JBL Stage A170 loudspeaker

In the realm of loudspeaker reviews, John Atkinson’s measurements and my empirical observations have one important equivalency: Both are meaningless abstractions until confirmed by your listening experience.

Both are contingent on factors that are necessarily obtuse and not especially controllable.

Fortunately, the only loudspeaker assessment that really matters depends entirely on consensus: you and your buddies, and your buddies’ buddies, and their children, and their children’s friends, listening, analyzing, debating, then listening some more—then buying and selling over periods of time. In the end, there is little middle ground: A loudspeaker either slips silently into obscurity or sits heralded on a mountaintop, like the original Quad ESL, the BBC LS3/5a, or the Klipschorn. In my view, long-term user satisfaction is the only reliable assessment of a speaker’s true value.

Complicating assessments even further are audiophile expectations. Expectations are preconceived prejudices that can, and usually do, affect consensus. The worst expectations involve price. The expectation that a $500 loudspeaker could not possibly perform as well as a $5000 loudspeaker s an obvious example, and one that I personally wrestled with during my Magnepan LRS, Klipsch RP-600M, and Wharfedale Linton reviews. During my first weeks with JBL’s $499.99/pair Stage A170 tower speakers, I kept saying to myself, “Are these skinny things really as good as they seem? Or am I missing inadequacies in their performance?”

JBL’s new Stage series of loudspeakers replaces the company’s much-admired Studio series—which, by comparison, had a more styled appearance. The Studio-series speakers also featured horn-loaded tweeters, which the Stages do not.

The smallest and most affordable speaker in their three-speaker line, the Stage A170 ($499.99/pair) is a slender 36.7″-tall box that measures only 7.5″ wide and 10″ deep. Each Stage A170 weighs 31.6lb and comes with easy-to-attach “outrigger” supports that can be fitted with either threaded spikes or rubber feet. Outfitted with outriggers and with their black-fabric grilles in place, the A170s, which come in either black or two-tone faux wood vinyl veneers, look almost luxurious.

I remember, from a past life, examining the cones of a few JBL 4350 monitor woofers. Their trademark white cones appeared to be made of pressed corrugated paper pulp with some sort of white-tinted lacquer-like coating. If memory serves, JBL called that original coating “Aquaplas,” later replaced with a cone material called “PolyPlas”—but that was long ago. (At the time, I assumed those “plas” coatings were a main factor in the creation of JBL’s characteristic sound.) Like the aforementioned 4350 monitor speakers, the Stage A170 has two white cones, but these are much smaller (5.25″ vs 15″ in the 4350) and made of what JBL now calls Polycellulose.

JBL says the Stage A170 is “a 2.5-way design”: The top woofer operates as a mid-woofer in a traditional two-way loudspeaker and crosses over to the tweeter at 2.8kHz; the bottom woofer is rolled off sooner, at 1.8kHz. The main intention of this strategy is to broaden the A170’s dispersion in the tweeter/mid crossover region, while adding cone-area and piston-power to the midrange and bass regions.

The Stage A170’s high-frequency driver uses a 1″ aluminum dome in something JBL calls a “high-definition imaging waveguide.” I translate that to mean: The tweeter’s dispersion is controlled on both the vertical and horizontal axis. You can translate that to mean the A170s are engineered to image well.


On their backside, the A170 sports two round reflex ports and two sets of three-way binding posts, allowing users to either biwire or biamplify. I used only a single run of loudspeaker cables (AudioQuest GO-4).

When I unpacked the Stage A170s, I just plunked them in the places where speakers usually go in my room: about 6′ apart and 8′ from my listening position. Out of the box, they sounded unusually full and not sharply focused.

After a few days of moving them about, I realized that the Stage A170s are not fussy about setup or toe-in. They seemed well balanced anywhere, as long as they were more than 20″ from the front or side walls. Then, over time, the main setup thing for me was minimizing a 75–150Hz “room bump,” which required the rear-firing ports to be at least 30″ from the wall behind them. That put the cabinets about 6′ apart and my sweet spot about 7′ from the tweeters.

In that position, the Stage A170s projected an enormous, nicely detailed soundstage: one that appeared unusually detached from the speaker towers. Frequency response seemed extremely flat above 300Hz. High frequencies were easy on my ears. (I listened to the A170s with grilles both on and off. The difference was barely perceptible, but my ears felt a need for as much high-frequency energy as possible—so all of my written observations were made with the grilles removed.)

Listening (Schiit Aegir)
The first song I played that felt worthy of mention came to me in the middle of a “Mystery Train” kick. Most people know the Elvis version of this rockabilly classic (7″ 45rpm, Sun Records 223), recorded by Sam Phillips in 1955. That swinging, artfully sung, masterfully played version reached the top of Billboard’s country charts. But I hope some of you remember the original version, composed and sung by Junior Parker and recorded by Sam Phillips in 1953 (7″ 45rpm, Sun Records 192). That single didn’t chart at all, but it was dynamic and soulful. It moved like an actual steam locomotive, it was achingly plaintive, and it swung a wide sonic and emotional arc. It contributed mightily to what we now call the Memphis Sound. (You can access both versions on John Lurie’s original soundtrack album to Jim Jarmusch’s darkly moody 1989 film Mystery Train: 44.1/16 FLAC, Milan Records/Qobuz.)

The JBL Stage A170s were surprisingly effective in helping me compare these two “Mystery Train” recordings. The A170s showed how much the Elvis version depended on vocal artistry, framed by an extraordinary backup band as well as Sam Phillips’ simple, solid production. What surprised me was how obviously the JBLs displayed Presley’s emotional detachment, and how mournfully expressive they showed the Junior Parker version to be. I had never before noticed these emotional aspects and was thankful for the realization.

I was noodling on Tidal, still looking for every version of “Mystery Train,” when the Tidal bot put on this dark, bass-heavy, languorous version with the opposite of driving-wheel momentum: the one by the Doors, from Strange Nights of Stone (44.1/16 FLAC, Bright Midnight Archives/ Tidal). This strange version inched forward slowly, focusing at first on John Densmore’s improvised drumming, coupled to Ray Manzarek’s dense, oozing organ notes. This version sounded like a Dadaist torch song, not a rockabilly classic. In the third minute, it picked up speed and got louder, emitting power waves of electric keyboard doubled by scratchy rhythms from Robby Krieger’s guitar. Then the Lizard King appeared: “Train I ride, it is sixteen coaches long.” There followed a pounding, mushroom-fueled delirium. This was a live recording of a rehearsal for a May 2, 1970, concert in Pittsburgh, PA. When it finished, I knew that these almost-free JBL loudspeakers were gonna make a lot of rock aficionados really happy. They could move a song along better than most speakers—even $5000 ones.

The JBLs easily outdanced and out–rhythm’n’blues–ed every speaker I had in the house. They rolled music forward with ridiculous ease and, always, an unexpected sense of sophistication. How could this be? Manzarek’s Vox Continental organ sounded more live than it should from a speaker at this price point. Dynamics were relatively unrestricted (94dB peak, C-weighted). I was driving the A170s with a $799 Schiit Aegir amplifier and the Chord Qutest DAC. My only complaint (on the Doors recording) was how the leading edges of transients seemed a touch rounded.

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JBL division of Harman International Industries Inc.

8500 Balboa Blvd

Northridge, CA 91329

(800) 336-4525



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