One of the first recognised 5.1-channel surround sound sub/sat speaker packages happened to be largely JBL. Back in the early days of Pro Logic surround, JBL and British subwoofer guru REL teamed up, combining five legendary JBL Control 1 monitors with a REL Tornado active sub, and the result was one of the best sub/sat systems available at the time.
Design and features
One very important lesson was learned all those years ago: to maintain an even surround sound tonality and spread, it's a good idea to keep all of the surround satellites the same. That's precisely what JBL's doing in 2011 with its new Cinema 500 system. The four sats are actually voice-matched to the centre speaker, and all are equipped with dual 75mm midrange drivers and the same 25mm dome tweeter to ensure tonal accuracy. Down low, the Sub 140P active subwoofer takes over where the satellites can't reach, delivering usable bass courtesy of a downward-firing 200mm woofer powered by 150 watts of on-board amplification.
JBL's creative people have given the Cinema 500 system a kind of "twirly" design; it calls it a "dynamic, one-of-kind" look, and that it is. The satellites are partly high-gloss black in finish, but thankfully the subwoofer is not, meaning that it isn't prone to fingerprints and dust; the inevitable blight that plagues all black and shiny electronics. Mounting options are varied from stands (tabletop or pole), plus built-in keyholes allow direct on-wall placement. We were a little disappointed to see spring clip speaker terminals, but some thin speaker cables are supplied, so this makes sense. The subwoofer controls are typical — volume, crossover and phase inversion, plus auto-power-on sensing. It hooks up to your A/V amp or receiver via line-level.
Given the company's studio heritage, JBL speakers should be musical performers, and so it is with the Cinema 500s. Using just the front satellites and the subwoofer as a 2.1 configuration, they can certainly hold a tune. We kicked off with the acoustic track "The River" from Elbow's album Build a Rocket Boys, and were impressed by the JBL's easy-going musical nature. Vocal material is handled really well by those twin midrange drivers, and both male and female have a realistic and natural-sounding inflection. With more up-beat music, the subwoofer kicks in with good punch and power, plus it's quite fast and tight, which is what you want. Switching in the rest of the Cinema 500s using Pro Logic II Music mode and the additional speakers, plus decoding, makes listening to music even more enjoyable.
Not the most compact of sub/sat systems, the Cinema 500 still doesn't take up too much living space, and, with movie sound, it's more than willing to take on the big dynamics and scale — which is not only impressive given the size, but also the price. The satellites provide ample spread, and we had no trouble filling our reasonably big listening room with accurate surround effects creating seamless ambient soundfields. The dispersion from the surrounds isn't as direct as some conventional driver arrays, thanks to the twin mid units that help dispersion, and produce a broader soundstage. Conversely, the centre speaker locks speech and other centrally placed effects tightly to the screen, but, again, the twin driver array gives voices plenty of substance, and helps to deepen the front soundstage.
The subwoofer has plenty of balls, and if you want deep, thumping bass, it'll deliver. Thankfully, it's not that sort of horrible chuffing bass noise that you can hear when some soon-to-be-deaf P-plater speeds down your street — it's far more controlled and tuneful than that. We also found that it worked quite happily right up in the corner of the room, which is great if you want to get things out of the way. Collectively, you can push the Cinema 500s pretty hard without any obvious signs of stress from the speakers. Even a couple of particularly dynamic movie moments were handled well at high-volume levels, with both subwoofer and satellites holding it together admirably.
The speakers' looks are a matter of taste, but, once again, JBL's home theatre know-how is clearly evident in this subwoofer/satellite system. Reasonably priced, easily mountable and able to fill a large room with convincing and well integrated movie surround sound, as well as thoroughly listenable music, the Cinema 500 has much to like about it.