I have never much cared for most elements of the classic JBL sound: boomy midbass, shallow soundstage, obscure imaging, absence of deep bass or really high highs, and (frequently) piercingly sharp middle highs.
But I have always respected their midrange performance.
Whether it was their professional or consumer series, JBL’s speakers always had a punchiness and detailed immediacy, a capacity to make a voice or a solo instrument sound good in the room that has not been equaled by any audiophile speakers I know of.
There was a lot of discussion over the years about the best of the best JBL vintage speakers, and opinions, least to say, differ.
This is understandable, considering the number of (fantastic) models they released over the years.
I managed to get my hands on a few of those, and in this article I’ll reveal my observations and why I think exactly these models are the best of vintage JBL.
One of the top manufacturers of professional speakers during the ’40s was a company called Altec Lansing. The Lansing part of the name came from a young engineer who parted firm with Altec to form his own company, JBL.
JBL was founded almost 80 years ago by James B. Lansing. Its history has been thoroughly documented in the book The JBL Story: 60 Years of Audio Innovation by the late John Eargle (JBL Professional, 2006).
Although it is mainly known for its pro-audio loudspeakers, the Californian firm has delivered a steady stream of high-performance household loudspeakers to the home market.
Those include the 1971 Paragon, the L100 bookshelf speaker, and the JBL 250Ti floor standing speaker, all of which stayed in JBL’s catalog for over 20 years.
In 1990, JBL delivered the Project K2 S9500 flagship speaker for the high-end Japanese market, and that year marked the new era for JBL, in which we no longer call speakers “vintage.”
Through the years, JBL has always strived for high efficiency and a forward, bold sound in their consumer line, thus earning the eternal hate of all audio perfectionists who think of “JBL” as synonymous with sonic trash.
This never worried JBL as long as “high end” was a mental aberration plaguing only a minuscule part of the population. The masses liked JBL’s type of sound.
But two developments in the past years have spurred JBL to rethink its public image. First, the masses found the snob appeal of the High End and learned from the purists that if you like the sound of JBL speakers, you don’t know the audio.
And second, JBL realized that digital recordings, whose lack of surface noise is an invitation to play them at high volume, placed their own products at a decided advantage over those of most audiophile products.
JBL speakers could play loudly without burning out; most audiophile loudspeakers couldn’t.
1. JBL Synthesis 1400 Array BG
With its cross-firing asymmetric horns, the K2 Project, which I previously mentioned, culminated in the $50,000/pair DD55000 Everest system.
The Synthesis 1400 Array BG, which I proudly present to you, was a spin-off from the K2 project.
The Synthesis 1400 Array BG, a three-way, 115-lb speaker, has dimensions 46″ high, 15″ wide, and 19″ deep and weighs 115 lb.
It has tweeters and a midrange filled with horns to achieve a flat response from a reported 48kHz.
Each of its three drivers – a 1″ titanium-dome tweeter with an edge-wound voice-coil of aluminum wire and a 2″ neodymium motor assembly – handles frequencies from 8 to 40 kHz.
It is mounted in the upper lip of a sizable, imposing, vertically oriented, constant-directivity midrange horn made of JBL’s SonoGlass, a mineral-loaded, high-density resin material.
This is said to have a 60° horizontal by 30° vertical dispersion pattern.
It is packed with a flared 4″ port on the cabinet’s rear. According to Greg Timbers, JBL developed the 1400 Array to be heavy, stable, and vibration-free.
The low-frequency enclosure had to be a trapezoid to allow the horn module to sit as low as possible, reducing the distance between the woofer and the drive units above it.
The horn module is attached securely to the top of the woofer enclosure using three Allen-head bolts, the front two concealed by the JBL nameplate.
I positioned the 1400 Arrays, without spikes or grilles, 5′ from the front wall, 6′ apart (measured from the tweeter centers), and toed in 45° toward my listening chair, which was 7′ away.
I connected PSC double-ribbon speaker cables to my Monolith Multi-Channel power amplifier (check it out on Amazon if you want).
The Synthesis 1400 Array BG proved capable of 110dB peak sound-pressure levels at my listening chair.
To assess its low-frequency extension, I measured the levels of the low-frequency warble tones with an ATM SLI-100 sound-level meter resting on the arm of my listening chair.
The low-frequency warble tones were audible and pitch-perfect from 160 down to 35Hz (±2dB), the output falling off gradually, by –5dB, down to 30Hz. I heard no chuffing or wind noise from the rear port.
I then played the channel phase and pink-noise tracks while comparative listening in the nearfield (7′ away) and far-field (16′ away).
Once I’d finished the initial set-up, I broke in the 1400 Array BGs by playing my favorite rhythmic selections: Mick Jagger singing “Paint It, Black” from Aftermath; didgeridoo music from Lewis Burns’s Traditional Didgeridoo Rhythms; and Fleetwood Mac’s Future Dance (CD, Reprise, REP 44 153).
Needless to say, I was thrilled! If you can get your hands on one of these someday, you won’t be disappointed.
>> Check them out on eBay <<
2. JBL 250ti
The Ti in the 250Ti’s model label stands for titanium. JBL’s new tweeters were made possible by the methods they discovered for working with this challenging metal.
Extremely high mass-to-stiffness ratios characterize titanium. It has adequate rigidity in a very thin sheet to function like the ideal piston radiator, with its entire surface moving simultaneously.
But when put through the forming operations required to create an efficient radiating surface, its rigidity also makes it exceedingly brittle and prone to splitting.
JBL asserted to have discovered a solution and even figured out how to boost the stiffness of the tweeter dome’s surface by embossing a pattern of diamond-shaped ribs into it.
According to JBL’s documentation, the cone drivers in the 250Ti are “evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” which means they are the most recent iterations of older designs that have been refined. However, it is clear that JBL has done its research.
Even though most high-end speaker manufacturers have long preferred it, JBL used polypropylene for the first time in those middle drivers.
However, JBL’s substance is not your typical polypropene; it has been “doped” with an addition to make it stiffer and less brittle.
One of the polypropylene’s well-known drawbacks is that it is too flexible for its own good. Its appeal comes mostly from its strong internal damping, which reduces resonance-related colorations.
These are the first JBL speakers with small crossover capacitors bypassing the larger ones, which minimizes the impacts of dielectric absorption.
Although JBL determined to their own satisfaction that bypassing did, in fact, improve the sound, this is rigorous perfectionism. The 250Ti’s other features, such as its extremely high power handling capacity, long-throw woofer, and sturdy enclosure construction, are essentially a given because they have long been recognized as hallmarks of JBL products.
The system produces a pleasant, relaxed sound that is a tad heavy and loose through the midbass. With just moderately strong pitch delineation, bass detail is good but not exceptional.
The speakers’ sound is most neutral when the ears are almost exactly on the axis of the lower-midrange driver and changes significantly depending on the vertical angle of your ears in relation to the midrange drivers.
Below it, the sound relaxes even more, and above, a clear dip in the upper middle range appears.
The 250Ti creates a fairly expansive, deep soundstage with a steady but unremarkable image.
In mono sources, diffuse ear pressure suggests significant random-phase content, and the center bunching is not tightly packed.
>> Check them out on eBay <<
3. JBL 120ti
The 120Ti was part of the very highly regarded “Ti” series, and it used some of the best drivers JBL ever made (the 044Ti tweeter comes immediately to mind).
I made a 2-hour drive back in 2019 to hear the 120ti’s that I bought from the man who listed them on Craigslist, and it was worth it.
I listened to the speakers directly next to a pair of these on the same reference tracks using my DAC and his.
The speaker systems I had at the time included some JBL Studio 590s, JBL LS60s, Wharfedale Jade 3s with a subwoofer, some Elac Unifi UB51s, and a few random pairs of B&W 600 series speakers that I had lying around.
In other words, they weren’t particularly high-end, but the 120ti outperformed them all. When used within the right system, the 120ti speakers are excellent.
They don’t have any of the horniness you might expect given their Dr. Seuss-inspired appearance and massive waveguide that is vertically oriented with a 3″ compression driver tweeter on top of a 1″ titanium super tweeter that is horizontally oriented in a smaller waveguide.
On songs like “Stardust” by Willie Nelson, the midrange was just wonderful, and the so-called soundstage was beautiful and deep.
I believe JBL boasts that the super tweeter on the 120ti’s can reproduce close to 45kHz because the high treble, for whatever frequencies I can still make out (about 13kHz), was clear and natural-sounding.
The bass is forceful with a strong amp and proper room placement, but I don’t think the speakers are very efficient.
I practically never got them to sound distorted with clean amplification and a solid source signal, to the extent that my neighbor next door acquired my phone number to text me when it became too loud (which was frequent for a while).
I mostly listened to rock from the 1980s and 1990s, Bluenote and acid jazz, hip-hop, funk, and more modern pop and electronic music (if you go, play Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”; it sounds better on the 120ti’s than on any speaker I’ve ever heard for under $6000).
Additionally, I used the standard speaker test tracks that several hi-fi magazines provide, and they never let me down. Even in home theater applications, I have never felt the need for a subwoofer.
>> Check them out on eBay <<
4. JBL L100 Century
JBL had already had some legendary loudspeakers before then, for both professional and consumer purposes, but in 1970 JBL launched the L100 Century.
It would become THE JBL speaker, their most commercially successful speaker to date. It was so popular in the 1970s that it was among the loudspeakers with the highest sales.
It served as the face of West Coast Sound. It was essentially a consumerized version of their 4310 Studio Monitor and became one of the most popular and recognizable speakers of all time.
The Century was a huge 12-inch 3-way speaker similar in size to the Large Advent. It was well recognized for its unusual foam grille, which was divided into a surface of tiny squares.
There were other color options for the grille itself, including royal blue, brown, and a genuinely bizarre burned orange.
Its sound was just as deliberately dramatic and attention-getting as its looks. Thumping, striking bass. Complex, forward mids.
According to a test report published in High Fidelity Magazine in 1972, the speaker did pretty well overall. Still, its on-axis frequency response revealed a distinct upper-midrange peak of roughly 5-8 dB centered around 9 kHz.
Given JBL’s superior technical capabilities and the fact that this response characteristic wouldn’t have appeared by chance, it is clear that this was done on purpose.
Whether it was done to give the L-100 more retail showroom dazzle or to give the recording engineer of the 4310 professional monitors more near-field sonic “detail,” it was there, and it was real.
Even now, everyone is familiar with and recalls the JBL L100 Century.
The sound and striking appearance of the L100 speakers won over many customers willing to pay for them.
In contrast to the more courteous “East Coast Sound” from producers like Acoustic Research, Advent, and KLH, the L100s were more to blame for the growth of the more aggressive “West Coast Sound” than any other speaker.
Even though it had a powerful speaker with snappy bass, it wasn’t the largest floor-standing speaker of its era.
Furthermore, it has a special look thanks to the “Quadrex” foam grille, which made it stand out among standard fabric stretch-wrapped grilles. You can read further about the history of the development of the L100s in this Audio Heritage article.
JBL has reintroduced the renowned L100 loudspeaker, and when inflation is considered, the price remains consistent with the original. JBL refers to this new speaker as the “L100 Classic” as a tribute to the iconic original.
Of course, the design is different, and JBL updated the drivers, crossover, and cabinet components, so while it might have a retro appearance, it shouldn’t sound retro.
>> Check them out on eBay <<
5. JBL L96
Early 1980s JBL L96 bookshelf speakers are an example of speakers that are valued for their superb quality and fit in perfectly with antique systems. They are substantial three-way speakers housed in natural veneer-finished enclosures.
To better reproduce the spatial qualities of the recording, all three drivers are vertically aligned in a single line.
The 10-inch white cone woofers with foam suspensions have a very striking appearance. They are propelled by a fairly complex and carefully engineered 3-inch coil, magnet, and coil tunnel system.
The midrange drivers with fabric suspensions have large magnets, 7/8-inch coils, and 5-inch cones despite their appearance being relatively ordinary (like woofers in some new speakers).
To avoid contact with woofers, they are kept in separate sub-chambers. Light domes built of phenolic material and covered in aluminum replicate highs. A metal mesh serves as protection for the domes.
The speakers also feature high and midrange tone settings, which let users tailor the frequency response to their personal tastes and the acoustics of their listening environment. It was a little bit simpler to install speakers because the bass port was on the front of the speaker.
I have to confess that JBL L96 speakers are excellent. They have a clear and pleasing sound at the same time. Although the bass does not take center stage, it is distinct, tightly controlled, and has a low range.
The midrange is precise and steady, neither moving too far forward nor backward. The vocals lack any extra sharpness and are natural and clean.
Only the highs seemed a little too forward to me, but thankfully, the speakers allow you to adjust both the highs and the mids.
In my situation, reducing the tweeter control pot’s setting to -2 dB was sufficient to tame the highs without degrading the sound.
Keep in mind that I listened with the grilles off; it’s possible that if they were on, the tweeter adjustment might not be required.
In addition, the speakers deliver good imaging, creating a sound stage with acceptable width and depth in addition to excellent sound precision over the whole frequency range.
JBL L96 definitely deserves my recommendation. They mix a sophisticated, accurate sound with a strong style and appearance that nicely complements older equipment.
They also have a ubiquitous enough appearance to blend in with more contemporary audio equipment. As we’ve already established, nice vintage speakers are rarely inexpensive.
>> Check them out on eBay <<