Prejudice is a weird phenomenon. Are we all so vulnerable to the once-bitten-twice-shy system that we simply cannot deal with the rehabilitated? Hi-fi is riddled with brands which – in the eyes of the British dealer/press/consumer – can do no right, just as there are unworthy brands which many believe can do no wrong. JBL has, for a least a decade, been written off a domestic-audio-for-pro-wannabees, and the company has no-one to blame oter than itself. So successful is it in pro circles that it assumes that every playback system, regardless of type, warrants the kind of speakers which can loosen plaster while cutting glass. Unbreakable, yes. Brighter than an active arc-welder, ditto. Worse, they seem to embody all of the traits of America that allows psuedo-intellectual Aussies like Clive james to take the piss out of my homeland.
JBL'-ness' that allowntellectual Aussies (Aussies! The spawn of criminals!) like Clive J And JBL is as American as Levi 501s, making them the bane of Spendor/Rogers/Harbeth loversird phenomenon. Are we all so vulnerable to the once-bitten. But the times they are a'changin'.
No, I haven't suddenly written off two decades as a resident of the UK. No, I'm not about to suggest that you ditch cricket for the equally mind-numbing baseball. But I buried my half-life as a Brit, my lust for Things Anglo such as LS3/5As and Lovejoy and KitKats to investigate the rumours that JBL has entered the 1990s. Indeed, so curious am I about this change of direction that I've signed up for a trilogy review as JBL is a three-headed-monster: domestic, pro and in-car. And, as I've spent the last ten months wallowing in nostalgia for my lost youth, I want to see if JBL is capable of reviving a latter-day equivalent of their best-selling speakers from the days I entered hi-fi as a civilian. What I want is a 1993 JBL Decade or Century.
So what do I find when I open the small (for JBL) L1 carton? A pair of speakers in one container, small enough to rest on 24in stands. Two-way, not three. Black ash finish. But with a couple of clues to suggest something other than a Britclone...even though metal dome drivers are a British institution. But these are titanium 1in domes with a diamond pattern stamped on to them to increase structural rigidity with no increase in mass. They rest on sloped baffles, above 6.5in woofers made from a paper-like composite of felt and glass-fibre, featuring concentric ribs. The frames are made from cast aluminium. Build quality? Terrific. Especially at £399 per pair.
The enclosure – 401x209x254mm (HWD) – betrays only one trace of resistance to modernity: the L1 isn't bi-wireable. The back contains the tuned port, with nice multi-way binding posts in a recess near the bottom.
Spec-wise, the L1 could be one of a number of standard two-ways available in the UK. The frequency response is listed as 47Hz-27kHz (+/-6dB), sensitivity is a sensible 87dB for 1W, impedance a safe 8 ohms and the power rating? An easy drive working well with 35-watters, yet it's capable of handling 200W. Remember: the three letters on the badge serve as a red rag to HM bulls. Even if you
crossing over at 3kHz to Oh, there is one other bone to pick: the drivers are not arrayed symmetrically., the tweeters offset to the left.ed rag to HM head-banging bulls. JBL could issue a telephone speaker and most of the faithful would expect it to yield 120dB at 10m. But that's the downside of having such a strong image, eg all Ford drivers can't really be boy racers, can they?
I left the grille for last because it's the one thing an L1 owner will play with for a few weeks. For some stupid reason, the designers gave it a bulge which, when positioned correctly, gives the slope-baffled L1 a perpendicular face. Unfortunately, the grille is braced with enough plastic for a 1/24th scale model of a Spitfire, and
Even worse, the area in front of the tweeter contains a tight grid which could double as a colander. And it doesn't half-bugger the dispersion. So I played them with the grilles mounted upside down. They even looked better that way...
On the other hand, there are strong arguments in favour of removing the grille altogether. In effect, it acts as a corrective filter with three positions:
1) Placed correctly, the speakers lose their sibilance, but the price you pay is a slight lack of detail and serious buggering of the imagery.
2) Placed upside-down, the tweeter is still tamed, but to a milder degree.
3) Removed, the speakers image like a dream, but then you have to worry about all that naked treble.
Which leads to amplifiers.
I know, I know. At this price point, and speaker which doesn;t work
well with 250, 50-watters from the Pacific Rim is history. And it does
sound OK with your basic, rolled-off-at-the-top-like-a-vintage-NAD3020
budget integrateds. On the other hand, this baby comes into its own –
and I can hear the technoid/spec-freak/propeller-heads at JBL gnashing
their teeth – when you run them off valves. And I just so happened to
have a brace of pure tube integrateds to hand, costing under 1000 so as
to not render this review as meaningless. Conversely, they sound
terrific on a pair of Krell MDA300s. Which is amusing when you consider
that two sets of Krell pointy feet cost more than the JBLs.
Driven by either the Croft Integrated or the Woodside ISA230 Line
Integrated, fed by the ungodly Marantz CD52 Mk IISE, I was listening to a
single-source system costing 1300- 1700 less stands and accessories.
Not cheap, but then HFN/RR readers are not novices seeking out their
first-ever purchases. Anyway, while you could shave a few hundred quid
off by using an upper-low-fi solid-state integrated, but life's too
short for such compromises. Besides, you wouldn't be doing the JBLs and
favours and would therefore have to select other speakers, like
Britboxes at the 149-per-pair point. Which is not the point of this
The JBLs, in a word, cook. They are not refined, yet they have
nothing in common with the JBLs of yore which were sold on the strength
of their ability to shatter glass. They go only so deep, sounding light
enough to paint expressions of puzzlement on the knuckledraggers who
only want JBLs because that's what some brain-dead axe-hero uses on
stage for filling stadia. But they create enough of a realistic
foundation to satisfy any 'normal' music lover in a listening room with a
floor plan under 8x6m. They don't replicate the 'vanishing walls'
effecft of the better dipoles, yet they don't sound at all boxy. But
what they retain of traditional JBL values are those which placed so
many pairs of Decades in so many college dorm rooms in the USA during
the late 1960s and early 1970s.
And we're talking about virtues which elude the traditionalists. They
have punch throughout the frequency spectrum, managing even to cope
with the Sousa track on Test Disc 3 without fuss; the amps ran out of
steam before the L1s. Switching to the Krells and exercising caution
only because the review pair was the only pair in the UK, I managed to
reach the hands-over-the-ears point without any sounds of distress. And
the woofers didn't look like they were about to part company with their
chassis. SO the JBL diehards can relax: the company has not sold out to
And yet there's a new grace which I haven't heard from many JBLs. On
subtle, quiet recordings such as the gorgeous new Ry Cooder disc on
Water Lily, the L1s displayed finesse worthy of a BBC-approved design.
Smooth, neutral in the midband, only slightly too crisp at the top, the
L1 showed itself to be a mature, adult speaker...a far cry from the
yahoo, Let's Party! image which has made this brand the fave of
Neanderthals the world over.
Am I impressed? You bet. JBL was the last company I expected to
produce a speaker which can stand up against the best of the British
two-ways in the sub- 500 category. The only problem I see that of
expectations. Too much conditioning means that the typical JBL customer
will expect these things to work ideally with the heads off their bass
amps which they use as a hi-fi between gigs. Too many JBL supporters are
bomber-jacket-wearing hairies with hearing impaired from standing in
front of PA systems at Metallica concerts. And too many potential
customers for a speaker of this quality won't even have JBL on their
long-lists. I suppose it's like finding tasty food at McDonald's:
possible but not probable.
Well, the probable has become the definite.