JBL One Series 104 by Arthur Stone
The JBL One Series 104 is a compact, powered, desktop, reference monitor (or more accurately a pair of monitors, one active, one passive) of co-axial design with a 60 W amp delivering 30 W to each monitor. The 104's are similar to desktop monitors in that one acts as the power supply and control interface, and the other monitor, a passive satellite or extension (whose power is supplied by the other monitor). However the 104 has a much better sound quality than desktop monitors usually offer: more akin to studio monitors.
First impression: Fine-quality audio in a robust frame. Spans the gap between studio monitors and desktop. The advertising says that the 104 'punches above it's weight class' and not only is this true but it punches without too much hype as some smaller monitors do. The punch sounds natural rather than forced. Ecky-Thump.
Coaxial: Sharing a common axis. Put simply: the tweeter is embedded in the woofer. The two sources (tweeter and woofer) emerge from the same location. The sound is radiated symmetrically from the centre in all directions giving a better off-axis response – a wider and taller sweet spot.
The coaxial speaker dates back to the 1940's at least; in 1943 the Altec Lansing Duplex 601 coaxial driver was created and in 1945 the 604 design was widely adopted for recording studios (and arguably helped shape the sound of a classic era of recordings). Two issues are inherent in the design: the time-alignment of the 2 speakers, and intermodulation distortion or phasing caused by the speakers interacting through vibration or moving out of alignment during woofer excursion.
By the mid-1970's URIE had fixed the time-alignment issue. There's a lot more to the history of coaxial designs than I have time for here but the Wikipedia page (on which I based my research) covers this in more detail as does as does JBL's site. Essentially, James Bullough Lansing, whose initials form the company name, invented the compact studio monitor in 1937, and today, for a modest price it is possible to hear a descendant of the lineage.
Another advantage of the coaxial design is space-saving. An example is car audio speakers with a tweeter and mid embedded into the woofer (although this in itself introduces problems to solve like time-alignment and vibration/distortion); but this also means studio monitors can be made more compact.
Price (approx.): 159 Euros - £138 UK - $149 US
A front-panel Aux input (3.5mm jack) is handy for the desktop workspace (as is the volume dial within arms reach...more or less).
The 104's feel more like a first-class studio monitor reduced in size than an inferior monitor pretending to be something it is not. JBL have a long history in manufacturing monitors and this shows in the design and finish. Light plays well on the 104's rounded exterior and these look classy but neutral enough to fit well into many environments in an aesthetic sense.
With the 104's you get a good balance between weight (heft) and portability. Another plus is the single power plug and reduced cable-clutter.
In Use: One issue I notice with high-quality speakers/monitors is you're made aware of deficiencies in the source material; this can be fatiguing especially if your using the 104's for listening to Youtube videos or mp3 with subpar audio. In the general media/leisure-listening context, the co-axial directness and precision comes with a cost – fatigue IF the source material is bad esp. sibilance. A lot of background detail is heard. Of course these are just the qualities we want for studio work and in the mid-range and treble I hear qualities normally found in high-end monitors and headphones.
Switching to quality audio sources (higher-bitrate mp3; WAV; DAW sessions; etc.) really brings the 104's alive and gives them something to work with. Listening to a familiar DAW session I was impressed with the tight, punchy bass, deep kick and good definition across the frequency ranges. The directness and precision of the co-axial design assisted in judging reverb tails, EQ, dynamics, and subtle saturation.
The soundstage and resolution hold up well even towards max volume which is close to a safe level for continuous listening at a nearfield position.
The 104's were my first experience with coaxial monitors (although I'd heard them in other devices a million times without realising). The coaxial design makes sense intuitively; if I have a recording of a saxophone or more likely a VST sax (or generally any instrument that has a frequencies requiring both woofer and tweeter) then I would want the sound to come from the same place in the soundstage at the same time. This effect is quite difficult to achieve with a standard 2 or 3-way speaker monitor; it's quite specific to the 'listening window' whereas the coaxial design keeps the source of the sound anchored to it's image regardless of listener position. Wide, tall sweet spot.
I got the impression that the 104's are a good reference and would translate well to other monitors particularly given the insight of the coaxial design in the mid range frequencies. The downside is the lack of bottom octave which obviously impedes finishing a mix (particularly if it's going to be played on other systems); but for mid-range focus (and speech) then these are a reliable second check.
If you're not needing to translate to other systems (bass unheard) or you like to high-pass filter at 50 Hz or you just want a really decent desktop playback system for general music, mp3, WAV, etc. - then the 104's are great. The bass that is there is superb.
Initially the 104's were on a desk top and I thought I heard them coupling with the desk in the bass region (also the tweeters were well below ear height). As the 104's are designed to be used in a fixed vertical position I raised them onto 2 wooden blocks and was rewarded with a much higher quality sound. I was getting the benefit of the co-axial design at ear level and the bass wasn't coupling with the desk top. I could hear/feel the bass down to a deep level: not down to the hips or floor-shaking but pretty deep and sweet.
I think careful positioning is important to get the best (and best value) from the 104's. The off-axis audio image is very good so it's not like you have to sit in a tight 1 foot 'listening window.'
JBL describe the 104's as having a 'wide sweet-spot' and that was my experience.
The Dilemma: From my perspective, the JBL 104's are too good as desktop monitors...they have studio-quality sound but, without a sub, they fall a bit short in the low bass dept. if they're your only reference monitors. For general desktop media they easily reveal any deficiencies in source material
e.g. background ambience is clear, but if your source material is good quality then listening is a pleasure.
In a (home/project) studio environment I'd use the 104's as a second check: the midrange, treble and upper bass microscope; and also as a guide to how music will translate from a full-range system to a smaller system with more limited bandwidth (e.g. Can the Moog low-end be heard? Is the sub-kick represented?). I'd also use them as 'quiet monitors' e.g. a residential space late at night; also as portable monitors for remote recording.
On desktop I think my ears would adjust to the 104's clarity, directness and brightness; I might avoid desktop media with jarring audio.
The issue, with a desktop monitor from a studio-sound perspective, is that the 104's absent low-end has a similar effect to high-pass filtering a track in that it creates a sort of high-end tilt EQ making everything brighter. With the co-axial clarity, this can offer good insight into an important frequency bandwidth affecting intelligibility (e.g. hearing vocals clearly) and translation (will the nuances be heard on other systems).
Despite no matching JBL sub on offer, I'd try any sub, with the 104's as satellites, and I think this increased low-bass energy would balance out the 104's nicely for studio work. With the latest room EQ software it might be possible to create a reliable (and enjoyable) reference monitor system on a budget.
The Solution: It's often worth walking another mile. Something might be missed. So it is with Gearslutz reviews. To test my '104+sub theory' I re-unboxed the JBL 104's and connected them to a Samson Resolv 120a sub; so glad I did.
The hodge-podge 2.1 system worked perfectly. Seriously good sound. Kind of sound you don't want to stop listening to. Perhaps a little more fatiguing than high-end monitors and still no cure for bad source media...but...super-nice, wide soundstage and detailed sources in high-resolution.
The bass energy added by the sub also seemed to extend the sweet spot to fill the room and even to sound good listening from another room.
Final Thoughts: The JBL is approx. the half the price of some of the more traditional 2-way designs; one 2-way monitor I reviewed recently was more suited to powerful bass representation and offered EQ facilities to tune this to the room.
Essentially they are both equally good monitors in their intended roles, although their capabilities do overlap: outside of the common characteristics they share (great bang-per-buck, trustable sound, great design and build quality) the JBL 104 is a little more versatile in terms of placement and a wider off-axis soundstage whereas the 2-way has a more condensed sweet-spot and a fuller bass response. The 104's do have a punch that some 2-ways cannot replicate.
Despite the positive qualities outlined above, the 104 is not a full-range monitor. It still has uses in studio environments - away from the desktop – but if the 104's are your only monitor for music production, the low bass limitation means that, for example, it may be difficult to overdub, and mixes may not translate.
If you're starting out, and space is limited, budget is limited, noise pollution is an issue, then the 104's could be a good start point and monitors you could add a sub to, and will still remain useful if you upgrade later.
Sound quality: 5/5 A cut above regular desktop monitors and a seque into studio-quality sound albeit without the bottom octave. The mid-range, and upper bass, are very well-represented and punchy; a great monitor where you don't want noise to travel too far e.g. apartments, family homes but also a very useful studio monitor, as a second check, to benefit from the co-axial clarity.
Ease of Use: 4/5 Very straightforward even if you have zero experience. Portable. However, needs that sub for Gearslutz reasons.
Features: 4/5 Very simple: off, on, and level/volume. The front-mounted volume dial and aux input are useful features for desktop use.
Bang-for-Buck: You get a great monitor for the money. Solid build/good design/JBL know-how.
Credits and Links: