Jbl Control 1 Plus/SB1 Sub-Bass Unit
Choosing studio monitors on a tight budget can be a demoralising experience - unless you're wise to JBL's new Control 1 Plus and its bass-driving partner. Nigel Lord takes control.
Previously the luxury of wealthier studios, quality monitoring systems are now becoming available at prices that will see them in many small/bedroom setups - JBL's Control 1 Plus/SB1 system, for example.
IN WHAT COULD be regarded as a final admission by manufacturers that size, when it comes to the design of speaker cabinets, is of critical importance and can only be compensated for to a very limited extent in small enclosures, there has been a tendency over the last few years to accept the restricted low-end performance of compact designs, and concentrate on improving the clarity and imaging offered within the mid-range and treble frequencies. The theory behind this seems to be, what the ear doesn't hear, the heart can't grieve about. And there can be little doubt that recent developments in compact systems represent a massive improvement over earlier designs which, in trying to go some way towards reproducing the troublesome frequencies below 100Hz, often severely compromised performance above this point.
A veritable glut of new designs have found their way onto the market over the last decade or so, and the development of new cabinet materials such as high density plastics (which lend themselves to mass production techniques in a way that timber derivatives do not), seem to have finally tempted the Japanese to enter the speaker stakes. These days it's by no means uncommon to walk into a small studio and see a pair of Yamaha NS10Ms or Roland MS100s occupying the position where once Tannoy, Celestion or Rodgers monitors might have been found.
JBL of Northridge, California have been putting their name to high quality monitoring systems for many years now, and it is a testament to their continued investment in research and development that the emergence of new manufacturers has done little to dent their reputation as makers of speakers of the very highest quality. It can be fairly said that a number of JBL models have, over the years, come to represent benchmarks by which other new designs are judged. The Control 1s, for example, since their introduction some four years ago, have become one of those 'known quantities" quoted when the performance of other micro-monitors is discussed.
But now a new Control 1 is with us - the Control 1 Plus - and though it has inherited much of the performance which won its predecessor so many friends, it has been sufficiently revamped to warrant our consideration as a new contender in the speaker stakes. It also makes an ideal starting point for what will hopefully be a more regular inclusion of monitor reviews in MT.
IN THE JBL scheme of things, a pair of Control 1 Pluses come in at ground level - that is to say they are the smallest/least expensive speaker they produce. Where this puts them in relation to other makes, however, is rather difficult to assess. Unlike many hi-tech instruments, manufacturing practices differ widely amongst companies involved in speaker production, and what constitutes a particularly labour-intensive process for one might well have been completely automated by another. Because of this, pricing doesn't tend to follow a linear path and cost is seldom the best criteria to apply when weighing up the pros and cons of a particular class of monitor. (Though cost is always going to be a determining factor when it comes to putting your hand in your pocket.)
As small as they are, the Control 1 Pluses have a very business-like appearance and their impressive weight does much to dispel the scepticism which still tends to get the better of you when you consider the size of a micro-monitor along with the kind of work it's expected to do. Inside, a five-inch driver handles the low/mid range and a three quarter-inch tweeter takes care of the treble. Power handling is 160 watts, and this is certainly very creditable for monitors of this size. However, I've always found factors such as front cone projection when driving micro-monitors from sources such as sampled bass drums and very resonant synth sounds have a very significant effect on the kind of SPLs (sound pressure levels) you can expect to achieve without damaging the drivers. Clearly, matching speakers to amplifiers is not quite as straightforward as it would be in a hi-fi system, and this is one reason why plain old hi-fi speakers tend to be unsuitable for monitor applications.
UNLIKE MOST OTHER micro-monitors, the Control 1 Pluses have the added advantage of expandability, and if you're experiencing problems with speaker cones coming rather too close for comfort (yours or theirs), it could well provide the perfect solution. The SB1 sub-bass unit offers an extension to the frequency range of the Control 1s down to 50Hz (the response is 50Hz-200Hz, with a power handling of 300 watts), to form a complete three-way monitoring system. In case you're not familiar with the concept of sub-bass units, it might be worth taking a moment to explain the principle involved and in particular, why only one sub-bass unit is used, even in a stereo setup.
The audio information we rely on to detect the source of a sound is contained almost exclusively within the middle and upper frequencies. It follows, therefore, that providing the mid-range and treble units are fed individual signals from a stereo source and positioned so that they produce a convincing stereo image, the siting of the woofer or bass units becomes much less critical. So much less critical, in fact, that it really doesn't matter where in the room they are situated or even whether they receive discrete signals from the stereo source. The only condition is that distortion is not allowed to colour the low frequencies in any way as the high frequency harmonics this would generate tend to give a directional quality to the sound which would interfere with the stereo image produced by the mid-range and treble units.
Though containing four separate drivers (relying on what JBL refer to as "triple chamber bandpass technology"), the SB1 produces virtually a mono signal which emanates from three small ports at the back of the unit. The rest of the cabinet is totally enclosed and is of such rigid construction that no sound and very little vibration can be detected coming from it. Its overall size is approximately 12 x 22 x 7 inches and aside from four sets of connection terminals (also on the rear), it offers the casual observer few external clues as to its precise function. Incidentally, the reason four sets of terminals are required is to provide connections for the incoming amplifier signals and also for the outgoing signals from the SB1's internal crossover which feed the Control 1 Pluses.
It is my contention that an unprecedented amount of bull is talked about loudspeaker designs and the factors which affect their performance. Most of this arises from the fact that judgements about audio quality often tend to be made relative to certain reference points - whether these be "idealised" specification figures or merely another set of speakers placed side by side with those under appraisal. For most people, of course, these don't exist and the only criteria they can apply is whether they like the sound of a given pair of speakers within a given room environment. And though I am perfectly prepared to believe there are purists around who can detect the improvement in audio quality derived from the use of specialist heavy duty speaker cables and connectors - when this is put into context against factors such as positioning, room furnishing and, of course, the huge range of variables which may be introduced in a typical audio chain, I find myself struggling to keep a check on my cynicism.
I mention this not to initiate some debate about psychoacoustics, but to make it clear that when it comes to speaker appraisal, I tend to maintain a fairly down-to-earth approach. So what then, do I make of the Control 1 Plus/SB1 system? Well, in a variety of listening tests which included connection to a conventional stereo system (in a fairly conventional "front room"), direct connection to an Alesis HR16/D50/DX7 combination and also to a Fostex eight-track system in a studio environment - I can claim to have spent many hours listening to the system. Many more hours, in fact, than was absolutely necessary for the purposes of this review. The reason for this, as may have guessed, is simply that it sounded so damn good.
I don't know why JBL coined the name "Control" 1s, but I reckon they should have thought about using it as part of the title of the SB1 as well. Control (or perhaps "controlled") describes perfectly the sort of performance this system is capable of. I don't think I've ever heard such tight, well-defined monitoring at this sort of price.
Connected up to my hi-fi - still resolutely non-CD - they gave the system unprecedented clarity. Areas of sound which had been interpreted by my Leak 3080s (considered a quite radical design in their day) as ill-defined mush were revealed as belonging to specific instruments, and I began to hear space in pieces of music which I hadn't previously been aware of.
Further listening with other equipment revealed more of the system's tight, measured performance - even when confronted with the demands of an HR16 pounding through it at high volume levels. Having said that, I found the top end performance of the Control 1s a little disappointing. Some of the detail associated with instruments such as the hi-hat seemed to get lost amongst the more dominant midrange frequencies, and this did make me wonder just what part of the spectrum people were referring to in claiming that these monitors are rather too bright in character.
Of course, the whole idea of a pair of speakers imparting their own character on the music they reproduce is anathema to the more pathological audiophile. But at this end of the market, you have to accept that colouration - whether in a positive or negative sense - is going have a significant effect on the quality of sound you hear. This being the case, I'd describe the character of the Control 1s as being open (very open), a little hard, perhaps, but quite precise. And that, for monitor purposes, would seem to be a rather useful combination.
As well as I got on with the Control 1s, however, it was the SB1 that stole the show. Any doubts I may have had that this would sound like an extended two-way monitoring system rather than an integrated three-way system proved groundless. The SB1 quite seamlessly slots in beneath the Control 1s and provides the kind of low-end solidity which belies its modest proportions. No matter where I positioned it, the moment I'd taken a couple of steps back it became quite impossible to determine where the sound was coming from. It's a most peculiar effect: the room is filled with a deep, hard, effortless bass and try as you might, you can't pinpoint the source.
It doesn't quite reach down to the kind of frequencies which produce that dull, percussive thud you feel in your stomach when you walk into a nightclub, but given its price and the fact that its intended companions are JBL's least expensive pair of monitors, this is perhaps not surprising.
What is surprising is that JBL insist on referring to it as a sub-bass unit - which with a stated frequency response of 50-120Hz it clearly isn't. I accept the fact that it draws on the technology developed for units which are designed for sub-bass frequencies and that it provides coverage of the audio spectrum below that which the Control 1s find it possible to go. But I think the term sub-bass has to be seen as misleading in this context.
THE CONTROL 1 Plus/SB1 combination really does have a lot going for it. Priced at the kind of level which keeps it in competition with the majority of low to mid-priced monitors - whose performance it can match comfortably - it clearly offers much more in the way of flexibility. Running the Control 1s on their own, for example, would give you access to an excellent near field/micro-monitor system which could then be expanded by the SB1 where full-range monitoring is required. (To this end, I'd have liked to have seen some kind of switching included on the SB1 which would have made this easier; as it is you have to swap the leads around.) But the system also makes a lot of sense in situations where space is at a premium: there seems to be no likely position which can seriously degrade the sound from the SB1, and with a surface area of only a few square inches, the Controls 1s are unlikely to prove too much of a problem either.
Anyone presently contemplating spending £300-£400 on a pair of monitors owes it to themselves and their music to check this system out. Agreed, the speaker has yet to be designed which will suit everyone's listening tastes, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better all-round performance than that of the Control 1 Plus and SB1.
Price Control 1 Plus £179 (per pair); SB1 £230, Both prices include VAT.
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Review by Nigel Lord
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