JBL's Northridge E Series EC35 three-way center-channel speaker ($299) aces the most crucial test for center speakers: reproducing the human voice. The EC35's muted-gray front baffle is dominated by four drivers: dual 5.25-inch woofers flank a 3-inch midrange and a 0.75-inch titanium dome tweeter. The speaker feels like it's crafted from a solid block of wood, and it demonstrated the acoustic muscle to keep pace with JBL's mighty Northridge tower speakers. Timbre matching with the Northridge E90s was perfect--pans across all three front speakers were remarkably smooth. Speaking of timbre, er, timber, the EC35 is offered in Black Ash, Beech (EC35BE), or Cherry (EC35CH) vinyl finishes.
The speaker's handsome good looks and first-class build quality are all the more remarkable when you consider its price. As far as we know, the EC35 is the least expensive three-way center speaker on the market. In contrast, once you get past Infinity's $399 Alpha 37c, prices of three-ways go through the roof. We couldn't detect any signs of cost-cutting on the EC35; in fact, the JBL's twin sets of all-metal binding posts exhibit the kind of quality we expect on higher-end models. The arrangement allows you to biwire the EC35 with two sets of speaker cables, a technique that slightly improves sound quality. The connectors accept banana jacks, U-shaped spades, or bare wire ends.
We noted one minor downside: the EC35's rear-mounted port limits placement options. For example, if you place this speaker inside a TV stand, the sound may suffer. You're better off sticking with the TV-top scenario--many smaller TVs won't comfortably support this 22-pound, 22-inch-wide beast. JBL's two-way Northridge center speaker, the EC25, is smaller and will lighten your wallet to the tune of $199.
For all of our listening tests, we mated the EC35 with an all-Northridge package: E90 tower speakers ($399 each), E20 ($199 per pair) bookshelf speakers in the rear, and the E250P ($449) 12-inch powered subwoofer.
A center speaker's prime focus is movie dialogue, but only the better three-way models, such as the EC35, ever get it totally right. Not only did male and female voices sound natural, they had a three-dimensional presence we associate with much more expensive designs. The EC35 is really special, breathing life into the sound of DVDs, and it's well suited to revealing the high-resolution sound of DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD music.