by Sergey Samarin
08/06/2004 | 09:16 AM
We keep on testing multimedia speaker systems available in the market and today we have two exciting sets from Harman Multimedia. This company, a subdivision of Harman International Industries, is involved into production of hi-fi speaker systems under the brands JBL, Infinity and Harman Kardon (if you are versed in car acoustics, the JBL brand should be familiar to you).
For those who are not in the know and have never heard anything about Harman Multimedia, I can say, though somewhat peremptorily, that the produce of this manufacturer is always prominent in the market. This is mostly due to the company’s engineers who pay meticulous attention to the exterior of the products as well as to the development of a unique acoustic enclosure, electronic amplifier circuit and other most important “little things”. Speaker systems from Harman Multimedia are the real high-end – I say this to prepare you somewhat to the rather high cost of the sets I’m going to review today. They are JBL Creature II and SoundSticks II.
As usual, we will first examine the technical characteristics of the models. Designed in the sci-fi style, these sets are going to change your opinion about the ways and looks of a computer speaker system.
JBL Creature II
4W in idle mode
Sensor volume control,
Sensor volume control,
Analogue, 3.5mm (mini-jack)
Analogue, 3.5mm (mini-jack)
Output amplifier power
10W per channel (RMS)
9W per channel (RMS)
50.8mm (2”) x 254mm (10”)
75mm x 75mm x 75mm
Output amplifier power
232mm (9.15”) x 258mm (10.16”)
225mm x 225mm x 225mm
The JBL Creature set in its retail package
Creatures of Fantasy – this might be a good name for the whole series of multimedia speakers systems from Harman Multimedia. Yes, I really envy the creativity of the person who conceived this image of a speaker system: the two tiny satellites look like space landing units, while the weird-looking subwoofer resembles the helmet of the guard from Star Wars. This is the JBL Creature II speaker system.
An Impossible Creature – JBL Creature II
The first in the series, the JBL Creature model, debuted in 2002 at the Macworld Expo to wild applause. The success was continued in the second version of the speaker system. The potential customer shouldn’t be taken aback by the fact that both sets were specifically designed for the Mac, in the typical sci-fi style – you can still attach them to the PC or to home audio equipment through a standard analog stereophonic connector (mini-jack).
The purchaser of the JBL Creature II multimedia speaker system receives the following:
By the way, the system may come in three color schemes: white, gray and blue.
From the snapshots, it seems like this model only has timbre controls on the subwoofer and no traditional volume control. Well, just take a closer look at the satellites – there are two pressure sensors with engraved “plus” and “minus” signs.
Touch the pads to adjust the sound volume
The digital volume control allows adjusting the sound discretely. To mute the sound, touch both sensors at a time. I found this quite handy, but there was one problem – the speakers would click audibly when you touched the sensors. I don’t think this was the engineers’ intent.
You control the timbre with two metal handles labeled “Treble” and “Bass”. Besides their main purpose, these handles are just cute decorative elements on the subwoofer’s case. For an easy adjustment, the controls have a middle position indicator that you can feel by touch. I noticed that the manufacturer got all wrong with the case “more/less timbre” denotations. That is, if you want to add more bass or trebles, you should rotate the controls in the opposite direction than the signs on the subwoofer instruct you.
The connector panel
There are sockets for connecting the satellites, external power and the audio source at the subwoofer’s back. The power-on button and the power-on LED are also found there. Interestingly, each satellite socket has an original section: square-shaped for the right satellite and triangular for the left one. It means you cannot be wrong attaching the channels: it’s simply impossible to plug a “square” connector into a “triangular” plug and vice versa. Next to the connections panel, there’s a port of the phase inverter, aimed downwards (like the transducer) – it’s going to blow dust away from under the subwoofer :).
The user manual suggests that you place the subwoofer right on your desk, but I wouldn’t agree: the table will get a strong vibration at the maximum volume levels.
The massive aluminum pipe is the phase inverter’s port
The port of the phase inverter continues inside the subwoofer as a massive aluminum pipe. The electronics PCB is placed vertically, dividing the acoustic chamber of the subwoofer in two.
The subwoofer of JBL Creature II is equipped with a 4.5” transducer
The other part of the chamber is occupied by a 4.5” JBL transducer. It has a plastic diffuser and a foam-rubber soft suspension.
The miniature satellites of the JBL Creature II system have a most original appearance
Each satellite has an aluminum speaker with a 1” diffuser. At the bottom of the satellite, there’s a LED that highlights the desk surface to create a more futuristic atmosphere. Such small diffusers are usually employed as tweeters to reproduce the high-frequency range. It means that the subwoofer of this speaker set must help the satellites, reproducing the medium frequency range.
The satellites from the inside
The satellites differ in their electronic stuffing: the right satellite has a special chip, responsible for the sensor pads. Interestingly, there’s no additional power cable here – the satellites connect to the subwoofer through an ordinary stereo-cable.
The system did well in my tests, producing a high-quality sound. The measured frequency response had a low irregularity (about 6dB), while the range of the reproduced frequencies fully met the manufacturer’s specifications.
The frequency response of the JBL Creature II speaker system
The maximum sound pressure level the JBL Creature II achieved was 100.2dB, which is very nice considering the small dimensions of the system. However, the system failed the linearity test, not reaching the declared reference sound pressure levels. The discrepancy was about -9dB.
I liked the good stereo panorama of that speaker set – it was easy to guess the positioning of the sound sources, but the sound scene was rather narrow and without depth. The system is emotionally reserved. When playing jazz compositions, it seemed like the system “encountered” this music genre for the first time. Well, there must be another music where these “alien” satellites have come from :).
The system has a certain timbral misbalance, which provokes an aggressive impression from certain ambient compositions which usually feature exotic music instruments. Well, ambient always sounds a bit aggressive, but there should be no repulsing feeling against any of the instruments. For example, percussion instruments shouldn’t sound like a cork shooting out of the bottle, don’t you agree? Anyway, I was overall pleased with the voice of the system.
The system owes its name to the original design of its two satellites. The subwoofer can also boast a curious shape of a mixer or a juicer – something associated with kitchen rather than music. The transparent plastic cases of the components of the SoundSticks II set are an illustration of the purely Mac style (take the iMac as an example) for which you are invited to pay about $200.
You are wrong if you think you get anything special for that money! The package contains:
The components of the system are made of transparent plastic that exposes all the internal electronics, so the manufacturer had no right for a “rough” assembly. The soldering is very neat; the wires are all covered with a cambric tape; there are some decorative in-case elements. The whole system looks like a sample from a techno exhibition:
These are the Sticks the system owes its name to
This snapshot shows you the placement of the sensor buttons and
the configuration of the satellite’s resonance port
Each satellite has four paralleled loudspeakers with a 1” diffuser. To amplify certain frequencies of the range reproduced by the satellites, their cases are equipped with phase inverter ports – they are at the bottom, near the circle-shaped bases. The bases themselves are fully metallic (to add steadiness to the whole construction) and their surface is covered with soft polypropylene. A special fastening allows tilting the satellites along the vertical axis. The satellites’ diffusers are aimed at a sharp angle, so it is important to choose their places on the desk correctly to create an authentic stereo panorama.
The system has sensor volume controls, located at the base of the right satellite. They are two metallic pads with engraved “plus” and “minus” signs. By touching both pads at once you mute the sound. Unlike with the JBL Creature II system, this speaker set doesn’t produce any clicks when you touch the sensors.
The subwoofer is a plastic barrel topped with a phase inverter’s port. The bottom of the barrel is occupied by a 6” low-frequency diffuser – the bass volume control is found near the connectors. You also find a cable with the standard stereophonic connector here – it attaches to the audio source. The manufacturer used a combined block-connector for attaching the satellites.
The connections panel
The subwoofer of the SoundSticks II system
looks like a kitchen juicer
The acoustic enclosure of the subwoofer is interesting as it is. From the snapshot above you can see that the biggest space of the subwoofer is occupied by the acoustic chamber whose center goes through the resonance bass port. The plastic parts of the barrel are united with the help of soft-rubber insertions, so the casing cannot vibrate at all. The subwoofer stands on four rubber-soled legs, about one centimeter above the surface of the desk/floor. The barrel has a purely decorative element inside: a blue highlighting lamp. I should confess it looks most spectacular in the dark. I tried to make a snapshot of it:
This is how the subwoofer looks like in the dark
Now, to the tests. The system is powerful, like any set of this class should be. It easily reproduced high and middle frequencies as the following frequency response diagram shows:
The frequency response of the SoundSticks II system
The maximum sound pressure level this system achieved was 104.9dB. Even at the highest volume levels, the SoundSticks II set sounds pure and transparent, without any noise. I should only note the narrow and undeveloped stereo panorama, which usually occurs with systems with tiny satellite diffusers. The bass is saturated, with a foundation. The plastic casing of the subwoofer case doesn’t vibrate at all. My tests confirmed the authenticity of the manufacturer-specified parameters.
Listening to various music compositions, I marked the melodiousness (you may call it team-work) of this system as well as a good and wide dynamic range. Overall, this speaker set can be used not only to create a musical background, but to reproduce complex musical compositions. The system doesn’t practically add any distortions into the voice of the instruments and is more careful about the choice of the genre than the Creature II set.
I guess all the admirers of the iMac will like these speaker systems. They would also make a nice and expensive gift for the boss. I think the sets owe their high price to their complex and well-thought design – any wooden model from Microlab or Genius may look like a cheap kennel in comparison. By the way, unlike many manufacturers of speaker systems, Harman Multimedia specifies the real technical characteristics, without fabricating any of them. Overall, I was left very pleased with the quality of sound as delivered by these sets. If their price doesn’t worry you, they may please you, too!