JBL L100 Classic

When the first JBL L100 was launched at CES 1970 in Chicago, few realised how popular it would be. A consumer version of the 4310/4311 professional monitors, it shared the same driver line-up, with strong Alnico V magnets. A simple crossover was used for midrange and treble drivers, with the bass unit bypassing it altogether. Its quintessentially ‘West Coast sound’ was dry, detailed and punchy – as American as the BBC LS3/5a was British.

Reputedly styled by JBL president Arnold Wolf, it looked strikingly modern at the time. There were various offshoots, including the L100A and L100 Century evolutions, the latter running until the speaker was discontinued in 1978. This was big in Japan, remaining on sale in 4312E guise for many years with cult appeal. Different mid and treble drivers were tried over the years, with varying front baffle placements. The L-series soldiered on through the eighties, but shared little with the original. And we have this, the reimagined JBL L100 Classic – the closest to the original that we have seen for decades.

JBL is riding the retro-futuristic zeitgeist with its 4312SE 70th Anniversary Studio Monitor launched three years ago, and this new £3,999 design. It’s notable for offering the hi-fi equivalent of a racing stripe on a Ford Capri – the option of an orange coloured, sculpted foam Quadrex grille. Yet even with the grille off, this loudspeaker still looks as period as a pair of crushed velvet flares. Regard its unusually wide front baffle, short and stubby angled floorstand and the midrange and treble level pads!

The cabinetry is attractive with its real satin walnut wood veneer finish, but the wide front baffle dominates the look of this loudspeaker. Stars of the show are the three drive units, especially the 300mm 1200FE cast-frame woofer with its white pulp cone. This marries up to a 125mm JM125PC midrange driver, again with a pulp cone and sporting a cast-frame chassis. Finally, the L100 Classic uses JBL’s newly developed 25mm JT025Ti1 titanium dome tweeter, mated to a waveguide with an acoustic lens. Don’t let appearances fool you, because even though these drivers look as if they’re from another age, they are all new designs. Midrange and treble level adjusters used to be almost universally fitted to high end speakers from the seventies, but fashion went the other way subsequently and now they’re rare. Of course they are back on the L100 Classic, and actually proved surprisingly handy for fine tuning the speaker to one’s listening room and/or system. There’s also a large front baffle-mounted bass reflex port with a smoothly flared exit.

Round the back, there’s a single pair of gold-plated binding posts. The quality of the wood veneer is good, but nowhere near as fancy as the sort of thing you see on a Monitor Audio at less than half the price. Indeed the overall build quality, whilst being higher than I remember the original, is nothing to write home about at the price. As per nineteen seventies common practice, the speaker grille is attached to the front baffle by mounting pegs, which are both flimsy and unsightly. JBL offers an optional stand for the L100 Classic, which takes it off the ground just enough to be effective, and angles the speaker upwards ever so slightly. The company says it can be used either vertically or horizontally; I went for the former.

With this attached, the speaker proved relatively easy to position, working well about 60cm from a boundary wall, firing down the room. It seemed to excite the room less than most other speakers I have tried. Final listening was done with the level pads at twelve o’clock, as things sounded a little too lively in the default position.

JBL’s new L100 is as inconspicuous sonically as it is visually – which is to say, not at all. This loudspeaker gets things done it is own sweet way. It is loud and proud, a design that doesn’t so much have character as ooze charisma. Tonally it’s bright and vivid, really ‘waking up’ whatever recording you care to play. It also has a wonderfully animated rhythmic quality, meaning that you can’t stop tapping your feet. It’s dynamic in its own way too, but far better at tracking subtle accents rather than the epic, earth-shattering crescendos of an orchestra at full tilt. Spatially it sounds wide but image location within the soundstage is poor at the price, and nor does it deliver any convincing stage depth.

Tonally, the L100 turns out to be an interesting trip back to the nineteen seventies; here we have the sort of sound that many rock music fans aspired to, back in the day. This loudspeaker is intrinsically more than a little forward; its midband is hardly bashful and the treble is always well lit. This makes the trumpets on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Riot’ [from Speak Like a Child, Blue Note BST 84279] sound rather shiny for example, jumping out at the listener with an especially visceral feel that makes most modern designs sound subdued. There’s also a fair deal of superficial detail, with a vibrant piano sound that rings out of the mix with verve and purpose. Even the flute work – an instrument that’s usually on jazz records to add a smooth, luxuriant feel, came over as rather raw and raspy. This is what owners of the original L100 would doubtless call, “the classic JBL sound”, although to be fair many of the company’s more modern designs are a good way from this. It’s a distinctive sound that is as ear-catching as its orange grille is eye-catching.

In absolute terms then, the speaker is a tad mid-forward, which means its beefy bass unit is less of a player on the field, than you might expect given its size. For example, the deft double bass work on the Herbie Hancock track didn’t have the weight that you’d hope for, and nor it wasn’t particularly extended. It’s definitely less likely to ‘one note’ than earlier versions of this speaker I’ve heard, but still not the world’s best at portraying how basslines go up and down the scale. This was especially noticeable with electronic pop, such as New Order’s ‘Vanishing Point’, which lost some of its impact due to the light bottom end. Dropping the mid and treble controls didn’t have much of an effect here. At the other end of the frequency spectrum, the track’s drum machine hi-hat cymbal patterns sounded a little too crispy for my taste; the tweeter isn’t the sweetest thing JBL has ever designed, if I’m honest.

Any concerns about the speaker’s lack of neutrality are largely forgotten when it is asked to play fast, repetitive beat-driven music, such as YMO’s ‘Music Plans’. This early eighties electro track has a hard metronomic beat, over which fat, crunchy analogue synthesisers jostle with one another. The track is quite tonally dark and dour sounding, yet the L100’s transient speed pepped it up no end. Its lithe, fleet-of-foot character let me revel in the interplay between the powerful bass drum and snare/rim shot sounds. Indeed, this speaker carries percussion brilliantly, with a swagger that makes listening fun.

One key facet of its expressive nature is its handling of microdynamics. The indie rock strains of Microdisney’s ‘Loftholdingswood’ showed how much the L100 loves this genre of music. It relishes an expansive rock production that it can get its teeth into, so to speak. There’s a lovely lucid quality to the way it goes about making music that’s hard not to like, despite all its faults. The track’s crashing piano power chords and cranked up, jangling Rickenbacker lead guitar were a delight, as were the gutsy strains of Cathal Coughan’s vocals. It’s very sly though, because if you listen more closely there is a sense that some of the low level detailing in the song is being occluded. Although jaunty and bright on a superficial level, you’re left wanting more insight and transparency deep down.

The lack of ‘handed’ front baffles could well put it at a disadvantage when it comes to soundstaging. Firing straight down the room, I found it poor in this respect, although introducing a few degrees of toe-in certainly helped. Yet no amount of experimentation with placement was able to make up for the fact that the L100 is ‘sub-optimal’ compared to most modern designs. Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘London Can Take It’ is contemporary progressive pop that sounds positively panoramic through the right system. Not here though; even if the L100 Classic did open up a bit, it didn’t have the resolution to dig deep into the recording to communicate spatial information in an accurate way. Stereo imaging was perfunctory, with little stage depth despite a fairly wide left-to-right spread. This new loudspeaker is fun but flawed then – what it lacks in accuracy it makes up for in character, providing that’s the sound the prospective purchaser wants.

JBL’s new L100 Classic is poor in some respects, so won’t be for everyone – yet it still sounds greater than the sum of its parts in several ways. For example, it’s more fun than it has a right to be, reminding us just how bland and formulaic so many modern designs are. One of the most ‘Marmite’ hi-fi products currently on sale, this cleverly reimagined blast from the past will win friends but alienate others.

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