Don’t misjudge JBL's Stage A 170 by its plain vanilla looks. It’s a little powerhouse.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
In late 2018 I spent some quality time with a couple of high-end JBL horn speakers, the 4429 and S3900. Nice, but the 4429 sells for $5,000 a pair and the S3900 for $10,000 a pair! High-end to be sure, so I also wanted to spend some ears-on time with JBL's considerably more affordable speakers and see how much of the magic trickled down. A few emails were exchanged and the company sent the Stage A170 tower speakers to my home. They sell for just $200 each on Amazon, how would they fare?
The A170s cost as much as a decent set of stand mount speakers, but they take up the same amount of space and you don't need to buy stands.
It's a "two and a half way" design with a pair of 5.25-inch polycellulose woofers, and a 1-inch aluminum tweeter set into a waveguide that focuses the A170's high-frequency dispersion. The two and a half part means the two woofers are assigned slightly different tasks. The lower woofer works only as a woofer; the upper woofer goes just as low, but also reaches higher to blend with the tweeter. The A170's impedance is rated at 6 ohms.
The black vinyl wrap finish isn't fancy, but the overall build quality is good. Black cloth grilles are included, and the rear baffle hosts two bass ports and sturdy bi-wire speaker cable connectors. The A170 is 37 inches tall, but just 7.5 inches wide and therefore might be accidentally tipped over, so JBL includes outrigger feet that can be fitted with either carpet piercing spikes or rubber feet to enhance stability.
The Stage lineup features two more larger towers, the A180 ($280 each) and A190 ($360 each), and two bookshelves, the A120 ($160 a pair) and A130 ($250 a pair). If you're interested in a home theater multichannel setup add one of the Stage center channel speakers, the A135C ($250 each) or A125C ($200 each), and a powered sub, either the A120P ($450) or A100P ($350). Coming up in a few weeks I'll review the A130 bookshelf speaker.
The sound of JBL
I auditioned the A170 with a NAD C 316BEE integrated amp and an Oppo UDP-203 Blu-ray player for most of my listening tests. Late in the review I moved up to a Schiit Aegir power amp running directly off the '203's analog outputs, and my respect for the skinny A170s sound only grew stronger.
The A170 made very ample bass, and it wasn't just the quantity of the bass, but also the quality of it. The sound took me back to the heady days of the 1970s when JBL was nearly every rock music fan's dream speaker. Those roots run deep.
The heritage shone through: This speaker made a joyful sound; even when played pretty loud it didn't overtly strain or turn harsh. Bass definition was good, but it's the midbass texture/definition that grabbed and held my attention. When the need arose the A170 could deliver the warm growl of a baritone sax or the woody resonance of an acoustic bass.
The midrange was nicely handled as well, there was a good sense of body and warmth on vocals. The tweeter could sound a tiny bit aggressive when the speakers were angled in, firing directly at the listening position. The fix was easy enough: Just reduce the toe-in; the treble smoothed out, and the sound was sweeter that way.
The A170 wasn't as vivid as the Klipsch RP 600M bookshelf speaker ($550 a pair), and that one's dynamics kicked harder overall. Then again, the '600M didn't have close to the bass oomph of the A170. Both were terrific, but most A170 owners wouldn't need to add a subwoofer for music, the '600M would benefit with some low bass assistance.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's 2010 album Mojo had plenty of get up and go. I like that the sound of this album is straight ahead, without flashy studio tricks, just a well honed band laying down terrific tracks. Especially Steve Ferrone's drumming, he's driving the tunes, and the A170s really delivered the goods.
German prog-rock pioneers Can's Future Days album positively lit up the A170s! The fierce polyrhythms were played with gusto, and the sheer beauty of the melodic lines of this 1972 album could still floor me. Future Days' stereo mix is expansive, and the A170s did a good job presenting the soundstage depth that makes this music so special.
The JBL Stage A170 is a slam-dunk winner, and positive proof that "large" speakers have it all over similarly priced bookshelf, aka stand mount, speakers! If you're just now starting to get serious about the sound of your music, the A170 deserves your full attention.