JBL's 4429 and S3900 challenge the norms of what we expect from high-end speakers.
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.
JBL's Synthesis 4429 and Synthesis S3900 speakers turned my head around, and I can't stop thinking about them. They're horn speakers, and the more time I spend with horns the more I realize what I'm not getting from high-end box and panel speakers. Horn speakers have more get up and go, they not only rock out harder, they're more expressive than other types of speakers.
Before we go any further, what is a horn speaker? Granted, at first glance horn speakers may not look hugely different than conventional box speakers. Look closer and you'll see those designs have their drivers – woofer, midrange and tweeter – flush mounted to the speaker's front baffle. By contrast horn speakers' tweeters and sometimes their midrange drivers are mounted inside a "horn." That's a big difference, because horns significantly increase the driver's sensitivity while lowering distortion. There's no doubt about it, horn designs sound very different than conventional box speakers, and are commonly used in pro audio applications.
I went to the Harman Store in New York to indulge my horn speaker fantasies with their JBL 4429 and S3900 speakers. Their sounds were revelatory, and that's no hype. These two models sound more like live music than conventional box and panel speakers, it wasn't even subtle. There's something altogether liberating about the sound of these speakers.
As for the particulars the 4429 is a low slung monitor speaker, it features a 12-inch pulp cone woofer, 1.75 inch titanium compression tweeter and a .75 inch titanium compression super tweeter. It's a ported design, and impedance is rated at 6 ohms. The 25 by 15.75 by 12-inch (633 by 400 by 300mm) cabinet is made from 1-inch thick medium density fiberboard. It weighs 71 pounds (32.3 kg).
The S3900 is a tower speaker with two 10-inch pulp cone woofers, one 1.75 inch titanium compression tweeter and one .75-inch titanium compression super tweeter. It's also a ported design, and impedance is rated at 6 ohms. The 39 by 14.6 by 14.5 inch (1000 by 370 by 368mm) cherry veneered cabinet is made from 1-inch thick medium density fiberboard. It weighs 86 pounds (39kg).
These two are thoroughly high-end designs, the 4429 sells for $5,000 a pair in the US, £5,800 in the UK and AU$7,990 in Australia. The S3900 sells for $10,000 a pair in the US, £7,800 in the UK and AU$14,000 in Australia.
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The JBL L100 Classic handily illustrates the differences in sound between box and horn speakers. At the Harman Store the L100 Classic sounded more tonally saturated, more fleshed out and bolder. Meanwhile the JBL 4429 was tonally cooler, more immediate and dynamics kicked harder. It had more spring in its step and its energy levels were higher. I found I could play the 4429s louder than I normally would, the high volume didn't make me wince.
I was surprised to hear that even with heavily-compressed rock recordings like Spoon's Hot Thoughts, the music sounded better than ever. The momentum came through more completely. Electric bass sounds more like the real thing over the 4429, there's more growl and more of everything. The L100 Classic makes plenty of bass, but the tactile quality of the sound is much reduced. Reggae recordings burst through the 4429, electric guitars' immediacy was likewise liberated by these speakers.
Radiohead's Amnesiac was brimming with texture over the 4429, but switching over to the S3900 everything got better. It's a much bigger and taller speaker, the tonal balance warmed up, the treble was clearer and more refined, the sound moved a few steps over to a more audiophile oriented flavor. There's more body to the sound, which I liked a lot.
The 4429 and S3900 play loud with ease, but they also excel at more sedate, late-night listening volume.
Trumpets and other brass instruments really come alive on horn speakers, you haven't lived until you hear Miles Davis over a decent pair of horns. His expressive trumpet over the S3900 was a huge leap in breaking the sound reality barrier! It's not just louder, or lower in distortion, you feel more of what Davis was pushing through his trumpet.
Drums impact and shading of dynamics are superior over the S3900. Not just loud drumming, the nuance of a cymbal shimmer or the tautness of the head of a tom-tom: the S3900 puts you in touch with those sounds.
With Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's brilliant Raising Sand, the S3900 has me rethinking the sound of that album. I've always liked the music, but the sound was opaque and hazy, now it feels more direct. Hearing those two singers pushing each other is a real thrill, and I never felt that way before!
The 4429 and S3900 are extraordinary speakers, they can humble many far-more-expensive audiophile speakers in terms of dynamics and "feel it in your gut" realism. If you've never heard what some of the better horn speakers can sound like you're missing out.
I'm in no way saying that horns sound better in every way, just that they're more fun to listen to than box and panel speakers. The best box speakers are smoother sounding, with flatter frequency response, punchier bass and their treble may be less aggressive than the horns I've heard. Box speaker imaging is also superior, and better focused.
I'll have more to say about horn speakers in different price ranges when I cover more horns in 2019, stay tuned. Meanwhile check out my favorite (horn) speaker of 2018, the Klipsch 600M.
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