More often than not, there's an inverse relationship between the size of a speaker and its sound quality. But while it's difficult to get good sound out of tiny speakers, it's certainly not impossible. And there's no better proof than JBL's SCS180.6 surround-speaker system. Thanks to a brawny subwoofer, the SCS180.6 system delivers accomplished--and decor-friendly--home-theater and music performance in small to midsize rooms. It's not as stylish as its more expensive 7.1-channel ancestor, the , but it's a steal at its $399 list price, and it's widely available for less. The JBL SCS180.6's little satellite speakers stand just a bit more than 8 inches tall, but these curvy molded sats don't look appreciably different than the sort we find packed with low-rent HTIBs. The five silver-plastic sats sit on nonslip rubber feet, and the supplied JBL wall-mount brackets seem well designed. The center speaker is essentially the same as the sats but intended to be placed horizontally. The 16-inch cube subwoofer got more of our respect: the wood cabinet feels pretty robust--it weighs 35 pounds--though the silver-vinyl-wrap finish seems a little bland. If you're swayed by style as much as sound, check out JBL's sharper-looking sub-sat system. That slightly older 7.1-channel model lists for $649 but can be found in the more modest price range of the 180.6.
System setup was straightforward, except that we had to experiment to determine the optimum crossover point on the high-end Onkyo TX-NR1000 receiver. We started out at 80Hz and noted a gap in the bass between the SCS180.6's satellites and its subwoofer, so we moved to 100Hz but settled on 120Hz because that's where we heard the smoothest integration between the sats and the sub. Better make sure your receiver lets you make that adjustment--not all do. Considering the system's wee dimensions, we were surprised to learn that the minisatellites and the center speaker of the JBL SCS180.6 each squeeze in a pair of 3-inch woofers and a 0.5-inch titanium-laminate dome tweeter. The speakers' impedance is rated at 8 ohms, so they'll be happy with even marginally powerful receivers. The subwoofer packs a wallop, thanks to its 10-inch woofer and built-in 150-watt amplifier.
The satellites' connectivity is bare-bones basic: rather than the versatile binding posts you'd find on more expensive models, their rear ends have spring clips that accept stripped wire ends. The subwoofer, on the other hand, is ready for all contingencies. It has stereo speaker-level binding-post inputs and outputs, stereo line-level RCA inputs, and best of all, a bypassed mono RCA input. That last option is the easiest to use; it needs just a single cable run from your receiver's subwoofer output (LFE), and it usually produces the best sound quality. A manual volume control on the rear panel rounds out the package. The lack of a variable crossover control, meanwhile, is a nonissue since almost every receiver has a bass-management function. To put the JBL SCS180.6 speaker package through its paces, we used one of our favorite music documentary DVDs, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The film celebrates the Funk Brothers, Motown's legendary backup band, and the rock-solid grooves rolling out of the SCS180.6 belied the system's unassuming dimensions. The Brothers' nimble rhythm section made us get up and dance. The ambience of the live concerts was spacious, albeit a tad less enveloping than we've heard from other systems.
The transition from DVD audio to CD music was effortless. Big-band jazz from Wynton Marsalis's thrilling Duke Ellington tribute album wasn't reined in by the wee satellites. The brassiness of the horns was fully intact, and the swinging rhythm section never missed a beat. In stereo or surround, the SCS180.6's full-fledged sound never crossed over the line to grating or harsh the way the sound of many microsats does.
Switching from music to home theater, we popped in the Kill Bill: Volume 2 DVD. The JBL's sonic acumen effectively ratcheted up the tension in the scene where The Bride is buried alive in a pine-box coffin. We shuddered as each nail was pounded into the box, and when the dirt was shoveled onto the lid, the gritty sound from the full SCS180.6 ensemble pummeled us. With the lights out, we could have been fooled into thinking we were hearing all of this sound from a set of larger speakers.
We sometimes had the feeling that the SCS180.6's subwoofer had a lot more guts than the satellites. It's a seriously powerful beast. While the sats could sound a little strained when we cranked the volume, the sub was always coasting. As long as the system is used in a small to midsize room, and you don't have unrealistic expectations about the little sats' capabilities, the SCS180.6 will provide excellent sound quality on CDs and DVDs.