JBL wants to get nostalgia buffs tingling over their new Authentics wireless speaker series. With the largest Authentics 500 sitting at the top.
It’s significantly larger than the second largest, portable Authentics 300, which is probably why they didn’t even bother to fit the 500 model with a battery. Granted, it’s not as huge as the giant Authentics L16 tabletop speaker we tested back in 2014, but it still takes up a lot of space on the sideboard.
The Authentics 500 is a retro-design Wi-Fi speaker with a waffle grill, primarily inspired by the iconic L100 (which a few years ago came in a relaunched Classic edition). And let’s not forget other classics like the L112 and the 4312 studio speaker, to name a few. All with 12-inch woofers, which the Authentics 500 admittedly doesn’t feature. But it does have a 6.5-inch subwoofer on the underside, and three midrange drivers and three tweeters are hidden behind the grille.
We’re promised massive sound with a total output of 270 watts. And big stereo sound from a single speaker.
As if that’s not enough, the speaker also supports the Dolby Atmos audio format. This means it reproduces spatial 3D sound recordings encoded in Dolby Atmos. Here you can use Tidal or Amazon Music, which are built into the app, or Tidal Connect from your mobile phone.
JBL's smallest may be small, but it knows how to make music come alive.
Since the speaker has no drivers on top, the Atmos effect will be limited to a purely digitally processed affair with phase and frequency manipulation instead of separating the height channels separately. This may provide some effect, but it will never be as good.
The fact that the speaker can automatically calibrate to the room it’s in will provide a better starting point for both sound reproduction and Atmos effects.
Otherwise, there’s AirPlay, Spotify Connect and Chromecast built-in. Two or more speakers can be paired, but for some reason two speakers cannot be paired in stereo. That would have expanded the possibilities quite substantially.
Alexa and Google Assistant – simultaneously for the first time
A major new feature of the Authentics speaker series is that for the first time, the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice assistants now co-exist in the same product. This means you can communicate seamlessly with both voice assistants – just say “Hey, Google” or “Alexa” to get started.
Connection is easy via the JBL One app. Here you will also be guided to set up Google’s voice assistant. A simple and straightforward step-by-step setup.
The sound of the JBL Authentics 500
JBL promises a complete package for history-conscious music lovers. But can legendary JBL deliver?
Let’s get it out of the way right away: the Authentics 500 plays loud and delivers massive bass. The bass unit at the bottom provides good downward weight and the sound fills the room impressively. Whether it’s Infected Mushrooms in I Wish or Caroline Polachek’s Dang at the top of the playlist, the bass sounds heavier and fatter than I ever dreamed!
Atmos music has a bigger soundstage than stereo recordings, but the effect is no more than a “nice to have” rather than a necessity.
The subwoofer at the bottom provides a rich bass reproduction (Photo: Geir Gråbein Nordby)
The biggest problem is the midrange, which lacks nuance and proximity. It’s too restrained, so voices and guitars don’t come out far enough. The treble is also too rough and harsh. The Muffs’ punk version version of Kids In America, featuring the characteristic raspy voice of the untimely deceased Kim Shattuck, becomes a tame shadow of its former self. The same goes for the fuzz guitars, both here and on the NOFX album Punk In Drublic, where the aforementioned Shattuck also guests on the super-catchy song Lori Meyers. Punk should be untidy, but this is too disorganised for my taste.
You can set a three-band EQ in the app, and when I turn the bass down a bit and the midrange up, it gets better. But it changes when you play louder.
The problem is that the bass becomes compressed and thin as the sound level increases. The midrange suddenly becomes too aggressive and the treble even harder. Therefore, I would actually urge moderation when it comes to the sound level of this speaker.
I desperately tried to connect two 500 speakers in the hope of better sound in stereo. After all, stereo separation tends to improve both dynamics and detail, resulting in an even bigger and better defined soundstage. Those in the know will remember what I wrote earlier, which is that it’s not possible. When I grouped the two speakers together instead, I could at least play much louder, with much more calmness in the soundstage. My ears could relax while my body felt the music vibrate. But that’s not very relevant at that price point.
For less than the price of two 500s, you can get a pair of active floorstanding speakers – in stereo – with a sound that totally outperforms the JBL Authentics 500.
With Bluetooth streaming to your headphones, JBL's low-cost turntable is a convenient starting point for a burgeoning record collection.
The Sonos Five (their largest) is also cheaper than the Authentics 500 and offers an even more user-friendly experience, room correction and the ability to connect two speakers in stereo. With better sound – albeit not as loud – as the JBLs.
The app could be better
Finally, a little tip for app developers. When streaming from a music service like Tidal via the JBL app, you quickly end up many levels inside the music service, searching for artists, songs and playlists. Then, when you play a song and want to go back to the home menu in the app to make some settings (e.g. adjust the EQ), you have to press back, back, back, back, back, God knows how many times before you’re finally back in the home menu again. I would strongly recommend equipping the app with a home button that also appears in the selected streaming service.
The JBL Authentics 500 is a powerful speaker, although I may have given a different impression through the text. But I just expected so much more. Because yes, you can play loud and fill the room with big sound. But I don’t think it sounds nearly dynamic or balanced enough, especially the midrange should have been clearer. The treble is also quite gritty. In comparison, its little brother Authentics 300 actually sounds better, even though it’s not nearly as powerful.
For everyday listening and background music, the Authentics 500 still works well and has much of what many associate with JBL sound. Just not the control. Unfortunately.
The retro design is rock solid, the speaker supports most of what you need, and I think a lot of people will like this speaker. Although I myself would have expected even more.