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Auditions: JBL 4408A Studio Monitors ($650/pair)

by David (Rudy) Trubitt

This article originally appeared in Mix Magazine, © December 1993

I first encountered JBL's latest studio monitors at the January '93 NAMM trade show. The three new models of their 4400A line were stacked up in a listening room, and my immediate favorite was the baby of the family, the 4408As. I've had the chance to live with a pair for an extended period, and my first impression has been bourne out.

There are few things more subjective than evaluating loudspeakers, so let's start with the facts: The 4408A uses an 8 inch felted cone woofer and 1" titanium dome tweeter. They come as a mirror imaged pair, which gives you a number of placement permutations (JBL says they were designed for upright use, but can be placed horizontally, as I did). While certainly manageable, these are not the smallest of near-field cabinets, roughly 17" x 12" x12", at 26 pounds a piece. Power handling is rated at 100 watts for pink noise, with a sensitivity of 89 dB SPL @ 1w/1m.

The cabinet is constructed of 3/4" particle board with an attractive gray Formica laminate. Inside the box is blanket of 1"+ fiberglass batting with a neat hole cut for the plastic 5-way binding post cup. The cabinet appears to be of butt-joint construction and has no internal bracing, cleats or caulking, however, the enclosing laminate and adhesive certainly contributes to the air seal and the cabinet seems to be quite rigid. A detachable grille cloth assembly is included, and the tweeters have a fixed screen dome for additional protection.

Internal wiring is all 18 gauge with spade lug connections on binding post contacts and tweeter inputs. Spring-loaded push contacts are used on the cast-frame woofer and solder connections secure all wiring to the crossover circuit board. Crossover components are held in place both by their electrical connections and judicious dollops of goo. All component values and wire color-codes are conveniently silk-screened onto the circuit board.

In sum, construction is clean and efficient inside and out--these speakers look to be designed for volume manufacturing, but with tight tolerances. With that, let's move on to some subjective observations:

Low end is what struck me on first listen. While the 4408As are only spec'd to 50 Hz at -2 dB (and -10 dB @ 35 Hz), they were a refreshing change of pace from the much thinner near-fields I've been using in my own small room. Of course, having the extra low-end energy bouncing around does point out the difficulties of my small room's acoustics. But, I was able to identify and suppress one mechanical resonance as a result--I certainly prefer having that audio information there to work with.

At louder listening levels, low tones can push enough air to create a small breeze if you're directly on-axis with the ports. Also, there's the potential for turbulence with any port, but only with isolated low frequency sine waves at high levels was it noticeable on the 4408As.

Crossover between the drivers takes place at 2.5 kHz, and sounds to be pretty steep--by an octave on either side of the crossover point, there's little if anything left of the other driver's band. Highs are smooth sounding with great stereo imaging and depth of field. At the risk of using a monitor review cliché, I did hear new details in recordings I'm very familiar with.

However, careful positioning of the monitors is important, especially if you're very close (3 feet or less). In two different rooms, a bit of fiddling was required for best imaging--essentially, you want to be very close to on-axis with the tweeters at ear level. Once that's done, you can move comfortably in that zone and maintain your imaging.

I also did some A/B comparative listening with a couple of other smaller 2-way speakers--the ubiquitous NS-10 (a pre-"studio" pair) and the Paradigm 3Se, a small bookshelf model seeing some studio work out there. (Although neither represents direct competition for the 4408As, if you're familiar with either the comparison should give you a picture of how the JBLs sound.)

While the larger cone and enclosure of the 4408A made for a much smoother low end, the mid-range comparison between the three was interesting. Using a variety of music and pink noise, the NS-10s seemed excessively harsh and forward, while the Paradigms were comparatively distant in the vocal range, with more of a hi-fi smily curve. The 4408As fell mid-way between the two; the vocal range is present, but not overly forward. They were easily the most neutral of the three, although to be fair, I suspect neither of the others were designed to be colorless.

During the course of this review I used the 4408As for general monitoring, sound effects editing and direct-to-DAT live mixing. In all cases, I found them to be non-fatiguing and neutral-sounding. The friend who joined me in the listening tests bought pair of them for his own project studio, and I'm likely to do the same.

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