Review: JBL Duet III Speaker System
In early 2008, JBL and Harman Multimedia's family of iPod and iPhone speakers took a sharp 90-degree turn, evolving from a collection of bold, iconic shapes into a new collection of extremely similar, upside-down-boat-shaped housings with different speakers and electronics inside. Virtually everything in the prior JBL lineup -- the multimedia system Duet, the flying saucer-like iPod dock On Stage, and the globe-like alarm clock On Time -- all shifted into the same body shape, with 200 and 400 model numbers denoting differing audio capabilities. These changes didn't seem to thrill anyone.
So as we entered 2009, JBL released Duet II ($100) and Duet III ($150), completely redesigned sequels to the original two-speaker, dockless multimedia system Duet. Whereas the first Duet speakers were shaped like the elongated heads and necks of two aliens, and 2008’s Duet 200 used the aforementioned boat-like shape, Duet II and III are identical to one another but for size, and borrow styling from an earlier Harman speaker called HK-695. That speaker, known as Champagne, placed two champagne glass-like satellites on your desk and an upside-down ice bucket-shaped subwoofer on the floor. Duet II and III look like larger glasses with somewhat different styling, but continue the classy, silver front grille theme started years ago.
JBL’s pitch with the two new versions of Duet is straightforward. Duet II brings the company’s classic 40-millimeter Phoenix SE drivers—previously found in Duet and Duet 200—into 10-inch-tall towers with silver fabric faces, silver tops and bases, and glossy black backs. By comparison, Duet III ups the drivers to 48-millimeter Warriors, and boosts the towers’ height to 12 inches. Footprints increase from around 3.9 inches to roughly 4.5 inches, with the diameters of the towers expanding commensurately. Each unit comes with the same detachable wall power adapter, an integrated, half-detachable cable that connects the left and right speakers, and an integrated audio cable that connects to your iPod or computer. The speakers are not iPhone-shielded, but only exhibit interference with a device in EDGE mode, and then only if the device is placed right near the base of a speaker; 3G and Wi-Fi have no apparent impact on audio quality at all. JBL’s included audio cables can fit the recessed headphone ports of original iPhones, and work fine with other iPods, iPhones, and of course, docks.
Both systems use an elegant but not universally lovable system for volume and power. JBL has integrated a top-mounted volume and power dial into the top of the right speaker, enabling a single finger to switch on and ratchet the speakers up to your preferred level of amplitude, a design that will really please users who leave their speakers on or frequently need to make on-board volume adjustments. Users who frequently turn the power on and off may be less thrilled that they’ll need to set the volume level every time they do so. A single yellow-green light shrines through each right speaker’s silver fabric near the base, indicating that power’s on.
Duet II is so sonically similar to its predecessors that there’s not a lot to report on its performance. Once again, JBL has incorporated an amplifier with digital signal processing technology that succeeds at matching the simple two speaker array’s high, mid, and low capabilities at various volume levels to whatever’s coming out of your device, and whether it’s due to slightly different tuning or acoustic characteristics of Duet II’s drivers or enclosures, this model is a hint—seriously, a hint—better in treble than Duet 200, while Duet 200 is a similarly tiny bit better in bass. They’re so similar to each other, and both so good by two-driver speaker standards that most listeners wouldn’t notice or care; we continue to think that JBL does a better job of squeezing clean, nicely balanced audio out of a pair of only two small drivers than any other company out there.
By comparison, Duet III offers a small upgrade in sound for a 50% increase in price. There’s a little added warmth in the mids and lows, the volume dial produces more amplitude at its peak, and in direct comparisons at high volumes, it’s obvious that Duet III distorts audio less than Duet II. None of these differences is a surprise given the larger drivers and the presence of a larger amplifier in Duet III, but the benefits aren’t big enough to matter much unless you really like to turn your music up.
When our editors compared Duet II and III in preparation for our annual Best of Show Awards, the question that kept coming up was whether Duet III presented a compelling enough upgrade to justify a $50 price premium, and the answer we settled on was “no,” given the presence of numerous good to great competitors such as Altec Lansing’s Expressionist Bass. In that case, $130 gets you a four-speaker array, including twin integrated subwoofers—the only compromise is going from Duet III’s roughly 4.5” base to Expressionist Bass’s 5.2” footprint. You save $20, and gain deeper, warmer bass, giving up a little on clarity and optimization. Aesthetics aside, we think that most users would prefer and perhaps expect a four-driver audio system like Altec’s in Duet III’s price range; even JBL’s past sub-$130 Creature, Spot, and Spyro systems all included dedicated subwoofers.
Thus, despite their physical similarities and Duet III’s superior sonic performance, our view is that Duet II’s the better pick here relative to what else is available right now in the marketplace. For a $100 MSRP, it offers sound that’s as good as we’ve heard from any recent two-driver audio system in its price range, with styling that resumes JBL’s tradition of smart, attractive design. While it doesn’t offer major sonic benefits over last year’s Duet 200 or the earlier original Duet, Duet II’s more modern looks and very good sound make it worthy of consideration. Duet III adds both physically and sonically to the same looks and general sound signature, simultaneously jumping enough in price to contend with bigger and arguably better-equipped multimedia audio systems. If good looks and balanced, clean sound are key criteria in your purchasing decision, Duet III may well be worth choosing anyway, but there are many options in the $150 or lower price range—including prior JBL systems—that will impress you more in the low-end department.