JBL’s Eon speakers have been a mainstay of portable PA for years — and now they’re joined by this smart new active column system.
I have never found the need to invest in one of those ‘personal line-array’ type systems, although I have been impressed with those that I’ve come across at other people’s smaller live events. Most of my live work requires a traditional pair of front-of-house stacks, and whenever I need to provide sound for a solo performer I just use one or more of my compact portable speakers on tripod stands. But the Eon One system reviewed here arrived just in time to go out on a run of appropriate gigs, so I was keen to find out how it would perform and how my customers would react to it.
First, a brief account of what it is, and what it does. For most of us, the term ‘line array’ brings to mind a picture of large vertical arrays flown either side of a festival stage, achieving large-area coverage at ‘concert’ levels — you know what I mean. The line-array concept has, however, been successfully applied to small portable systems, particularly since a certain well-known Swedish audio company introduced their then-groundbreaking and very popular rig, the Bose L1, which has built up a devoted following over the years. In essence, a line array is exactly what its name implies: an array of loudspeakers mounted together in a straight, usually vertical line, which acts as a line source instead of a point source and — in the case of a vertical array — results in very wide, even coverage with a tightly controlled vertical pattern so that the sound is delivered efficiently to the audience and not into the floor, ceiling or the rest of the Solar System.
The Eon series of self-powered speakers has been a mainstay of JBL’s portable PA line for a number of years, and successive new models have kept the range both fresh and appropriate to the changing needs of performers and sound suppliers. The Eon One brings a new line-array option to the range, and the designers have tried to deliver a product which not only meets the technical requirements for PA but is highly practical and easy to use.
If you take a look at the JBL web site there’s enough technical information to tell any prospective user what they need to know; but I would say here that, having read the specs and used the Eon One for real, the figures really don’t matter once you’ve used the thing. For instance, the quoted maximum SPL is ‘only’ 118dB, which seems, and is, a low number compared to the figures that you see with more traditional point-and-shoot active speakers (typically in excess of 128dB). But this product isn’t, in my view, really meant for going up against your normal twin-stack PA system. It encourages a different approach altogether and is aimed at solo performers, small ensembles, audio-visual presentations and the like. Of much more significance is the coverage angle — 100 degrees horizontal by 50 degrees vertical — and the size and weight of the whole package.
When removing the Eon One from its retail box, it all came out in one lump, as the array sections are stored inside the subwoofer itself (see above). It’s not a tiny thing, but it is easy to lift and carry, and the overall weight of 18.5kg or just over 40lb makes it a one-person job thanks to the large, strong and well-placed handles on the top and bottom. The subwoofer section contains all the electronics and a 10-inch sub driver, and the three parts of the upper array pack neatly away inside when not in use.
The huge attraction of the Eon One for me is the all-in-one-ness of the package, as the only external equipment needed is whatever is being amplified, for example microphones, instruments or media players. The mixer section is built into the top of the subwoofer unit and is very deeply recessed — and therefore very well protected during transit and in use. Technically it’s a six-input mixer, although there are four control channels, two being mono and two being stereo, which is more than enough for solo/duo type performances. The mic channels are identical, each being provided with a ‘combi’ type XLR/jack input socket (one of the most useful things ever invented, right up there with the actual wheel) and a vertical strip of four rotary controls for adjusting input level, treble, bass and reverb send to the on-board effects processor. Immediately below the input control there is a mic/line sensitivity switch so any kind of balanced audio input can be accommodated, but no phantom power is supplied to the mic inputs.
The default line input, when used in conjunction with direct mic or instrument inputs, would probably be the stereo pair of channels 3 and 4, as these don’t have EQ or reverb facilities but do have both TRS jack and unbalanced RCA phono connectors. I like portable gear which provides RCAs because there are so, so many times when performers or event organisers suddenly appear brandishing a pair of these attached to an iPhone or similar device, and if I don’t happen to have any phono-to-TS adaptors with me then life gets unnecessarily difficult — so full marks to JBL for including these.
Channels 5/6 have no panel-mounted controls at all, and are accessed either via a stereo 3.5mm mini jack or by using the built-in Bluetooth facility. I don’t think I have ever used a 3.5mm jack input on anything and, as I mentioned, the most common lead to find for media player inputs is the twin-phono type, however it is yet another connection option and further extends the flexibility and potential get-out-of-jail capabilities of the Eon One. The ability to use Bluetooth-equipped devices with this PA system is a huge bonus and of course completely avoids the need for any kind of cable, let alone the correct one! Pairing the Eon One with your device of choice is simply a matter of pressing the ‘Bluetooth Pair’ button (what else?). The input level, EQ and anything else must be controlled from the source player. This Bluetooth connectivity offers a lot of performance flexibility for acts using tracks, as complete control over playback can be right where the artist is, providing that it’s within Bluetooth range.
I really like the positioning, scale and layout of the Eon One control panel. In addition to the master level, which controls the system output, there’s also a separate control to drive a pair of unbalanced monitor outputs. It’s easy to get to, the knobs are proper-sized things and not a set of flimsy thin wobbly things, and there’s plenty of space to actually turn them one at a time. The other great thing about where the panel is located is that it’s protected by being very deeply recessed, so all the knobs, and even plugged-in connectors, are safe from accidental knocks.
The MF/HF speaker module — the line-array bit — is stored neatly inside the back of the subwoofer cabinet, together with the two spacer sections; the three parts just drop into place and are kept secure by a rubber bar when the top access panel is locked into place for carrying. To assemble the Eon One takes, honestly, seconds — anyone who takes more than half a minute is either utterly lacking in spatial reasoning or is still reading the quick-start guide when they should be just plugging stuff in. It’s slightly easier than pushing three Lego bricks together, and it makes an altogether better noise when it’s finished.
The choice of whether to deploy the spacers depends on how high you want the speakers to be when in use, and the Eon One looks kind of ‘right’ in any of the three configurations; if the sub section is on the floor then the obvious place for the MF/HF speakers is as high as possible, which in this case means using the two spacers and sitting the ‘live’ speaker part on top, which puts it at a usable height for most small venues.
Switching the system on produced no nasty thumps or pops, and having taken less than half a minute to assemble the system, the remaining half can be used for turning up the inputs and outputs to achieve a starting balance. I will admit to having a bit of a frown when I saw that there was no mid EQ control, as this would be the first or second thing I’d be turning down, however the characteristics of the system seem to be such that the 12dB HF and LF cut/boost controls do actually provide enough adjustment, and there isn’t any noticeable mid-range peakiness to worry about.
I listened to some recorded tracks through the system with the EQ set flat and the first thought to enter my head was ‘giant hi-fi’, as the sound was very nicely balanced and pleasing on the ear. As it happened, my landlord walked in a couple of minutes later, listened to a few seconds of music and said ‘giant hi-fi’ with a decisive nod followed by ‘what would that set you back, then?’ which is, more or less, what most people said when they listened to the rig.
I played about an hour of varied CD music including some heavyweight pop orchestra programme through the Eon One, and the ‘giant h-fi’ feeling persisted up to the loudest volume attainable, when the limit LED was starting to grumble (I assume that there’s some kind of soft-knee thing going on here because the limiting sounded pretty smooth when it happened).
With vocal mics plugged directly into the on-board mixer it was easy to balance live sources with a backing track running into channels 3+4 or 5+6, and the system certainly sounded clear and sweet. When running at full output (just before limiting) it’s not head-meltingly loud but the Eon One has a way of filling the room with well-balanced programme material, which remains clear over a very wide listening area. I found that in a smallish space I could walk all the way around in a circle and still hear plenty of clarity even when directly behind the array.
Of course the best effect with this type of driver arrangement is for the listener to be at a little distance, and when I took the Eon One into a rehearsal hall (about a 200-seater) the effect of ‘filling the whole room’ was just as apparent, and especially when the system was being run at lower volume. The material was clear throughout the venue without having to be pumped up too far for those at the back. The subwoofer output is full and deep for such a small box, and has a satisfying thump about it rather than merely the suggestion of some low end in there somewhere. In terms of power, the system has a 380W amp section (250 Watts LF, 130 Watts HF), so it’s not going to dim the lights or make the toaster slower, but for me there was more than enough clean output for the type of application this rig is aimed at.
During my time spent in the company of the Eon One I have listened to it a lot in the studio and workshop, and used it for vocals at a full-on band rehearsal. It has also been out on two ‘real’ live-sound gigs, where it performed admirably at a wedding reception and a business presentation. I was very happy with the sound quality, coverage and projection and, more importantly, so were my customers. A potential added bonus when using this system is that stage monitors can in many cases be left out of the equation, as the performer(s) can hear the Eon One just as well as the audience can, and the characteristics mean that it’s quite usual for the speakers to be positioned behind the artist rather than the other way round. Given that such a piece of kit from this stable, used in an appropriate way, should always be capable of excellent sound quality, the thing which really set the Eon One apart for me was the ‘one-box’ solution, which is ridiculously easy and quick to set up and pack away, and I can see a couple of these doing good dry-hire business in the coming months.
Overall I think this is a very practical piece of portable PA. I could imagine turning more and more to the Eon One as a solution for so many sound requirements where the rig needs to be ‘plug and play’ as opposed to ‘plug, plug, plug etc and then play’. And don’t underestimate the aesthetic side of things either — this rig is going to be as perfectly at home in a ‘posh’ gig as down at the local folk club.
If you think this might be the system for you, or your church, bar, conference room or whatever, then have a look at the technical info on the JBL web site, but if you haven’t heard or used this type of system before then it’s worth getting a demo arranged — but tell them you want a go at setting it up yourself!
This kind of format has become very popular in recent years, with similar systems including the Bose L1, LD Systems Maui range, the DB Technologies ES series, RCF’s Evox and the HK Audio Soundcaddy.