Because I was a working musician from around high-school onwards, and more seriously during the 1980s, spent quite a bit of time in recording studios. In the studios I noticed many different makes and models of monitor speakers, and a large percentage of them were made by JBL. I saw and heard in live venues JBL monitors on stage, since this was the era before those on stage were able to wear personal in-ear headphone monitors. When I left that world at the end of the 1980s and began to assemble an audio system for my home, I wanted to purchase a pair of JBL studio monitors.
This made perfect sense to me. I wanted to hear music in my home that sounded as close as possible to what the musicians and engineers heard it when they were making it. I considered other brands and models, and even came close to purchasing a used pair of Urei 813 monitors, since many of very larger studios I visited used them. But these dual woofer, horn loaded time-aligned speakers were too large. Even though my girlfriend was accustomed to me cramming our one bedroom apartment with music gear and LPs, I didn't think it would be fair to subject her to these very large, industrial designed speakers. They were also quite expensive.
What I really wanted was a pair of JBLs. And so, after auditioning models I ended up acquiring from an industry insider a brand-new pair of JBL's new L7 tower speakers, which were at the top of their new home speaker line. These beasts weighed in at almost 80 pounds each and stood nearly four-feet high. Even though it was obvious that they were meant for a larger space, I rationalized that they had a relatively small footprint at 1.5" foot deep and about 0.75" of a foot wide. The space savings was mostly due to it having a side-firing 8" woofer, with its 5" mid and 1" titanium dome-tweeter mounted at the top of its cabinet. Alas, these were the last JBL speakers I ever owned, in the early 1990s I switched to a pair of similarly sized pair of Snell towers, which was about the same time I started my high-end audio equipment reviewing career.
Introduced in 1970, the JBL L100 was the most popular loudspeaker in JBL's history. The JBL L100 Classic introduced last year, according to JBL's literature, "is not a "retro speaker, but a modern speaker built to modern specifications", although it is a "modern take on the time-honored legend". It has "vintage styling", including a "retro-inspired" design, and "iconic" Quadrex foam grille that is available in black, burnt orange, or dark blue, with "newly developed acoustic technology and design". JBL got the idea to introduce the L100 because some of the engineers at JBL were taking home their 4310 studio monitor and using it for home use. They then modified the cosmetics of that speaker for home use, creating the original L100.
The New JBL L100 Classic
The cabinet has a "genuine" satin walnut wood veneer enclosure with black painted front and rear panels. Many music lovers of a certain age will recognize this speaker from its grille, which is almost identical looking to the older design, but the new model's grille is made from more modern, sonically transparent materials. On its front panel the speaker has two attenuators, one for midrange and one for high frequencies, its rear panel has gold-plated five-way speaker binding posts.
I connected the speakers to the power amps in my second system that is in a common space of our home. This system is more in line with what the average user of these speakers would likely be, located in a room that is more in line with where the speakers will end up, such as a living room or a rec room. I could have set them up to near state-of-the-art gear in my main system, which is located in an acoustically treated listening room. But this secondary system was more appropriate, but still had some very nice equipment that allowed me to hear the full sonic potential of the JBL L100 Classic speakers.
The review system included a pair of tubed PrimaLuna DiaLogue 6 monoblocks, but more often I used a pair of Auralic Merak monoblock solid-state amplifiers. The preamplifier for much of the review was a Nagra Classic Preamp which was also powered by vacuum tubes. I used a variety of digital sources, most often I used an OPPO BDP-83 Special Edition universal disc player, and a now-discontinued Logitech Squeezebox network player which enabled me to listen to selections that were stored on network accessible hard-drives that were connected to my music server in my main listening room.
Both of these digital sources had their digital outputs connected to the coax inputs of a Benchmark Media DAC3 HGC digital-to-analog-converter (DAC), which sometimes doubled as a preamplifier since it has a remote-controlled motorized volume on its front panel. The JBLs were connected using Cardas speaker cable, with interconnects and digital cable made by MIT Cable and DH Labs.
Listening To JBL's L100 Classic
JBL's L100 Classic clearly has this trait, as I could hear into the mix of a track, which includes all the details of, for example, a multi-track recording that makes up the finished track of a rock recording. The midrange of these JBL's is extremely transparent, on certain recordings I felt as if I was hearing a direct connection to the source. The titanium dome tweeter of the L100 Classic is a top performer, as it also reproduced the music it was fed in a very transparent manner. I loved hearing a drummer through these speakers, tapping out the beat on a ride cymbal, the sound of the stick hitting the surface of the cymbal with a natural ping and then hearing the decay fade into the background.
The L100 Classic had a way of reproducing rock music better than many other speakers in its price range that I can remember, in that it was able to separate instruments such as electric guitar solos and lead vocals from the rest of the mix. I became nostalgic for my late nights in the studio mixing down tracks; the L100 Classic has the same way of being able to allow me to hear things deep in a mix that other speakers would sonically gloss over. The soundstage and imaging of the L100 Classic was top-notch, as they projected a wide and deep soundstage behind and to the sides of the speakers. Some of the images were projected a bit in front of the speakers, but thankfully they didn't sound at all forward, as many monitor speakers I've used do, especially when I've tried to use them as home speakers. The L100 Classics didn't "disappear" into its soundstage, but as I said, the sounds were not stuck to the grilles of the speakers, either.
I used the JBL speakers with its grilles on and off, and I thought that the sound of the speakers sounded a bit better with the grilles off. But I also preferred them this way because I thought they looked better with no grilles, the classic (sorry) appearance of their white 12" woofer, and the familiar three-way ported speaker with the controls for attenuating the mids and highs on their baffles. In their advertisements, JBL touts the classic look of the grilles of the L100 Classic, but I don't remember ever seeing the older models of these speakers with their grilles in place, as users were much more likely to use them grille-less. Don't get me wrong, I also liked how the speakers looked with their grilles in place, but unless the room was being cleaned, I left them off for during the audition period.
As I alluded to before, those who wish to rock-out will find these speakers a dream come true. I was unable to find the limits of L100 Classic's volume, even when cranking the very powerful Auralic Merak monoblock amplifiers. I played a recently remastered version of The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis Bold Of Love, the volume set to about the level that a teenager would set it when left alone in the house for the evening. Noel Redding's bass guitar on "Little Wing" not only shook the window frames of the listening room but I could feel the low frequencies shaking my listening seat and my body. The reason for this might have been an excess of mid-bass energy of the bass guitar, but that wasn't the L100 Classic's bass veering from neutrality, but that's the way it was recorded. Regardless of where these frequencies came from, it added to the visceral experience of listening to music at an "appropriate" volume, not detracted from it. The published specifications of the L100 Classic state that the low-frequency response reaches to 40 Hz. I was surprised when I read this spec after listening to the speakers for a while. I would have expected this number to be lower.
Even though the lowest note a bass guitar produces is just above these JBL's low frequency specification, we all know that low-end fundamentals and resonant frequencies that are present in just about any music that we play through our systems is much lower than that, and if we are going to consider a speaker to be "full-range" we might expect the main speakers in our systems to go this deep. Still, I thought that when playing just about any type of music the JBL L100 Classic had sufficient bass, at least it went low enough, and more importantly, had enough positive qualities that I really didn't think I was missing much. The JBL L100 Classic's bass was tight, pitch specific, and was flat down to a very low frequency, and therefore I think most listeners will think that its bass sounds great, as did I. It has a 12" woofer, after all. I did connect an SVS model SB-2000 subwoofer for the second half of the review period, which claims to reach down to 19Hz (plus or minus 3dB). I was able to set the sub's crossover to a very low frequency and its level also very low. This replaced the speaker's "missing" frequencies, but it didn't sound as if the sub was being activated very much at all. I do not think that a subwoofer is mandatory when using the L100 Classic, although some might want to use one, especially if these speakers are going to be used as the main speakers in a home theater setup.
There was one quality that the JBL L100 Classics possessed that surprised me. They were not only able to separate instruments within a crowded soundfield, but they also was able to place dynamic distance between instruments, groups of instruments, and vocals. Instruments and vocals that were playing at the same volume and occupying the same space in the soundstage stood out from this crowded field of instruments and vocals more than the others. I've heard some studio monitors that were able to sort out the sound like this, but after a while the monitor's sound would become fatiguing. The JBL L100 Classics were very non-fatiguing, the upper midrange and treble of the JBL L100 Classics sounded like music. If the music was annoying, I'd get annoyed. It was never the fault of any frequency anomalies coming from these speakers.
I listened to many different recordings of different genres while the JBLs were in my system. Yet I kept coming back to rock and electronic music. I often I play Kraftwerk's The Mix when auditioning gear in my system, especially when testing out speakers. The frequency response on this recording is not only quite extended, but I like it because I'm so very familiar with this album, so much so that it seems as if I've been playing it constantly since it was released in 1991. But just for fun, this time I played Board Of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children, which they released in 1998, at the height of that decade's electronica movement. Like most electronic outfits BOC doesn't list the equipment they use, but I've read some interviews where they reveal most of it, and when listening to the album it was fun to try to detect which instrument was which.
The L100 Classics had no trouble sorting everything out on this album, letting me hear all that was there, but also was able to present everything as a whole, letting me bask in their "intelligent dance music", as some call it, sounding akin to them reimagining Brian Eno's 1970s ambient albums as Led Zeppelin reimagined the blues. Instead of soothing bass frequencies floating below the music, these bass frequencies were treated and retreated, the lowest of these frequencies shaking my gut. The soundstage that the L100 Classics produced while playing this album was filled with recorded voices and what sounded like extraterrestrial birds, filling the front side of the room with futuristic instrumentation.
I realize that it might be a little cliché, but I played the title track Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. I must have played this track thousands of times on my various systems throughout my lifetime. Not only is it a great album, but a great auditioning tool. Not only in the introduction to the song, where one can hear the musician shifting in his seat getting ready to play the acoustic guitar, but it is a great recording of a guitar made at Abbey Road Studios. The JBLs reproduced this as well as any dynamic speaker that has ever been in this system, outdoing most of them that were priced anywhere near the JBL L100 Classic.
I played the Acoustic Sounds issued SACD through the OPPO player, and it was a great way to hear a the slightly idiosyncratic nature of this speaker. I didn't measure the distance, but the drivers of the L100 Classic seem to be a bit farther away from my listening seat than usual because this speaker is in on the floor of my listening room, titled up to aim the drivers at my ears. This caused me to move my listening seat a bit closer to the plane of the front of the speakers than other speakers that have been in my listening room of late. Was this detrimental to the speaker's sound?
Absolutely not, but I think it did change the location of the center of the soundstage a bit. This subjective observation wasn't one that I viewed as a negative; it was just a little different than I was accustomed to. But getting back to the Pink Floyd, I was taken aback at how well these JBLs performed while playing back this SACD. The sound of the acoustic guitar on the title track sounded fabulous, as did the rest the instruments and voices on this album, I felt as if these speakers were acting as a sonic time machine, bringing me back to Abbey Road Studios to hear them lay down this tour de force to tape. The vocals sounded first rate, detailed yet lifelike, natural sounding, but at the same time I the slight tape hiss led me to picture a reel on a tape machine more than a human being seated in front of a microphone.
I then put on an SACD of Todd Rundgren's A Wizard A True Star that was made available last year. The LP of this album originally released as a single in 1973 suffered from length, over thirty minutes on each side of this dense multi-tracked recording. This record was and is good enough to transcend the poor sound that resulted from its length, but when the CD was released it was a revelation. This was a great sounding album, yet I never was able to hear this. Even better was a few years ago when it was reissued on a two-LP set, and now I can enjoy the SACD, which allows one to hear the genius of Todd Rundgren's music in even better fidelity. Hearing the SACD through the JBL L100 Classics was fantastic.
There are some tracks that suffer from some overload distortion, perhaps caused by Todd surpassing the 16 track limit, but the overall fidelity is the best I've ever heard. And through the L100s Classics I felt as if I was a fly on the wall in Todd's studio. Many of the songs are recorded well enough where I could hear the individual tracks that made the multitrack tape, the ambience being different on each of the separate tracks on the tape. His vocals were especially fine, such as on the track "Zen Archer", where I could imagine him inside a vocal booth, or perhaps he wasn't in a booth, but it was very captivating. I neglected some other duties because I sat listening to this hour-long album in one sitting.
Although it makes no sense to me, perhaps it is because they are rectangular shaped, rather than tall and thin as many speakers that are classified as "tower" speakers. Or maybe it is because back in the day many did place these speakers on bookshelves. Who knows? Their classification of these JBLs as a bookshelf speaker is the only statement that JBL makes in the literature that I disagree with. Otherwise, they are spot on. These are truly a classic looking speaker with a truly modern sound. The only thing I can think of that might stop some from purchasing these speakers as soon as they realize that they are available is their price.
Many non-audiophiles will balk, but any audiophile with even just a bit of experience will recognize that these speakers are well worth their asking price. In fact, when inflation is considered the cost of these speakers are just about equal to what they cost back in the day. Still, I have no doubt that many customers will purchase the JBL L100 Classic sight unseen. Not only does JBL's reputation precede them, but these speakers will bring back pleasant memories to many music lovers of a certain age. And to them, I say, go for it. These speakers are a great way to enjoy the music.