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Music selection used for the review: Paganini For Two, Gil Shaham, Göran Söllscher, Deutsche Grammophon/JVC 480 246-5, XRCD24 (1993/2009); Black Sabbath, 13, Vertigo/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICN-1034/5, 2 x SHM-CD (2013); Charlie Haden & Chris Anderson, None But The Lonely Heart, Naim 022, CD (1998); Depeche Mode, Should Be Higher, Columbia Records 758332, SP CD (2013); Dominic Miller, Fourth Wall, Q-rious Music QRM 108-2, CD (2006); Eva Cassidy, Songbird, Blix Street Records/JVC VICJ-010-0045, XRCD24 (1998/2010); Hilary Hann, Bach Concertos, Jeffrey Kahane, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music LLC [Japan] UCCG-50058, SHM-CD (2003/2011); John Dowland, Lachrimae or Seven Tears, Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XX, Alia Vox AVSA9901, SACD/CD (2013).; Mel Tormé, The Legend of Mel Tormé, Going For A Song GFS360, CD; Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells, Mercury Records/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICY-40016, Platinum SHM-CD (1973/2013); Nat 'King' Cole, Welcome to the Club, Columbia/Audio Fidelity AFZ 153, SACD/CD (1959/2013); Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2023, SACD/CD (1999/2003).

Regardless whether all or only some of their drivers are so loaded, hornspeakers share several features. It matters not which company makes 'em or what design idea finally manifests in the telltale acoustic shapes. Hornspeakers are big, fast and their sound waves seem to reach us more instantaneously. This is largely similar to headphones but includes tangible physical bass without any spatial location problems.

The S3900 adds to these features a few of its own which positions it slightly outside the 'hornspeaker mainstream'. The JBL plays music saturated and thick unlike similar designs which thin out the musical fabric by favouring attack and speed. The latter of course remain present but not for their own sake. The dense sound, large stage depth and fantastic tonal balance meant that they always showed me something good and interesting no matter what kind of music I played or at what volume. They should never get boring. Although I used them with most musical genres that interest me, I couldn't help but start with an album that features double bass in the lead. Double bass like those two woofers in front of me? Perhaps it wasn't the closest possible tie-in but it turned out to be quite accurate. I'd bought 1997's None But The Lonely Heart by Charlie Haden and Chris Anderson on the Naim label straight after its release whilst on the wave of enthusiasm for the hit disc Beyond The Missouri Sky where Haden had played with Pat Metheny.

Whilst I absolutely loved Beyond, the Haden and Anderson duo seemed downright boring by comparison. I had a problem both with its length (about 30 minutes too long) and track selection. Some ten years later my musical preferences have made a U-turn. Now it's the Metheny album which I consider to be flashy and musically empt. It also turns out to be far inferior on sound production to the album Ken Christianson recorded as chief sound engineer for the Naim label. The JBLs confirmed my assessment and showed even more explicitly than most very expensive speakers what the true power of this piano and double bass duo is.

The lows were strong and dense. At the same time they had high resolution – high enough to leave me in no doubt that Christianson had recorded Haden with just two stereo microphones (they look like AKG C414B-ULS in the photo yet I'm not sure) whilst the sheer bass power could indicate a third close-up mic to pick up more direct sound. That’s not the case though. This recording used Naim’s patented True Stereo technology and it was the JBL’s slightly stronger more resolving bass which I noticed immediately. The piano was shown as it should have been, from a distance yet with great definition enveloped by a beautiful acoustic environment. The horn-loaded drivers proved great at complementing the lower and upper bass without sounding detached or attention-seeking. That was unusual because horns are always audible. They generate specific distortion usually at the edges of their bandwidth. The JBLs weren't free from it but on most recordings this didn't distract. The duo was thick and dark in the sense that the treble could be deduced rather than being heard as something separate. Superb!

Speaking about distortion, I'd like to mention how the horns affect the S3900. Let's not pretend they don't. Part of the crossover range between 800-900Hz is emphasized. This range is responsible for midrange body and so-called presence. The JBLs didn't sound aggressive in that they did not irritate with these transients. Even so the lower range of female vocals and part of the violin's bandwidth especially when recorded slightly hot as by Deutsche Gramophone were somewhat elevated and s nasal. There was no trace of brightening or glassiness however. The Americans behaved coherent and well thought-out to embarrass many an expensive hornspeaker.

The change in tonality emphasized the violin, enlarged it and accented its nasal characteristics. This happened to Gil Sham’s instrument on Paganini For Two and Hilary Hann’s on Bach Concertos even though the former was released by JVC as XRCD24, the latter by Universal Japan as SHM-CD (in other words two theoretically top CD formats). In part this was the result of certain DG recording conventions but also it was due to the JBL character which deviates from neutrality in this particular range.

It was different with lower-pitched string instruments on Lachrimae or Seven Tears by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XX. The latest Alia Vox sounded equally thick and accented on the lower midrange as the Haden album. This was due to another JBL trait, namely their ability to build a full mature midrange particularly for male vocals and instruments having a similar tonal centre. Playing Nat 'King' Cole, Dominic Miller’s Fourth Wall or even Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on the latest Platinum SHM-CD release proved convincing enough. If you don't own these discs, use others characterized by a saturated lower midrange that's 'opened up' by a treble that won't allow it to close off in a thick pulp. What you get is something that happens with the best of warm tube amps and fast speakers: the unity of tonality and micro dynamics, tangibility and soundstage depth.

Talking of Haden’s album, I mentioned how it conveyed the recorded acoustics with great taste. This was possible with the very careful tonal setting of the horn drivers and the woofers' fullness. The latter were powerful without exaggeration in the context of this design. One won't ever run out of bass. It will extend very low though won't be particularly selective at the very bottom. However at a few hundred cycles resolution begins to far exceed average to be as good as that of the Amphion Krypton3 which were fantastic in this respect. And the Americans still provided a larger and therefore better sense of physical presence than the Finnish revelations.