JBL L100 Classic Loudspeakers Review
Everything old is new again. Iconic models of hi-fi components are enjoying a rebirth and re-release, and why not? We take a look at JBL's latest take on the L100 Heritage Bookshelf Speakers, now released as the L100 Classic.
AUD $8,499 RRP
Memory Lane is a great place to visit if you're a legacy Audio brand with a long heritage of releasing models now deemed iconic.
So, (deep appreciative breath here) it was hardly a surprise to learn JBL was poised to makeover its best-ever selling speaker called the L-100. And why not?
McIntosh re-released its beautiful MC275 valve amplifier some years ago followed by Yamaha's reimagining of the NS1000 loudspeaker now called the NS5000.
And as we write, Falcon Acoustics is ranging the LS35/A speaker built from near-as identical parts as used in the early BBC prototype.
In Denmark, Ortofon continues to make the SPU cartridge. In the UK, Decca cartridges have been reborn much to the satisfaction of the legion of admirers who adore what this legendary cartridge can bring to a turntable.
And speaking of turntables, what about the rebirthing of Garrard and the heartwarming sight of spanking new 301 and 401 models?
Bring it on, and keep 'em coming, we say.
Re-issued models are like manna from heaven for history conscious audiophiles. The salvaging of audio's most important models of yesteryear brings more than a few tears to their eyes, but it's also a cause for celebration.
We are blessed with a moveable feast of iconic models, to be sure. Moreover, and despite the babble of reactionary audiophiles who will always tell you the original is best, each of these redesigned models addresses and improves on the glitches of the older models it celebrates.
Yes, of course, I know only too well that possessing an original MC275, SPU, Decca, LS35/A, NS1000 or L100 isn't the same thing as owning a contemporary equivalent. The originals have an aura of authenticity that elicits strong emotions of a different place and a different time.
Of course, I'd want to own an audio original. But, hand on heart I'd buy and covet a newer version without a moment's hesitation. What audiophile in their right mind would knock back a current version of McIntosh's MC275 amplifier because it wasn't built in 1961?
This kind of misguided logic would have you refusing to listen to the Beatle's Anniversary Edition of Sgt Pepper's because it wasn't released on the 26th May 1967.
I have both editions of this pop music masterpiece and can assuredly say that sonically, the Anniversary edition trounces my '67 vinyl copy by that proverbial country mile, and then some.
I've also owned the original MC275 amplifier and several of the newer versions. If you need to ask the question “which is sonically better?” you have my condolence, but not my respect.
Even so, I'm enough of an anachrophile to admit my '67 Sgt Pepper's album is laced with layers of powerful nostalgic emotions my Anniversary edition lacks.
As for a chance to own an original McIntosh MC275 again? Let's just say I'd risk jail time for an opportunity. The old model would go into my collection to be maintained and treasured in the same way you would an MG TD or Jaguar XK150.
Like these classic cars, usage would only be occasional to preserve their original condition; but also to have a moment to enjoy the qualities that made these creations so very special the first time around.
So, would I own a pair of JBL's new L100s? A question I'd answer this way: For some people, audio is a means to an end. Hi-Fi gear exists to give life to recorded music. I share and respect this self-evident goal. But audio for me is also an abiding passion.
A passion so strong, If I had the money required to buy all the hi-fi gear that rings my bells I'd have to move to an airport and live in an aircraft hangar.
Gear both vintage and modern. New and old. Thank you, I'll take the lot. Including the new L100s.
A trip down Audio's Memory Lane is a powerful thing for a veteran audiophile.
It's also an excellent segue to the reborn JBL Classic 100s, recently unboxed in my music room and quietly burning-in, there.
A Contentious Word About The Most Famous Audio Ad, Ever.
Those hankering to know why JBL described its original L100 and continues to refer to the new L100 as “bookshelf models”, should take a gander at the 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo.
Priced at US$3123 at the time of its release, the Monte Carlo was more of an aircraft carrier than it was a car. Compared to the UK's most popular vehicle in 1972 called the Ford Cortina MKIII, the US vehicle was GINORMOUS!
Ditto one of Australia's best selling jalopies in 1972, the Ford XA Falcon that was a minnow compared to the Chevy.
If the words “big” and “American” and “JBL L100” come to mind, it's hardly JBL's fault. Yes, indeed Americans prized “bigness” in their cars, bridges, buildings and Hi-Fi throughout the '70s. You've only got to think of the speakers Klipsch and Altec were building in the same era, to understand why the L100 was considered a bookshelf model.
But this national trait had little to do with the size of the L100.
Studio speakers in the '60s the calibre of JBL's 4320 and its rival, Altec's 604 were big primarily because studios had space for them. But as multi-tracking and the need for larger consoles grew, so did the need for a smaller speaker that could be used as a nearfield, compact monitor on top of a console.
JBL's answer was the 4310, and later the 4311. The latter was a stonking success, so JBL wisely decided to release a domestic version in 1969. This was called the L100. Priced at about US$250 each, the L100 went on to notch up sales of more than 125,000 pairs. The rest, as they say, is history.
Except it isn't. Because there is one little known and unresolved controversy about the L100 and its part in the '70s 'Blown Away' ad produced for cassette tape maker, Maxell.
We all assume the speaker blowing away the moustached dude in a lounge chair, is a JBL L100. Turns out it may not be.
The whisper is the speaker in this iconic ad is Pioneer's HPM-100B.
The story goes, that after working on the L100, JBL's VP of Engineering Bart Locanthi left the company in 1975 looking for a new challenge. He landed at Pioneer where he built a speaker to take on the L100, and this was called the HPM-100B, a model that sold in enormous numbers.
True or not, and I think it's highly likely to be accurate, the fact remains that the L100 went on to take the credit for its part in the Blown Away ad.
Audio memory is both a powerful and unreliable thing. It can make a silk purse out of an audio sow's ear and moreover, it can endow an ordinary component with a lustre it doesn't deserve.
With this caveat, I can record that the original L100s was a bit of heaven and hell. Heaven for rock fans, but not so divinely inspired for the rest of us.
They were easy to drive to ear-bleeding volume levels and were an excitement machine playing rock. They could also do jazz, but the bottom line was, their forte was rock.
The L100 was too raucous and unrelenting for all the other genres. They lacked the refinement required for classical, and the nimbleness acoustic music needs to sound convincing.
All things being equal and compared to the best speakers of that period, the L100 was wanting in transparency, lacked subtlety and in full flight, the energy unleashed by a pair had the power to get a listener's entire body resonating in sync with the windows, doors and floorboards vibrating in the same listening room.
But hey, the L100 was entertaining. They were fun as well. They had the added and incalculable prestige of being made by the same brand whose speakers featured on stage at the Woodstock concert.
JBL's profile rose again when The Who opted to use 12 JBL 4350 monitors in concerts.
Now, that was a deal clincher for countless rock devotees who decided they'd like to take a pair of L100s home. Bose also took careful note of the amount of publicity likely to follow if a top rank pop group used its speakers on stage. Yamaha also took note. Say no more.
While I admit to having an affection for the L100 at the time, when it came time to buy a pair, I passed up the offer. Affection isn't the same thing as love.
But after spending ample days and nights enjoying the new L100, it's a different story. The new model is such a complete speaker, I'd gladly own a pair. While the new model looks like a clone of the old L100, that's where the similarity ends.
The current L100 is a very different speaker. It has all the attributes of a hi-end speaker lacking nothing in transparency, detail, working dynamic range and tonal naturalness. It also times beautifully. Any comparison with the older L100 is superfluous. The new L100 cuts it sonically. The older model did not. Period.
As to the pointed question, 'Would you buy the older L100?', the answer is, “Yes, I would because of its historic charm”. Memory lane, indeed…
Out With The Old, In With The New
The new L100 honours the past by using materials of the '70s. It's a three-way design with a paper coned 12-inch woofer and paper coned five and a quarter-inch midrange driver. The tweeter is a one-inch titanium dome that's crossed over to the midrange at 3.5kHz. The L100 is a bass-reflex design with a front-firing port.
The L100's frequency response is stated as 40Hz to 40kHz, and the sensitivity into four ohms is 90dB.
Visually the new L100 looks like the old L100. Especially sporting its retro, bright orange Quadrex foam grill cover. Buyers have a choice of retro grill colours, including black or blue. But I can't go past the orange colour 'cos it's the one that screams '70's Audio'.
Similarities connecting the past to the present are the two attenuators on the upper right of the front baffle. There's one for the midrange and another for the high-frequency driver.
As for calling the L100 a 'bookshelf' model? Well, that's a fair suck of an audio sav. Measuring 23.5” high, 14.5” wide and 13.75” deep and weighing 26.5kg each, the L100 cuts an imposing presence in any room and begs the question “How big a bookcase would you need to fit a pair in?”
The price is also substantial at $8,499 RRP per pair plus an additional $599 for the matching JBL stands - which by the way, support the L100's superbly. They also angle the speakers so that they're firing slightly upwards. The stands are stylistically perfect and complete the image of this '70s icon. You can knock yourself out looking for an alternative stand, but why bother?
As far as I know, the new L100 is available in only one finish, and that's a walnut timber veneer in keeping with the 70's theme.
Oh My! Oh My! What A Complete Speaker!
A steady stream of audiophile buddies pulled out some mighty superlatives after they heard the L100's playing in my listening room. But my lawyer mate Michael, a veteran audiophile with sharp ears and an analytical mind expressed it best when he described the L100's as 'A complete speaker'.
After enjoying the sound for several weeks, I know what he means.
There's ample choice on the market to make the L100's sing, but at my place they were on the receiving end of an SME 20/2 turntable, SME V tonearm, Koestsu Signature Red MC cartridge, Audio Research CD7 MK2 CD player, Audio Research Reference 1 Preamplifier and Reference 75 amplifier. Cables were In-akustik and Nordost. And yes, it was a valve system with not a trannie within ear distance.
Review sessions in my listening room are always compiled using at least a dozen albums. But one album above all others gave me the most pleasure using the new L100's. This was Ry Cooder's latest recording called, Prodigal Son.
The entire 11 tracks played over and over because they sounded so good via the L100's. Eight of those tracks are original gospel classic. Three are originals. As the album title suggests, this is Ry Cooder, son Joachim on drums, a trio of gospel singers and a huge cast of deeply talented musicians playing “God's Music”.
The album is a showcase of Cooder's freeboard styles ranging from gospel, thumping blues to Oklahoma folk in the style of the great Woody Guthrie.
If ever a pair of high-end speakers and a masterpiece of an album were made for each other it's the Prodigal Son and the new JBL Classic L100.
Shrinking Man burst through the L100's featuring an almost lethal spiky electric guitar the amount of control allied to the dynamic responsiveness of the L100. It reinforced the notion that the new L100 wasn't a take of the original L100.
What I was hearing was a whole new top-shelf speaker. This was a new ball game.
Play this track, and you'll be privy to an almost unearthly guitar solo. If it makes you think of Chuck Berry, you'll be on the money.
Blind Willie's Everybody Out To Treat A Stranger Right treats you to a dark slide riff that recalls how Blind Willie played so long ago, because the L100s level of transparency allows you access to every musical detail. But above all the L100's timing and ability to communicate the performer's message will allow you to experience what Cooder wants to convey.
As for imaging, it's pinpoint via the L100. The musician's positions within a vast soundstage that has life-like depth, width and height are distinct and sharply outlined. Reach out, and you can touch them.
By now you'd have realised that I regard the L100 as the complete speaker with all the musical prowess we've come to expect from a contemporary high-end speaker.
You want speed, dynamic agility, transparency, imaging, soundstage, mid-range purity, extended frequency range, taut, deep, informative bass, tonal elegance and purity and above all timing? Then go forth and begat yourself a pair of JBL Classic L100's.
Add to these musical qualities, the L100's ability to “disappear” even used in a modestly sized room, and you're some of the way to sussing out why I didn't want to give up my review pair. But not all of the way.
Because I haven't shared with you the L100's almost supernatural ability to preserve the silence written into the music by the composers. The LP or CD to exemplify this nearly mystical quality the great speakers have over the less well-endowed models is Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Which Opus do I hear you ask? He only wrote one. Because that's all, he needed to say in that genre.
I've had my vinyl copy of the Pinchas Zuckerman - violin, Daniel Barenboim conductor - Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1977 performance for decades. I thought I knew what this recording had on offer. Then I played it through the L100's. Wham Bang! It was a light bulb, sliding doors kinda' moment.
After innumerable playings over the years, I thought I knew where the silent gaps between the note were. How clever of me. Silly man. The L100's proved I was bereft of any real clue about this divinely inspired master work's relationship to musical silence.
In the early morning Melbourne autumn light that illuminated my room while this concerto played, I had a revelation. Or rather, the L100's inspired a moment of reviewing clarity whose force almost bowled me over with its irrefutable truth.
Beethoven wrote silence into the entire fabric of his sublime concerto. It's almost as if the silence is composed for a phantom instrument. And here's the thing I ask you to take on faith. That silence, that spiritual gap is there even in moments when the music is playing and not just between notes.
The power of this realisation forced me to cease reviewing, cease listening. Shaken, I turned off the music and stared for an hour through my window as the early morning fog reluctantly cleared over the Melbourne skyline.
Through the distant haze of the sun's reflection on the Rialto tower, once the tallest building in Melbourne, I gazed over the homes around the rim of Mooney Valley, and thought about audio and music.
I pondered how they engage with each other to give the folk in those homes and ourselves access to avenues of sublime beauty. So sublime it can only be experienced fully by suspending reason and truly living in the moment.
I'd had one of those moments a mere hour ago. Now reason and logic had returned, I had to ask myself why the JBL L100's were so good. Was it a matter of tonal purity? Dynamic deftness? Transparency or maybe timing? Then I began to laugh at myself.
Reviewers, I have come to believe can describe and record that a particular component has the power to transport the listener on to another plane. But we can't tell you why.
Great audio models, just like the most exceptional music, can be experienced but not wholly explained. Like the Mona Lisa's smile, the very best components or music harbour at their core an inexplicable mystery that defies any reasoned analysis.
With this thought I made a strong coffee and put the Stones' Let It Bleed album onto the CD7's spindle, shut its sliding lid and played the track, You Got The Silver. As the L100's arrayed the group in my room, I was startled to hear that silence within the music's gap I'd heard with the Beethoven violin concerto.
Only this time the ethereal quality of the orchestra's string, brass, wind and percussion gave way to raucous life-affirming sounds of electric guitar, drum kit and Mick Jagger's grating voice.
I moved on to the Traffic album, Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys and kicked back to hear what the new L100's could bring to the track, Rainmaker. As the mesmerising beat of solo guitar, bass and flute rose, subsided and rose again, I could hear the silence between the notes so distinctly a new appreciation of this track was created. The detailing was also more intimate than I recalled, and I could hear more of it.
Days passed. Days filled pleasurably listening to a bundle of albums played through the L100's. But it came to an end when I was ordered to pack the speaker up and get them ready for the courier.
Before I began to box them up, I thought it would be grand to hear The Prodigal Son one last time with the L100's. By now, I understood the new JBLs handled all genres of music with elegant ease. But they have an unrivalled synergy with some albums and this one in particular.
When the track Jesus and Woody played, I looked out my window once again as the weak afternoon sun cast long shadows over the Gums and Acacias along the banks of what was once, before the tar and concrete of City Link's freeway, the Merri Creek.
Cooder's hymn to Guthrie resonated in my room with a purity that defies description. His husky vocals, accompanied by the warmth and sweetness of his gut stringed guitar made the sun feel warmer than it was.
I took in the lyrics with reverence listening for the silence in the music.
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too ...
Some say I was a friend to sinners. But by now you know it's true. Guess I like sinners better than fascists. And I guess that makes me a dreamer too.
Within hours the new JBL Classic L100 speakers were gone. And I can truly say as the ancient Romans did when describing a loved friend's visit: “I was happier at your coming than I was at your leaving”.
So long L100's. You made me listen to my music with a new sensibility.
For more information or to find your nearest dealer, visit JBL.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.