This hi-fi speaker is meant to play loud


I’ve reviewed two of JBL‘s hi-fi speakers before, the L82 and L100 Classic — speakers I enjoyed for their great sound and retro aesthetics. Over the past month or two, I’ve been able to test one of the company’s more forward-looking speakers, the $1,800 HDI-1600. After putting it through its paces in my living room and the test bench, it’s clear the HDI deserves its spot in the crowded $2,000 price bracket.

The HDI-1600 is a bookshelf speaker with a 6.5-inch woofer for the lows and a 1-inch compression driver rather than your typical dome tweeter handling the highs. A compression driver is theoretically able to play louder than a standard tweeter with less distortion, but it requires a carefully designed waveguide or horn to shape the sound. So That fancy-looking trim around the compression driver is not just a design flourish — it makes critical contributions to the speaker’s tonality and soundstage.

Speaking of design, the HDI-1600 isn’t really my cup of tea, what with its ‘squircle’ shape and plastic trims. Aesthetics are obviously personal, but I’d at least like to see some more variety in choices for different homes. A light wood or white finish, for instance, would go a long way to making the speakers be a better fit for my apartment. The typical walnut veneer looks ‘old’ in my book and glossy black is overused and drab. The grey oak color stands out at least, but I feel like it requires a very particular aesthetic to work in.

Overall, the design doesn’t really seem all that worthy of the price tag, nor do the looks stand out for the retro-ness as with the L82 and L100. I do at least like that deep waveguide though. And aesthetic opposition aside, the speaker is hefty and does feel solidly made.

Listening impressions

Of course, one buys expensive speakers primarily for their sound, and the HDI-1600 delivers in spades. Out of the box, the prevailing impression is one of neutrality — almost everything just sounds ‘right.’ To me, that is what defines a great speaker: not ‘exuberant’ highs, a ‘luscious’ midrange, ‘fast’ bass, or whatever poetic superlatives we audiophiles love to pin on speakers.

A truly great speaker just lets the recording shine without getting in the way, and the HDI-1600 mostly does just that. In the case of the HDI-1600, there were just two deviations from neutral that stood out to me.

The bass response was slightly boosted, so if you’re not using room correction, you might want to be careful about positioning these near walls, which will further reinforce the bass. But in general, I actually find this is generally a good thing with bookshelf speakers — it helps ‘fill out’ the bottom end, as few bookshelf speakers extend all the way into the sub-bass. The boost also helps the HDI-1600 reach down to 40Hz (-6dB) anechoically, and in my experience, the speaker still has audible energy into the 30s in my room.

This is actually among the best bass performance I’ve seen from a passive bookshelf speaker, and though I always recommend adding a subwoofer to the speaker setup if possible, the HDI-1600 fares better than most without one.

The other, smaller detail that stood out to me was that the speaker seemed to lack a little bit of sparkle or ‘shimmer’ in its top octave. This will probably only be noticeable if you are a younger listener and can still hear well above 10kHz, but it was noticeable to me as I switched between the HDI-1600 and the Focal Chora 806 that is my usual reference.

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