm doing this for the guys (and/or girls) who are just starting out and want some help deciding on the pair of speakers that will mark their entry into the world of Audiophiliacs.
So here I am, sitting at my desk, writing a full comprehensive write up just because I care. Enjoy! Oh and if you have any questions or suggestions, let me know, I will be more than happy to help.
If you would like to skip the intro and discussion and all that other blah blah blah and get straight to the comparison, scroll down past the dashed line.
This thread will be dedicated to comparing and contrasting a pair of $300 budget JBLs (Arena 130's) and a pair of $600 Ascend Acoustics' (CMT340SE). To start, I would like to discuss objective observations of these speakers. For the sake of saving my keyboard from an endless flow of CMT340SE and Arena 130, I will be referring to them through out this review as Ascend's, 340's, and CMT's, and JBL's, Arena's, and 130's. Respectively.
For starters, the Ascends's feature two 6.5" composite polygel woofers, proprietary to Ascend, and a 1" soft dome tweeter, rear ported.
They measure 21" x 7.5" x 10.5" with the included grille on.
They are rated for 240 watts rms and a peak of 400 watts, bi-ampable.
Sensitivity is 90dB/watt/meter in an anechoic chamber and 92dB in room.
Frequency response of 48-24kHz +/-3 dB in an anechoic chamber and 45-20kHz +/-3 in room.
They weigh 26 pounds each.
Built and braced with 5/8" MDF.
First Impressions: These things are HEAVY. I think the package weighed at least 50lbs. It wasn't easy getting it inside my room that's for sure. Package was in pristine condition, double boxed with plenty of foam to protect the individual speaker. I don't know what kind of finish Dave uses but I like it. It's like a semi-textured satin black. Feels nice to the touch. Anti-fingerprint and I'm sure its very durable. The polygel woofer in the 340's threw me for a loop. The black horn looking think in the middle is solid. Doesn't move with the cone. Almost like it's part of the speaker basket (Maybe it is lol). The woofer cone feels nice to the touch, also textured, similar to a grainy feel like someone sprinkled a very small amount of sand on tape. Decently sized rear port on the back along with some identification stickers placed on the back by Dave at Ascend. Oh and the ginormous bi-amp terminal which surprisingly isn't all that terrible. It's very cleanly designed and unobtrusive to the rest of the rear.
The JBL's feature a single 7" polycellulose woofer and 1" soft dome tweeter, rear ported.
They measure 15"x 8-17/32" x 10-5/8" with the grille on.
They are rated for 125 watts rms, unknown peak (Estimated 250).
Sensitivity is 87dB/watt/meter, unspecified testing environment.
Frequency response of 55-40kHz
They weigh 13.5 each.
Unknown MDF thickness.
First impressions: Well... to begin, the box arrived with a GAPING hole in it. I could see the speaker through it and I sure was worried. Upon opening of the box however, I could see that it was packed extremely well and the hole was of nothing to worry about. When I opened them up and unwrapped them here's what I thought, "Well the piano white sure is an interesting finish". Upon closer inspection, it appears to be a grainy white oak finish on the sides with the top being non textured. It's starting to grow on me if I was being completely honest. It's a nice change in a world of satin black and loud and exotic wood flavors. Removal of the grille was something else lol. It took me a good 2 minutes to take ONE of the grilles off. It was pretty stuck but I'm not mad. Ensures that they don't come off in transit and become damaged or damage the speaker itself. One thing I noticed is that the grille actually "clicks" in. It's a little weird but again, I'm not mad. The front of the speaker sure is an eye-sore. The black dome tweeter, surrounded by the wave guide, added to the large black woofer on a background of straight white isn't easy to look at. Not to mention the 6 BLACK peg holes for the speaker grille. But this review isn't about how speakers look, its about how they sound. The rear includes the single 5-Way binding posts. Very solid construction. Banana plugs click right in, and with some oomph. The rear port is even bigger than the 340's port and is flared widely. Lots of air must be moving in and out of this thing.
Okay with that out of the way, I can talk about the testing setup. It isn't optimal, but it is functional and will do the job. I have both sets of speakers on top of the cardboard stacks (Flooring that has yet to be put in lol). JBL's were given pole position on the outside because i thought it would be better to see the JBL's full potential as I'm sure the Ascends would win, even not at full potential. I am using an Onkyo TX-SR313PRO Amplifier (60wpc) instead of my newer Onkyo TX-NR656 (100wpc) because I prefer the sound that the 1990's Onkyo produces. It's nice and warm, and I like to think much higher quality than the digital amps being made right now. Wires are bare into the amplifier and banana plugged into the speakers. I used an AUX to RCA cable to connect my phone for listening. I used Spotify Premium with the highest quality possible (320 kbps) streaming. I'm 96" away from each speaker. The Ascends are 48" apart and the JBLs are 66" apart. Ear level is roughly 40". Everything checks out? Okay great, now on to the listening portion.
I'm going to divide this part into 4 sections: Ascend Review, JBL Review, Aspects, and Conclusion.
Well a graph can only go so far to explain just how amazing this speaker is. Ascend Acoustics is centered around having the flattest, most neutral sounding speakers possible. To create a monster of a speaker that reproduces music like no other. And all things considered, Dave hit the bullseye with this one. I teared up listening to Frank Sinatra's "(Love Is) The Tender Trap" because of how vibrant and real the instruments are. The soundstage that these bookshelves create is phenomenal. The separation of instruments and vocals is second to none. I could close my eyes and see Frank Sinatra singing in front of a stage with the band behind him and be able to place each instrument and band member in a seperate spot. That's just something you can't do with every speaker. And a testament to the quality and realness of this speaker was playing a common rap song that is found on the radio. Many mainstream rap songs are overproduced, muddy, and imbalanced. Boy did these Ascends just rip that song in half. It was as if they were asking, "What are you listening to dude?". But when you circle around to a quality song, recorded properly with real instruments, it provides a definition only found when you are listening to the REAL thing. There is no coloration, no harshnes, not even any warmth which is incredibly hard to properly control. Simply? The 340's give it to you with no bullsh*t on the side. They hand you the steak raw, and if you don't like it the way they served it, they tell you to get out of their restaurant. A favorite song of mine that I like to use as a baseline for all of my speaker testings is "What's on your mind (Pure Energy)" by Information Society. It is possibly one of the most dynamic songs I have heard by far. It has THE cleanest kick I have ever heard, with plenty of highs to follow. When I played this song on the Ascends at normal volume, I was underwhelmed. Extremely underwhelmed. I wondered what happened to the vibrant highs and smooth lows. Then I turned the volume up. And up. And up. And up. These speakers were CRAVING wattage. They laughed at the initial amount of power I gave them and decided hog all of the dynamics that I was used to until I let them peer pressure me into cranking the volume up. And when I did? Wow factor. Pure wow factor. The kick, the highs, the separation and sound stage, it was all there, and with a VENGEANCE. These speakers, even as efficient as they are @92dB/watt, they want you to turn them UP. And you can do so with ZERO harshness or fatigue. They hold their composure so well, it's beyond me how they can do this. Many speakers out there tend to compress the bass as the volume gets turned past their comfort zone and the harshness of the tweeter comes out. But these? These you can crank to 11 and both the bass and the treble will stay accurate, even asking to be turned to 12. If I had to describe these speakers. they would be like that one friend you have that is constantly hopping rooftops and doing wheelies in the middle of the road. They are fun, they like to get loud, and they are STILL musical. It's hard to find a speaker with this combination of attributes but Dave did, and this is why I am beyond satisfied with my Ascend CMT340SE's.
While the JBL's are no pair of Ascends, they are still insanely fun to listen to. I'm going to try my best not to cast the JBL's in the 340's shadow, but no promises. The first thing I noticed with these JBLs is the very, VERY, low bass extension that this single 7" woofer could provide. Whatever JBL did to this 7" woofer, they need to do it with all of their speakers they sell. It had that trademark JBL sound, nice full lows with punchy mids. JBL has always took pride in their bass and it shows in the 130's. But beyond the bass, the most important thing for this pair was their RIDICULOUS ability to image. JBL is owned by Harman which also owns Revel. Revel must have given them their designs for wave guides because this tweeter is something special. I cannot even begin to describe how amazing the imaging was. When i was listening to "Nocturne en mi bémol majeur opus 9 n°2: Ballade en Sol Mineur No.1" by Frederic Chopin, I actually teared up. I... it... it was if... oh man. It was if Frederic Chopin was physically sitting IN FRONT of you, playing the piano, facing the other direction. You could see each note on the piano, and when it was played, every note was always from the perfect spot (I have a piano to verify this). I could even hear Frederic Chopin softly exhaling ever so slightly to the right of him. It was beautiful. I have never heard a speaker that could image so well. The Ascend's cannot even image this well. I will say however, I gave the JBL's the advantage by placing them on the outside to give them a better stage. While it may matter, it doesn't take away from the fact these can image beyond belief. Now for the slightly bad. The JBL's have great bass, but they give it away too quick almost. What I mean is, is that they come off as a warm speaker and are pretty bassy for the size but that quickly disappears as the woofer runs out of xmax quite quickly and distortion occurs. They sound very full and give plenty of tactile response at low-medium volumes, but you cannot crank these to 11 as you can with the Ascends. This would be one of the speakers I mentioned earlier that cannot hold their composure well. You can turn down the bass and get close to 11 but that's no fun because the treble becomes too strong and harshness takes over. But these are fantastic speakers either way. Who cranks their music to 11 anyways? 10 is plenty for a party. Edit:
mentioned a coarseness with the JBL 130's and I couldn't agree more. I'm disappointed I overlooked this. When listening to "Beyond" by Daft Punk (I absolutely love the R.A.M album by the way) there was something off about the sound when compared to the Ascends. I couldn't put my finger on it the night of the review but Zieglj01 put it in words. The Ascends came out as the "nicer" speaker to listen to. I had just thought it was me being biased towards my Ascends but it is 100% true. The 130's tweeters aren't as refined as Ascends and the highs come out as less smooth. Think of CD vs Vinyl. I also want to note how the JBL's sound physically smaller. Listening to Frank Sinatra's "Theme From New York, New York", he sounds considerably smaller when projected across the room. And I don't mean small as worse sound from the JBLs (Tinny or flat) I mean when you close your eyes he sounds like a smaller man than he would through the Ascends. A little odd right? The tweeter is even higher on the JBL's than on the Ascends. Same with the instruments, small trumpets and drums compared to large trumpets and large drums through the Ascends. Maybe Frank Sinatra is indeed smaller than I thought and this might the one part where Ascends actually "lie" to you and make the person they are playing bigger than they should be.
Winner of each aspect in a speaker:
Highs - Honestly? I feel like it's a toss up here. The Ascends have the better tweeter quality going for it, but the JBL's just image SO well. It's like having a lot of pizza vs a little bit of sushi. Depending on the person or time of the week you could go either way.
Lows - When listening below reference volume, JBL's are the winner. That 7" is just magic for some reason. The tactile response is so elevated vs the Ascends for some reason. I think it has something to do with the extremely large port. But once you start getting that itch for LOUD music, Ascends take it all the way home. They pack quite a punch but are pretty reserved until you hit that one spot on the volume. Then they unleash the wrath of Dave.
Mids - I do not have a well enough trained ear to differentiate mids. Maybe I do but I'm not fluent in describing the differences between them. Sorry. Just look at the graphs or something
Sound stage - Ascends. By Far. They filled the room twice over with brilliant sound. It was almost like we had 5 channel stereo filling the whole room with sound. And its directional. Its not just blasting uncontrolled sound all over the place. It was a wall of sound coming from these two fantastic bookshelf speakers.
Imaging - The JBL's clearly had the lead here. I hope I made it VERY clear. The imaging was very good from the Ascends, but the JBL's are a full head above. It's an experience to say the least.
Separation - Ascends. Listening to that big band behind Frank Sinatra was just incredible. Each instrument had it's own spot but it had depth. Similar to the piano experience with the JBLs, but the depth factor is undeniably important.
Ascend Acoustics CMT340SE (Baseline)
Performance = 5
Value = 5
Personal Enjoyment = 5
Sound Signature = Neutral
JBL Arena 130
Performance = 4 (At low-medium volumes. 3 Otherwise)
Value = 8 (When priced at $99. 3 Otherwise)
Personal Enjoyment = 4
Sound Signature = Warm
Recommended? Big Yes (When priced at $99)
While the Ascends are the clear winner, I want to note something that is probably the driving factor behind this whole write up. I want to note that these JBL's can be had for $99. "Hold up Russell, 90... 9... dollars...?". Yep... it's crazy, I know. New A-Stock too. So by mentioning this, I want to talk about price to performance ratio. These JBL's are the second highest "Value" speaker I have listened to. While it may not be a fantastic speaker at the normal msrp of $300, when it's priced for $99, I think you would be hard pressed to find a better value pick. Maybe the Sony Core's could hold a candle to these JBL's, but as of now? These JBLs right here are my top value pick. If someone asks me what the best performing speakers are for the least amount of money, I'm going to check JBL's website and if they are on sale, tell him these JBL Arena 130's are the best you can do. I would not, however, recommend buying these at full price. These JBLs are a great speakers nonetheless and I'm super stoked about their performance. While it may be able to be improved upon, when sold for $99, I was more than surprised by their ability to keep up with the Ascends for the most part.
Well. There it is. Everything I possibly have to say about both the Ascends and the JBLs. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for taking the time to read this article if you did indeed and didn't just skip to the bottom lol. I hope it helps someone out! If you are local to Sonoma County and would like to have a listen for yourself, these JBLs wont be here long before I find another household for them or just return them
P.S. Sorry that I only did music testing. I'm not one for movies or tv so I didn't feel the need to try them out that way. I'm sure both would perform really nicely. Especially with a sub. I will also be going back into the review and making edits when appropriate. Will very likely be adding new speakers into the comparison or making a new thread completely.
BONUS!!! Courtesy of
's Umik, I now have some in-room REW sweeps! Enjoy. Hope it adds a bit more authenticity to my review and helps out the people looking into either of these speakers. Sorry, my notes per each photo are inconsistent, but each sweep was done in stereo, with my Onkyo TX-NR656 (Yes, I know, not my original Onkyo TX-SR313 amp that I used for listening) at 50% volume. All are 1/24 smoothed. If you would like 1/3, 1/6, or 1/12 smoothed graphs, please PM me and I'll sweep some for you
DOUBLE BONUS!!! Once again, courtesey of
, I now have "Anechoic" measurements of both the JBL and Ascends. They are accurate to 150 hz according to math, 250 is the "to be safe" number. These should be extremely accurate, I even measured them to be 1 watt/1 meter/2.83 volts. Enjoy! Oh and they aren't smoothed one bit...