Review: JBL SA550 and MP350 Classic hi-fi combination

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For many, JBL is a manufacturer best known for its iconic hi-fi speakers, headphones and more recently for its handy and dynamic-sounding WiFi speakers. With the move to hi-fi components you may wonder what the manufacturer is getting itself into again. What may not be known to everyone is that in the second half of the 1960s JBL produced formidably performing amplifiers that served as inspiration for this new Classic line, which, in addition to this integrated amplifier and network player, also includes a CD player and a seriously beautiful record player included. JBL has also been part of Harman International Industries for several years, which also includes brands such as Harman Kardon, Mark Levinson, Revel and Arcam. The manufacturer therefore makes grateful use of high-end audio technology elsewhere in the group and that makes the step not illogical.

After importer Reference Sounds has personally delivered the review models, it is time to thoroughly inspect these important components. The use of materials and level of finish is sublime. The flanks of this series, just like the SA600 and SA660 on which they are based, are decorated with beautiful walnut panels. This allows them to fit seamlessly with the JBL Classic and Studio Monitor speakers. The front is made of a thick sheet of aluminum and has a clear-brushed finish. To break up the wide front, the left part is finished in a 90 degree rotated brush pattern, just like the JBL amplifiers of the time.

JBL SA550, the class G integrated amplifier

The JBL SA550 delivers a class G output power of 90 watts into 8 ohms and 150 watts into 4 ohms. The integrated amplifier has five analog line inputs, including a mini-jack input on the front for connecting an external music player, a record player input with a built-in RIAA phonostage and a high-quality DAC section. You can connect a power amplifier via the pre-out section and the ‘Processor Mode’ can be used to fix the volume when using a cinema processor. Thanks to the RS-232 connection, all this beauty integrates perfectly into home installations. The manufacturer has also not forgotten the group of headphone enthusiasts and has equipped the amplifier with a 3.5 mm mini-jack connection to which you can connect headphones with an impedance of 16 ohms to 2 kiloohms.

Digitally, the amplifier has a Toslink input, two coaxial S/PDIF inputs and has Bluetooth aptX. The ESS Saber ES9038K2M-DAC supports high-resolution files up to 32-bit / 192 kHz in PCM and a full MQA unfold that allows TIDAL Masters to be reproduced in maximum high-res sound quality. You can choose the DAC filter that suits your taste via the menu button on the front of the amplifier and the corresponding button on the remote control or simply via the filter button on the front of the amplifier. This digital audio filter offers the following options: ‘Brick Wall’, ‘Corrected Minimum Phase Fast Roll Off’, ‘Apodizing’ (the factory setting), ‘Minimum Phase Slow Roll Off’, ‘Minimum Phase Fast Roll Off’, ‘Linear Phase Slow Roll Off’ and ‘Linear Phase Fast Roll Off’.

While the well-known class A, AB and D technology use a single power supply rail and mainly differ in power efficiency, class G with two power supply rails is based on the dynamic behavior of music and the associated power demand. At normal listening volumes up to a power of approximately 10 watts, the rail is used with a low supply voltage, with a higher quiescent current set and the amplification stage playing entirely in class A. In the event of power peaks in the music, class G technology quickly connects a second power supply rail with a higher supply voltage, making the maximum output power available to accurately absorb the dynamic peaks. This works very well in practice. There is less heat generation and you benefit from both the low noise threshold and the refinement of Class A amplification at any output power.

JBL MP350, indispensable for digital explorers

With the JBL MP350 network player you can stream music in almost any way you want. Integration into the network is easy via WiFi or a network cable. You can register the streamer wirelessly on the network via Google Home in just a few seconds. If you use a network cable, the app will automatically search for the MP350 and you can get started immediately without Google Home. After this, you can stream music wirelessly from your phone with Apple AirPlay 2 or Google Chromecast. Via the JBL Premium Audio app you have access to internet radio, the commercial music services Qobuz, Spotify Connect or TIDAL Connect, where you can enjoy the TIDAL Masters in maximum high-res sound quality thanks to MQA unfold. You can also easily browse through your own music library on a music server, NAS or USB 2.0 device via the app. The music player supports almost all existing file formats up to a maximum resolution of 32-bit / 192 kHz.

In addition to the monochrome information display, the front of the MP350 is completely sleek. Even the standby button is missing. This makes the player look nice and minimalist, but every action requires the remote control or the JBL control app. Switching off is easy via the power switch on the back. The network player has a digital S/PDIF and an analog line output, so you can use the internal Burr-Brown PCM1796 DAC from Texas Instruments analogously and digitally from the ESS Saber DAC of the SA550 amplifier.

No matter how well or beautifully designed a contemporary hi-fi component is, the ultimate total experience depends on the firmware and the smartphone app. The JBL app is friendly to use and clearly laid out. The user interface is clear and, above all, works nice and fast. The selected contents of a music directory on a NAS or music server can be played effortlessly and in addition to browsing music libraries, you can also adjust the basic settings of the MP350 via the app. It is worth mentioning that the user can also choose which DAC filter (‘slow’ or ‘sharp’) can be set. Not every network player offers this option. Finally, the network player is suitable for future use with Roon. After Roon certification and a firmware update, you have advanced streaming capabilities through an intuitive user interface that has been refined to perfection over the years.

First listening sessions

The JBL SA550 and MP350 were reviewed with USHER Dancer Mini-Two speakers from the Beryllium series, which reproduce music with beautiful openness, a neutral frequency response and a deep bass extension. Speaker cabling and interconnects come from the Dutch Driade. Although many filter options can be selected in the menu of both components, all filters remain at factory settings. I first listen to the network player via the analog output and then via the digital output so that I can assess the sound differences of both DAC chips. To investigate the differences in high-resolution sound quality, I use verified test tracks from the 2L High Resolution Music Test Bench. For the listening sessions I listen to normal, non-remastered music albums in 16-bit / 44.1 kHz Red Book format.

Normal 16-bit/44.1 kHz files are played back with excellent definition and great detail. As the bit width and sampling frequency increase, I experience a fraction more warmth, feeling, sound depth and refinement. Unlike MQA files, the margins are relatively subtle. Larger differences in sound quality can be observed with MQA-encoded 2L test tracks. Compared to their PCM counterparts, 352.8 kHz MQA tracks from the Test Bench show a fraction more sound width, openness and definition than with the comparable non-MQA variant. They are not night and day differences, but they are observable. I certainly do not want to preach that MQA is the promised standard, but only report what I perceive with my ears.


Sound quality

The moment the first music album from my own music collection is played via the analogue output of the MP350, my first reaction is: “What is happening here?!”. The whole sounds dynamic and lively. The grandeur and openness of the musical picture, including the impressive depth in the bass reproduction, is impressive. Then the first vocal lines pass by and I have the feeling that I am accidentally listening to a remaster of the album in question. The midrange has a speed and openness that I do not often experience in this price range. The imaging quality of this JBL combination is also better than expected in this price range. The sound image created by this combination is nothing less than spectacular.

Metal and rock albums sound full and more dynamic than ever via the streamer’s internal DAC. QSound productions such as Roger Waters’ album ‘Amused to Death’ instantly create an impressive, fictional 210-degree sound bubble. In this album, the effects are displayed razor-sharp in different positions and sound depths, with each line of dialogue in the background clearly articulated. In combination with the explosive dynamic parts in The Ballad of Bill Hubbard, it is difficult to believe that this is ‘just’ an integrated amplifier with a relatively small price.

After switching from the analogue to the digital output, I listen to the same pieces of music via the ESS Saber DAC of the SA550. There are immediately noticeable sound differences between the two DACs. Where the Burr-Brown variant mainly shows a considerable extension to the sub-layer and the top-end regions in the music, the ESS variant offers more neutrality and a fraction more realism. Especially in the tuning area, the Saber-DAC adds authority, weight and feeling. The Burr-Brown DAC again delivers top performance for synthpop albums and the electronica genre. It is therefore difficult to choose a winner and it is nice that the manufacturer gives the music lover the choice with both DACs.

Conclusion

The JBL Classic combination tested here exudes a typically retro feeling and the only thing that could have enhanced the feeling was the choice of the toggle switches that adorned the fronts of the SA600 and SA660 at the time instead of the current ‘modern’ push switches. Furthermore, JBL has certainly succeeded in its aim. The volume knob and input selector switch feel analog and retro, but are actually digital rotary switches with tactile clicks.

Whichever album I put on, the presentation is spacious and lively. Thanks to the class G power reserves, the amplifier never runs short of breath. Where ‘lively’ amplifiers sometimes show a bright or sharp character in the upper midrange and top-end, this amplifier shows a friendly character with no detail remaining in the background. In terms of operation, the manufacturer’s minimalist approach offers sufficient functionality for young people and accessible ease of use for old people. The smartphone app may not (yet) have extensive playlist and filter options for choosing albums, genres or artists when browsing your own music, but it works easily, smoothly and extremely stable.

To answer the initial question of whether the JBL Classic hi-fi components perform as well as they look, I can honestly answer this question with a “yes”. Optics depend on taste and functionality can be added in different ways. The remarkably good sound quality and the music experience with which the SA550 amplifier and the MP350 network player always treat me are ultimately the most important factors. Thanks to the accessible sound balance and the excellent imaging qualities, this JBL combination packs a punch well above its weight class and the manufacturer takes a very strong position with this tribute to the iconic SA600 and SA660 amplifiers.

Prices:

  • JBL SA550 amplifier €1,999
  • JBL MP350 network player €999
  • JBL CD350 CD player €899
  • JBL TT350 turntable €1,099

Reference Sounds, www.referencesounds.nl

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Review JBL SA550 MP350 Classic hifi combination

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