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JBL Authentics 500 review: Big sound from a bygone age

Our Rating :
£579.95 from
Price when reviewed : 559
inc VAT

The JBL Authentics 500's look and sound may be divisive but those who are partial will find it to be a good time, all of the time

Pros

  • Energetic, articulate sound
  • Simultaneous Alexa and Google Assistant
  • Overtly retro appearance

Cons

  • Bass response is rather too pleased with itself
  • Dolby Atmos presentation is underwhelming
  • Doesn’t necessarily look or feel worth the money

The JBL Authentics 500 is the biggest, most expensive wireless speaker in a range of three that also includes the Authentics 200 and Authentics 300. It’s designed to deal with high-resolution audio and Dolby Atmos content but all this modernity is concealed in a big, vinyl-wrapped box that has more than a hint of JBL’s illustrious past about it.

JBL isn’t the only audio company revisiting its greatest hits when it comes to the design of its latest equipment – but given that the American specialist has been hard at it for almost 80 years, it follows that it has had more big hits than most.

As long as your requirements run more to entertainment rather than absolute audio realism, then the Authentics 500 demands your attention. Every listen is an event, thanks to a combination of mighty low-frequency response, expansive soundstage and a lively, entertaining overall attitude. The JBL fairly thunders through music, hitting bass information with real determination and turning every listening session into a miniature party. And if you’re having an actual party, you won’t find a more enthusiastic guest at anything approaching this money.

Not every recording suits this sort of sonic attitude, though, and not every listener puts bass at the top of their wish list – those listeners may well find the JBL altogether too forceful a personality. Fortunately, those listeners aren’t short of alternatives that won’t scare the horses quite so readily.

JBL Authentics 500 review: What do you get for the money?

£559 put JBL’s way buys you a big, boxy wireless speaker with an appearance that is more than a little reminiscent of a) platform soles, b) flared trousers and c) the glory days of JBL’s hi-fi hegemony. Anyone familiar with the company’s L100 Century loudspeaker will see exactly where JBL took inspiration for the look of the Authentics 500.

You’ll make your own mind up where aesthetics are concerned – but those people who enjoy a bit of throwback design a la Fiat 500 or Volkswagen Beetle will find a lot to enjoy where the looks of this JBL speaker are concerned. This is just as well because at 447 x 256 x 240mm (WDH) there’s plenty of it.

Most of the cabinet is MDF wrapped in leather-effect vinyl. The front face is a textured, contoured grille (made of 100% recycled materials) that is the most obvious nod to the triumphs of JBL’s past, and there’s some aluminium trim (which is itself made of 50% recycled metal). At the rear, there are two relatively large “slipstream” bass reflex ports and the speaker’s few physical inputs: mains power, an Ethernet socket, a 3.5mm analogue input and a USB-C slot – for some reason, it’s only for data transfer in America, for the rest of us it’s simply for servicing.

Wireless connectivity is handled by dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.3 with SBC and AAC codec compatibility. The Wi-Fi element puts high-resolution audio on the menu, and the Authentics 500 is equipped with a 24bit/96kHz DAC to exploit those direct-to-play streaming services with high-resolution content available.

The JBL is also able to deal with Dolby Atmos content from these services too, and uses a multi-driver arrangement along with some digital signal processing to deliver a sensation of spatial audio. Three 25mm aluminium dome tweeters occupy the upper part of the front panel – each one is horn-loaded, as is the established JBL way, and the left and right tweeters are quite steeply angled to help with the spatial presentation.

Below them are three 70mm midrange drivers, angled much more mildly. And there’s a 165mm bass driver exposed on the bottom of the cabinet, from where it’s always the perfect distance from a boundary. JBL reckons this setup, which is driven by a total of 270W of Class D power, is good for a frequency response of 40Hz – 20kHz.

There are a few options for taking control of the Authentics 500. The top of the cabinet features a few physical controls: dials take care of power on/off, bass and treble, while there are buttons to initiate Bluetooth pairing and to select favourites. There’s also a useful control app, called JBL One, which is free for Android and iOS. It’s got a three-band EQ adjuster, allows you to integrate quite a few different music streaming or internet radio services, and will explain how to take advantage of Wi-Fi streaming via Apple AirPlay, Chromecast, Spotify Connect or TIDAL Connect. It’s also where you can set up your JBL-centric multiroom system and voice assistant options.

JBL is claiming a world’s first for its Authentics range: these speakers can operate using both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice control, simultaneously. The advantages of this are obvious if you have a comprehensive smart home – no matter the platform on which your home appliances, security camera, doorbell and all your other smart things operate, you should be able to control them from this speaker. Which is convenient and then some.

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JBL Authentics 500 review: What did we like about it?

Whether or not you like the appearance of the JBL Authentics 500 is a matter of taste. And in many ways, the sound this speaker makes is just as distinctive – and its presentation will, I imagine, be just as much a matter of personal preference as the looks.

There’s no arguing with the amount of energy, detail or enthusiasm the 500 generates when playing a 24bit/96kHz file of Animal Collective’s My Girls. It’s an articulate performer through the midrange, giving the vocal and supporting harmonies more than enough room in which to do their thing but integrating them nicely into the overall presentation. Even transient details are identified and put into the appropriate context, and the JBL is alert to the most minor harmonic variations even in what is quite a dense, busy mix. 

Similarly, the top of the frequency range has an up-and-at-em attitude that brings plenty of energy and drive to the sound. Treble information is detailed and substantial, but there’s brilliance to the top end too – and yet despite constantly threatening to become a little splashy or hard, somehow it never quite happens. The top end attacks with real determination, but the amount of control the speaker exhibits, along with the body it gives to treble sounds, prevents things from getting out of hand.

The soundstage the Authentics 500 generates is predictably large and gratifyingly well-organised. Elbow-room for each element of the recording is available, and the spaces between are properly defined. When listening to two-channel information, the layout of the stage is made apparent, and while there’s always an obvious point source of sound, the JBL nevertheless does a good job of spreading sound well beyond the confines of its cabinet. 

Dynamic headroom is considerable – a recording with plenty of variation in intensity like Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 in B-Flat Major can shift through the gears without any apparent stress or, indeed, effort on the part of the JBL. It simply punches through with complete determination.

As far as low-frequency response is concerned, the JBL Authentics 500 straddles the “What did we like” and ‘What could be improved” sections quite evenly. I was a big fan of the sheer wallop the speaker can generate – it hits implacably hard, but with straight-edged control that allows rhythms to sound natural and unforced. Bass presence is considerable, but this speaker is no blunt instrument – it’s able to reveal plenty of relevant information regarding tone and texture. There are few wireless speakers, of any size and of any price, that can shift as much air with as much enthusiasm as this one.     

JBL Authentics 500 review: What could be improved?

The problem with the prodigious nature of the Authentics 500’s low-frequency presence is that it skews both the overall frequency response and heats the tonality to the point that it’s just slightly unnatural. The amount of control the JBL has over its bass output means both rhythms and the midrange above it don’t suffer too badly – but overall, the sound of the Authentics 500 is pear-shaped.

Lots of listeners enjoy forceful and plentiful bass, of course – but equally, plenty of listeners want an accurate and realistic rendition of the music they’re listening to. Realistic isn’t the first word that springs to mind when listening to the 500. Exciting would be a better fit but listen to a recording with already-prominent bass (like Poison Dart by The Bug, for example) and it soon becomes apparent that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  

But where its low-end output is rather overwhelming, the opposite is true of the Authentics 500’s Dolby Atmos capability. In the right hands, the Atmos mix of My Boy Likes To Party by Emeli Sandé is a wide-open, expansive listen – but while the JBL presents it on a larger scale than the two-channel alternative, it’s not the most rigorous when it comes to positioning and definition. The positivity of its stereo sound falls away somewhat, replaced by a rather vague and uncertain attitude that doesn’t exploit the innovation as fully as it might.

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JBL Authentics 500 review: Should you buy it?

There are plenty of reasons to give the JBL Authentics 500 serious consideration. The fact that it’s a detailed, quite eloquent and thoroughly entertaining listen is among them, but I suspect that both the looks and the startling low-frequency response will be even higher on many people’s lists of positive traits.

Of course, you might be the sort of listener that values realism and poise in your sounds – in which case you’ll need to be utterly smitten by the appearance of the JBL if you’re going to countenance its enjoyable, but rather bottom-heavy, sonic nature.

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