STEREO GUIDE verdict
With retro chic and a bundle of useful features, JBL wants to land a hit. As the top model in the new WLAN/Bluetooth speaker series, the Authentics 500 delivers an extremely dynamic and powerful bass sound.
- Extremely dynamic sound with powerful, punchy bass
- Very good connectivity
- Attractive processing quality
- You shouldn't expect too much from the Atmos effect
Sound: tonal balance / transparency8.6
Sound: Bass / Dynamics9.4
Ease-of-use / Connctivity9.6
The retro wave is rolling in for all-in-one speakers for the home. The market leader JBL is now also taking on the segment that Marshall and Klipsch, among others, occupy with their Bluetooth speakers: State-of-the-art technology and extensive functions at an upscale price in a retro housing that could have been created 60 years ago. The distinctive speaker grilles with square patterns are already familiar from JBL’s latest passive speakers such as the L100 Classic. There, however, the speaker cover is made of foam. In the new JBL Authentics 500, however, it consists of a plastic grid covered with fabric. The manufacturer calls the pattern “Quadrex”. The design of the 7.8 kilo housing with its leather embossing and soft surface is somewhat reminiscent of Marshall’s competitors. The analog-looking rotary controls for volume and tone control are definitely stylish and well made.
But unlike the aforementioned competition, the JBL Authentics 500 does not stop at a few additional input sockets. A fully-fledged network function with Airplay2 and Chromecast is already making people sit up and take notice, while a built-in microphone array with voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant beams the retro bar into the future. And as a delicacy, it supposedly serves up the most elaborate surround format on the market from a single box: Dolby Atmos!
Retro or not – the concept of conjuring up Dolby Atmos from a single, clearly wide speaker automatically makes the Authentics 500 a competitor to the Sonos Era 300. Just twice as wide and almost twice as heavy.
Dolby Atmos in the box
Of course, you immediately ask yourself: How do the JBL engineers do it? The manufacturer advertises its retro speaker as a 3.1 concept. An immersive reproduction with at least one discrete treble channel would thus be just about possible, but for this a tweeter would have to radiate upwards somehow.
This is not the case here, so 3.1.0 would be the technically correct designation. On the front behind the speaker grille, which is strongly reminiscent of the 1970s, three separate mid-high combinations operate, but only towards the front and sides. The central plastic dome tweeter radiates to the front, while the flanking tweeters for the left and right channels have waveguides to guide the sound. The three tweeters and the three midrange drivers, each 6.5 centimeters in diameter, are so close together that it’s hard to believe in a miracle of surround sound.
Even though the midrange drivers of the JBL Authentics are smaller, the configuration of the midrange/tweeter section, including the waveguides, is strikingly reminiscent of the Sonos Five. However, unlike the JBL, it was not designed as an Atmos 3D speaker. And in the Era 300, Sonos uses discrete, upward-facing speakers for the Atmos channels. Due to the lack of a discrete treble channel, the Authentics 500 functions more like a virtual Atmos system.
The fact is: We didn’t notice anything about a discrete treble channel, so we have to classify the JBL Authentics 500 (like many soundbars) as a virtual Atmos system.
The promise of a subwoofer, on the other hand, is kept: a powerful 17-centimeter woofer works in the base of the retro bar as a downfire woofer. It is supported by two powerful bass reflex tubes. These follow the patented SlipStream design against turbulence and are located on the back of the housing.
The manufacturer promises a total output of 270 watts for the sum of all the Class D power amplifiers installed. We are very impressed and are looking forward to the listening test.
Formats, functions and connectivity
As usual, Bluetooth 5.3 is the simplest standard for wireless playback of the Retro-JBL. But when we look at the back, we breathe a sigh of relief: there is an analog jack input just in case. There is also a commendable Ethernet socket in case the Authentics 500 needs to be placed in a household where the WLAN is not stable enough.
The USB-C port next to it leaves us a little puzzled: according to the data sheet, it would basically be able to read USB storage devices, but this function is not enabled on European models.
However, there is no shortage of network protocols: In addition to Airplay, the JBL Authentics 500 also supports Chromecast with full multi-room support, and thanks to Alexa Cast it is also quite easy to access from the Amazon streaming app. However, Spotify cannot be used in conjunction with the favorites button (“Moment”).
The controller trio on the JBL Authentics 500
The JBL Authentics 500 has three analog-looking controls on the top. Two of these are tone controls for bass and treble. The third, larger button is a combination of volume control and playback control: turning it controls the level, pressing it once or several times is responsible for play/pause and skipping tracks.
There are two more buttons in the middle: A Bluetooth pairing button for direct commissioning and a button with a heart. This is called “Moment” and directly calls up a playlist or preferred settings, provided you have defined them in the JBL One app. But it also means that you need the app to really make the most of the Authentics 500.
This alone is a good idea, because the sole feedback from the speaker via a multi-colored LED is more likely to cause confusion than clarity. You can only really understand when the JBL lights up, flashes or not in which color with the manual on your lap. Another argument for the app: There is no classic source selection button on the device; the JBL only converts analog signals into sound when all digital sources are switched to pause.
What the JBL One app can do
The WLAN speaker has a self-calibration function via the built-in microphones. It starts automatically when the Authentic 500 is switched on and is completed after three minutes of music playback. If playback is interrupted beforehand, the calibration continues after resuming. The importance of such options cannot be overestimated with a high-bass shelving system, as these tend to boom quickly, especially when positioned close to a wall or corner.
However, the JBL One app, which is available free of charge in the Apple App Store and on Google Play, also offers the option of individual sound adjustment using a graphic 3-band equalizer. The app is clearly designed, not overloaded with unnecessary functions and allows basic playback control when streaming from the smartphone or streaming services from the app. Incidentally, JBL also uses the same app for its soundbars, such as the JBL Bar 1300 we reviewed a few months ago. However, if you try to set up one of the party boxes shown in the product selection, you will be directed to download the JBL Partybox app. And the JBL One app is not intended for headphones either.
Before the eagerly awaited listening test of the lively 70s fossil, it was important to keep calm. The JBL Authentics 500 simply refused to be put on a leash. After it wouldn’t play via Ethernet, we also needed several attempts with Bluetooth activation, access to the location services and the annoying password entry to establish a WLAN connection. The wireless speaker then downloaded a software update from the Internet. So the nerves were a little tense when it finally started. But the performance quickly made them forget their initial frustration. The Authentics 500 set off with immense enthusiasm. Just a few bars were enough to make his mark as a bass and fun maker of the highest order.
Memories of the premiere party in a hip Berlin location, which was heavily influenced by influencers, quickly came to mind. It was possible there because the up-and-coming reporters like to have their poses photographed in their posts, with the Authetics in the style of an old black-and-white advertisement. Even as an old hand I couldn’t resist (see photo for proof) and now I have to say that the image is much closer to reality than I thought. The WLAN speaker really blows so that the beams bend and your hair, unless you shave it off, is blown away by the wind. I can’t remember the last time I was able to experience such a hurricane from such a compact speaker. And then with such clarity and precision.
The JBL literally blows you away
The editors were particularly impressed by the enormous ease with which the WLAN speaker reached levels that would overwhelm many a stereo system. But it wasn’t just the sheer loudness that was astonishing. The dynamic gradations within the playback also stood out. In this environment, no competitor can come up with such an attack so quickly. What is on offer not only surpasses some hi-fi systems, especially with passive loudspeakers. Even some party boxes can’t stand out from the crowd except with wild LED flashing. However, the heavy weight combined with the lack of carrying handles and batteries means that the radius of action is likely to be limited to your own party room – if you have one.
JBL Authentics 500: Not a party box, but fit for the party
As far as the sound is concerned, the JBL Authentics 500 proves to be fully party-ready. The basses are really fat, but don’t tend to be buzzy. They have the necessary punch to give rock music with real drums, but also electro beats, a rousing drive. The bass response is also impressive for this size and the level reserves ensure that the DSP chip, which also protects the speaker from overloading, does not have to cut the bass too early. Annoyed neighbors are more likely to knock on the door than the Authentics 500 reaching its limits.
The mid- and high-frequency reproduction also remains very clear even at very high levels. However, JBL has spiced things up a bit here to heat up the fun crowd in the living room or party room. You could almost say that the US cult brand is reviving the Taunus sound of the 70s in gourmet quality thanks to modern chassis, DSP and active technology. And because the issue of stereo from a single speaker is a recurring theme in reviews and advertising, the 45-centimeter-wide power speaker cannot be used to locate individual sound sources. Nevertheless, the WLAN/Bluetooth speaker digested classical recordings such as “New Scetches Of Spain” and arias by star tenor Luciano-Pavarotti surprisingly well in the review. These recordings benefited from the precision, the high resolution and especially from the attack and dynamics.
Conclusion and alternatives to the JBL Authentics 500
In 2023, JBL is launching the speaker that older people in the 70s of the last century would have always wanted: The mother of all fun and bass speakers. Anyone who plays rock from the Rolling Stones to AC/DC to Deep Purple is embarking on a journey through time. And this inevitably leads to the conclusion that not everything was better in the past – especially when it comes to loudspeakers. If it’s about style, but not necessarily about the kind of level orgies that are possible with the retro speaker from JBL, the new Klipsch The Three Plus with its nostalgic wooden housing or the Marshall Woburn III as an alternative with a vintage look could be considered.
However, the two competitors rely more on cable connections such as HDMI, USB sound card and phono input, while the JBL Authentics also offers Wi-Fi connectivity and supports both Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast plus the voice assistants Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. In addition, the wide spatial imaging clearly speaks in favor of the JBL.
Technical specifications JBL Authentics 500
- Manufacturer’s recommended retail price: 630 euros
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 45 x 24 x 25.5 cm
- Weight: 7.8 kg
- Special features: AUX-in, ethernet connection, 3-way, virtual 3D/Dolby Atmos, WLAN, Airplay, Chromecast, Alexa Cast, Google and Alexa voice assistants, autonomous room calibration, built-in microphone array
- More at www.jbl.com