Review: JBL Studio 530 Monitor

Category: Speakers

JBL Studio 530: About as good as it gets, or, the Willie Nelson of bookshelf speakers.

“Looks like you’ve got a couple of big va-jay-jays there,” said the missus.

“A couple of what?” I asked, hoping I hadn’t heard her quickie assessment correctly.

“Va-jay-jays. Your new speakers look like the Mound of Venus, a bread box, lady flowers, a beav…”

“Okay, I’ve got it,” I interrupted, trying to keep her stroll down Synonym Street from scorching a static scene in my synapses. Too late. Once seen it cannot be unseen. Our new JBL speakers now and forever look like the Notorious V.A.G. And, thanks to my darling corn niblet, an old joke moves to the forefront every time I see them. I’m saving it for later.

First, allow me to cut to the chase: The Studio 530’s are the best speakers I’ve owned. And now allow me to offer some personal provenance, pedigree which might serve to qualify that judgement. I’ve been an audio-video junkie since the early days of disco. In those four-plus decades I’ve parlayed that interest into a career in video production, a sizable portion of which has been spent on location and in numerous audio suites learning about, and working on, the craft of sound. Am I a rank authority? Nope, but thanks to the teachings of numerous patient engineers, mixers, sound editors, sweeteners, and Foley artists, I think I know a little bit about the difference between what sounds right, what sounds wrong, and what speakers do (how they’re designed) to call attention to themselves (marketable sonic traits) in order to convince us listeners they’re the chicken’s tongue.

No speakers I’ve owned over the years—Mirage M series, Celestion, Energy, Apogee, Thiel, Wilson—have done everything as well, or have given me as much listening pleasure, as these Li’ l Debbies.

And now allow me to further qualify my assessment by listing models the 530’s have been recently tested against in our living room: Aperion Intimus 5B, Ascend Acoustics Sierra, Audioengine P4, Axiom Audio M22, B&W 683 & 685, Dali Mentor & Icon, Dynaudio Contour & Focus, Epos Epic 1, GoldenEar Triton & Aon, Linn, NHT Classic 3, Magnepan MMG & 1.6, Monitor Audio Silver RS6 & RX1, RSL CG4, Revel F12, and Tekton Design Model 4.5.

What caused so many of these well designed (and reviewed) speakers to fail where the JBL catchers mitts succeeded, to be more Little Elvis than Virginia Bell? The specific sonic trait(s) the engineers designed in to their models quickly became the primary sound (sonic signature) that stood out. As a result, each of those models caused me to dissect and analyze the audio--how punchy or love-humped the bass was, how layered the midrange was, how wide or narrow the soundstage was, how strident or glassy or etched the tweeters were, how much sound the crossovers swallowed, how quick and controlled the ceramic/metal/doped/Kevlar cone was, how the driver materials were coloring the sound, yadda-yadda—-caused me to listen to the speakers instead of just sitting back and hearing clean, accurate sound.

What makes these sweet briars work so well? A combination of things. For starters, that wonderfully low crossover frequency (1.5kHz) allows the tweeter(s) to carry their weight in a far more linear fashion; as a result, the mid-woofers work cleanly and precious little signal is lost in the crossover. Second, the design of the waveguide, ala Amphion, goes a long way in recreating a very flat frequency response. Third, driver materials and sizes. Fourth, a thick and virtually inert cabinet. Fifth, the 530's weren't designed to try and fool the listener with deep bass beyond what the cabinet size could accurately reproduce (if you like bang-zoom flicks, a subwoofer is necessary). Sixth, they don't try to paint a soundstage across the county. Seventh, an honest 6-ohm load and an 86dB SPL (not too friendly with miserly tube amps; best to use high amperage and probably 30+ watts of amplification supported by a robust damping factor).

If you’re wondering where the 530’s excel, what they do right or wrong, what certain kinds of music, movies, or TV shows sound like, how they mesh with certain components, buy a pair and give ‘em a test. What I hear through my ears in my living room won’t resemble in any way what you hear in yours. I will say that no matter what’s gone through them—TV, Blu-Ray flicks, CDs from a wide variety of musical genres—they constantly and consistently impress me with their rightness. Fidelity is the defining hallmark of these jelly rolls.

Is it just one big slice o’ cherry pie with the 530’s? Is there a fly on the bald biscuit? A burr on the brillo? A kink in the deep pink? As my favorite theology professor was wont to say, “You bet your bippy!”

My experience with JBL customer service has been downright laughable. My primary question had to do with recommended stand height, as these Pandora’s boxes are classified as bookshelf speakers. The first attempt to get an answer was by phone. It was clear I was speaking with a man in a land far, far away, and English was definitely not his first language. My question was first met by a long silence, then an audible flipping of pages, then the answer, “Six-to-ten feet.” Knowing he was speaking about distance apart for stereo recreation, I re-phrased, attempted to adjust and simplify my request and define a speaker stand as “what I should place these on in order to hear them correctly.” Another long pause, more pages flipping, then, “They must be place on floor.”

In all my years I’ve never known a head catcher that liked it on the floor. Two e-mails later I received info that because of the speaker’s dimensions and weight JBL doesn’t recommend placement on a stand, but if I must use a stand the tweeters should be at ear height. (Cue the contemplative music) Thank you, legal eagles, for adding insult to injury.

JBL, take note: If you’re going to farm out your customer service division to an underpaid and poorly trained overseas office, at least have the temerity to educate your personnel on the idiom of the market. Failing to do so screams and shouts that you just don’t give one flying fu*k about paying customers. For the record, 18-24” stands work best with the 530’s; the heavier the better.

About that joke. A woman walked into a bar, hopped up on the counter, lifted her skirt, and displayed fresh tattoos high on the insides of each thigh. She straddled a drunk, pointed to her paint and asked and asked, “You see Elvis up here?” He steadied, fixed his focus and replied, “Nope, but the dude in the middle is Willie Nelson.” Thanks to my darling corn niblet, that’s the noise I hear every time I fire up these amazing baby cannons.

Associated gear
ATI, B&K, Linn, NAD, Onkyo, Canare, Belden, Sony, Emotiva

Similar products
Aperion Intimus 5B, Ascend Acoustics Sierra, Audioengine P4, Axiom Audio M22, B&W 683 & 685, Dali Mentor & Icon, Dynaudio Contour & Focus, Epos Epic 1, GoldenEar Triton & Aon, Linn, NHT Classic 3, Magnepan MMG & 1.6, Monitor Audio Silver RS6 & RX1, RSL CG4, Revel F12, and Tekton Design Model 4.5.

Since posting this review I read on the JBL Studio 530 web page the price per pair has dropped to $479 (as seen on 12/08/2013), which makes this model a whale of a deal.

Take note, especially if you just purchased at pair at the regular $599 price and are still within the 30-day return period: JBL (Harman) will not refund the difference. Instead, you must get an RMA, return the speakers, then buy another pair at the discounted price.
Yeah, I figured the 500 series was gonna be good. If the 530s are that spectacular, I wonder how the 590s are! And if you like the 530s that much, wait until you hear the Synthesis stuff! You probably will be bowled over! I'm lucky to have the S4700 model myself. I have photos and a review here at Audiogon. They need a lot of break in, but once broken in, they're excellent.
Very colorful review. Thanks for the amusing writing style.

In terms of speaker designs that emulate the "naughty bits" (as the boys from Monty Python would say), check out these Decware speakers:
Thanks for the tip on Synthesis gear. And, yep, the Decware speaks definately have a blooming orchid thang goin' on.
You're welcome. Check that stuff out if you can. There's not a lot of dealers, so hopefully one is in your neck of the woods...
Thx for the review, those jbls have been on my radar screen since I first stumbled across them on amazon,

You're welcome. And buyer beware.

My dark humor experience with JBL (Harman) customer service continued. Ever the tightwad, I decided the 530's at $479/pr were a much better buy than at $600/pr, so I contacted JBL to arrange a return. $120 ain't chump change, daddy-o! Per their website, return shipping is free. It took three (3) calls and four (4) emails to make it happen.

After a series of promises coupled by a suspicious (read: nonchalant) lack of action--first, no RMA; then, no shipping label--my final email was an order to the customer rep to either honor JBL's free return policy or place me in contact with a supervisor, or someone in the Harman International U.S. office, who would, and could, be more proactive. That did the trick.

Still, if my experience with JBL is indicative of how sloppy, disconnected, and unresponsive the "international" customer service section is, I have a hard time recommending a purchase from Harman, no matter how superb the speakers. In the end I voted the only way that counts, with my wallet, and have chosen to continue shopping for speakers.