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HOW TO PROPERLY COMPARE SPEAKERS - A Controlled "Shootout" of New Speaker Models from Revel and JBL

Results of a Controlled Shootout between JBL HDI3800, Revel F226BE, JBL L100, and Revel F208 Speakers

Comparing a/v products on a level playing field is critical if one wants to determine which products can actually be demonstrated to be “best in class.” For this to happen, listening needs to take place under at least somewhat controlled conditions. Even though this was a somewhat informal speaker shootout, we were still very careful about putting in many more controls than what speaker shoppers would typically encounter “in the wild,” hopping from store to store to audition speakers. Ideally we would perform a controlled "double blind" test like we did with our more formal comparison between the Revel Salon2 and JBL M2 speakers back in 2017. While we have the ability to do completely double blind comparisons, we chose to do our test sighted this time since we felt it would be more representative of the kind of test “real people” could actually undertake at home, or even in a showroom with a cooperative dealer. While not perfect, the intent here was to at least demonstrate the steps even a casual consumer could take to eliminate many of the variables that render most speaker comparisons useless. First, and perhaps most importantly, we made sure that the speakers being compared were level matched to within .5 dB so they were the same relative volume. This is critical, since if one speaker plays louder than the other, the louder speaker will tend to be judged as "sounding better". We don't have the hydraulic speaker mover from Harman's Multi Listening Lab so we set the speakers side by side to minimize variations due to room placement. Making sure the speakers were precisely level matched and compared side by side and in mono eliminated MANY of the variables that plague other speaker comparisons. We also only limited comparisons to two speakers at a time to minimize spatial variations.

For listening we used tracks from Harman's test playlist as well as some personal choices all mixed down to mono. There is about 40 years of research which shows mono listening tests as the most revealing of differences in speaker sound. For the mono sessions, stereo tracks were mixed down to mono within Roon, and sound was output through a professional Focusrite external soundcard, which allowed us to precisely match output levels (the same sound interface I use for mixing films and music). This was in turn connected to a JBL Synthesis SDA7200 amplifier, at 200 watts x 7. Level measurements were taken in REW using a calibrated UMIK1 microphone. Once we had finished our mono listening tests we switched to stereo with many of the same tracks, using the same components just described. Not surprisingly, our preferences stayed the same mono vs. stereo. At times listeners did not know which speaker was being played, other times they could call out and request a specific speaker on a track. We used a wide variety of music tracks and genres - rock, electronica, jazz, rap, hip-hop, classical, acoustic guitar and piano, lots of female vocals, even a few film scores (female vocals are particularly good to determine how well the tweeter is blended with the midrange driver, which is typically controlled by the quality of the crossover and waveguide). We also included the original Harman music test loops we used during our famous 2017 shootout. It has been found that a large variety of different musical and recording styles need to be used to get a fair assessment of speaker performance, as recording quality / technique can vary wildly. Decades of research has shown that no one can be completely free from bias in sighted listening tests. We took major steps to mitigate that as much as possible (not revealing which speaker was playing, for example), but we would be the first to admit that this listening test does not qualify for publication in a scientific journal. However, I am confident that our test was FAR more valid than going from store to store and comparing speakers under the control of various different salespeople. I also stand by the idea that this test is far more valid than comparing speakers in a single, typical a/v showroom, where typically no attempt is even made to level match the speakers being auditioned, or by simply casting out to the internet for recommendations. Ultimately this was an attempt to show people how they can properly compare speakers under at least *somewhat* controlled conditions without having access to a multi-million dollar test facility. In that I think we succeeded.

We were especially excited to compare Revel F208s with JBL's new HDI3800 towers. Both are in the same $5000 a pair price range, both have 8" cone drivers for bass, but for their high end tweeters they employ different technologies. (NOTE – the F208 has a smaller 5 ¼” driver for mids, since it is a true three way). The Revel F208's are our most popular speaker and have tested and reviewed well for years, besting speakers many times their price. The JBL HDI series is brand new -- introduced at CEDIA last fall and just starting to ship in the past month. The HDI series is part of JBL's Premium speaker line (which also includes the legendary JBL Everest and K2) and, as such, they have a compression driver and wave guide based on JBL's M2 master reference monitor (vs. a conventional dome tweeter and wave guide on Revel's F208). This HDI3800 is already racking up some impressive reviews of its own. Bea has a pair of these speakers in her theater and she brought them so that we could hear them. Dave brought along his F226Bes to demo as well. Then, because we had them in the office, we added JBL's L100 Classics to the fun. The F226Be is also new and was introduced at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest the week before CEDIA 2019. The F226Be is a 3-way speaker in the Performa Beryllium line with 6" ceramic-aluminum hybrid cone woofers. At $7000 a pair they fill in the gap between the M126Be bookshelf speaker and the much larger, Stereophile "Speaker of the Year" winning 8" driver F228Be, and also represent the least expensive tower speaker on the market with a genuine beryllium tweeter. Instantly recognizable from its signature orange grill and 12" woofer the L100, one of JBL's best selling speakers of all time. Famous from the old Maxell cassette advert it was re-engineered, updated, and reintroduced -- in classic retro style -- as the L100 Classic in 2018 priced at $4000 a pair. All of the speakers were from Harman so they have very similar voicing, but each has its own characteristics. General impressions (from the group):

Revel F208 vs. JBL HDI3800

The Revel F208 serves as kind of a benchmark in all of our speaker comparisons as it’s probably our best-selling speaker and represents tremendous bang for the buck. At Harman they often refer to it as the “giant killer,” as it's gone up against speakers at MANY MANY times its price range, during the kind of double blind listening tests described, and won handily each time. It’s an extraordinarily neutral speaker almost completely free of resonances. The new JBL HDI3800 tower speaker is at exactly the same price point, but features a variation on the D2 compression driver and High Definition Imaging (HDI) waveguide originally developed for the JBL M2 Master Reference Monitor. Like the F208, it measures extremely well with the same neutral sound target.

When compared side by side, it was interesting that our listener preferences kind of ping-ponged between the two speakers. The HDI 3800 had a more focused, direct sound – very VERY similar to what we heard from the JBL M2 during our M2 vs. Salon2 listening test. The Revel had a broader, more open sound – spacious sounding even in mono, while the JBL was tighter, more focused. Like what we heard during the M2 vs. Salon2 shootout, preference was largely dependent on the recording we were listening to, with overall preferences ever so slightly leaning toward the F208. Close mic’d instruments and percussion sounded more realistic on the JBL, most other material sounded more open and pleasing on the Revel. Joel cued up the Led Zeppelin track “Moby Dick” during both the mono and stereo listening sessions, and the “thwack” of the percussion during the drum solo sounded more immediate and life-like on the JBL. The close mic’d tenor sax on Jen Chapin’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” track sounded like the sax was right in the room with us (this makes sense in terms of how sound actually emanates from a saxophone, the bell of which is a horn). On other, more conventional pop, jazz and orchestral recordings, the JBL tended to sound a little “boxy” and constrained in width / depth compared to the Revel. Preference here was recording and application dependent. For people who listen to a lot of classic rock, electronic music and some forms of jazz, the JBL is going to be a terrific choice. We think it will do extremely well with movies as well, since the extra dynamics from the horn driver and more localized sound field will be of substantial benefit in terms of placing sounds in specific locations around the room, and in reproducing the kind of chest-thumping impact you get with a compression driver (think gunshots and explosions with visceral impact). To quote Wayne Campbell, thought we should point out that the HDI3800's "wail." These are quite efficient speakers, and are able to play very loud without any hint of strain. The Revel, on the other hand, is more of an “all-rounder” in that everything sounded good through it, it just lacked the "immediacy" of the JBL. In our reference showroom, we can quickly switch back and forth between the JBL SCL2 in-walls (very similar to the JBL M2 and HDI series in design) and the Revel Salon2s, and we often find ourselves switching back and forth between them depending on the particular recording being listening to. For people who want to feel like they’ve actually been shot during a gun battle in a movie, the JBL is going to be hard to beat. For people like myself who pay more attention to the music score (which generally tends to be orchestral), the Revel is a great choice.

Revel F208 vs. Revel F226Be

This was an eye opener. The Revel F208 sounds so good it is often difficult to imagine another speaker sounding much better. However, the F226Be improved upon the sound of the F208 in every aspect except pure bass extension (and even there it was closer than expected, considering that the F208 has two 8” woofers vs. the dual 6” woofers on the F226Be). Vocals and instruments both were clearer and more distinct on the F226Be, with that goose-bump inducing sense or air and space that you get with a true audiophile speaker. One of the tracks that really stood out for John and myself was Sara Bareilles’ rendition of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from her “Brave Enough Live at the Variety Playhouse” album. The vocal was just incredibly pure and uncolored, truly goose-bump inducing. Compared to the F208 it was just “purer” and more distinct, with an astounding naturalness that emotionally moved all of us. Percussion had more of a “snap” and immediacy as well with the F226Be. So, as good as the F208 is, we feel that it has genuinely been bested by the new Be series. The dynamics are better, the treble and midrange more refined. Compared to the F226Be, the F208 sounded a bit muddled in the midrange and treble frequencies. TO BE FAIR, this was no “night and day” difference, but a difference that was clearly there to be heard. My comment was that it seemed to strike a balance between the lushness of the Revel F208 and the dynamic intensity and impact of the HDi3800 -- a sort of "best of both worlds". Interestingly, that is how we often describe the difference between the entry level Concerta2 F36 and the step up Performa3 F206 – a difference in refinement that can be heard in the dynamics and separation between instruments and vocals. Like the F206 and F208 are step-ups from the F35 and F36, the BE series offers a similar step-up in refinement over the "standard" F208 and F206. From talking to the engineers at Revel, the differences between the standard Performa3 models and the new Be models are most likely attributable to the improved motors in the drivers themselves, plus the further refinements in waveguide technology Harman has made over the years. What’s interesting is that the new Be flagship, the F328Be, refines the waveguide and motor systems to an even greater degree.

Revel F226Be vs. JBL L100 Classic

This was a fun comparison. Since the L100 Classic design was restricted to being placed in a cabinet originally designed in the 1970s, we didn’t expect too much out of it. However, it turns out that the L100 Classic is really fun to listen to, and held its own quite well against the Revel we shot it out against. The L100 is just a “fun” speaker – it plays loud, has a bit of an aggressive sound, and has a cool retro look. On certain tracks it was apparent that the L100 Classic was a bit “forward” in presentation, and if the recording had a lot of energy in the 2000 – 3000 hz range it could sound a bit harsh on the L100. Once again, however, this was largely recording dependent. Kris was playing some rap and hip hop tracks that had a lot of energy in that area. Without the F226Be there as a reference, though, I am not sure how “harsh” it would have seemed to the typical listener. As we did not get to the L100 until rather late in the listening session we didn’t have a lot of time to play with it, however, they brought a smile to the face of everyone listening to them.

Comments on the Shootout from Kris Deering, Technical Editor of Sound and Vision Magazine and A/V Industry Consultant at Deep Dive A/V

Highly respected A/V consultant and reviewer Kris Deering of Deep Dive AV and Sound and Vision magazine was on hand for our listening tests, and kindly gave us permission to share his thoughts:

"I was just in the Colorado Springs area and had the chance to attend an informal speaker comparison between the Revel Performa F208 (a speaker I’ve heard in quite a few fantastic setups), the PerformaBe F226Be, and the brand new JBL HDi-3800; which I had only seen at CEDIA last year but didn’t had the chance to take a listen. The TSR guys did a great job level matching each speaker in a single speaker mono comparison and it was interesting hearing the differences the various speaker designs bring to the table.

The F208’s continued their streak of fantastic reproduction of female vocals, airy highs and tight bass performance, while I felt the F226Be’s took things a bit further sounding noticeably tighter in focus and delivering a palpable sense of being there when and where the recording took place. I was also blown away by how capable the F226’s dual 6-inch driver’s where with some of the selections that gave them a brutal workout in the bass region. Of all the speakers compared in the session, these were the winners for me.

The new JBL HDi towers were also impressive with fantastic low-end presence and detail. If your music tastes steered toward rock and electronica, these would be the speakers I would lean toward. Impressive dynamics, but a touch less air took away from some of the vocals in the higher quality recordings we heard.

In the end, all of these speakers delivered the goods with aplomb. I’d honestly be happy with any of them in a dedicated 2-channel setup. Kudos to TSR for letting me participate. I’m always delighted to see a dealer take the time to really audition, compare and contrast speakers. It allows them to make a much more informed recommendation to their customers based on their playback needs and listening preferences."

Our Conclusions

It was a pleasure to compare so many excellent speakers side by side. We’ve done listening tests before where we have brought in competing speakers from different manufacturers, typically against an equivalently priced Revel model. The Revels genuinely sound so much better that even the listener bringing in the competing speaker makes up their mind so quickly that test ends quite abruptly. In this case, all of the speakers were much closer in overall sound quality so the listening tests ended up taking all afternoon. Clear differences could be heard, but the matter of preference seemed more tied to the quality or nature of the recording we were listening to. It’s always hard to put listening impressions into words, but hopefully this gives you some kind of idea of what we experienced this particularly fun, and fascinating, afternoon.

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