Introduction - what is the JBL HDI 1600?
The JBL HDI1600 is a two way standmount speaker. We look at plenty of those and we’ve looked at a fair few that occupy this sort of price point. It’s an interesting level for speakers because we start to see ‘flagship features’ appear but placed within the context of a simpler, more cost effective speaker that gives you, the customer, the taste, the essence, the little warm glow, of what you might experience if you go all in, flog a kidney and commit yourself to their product philosophy but while retaining all of your renal system.
If you are JBL, this is not as straightforward as it is for many companies. JBL’s product range is, when viewed from a distance, gloriously bipolar. At one end, they make excellent, value driven products that boast comprehensive specifications but have basic ingredients that are recognisable as being ‘normal’ at the price. Then, at the other end, we have JBL Synthesis. This is the high end wing of JBL and they could not care less about what other companies get up to. The Synthesis range of speakers are big, exactingly built, big, compression driver equipped, big, designs that match high sensitivity with huge power handling. Did I mention they were big? Because they’re big.
This means that the HDI Series represents the unlikely meeting point of these two divergent theories. It is designed to give you a taste of the Synthesis ownership experience in a speaker that still looks and feels like it belongs at the £2,000-4,000 price point. It’s a balancing act akin to trying a create a dragster that still functions on the school run. Can JBL pull it off?
Design and Specification
The HDI range comprises two floorstanders, the 1600 standmount you see here, a centre speaker and a subwoofer. Not including the sub, there are three different mid bass drivers at work in the range so the unifying point for all models is the tweeter. This is pure, unadulterated, JBL and the device that gives the strongest connection to the more expensive members of the Synthesis family. It is a horn loaded design which is a JBL trademark but it’s not an example of pure traditionalism.
Traditionally, JBL horn tweeters used titanium domes mounted deep in the horn to do their high end work. The HDI series keeps the horn but this latest model (resplendent under the snappy title of 2410H-2) is made of a polymer rather than metal. This is annular in shape - something we’ve seen before under different names. An inner dome is surrounded by a ring surround so you get plenty of high frequency extension but also the means of ensuring it rolls off at a usable point for the crossover to the mid bass. This is clearly effective as the JBL is firmly in the modern practice of handing over to the mid bass at a surprisingly low frequency; in this case 1.9kHz.
The mid bass driver that picks up the baton is also a partial break from traditional JBL design practise. It is a 6.5-inch unit that boasts a long throw suspension and symmetrical field motor type coil which are both long term JBL specialities but the driver that they act upon is an aluminium matrix style driver that is not something I can recall seeing on a ‘big’ JBL. It is augmented by a rear port and JBL quotes a frequency response of 40Hz-30kHz, albeit at the less demanding +/- 6dB measurement. The biggest surprise though is the sensitivity. Traditionally, JBL Synthesis designs have been on the sensitive side but the HDI 1600 quotes a relatively low 85dB/w. For the avoidance of doubt, I firmly believe that most companies overstate their sensitivity and that more of the JBL’s rivals than you might expect are near this figure but it is still fairly low for something wearing the Synthesis badge.
JBL doesn’t supply a great deal of information on the crossover in the HDI 1600 save for the crossover point. It is relatively unusual in 2020 in that it supports bi wiring but there’s nothing that the company wants to bring to our specific attention. Where the company does want to make a song and dance is the cabinet. This is heavily braced and uses computer modelling to both ensure the best location for the port and the flare applied to it. ‘Feel’ is not the best metric of working out the solidity of a design but the JBL feels hefty and rugged. When running, there is precious little dissipated energy felt through the enclosures and the port is also unobtrusive in use as well.
I think they’ve done a good job with the aesthetics too. The HDI1600 was under test at the same time as the Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature and they are interesting devices to compare and contrast. JBL offers the HDI Series in ‘automotive grade’ high gloss black and ‘furniture grade’ satin walnut and (as seen here) grey oak. Compared to the exquisite, lacquered effort that encases the 705 Signature, the JBL feels more prosaic… but that feels right. The Synthesis models are domestic pro loudspeakers (and some of them are still entirely pro). The HDI 1600 wouldn’t necessarily feel right if it tried to be as slick as the Bowers & Wilkins.
It’s clever too. Even if you ignored the prominent JBL badging on the front, thanks to that rectangular horn aperture, the JBL looks and feels like it’s a JBL. Effectively, even though the styling cues have been reduced to a single item, it still works. It also means that while the HDI 1600 feels like a big speaker, it isn’t really that much larger than its key competition - although care may need to be taken with some high stands. Is it as domestically lovely as some rivals? No. Is it perfectly domestically acceptable? Very much so. It’s also very well built. The cosmetics are all in keeping with what you would expect at the price and the mechanicals also feel encouragingly robust.
One minor note of caution has to be sounded for anyone looking at the 1600 with a view to going multichannel. As noted, the 1600 is about ‘normal’ in size terms at the price. The rest of the family though are big lads. The centre speaker has no less than 4 mid bass drivers alongside the tweeters and the 3800 floorstander has the sort of dimensions you will commonly associate with anything that has three eight inch drivers in it. This is the most transatlantic JBL model in a while but don’t assume it doesn’t have a heavy dose of American dimensions to the range.
Even if you ignored the prominent JBL badging on the front, thanks to that rectangular horn aperture, the JBL looks and feels like it’s a JBL
How was the HDI 1600 tested?
The JBL has spent some time on the end of the Arcam SA30 as they were reviewed as part of a system for another publication. For critical appraisal here though, they have been primarily used with the Cambridge Audio Edge A integrated amp connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas taking a USB feed from a Roon Nucleus and connected to a Rega Planar 10 turntable running via an AVID Pellar phono stage. The speakers themselves have been used on a pair of Soundstyle Z60 stands. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, Qobuz, Tidal and some vinyl.
More: Audio Formats
Key to the JBL Synthesis experience is a perception of unburstable power. By combining big drivers with bigger cabinets and (unlike designs which concentrate on high sensitivity) building them to be robust, they are able to produce high SPLs without any perceivable strain. The good news is that at the core of what the HDI 1600 does is this same effortless grunt. You can put Their Law by The Prodigy on them and they can make it visceral.
This is a combination of several things being done well. First up, that 40Hz lower figure, in this room is met before the 3dB cutoff (let alone the 6dB one) suggesting that a more abrupt roll off might be going on at the top end. More importantly to the presentation of the JBL, there’s a spaciousness that is present across the frequency response. This is not simply a case of there being an ‘airy top end’ either. From the lowest frequencies and up, the JBL sounds big and confident. Even at low levels, this is a room filling and effortless sounding device.
The decision to give much of the frequency response over to the tweeter is a big part of this. Horn loaded tweeters are science with a big helping of experience based engineering. The one used here is effortlessly good. The upper frequencies are almost completely free of any cabinet colouration or containment and, so long as a modicum of care is taken with their placement, you are treated to a deep and spacious soundstage that is completely seamless from left to right. In many regards, it is reminiscent of the PMC twenty5 21i but the bigger cabinet helps the JBL to sound bigger in turn. Furthermore, the tweeter manages this without the sense of it shouting while it does so. Even with edgier recordings, the JBL is refined and almost sweet in the way it handles high frequencies.
That sensitivity figure does make itself felt though. On the end of the hefty solid state amplification here, it’s not an issue; neither the Arcam or Cambridge Audio has felt under any strain running the HDI 1600 and I don’t think that you need as much as the three figure outputs that they both boast. I am suggesting the valve pairings that are sometimes seen with the very big JBL models would probably not be a goer here unless it’s a fairly hefty example of the breed. The payoff is that this helps the JBL feel as unburstable as it does. Listening to Bot’ox’s Crashed Cadillac with a bit of volume on the dial is a deeply pleasurable experience. The weight and drive of this big, brooding piece of electronica is well captured.
It also gives some greater context to the way that JBL performs compared to something like the Bowers & Wilkins. The HDI 1600 and 705 Signature have very similar roll off in this room but the JBL feels like the bigger, harder hitting speaker. This combines with that top end performance to give you a real big picture device that never struggles even when it has orchestras and stadia to contend with. Conversely, it always feels a little more deliberate and less energetic than the Bowers & Wilkins. It’s not to say that the JBL sounds slow; it’s simply that the 705 Signature is more energetic still.
There is something to be admired in the way that the JBL does its business though. As distinct from the retro tinged models that have been appearing in recent years which trade off a little of this big, potent but matter-of-fact presentation for a more effervescent personality, this is what big JBL speakers do. The joy they reproduce in music is inherent to the music and nothing more. There’s still the vaguest sniff of the pro monitor in what they do but it is not so pronounced as to stop them working domestically.
So long as a modicum of care is taken with their placement, you are treated to a deep and spacious soundstage that is completely seamless from left to right
- Big, confident and spacious presentation
- Handome appearance
- Good build quality
- Can be fractionally matter of fact
- Not easy to drive
- Quite big
JBL HDI 1600 Standmount Speaker Review
So where does this leave the JBL in the great scheme of speakers at this price point? This is a speaker that genuinely does bring a taste of what its larger and more expensive relatives do. It does it in a form factor that will fit in a UK lounge and with an aesthetic that won’t have people assuming you’re operating some sort of lockdown defying speakeasy disco on the side. It’s true to the virtues to which JBL adheres and is not overly concerned if that turns out not to be exactly what everybody wants. It’s a singular and thoroughly enjoyable addition to the ranks of speakers at this price and earns our enthusiastic Recommendation.
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