It’s all forgotten about now, but once upon a time there was an expensive – but certainly not exorbitantly priced – turntable that came along, challenged the best of the best and won. Well, almost. You see, the JBE was – for a fleeting time around the turn of the nineteen eighties – an underground sensation.
Although excellent, the deck never quite hit the mainstream. This was in no small part because its design and engineering ran counter to the fashion of the day. First and foremost, it was a direct drive turntable in the UK, where this was almost a dirty word. Most British hi-fi hacks of the day were obsessed with the Linn Sondek LP12, many thinking it perfect and unsurpassable. Although starting its life back in 1973 far cheaper, the Linn was now very expensive at around £350 plus arm. Because it was ‘the best’, most reviewers thought it automatically followed that its belt drive system was superior too…
Another challenge to convention was its chassis design. Unlike the Linn, Ariston, STD and Dunlop Systemdek – the best decks of the day supposedly – it didn’t have any suspension aside from its shock absorbing Micro Seiki Microsorber feet. Instead it relied on a whacking great slab of Welsh Slate for its plinth to keep external vibration at bay. This was totally at odds with the others, all of which had an independently sprung subchassis – something we were also led to believe was superior. Any deck with ‘no’ suspension and direct drive found it very hard to credibly maintain audiophile pretensions, such was the cult of Linn.
JBE found it hard to get traction in the UK market – not least because the major hi-fi magazines seemed to worship the LP12. Some even went so far as to recommend it in cheap systems, completely out of context, such was their evangelical zeal. So the company decided to take part in a three-way blind listening test. Published in Practical Hi-Fi in September 1979, it saw the company’s latest Series 3 going up against a Linn LP12 and an STD 305M. All three decks had SME Series III tonearms fitted and were set up by the manufacturers. The JBE was the cheapest, and many listeners said it won.
After this, the company achieved measured success. Some dealers really got behind the product, but it was never going to be easy for Linn dealers to push it – or even sell it – if it offered similar performance at about three-quarters of the price. Sadly, in 1982 the company disappeared, and the turntable with it. That year was a bad time for vinyl – the advent of Compact Disc saw to that, knocking out a large part of the high end vinyl market at stroke (lest we forget, CD players were initially very expensive, and thus direct price rivals to superdecks. A number of other turntable companies went down, too – including STD.
These days, JBE decks remain surprisingly plentiful – there are never that hard to find. They were well built, so have lasted. The lack of springs, grommets and belts mean they soldier on relatively better than their belt drive counterparts. The distinctive 6-disc, 1.9kg podule platter design – an black acrylic disc topped with six machined and balanced, foam-topped aluminium discs was the most striking thing about them – although the company made a profusion of variants, and it was possible to get a solid aluminium platter with rubber mat and rim-strobe if you wanted it. The former was similar but not identical to the Rega Planet (and its budget spin-off, the Amstrad TP12D) and had echoes of the Gale turntable and the Transcriptors (nee Michell) Reference Hydraulic. It was far from ideal sonically, but gave the deck a striking, futuristic look – as if it had come straight from Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 or Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Underneath the platter sat a 24-slot, 8-pole stator, electronically controlled Matsushita direct drive motor, affixed to the plinth. The A-weighted rumble figure was 63dB, which didn’t put it quite up with the likes of the Linn or the Technics SP10, but it wasn’t far off. The plinth was another striking feature, made (in the Series 3) from slate mined from North Wales, and was available in two sizes, 435x335mm or 495x365mm to accommodate the then popular Dynavector DV505 tonearm. Clear and black acrylic versions of the plinth were available too. Most examples were supplied with a cut-out for an SME arm. The feet were off-the-shelf Micro Seiki Microsorbers, from Japan. The deck also came with a Perspex speed control box, offering 33 and 45RPM.
JBE stands for John Bryant Electronics; the company started out as JB Manufacturing Acoustics and Design Ltd and was Sussex based but moved to Northallerton in 1976, and used the Environmental Sound brand name to sell a range of turntables and, frankly quite bizarre, loudspeakers. The Series 3 you see here surfaced in 1978, and was not the company’s first deck – rather, there had been a long range of them for several years before, from the FF2001 through the 3001 and 7001 to the 8001. JBE Ltd. was once a division of Janorhurst Limited (Arnold Electronics), indeed What Hi-Fi reviewed the deck as the ‘Janorhurst JBE’ in 1978. The Environmental Sound brand also marketed a range of JBE-lookalike turntables (the EST 4X, EST 5, EST 6 and EST 7). 1981 saw JBE moving out from Janorhurst to new premises in Bedford.
Sadly long since deceased, the deck continues to spin for its many happy users, although will never set the earth on fire. In another time and another place, maybe this wouldn’t have been the case. But if you want a small slice of analogue history, set in stone, don’t forget about the JBE.