Review: JBL Encounter 2.1 Speakers
Pros: Superior sound clarity and accuracy to their class-leading Creature predecessors, similarly besting more expensive alternatives in the process. Bass and treble adjustment allows you to calibrate the sound to your tastes; alien-inspired look is unique, if a bit radical.
Cons: Bass thump isn’t as pronounced at low volume levels as the Creatures. No iPod dock or remote control included for the price. Intended to stay stationary.
iLounge’s editors and readers have had consistently excellent experiences with speaker systems developed by Harman International’s JBL and Harman Multimedia units: today, the company’s Creature II system (iLounge rating: A) remains at the top of our list of recommended non-portable speakers, while its On Tour (iLounge rating: A-) and On Stage (iLounge rating: B+) are at or near the tops of our portable and semi-portable categories, respectively. Now JBL has released the Encounter system ($199.95, available for $135.00 and up), a non-portable collection of three speakers made for those seeking superior audio quality to the value-priced Creatures.
Never before have JBL’s artists taken their extraterrestrial designs to the extreme found in the Encounter speakers: from the system’s two white plastic and gray satellites to the large white and chrome subwoofer, the Encounters don’t just whisper the words “alien invasion” - they scream, which may or may not scare off some potential listeners. Each satellite is shaped like the head and neck of a sci-fi “visitor,” with two audio drivers peering out at you from behind eye-like gray metal grilles. At 7” tall, they stand at over twice the height of the 3” tall Creature satellites, and not surprisingly deliver even better sound: they’re rated for 13 watts each versus the Creatures’ 8 for extra volume. Chrome and black velvet bases keep them standing up and looking good; chromed touch-sensitive plus and minus volume controls are found on the right satellite’s base.
Encounter’s 14” tall subwoofer similarly dwarfs the 9” tall unit found in the Creature system, featuring an egg-like spaceship design with bottom chrome ridges. There’s a hole at the subwoofer’s top and numerous holes at the bottom to permit the 34-watt speaker to breathe while it booms, and breathe it does - moreso than the 24-watt Creature subwoofer, which itself puts out plenty of bass and a discernible thump. A yellow LED on the front indicates that the unit’s turned on, which you accomplish by pressing the center gray button on the subwoofer’s rear panel. Bass is adjusted with one knob, treble with another, and connections between the speakers, an included white power cube, and a matching gray and white audio out cable are made through a neatly integrated collection of adjacent ports.
While attractively designed, this rear panel suffers a little by comparison with the Creatures and other systems that place their knobs in a more accessible location; the Creatures, for example, mount the bass and treble controls on the front of the subwoofer, and non-iPod matching systems such as Klipsch’s GMX-A 2.1 Speakers feature separate breakout boxes for their volume and bass controls. Thankfully, tuning the Encounters to a personally satisfying level of bass and treble is a one- or two-time only exercise, and volume control is easily handled on the aforementioned right satellite. As with JBL’s other multimedia speakers, pressing both volume buttons at once mutes the entire system, a handy instant-quiet feature missing from the iPod - unless you pull its audio cord out, of course.
Aesthetic issues aside, the critical question facing the Encounters is whether their audio is superior enough to the Creatures to merit the difference in price, and for discerning listeners, the answer is generally “yes.” From treble through the midrange and bass, the Encounters provide an additional level of noticeable clarity over the Creatures, which themselves compared favorably in all respects to Bose’s $299 SoundDock, the previously second-best sounding iPod-matching speakers we’d tested. Practically speaking, this means that you’ll hear more of an artist’s original sonic detail from the Encounters’ speakers, including better definition in bass notes. The newer system is also capable of clearer sound at higher volumes, for those who like to listen loud or at a distance.
Before bassheads get too excited about the Encounters’ low-end response, there’s a note of caution. Though Encounters’ specifications show that the subwoofer is capable of slightly deeper bass than the Creatures’ (40Hz rather than 50Hz), the difference doesn’t play out as some might expect: Encounters’ bass notes sound more accurate and clean than the Creatures’, but can’t be driven at low volume levels to provide the same overbearing level of thump. This isn’t to suggest for a moment that the Encounters lack for bass - they don’t, and sound very rich without coming across as heavy-handed or muddy. Regardless, we think of this as a critical (if fairly common) differentiation between the Encounters and Creatures - one that will continue to compel bass lovers to gravitate towards the cheaper offerings while inspiring audio purists to reach upwards in the pricing chain.
Heavy bass aside, the only things missing from the Encounter system are an iPod dock and remote control - both of which are available in systems such as the more expensive SoundDock and the slightly less expensive Altec Lansing iM3 system. Outside of the iPod market, the comparison against the iM3s would be almost meritless - the Encounters are three leagues beyond the iM3s in audio quality, and the iM3s are three times more portable than the Encounters. The only things connecting them are similar prices and the fact that they both match full-sized iPods; that said, unless you truly need the portability, go with the Encounters for their superior audio quality.
The comparison with the SoundDock initially seems a bit more difficult, as Bose’s decision to combine all of its components into a single unit has proved attractive for numerous iPod owners, and its integrated remote and dock both work well. However, as you can find the Encounters for half the SoundDock’s price, you can afford to add an Apple Dock ($39) and a great remote such as Griffin’s AirClick ($39.99) or ABT’s iJet ($59.95) and still have enough cash left over to buy $50-75 worth of iTunes music. Since neither runs off battery power or can be fit into a briefcase or small bag, you won’t be carrying either system around from place to place. On a positive note for JBL, unlike the SoundDock, the built-it-yourself Encounter-to-iPod package will be able to connect with other devices (such as a computer or non-Dock Connecting iPod), but on the flip side, you won’t have as much remote volume control as with the SoundDock, even if you connect the iPod to the Encounters through its headphone port. While these are both issues with the Creatures and other multimedia speakers as well, our expectations (and those of our readers) do go up a bit as prices increase - a slight knock on this unit’s overall rating.
In our book, the Encounters deliver virtually everything we’d wanted from a sub-$200 set of iPod-matching speakers: good looks, great sound, and full control over bass and treble response. They outperform the more expensive SoundDock on everything save Bose’s inclusion of an iPod dock and remote control, and similarly sound better than the cheaper Creatures in all ways except for aggressive sub-sonic thump. While not quite the match of the Creatures on overall value, the Encounters are a highly attractive and recommendable alternative at their price point as compared with similar options. Assuming that their alien looks don’t intimidate their listeners, we feel confident that the Encounters will satisfy the audio needs of more discerning iPod lovers.