JBL Synthesis L100 Classic Loudspeaker Review

JBL Synthesis L100 Classic Loudspeaker Review

It's no secret that as time and technology have progressed, things have gotten more complicated and less reliable as we collectively race ever-faster into a truly disposable future. So, it's no surprise to see what was once considered outdated tech...

It’s no secret that as time and technology have progressed, things have gotten more complicated and less reliable as we collectively race ever-faster into a truly disposable future. So, it’s no surprise to see what was once considered outdated tech become a new trend, because quality and timeless design never go out of style. If it ain’t broke, my friends, don’t fix it, and the less complicated it is, the less likely it is to break.

Case in point: the L100 Classic loudspeaker from JBL. Launched in 1970, the L100 was and remains JBL’s best-selling loudspeaker of all time--not to mention one of the most iconic loudspeakers ever made. Over the years, the L100 went through updates, and underwent an evolution that took it from the mid-century inspired speaker it was to something altogether different, and as a result the L100 as we knew ceased to be. Progress, I suppose.

In truth, the original L100 was good but far from perfect. It was a 1970s rock-n-roller--dare I say PA speaker in consumer clothing. It wasn’t a scalpel or precision instrument. It was a sledgehammer. And it was fun. That’s why I bought a pair many moons ago: because I wanted to remind myself what a fun speaker sounded like and what it was like to have fun listening to rock-n-roll again. Sadly, my very vintage pair never got to wear their iconic foam grills, nor sit on their metal lowboy stands. But I loved them all the same.

Fast forward to sometime in 2018 and the announcement that JBL, more specifically JBL Synthesis, was bringing the L100 back. Giddy doesn’t scratch the surface with respect to the emotions I felt knowing there was a chance I’d get to spend time with a cherry pair of L100s. Shortly after the New Year my pair of L100 Classic loudspeakers arrived, along with their matching “optional” stands, which are by no means optional. I was ecstatic and nostalgic all at the same time.JBL_L100_Classic_trio_grills_no_grills.jpg

Let’s dispense with the hyperbole for a moment and get to the meat of what these new-old speakers actually are. The L100 Classic retails for $4,000 a pair, not including the stands. The stands will set you back an additional $300, bringing the total cost of a stereo pair to $4,300. Now, some of you older folks may think that $4,300 is a lot considering what the L100s fetched in the 1970s. $4,300 is not cheap, but the L100 Classic is far from the most expensive loudspeaker on the market today, and as for how they compare financially to the originals, they’re about the same price. That’s right: adjusting for inflation, the new L100 Classic actually costs about the same as the original did in 1970.

JBL_L100_foam_grills.jpgSpeaking of 1970, I doubt anyone would be able to tell a vintage pair of L100s from the new re-release at a distance of a foot or more. I say this because the new Classic models appear to be made using the same 70s-era materials. The Classic is clad in “genuine walnut veneer,” which looks period AF. When combined with the iconic Quadrex foam grill in your choice of either Black, Burnt Orange, or Blue, there’s little about the L100 Classic that screams modern, and this is a good thing.

I do think JBL is trolling just a little by claiming the L100 Classic is a “bookshelf” loudspeaker. I don’t know what kind of bookshelves people were rocking in the 1970s, but a nearly 60-pound speaker that measures 25 inches tall by a little over 15 inches wide and 14 and a half inches deep isn’t likely to fit onto any bookshelf. Plus, when have you ever seen the L100--then or now--perched on anything other than their iconic stands, or flat on the floor?

The L100 Classic is a true three-way loudspeaker that features a single 12-inch woofer, a five-and-a-quarter-inch midrange driver and a one-inch dome tweeter. The bass and midrange drivers are of the paper variety, whereas the tweeter utilizes titanium. In other words, the L100 Classic, like its predecessor, utilizes materials and tech circa 1970--again, a good thing. The 12-inch woofer is crossed over with the mid at 450Hz, whereas the crossover between the midrange driver and tweeter sits at 3.5kHz. There are manual attenuators located on the front of the speaker’s face, which help to “dial in” the amount of cowbell--I mean midrange and/or treble--the listener may want. For example, in a “live” room, you may opt to dial the high frequencies down, and the intuitive level controls located on the front of the L100 Classic allow for this. Full disclosure: it does appear that the L100 Classic’s high and low frequency level controls do seem aimed more at curbing said frequencies rather than adding them, as their zero position sits at about three o’clock versus 12, which is a little curious, but more on that later.JBL_L100_Classic_MF_HF_controls.jpg

It should be noted that all of these manual controls, the speakers’ three drivers, and front-facing port are all hidden from view behind the L100 Classic’s included foam grill. The L100 Classic has a reported frequency response of 40Hz to 40kHz with a sensitivity of 90dB into four ohms.

Around back, there are no ports or visual disruptions of any kind: just a single pair of five-way binding posts that can accept everything from bare wire to banana and/or spade adapted cables. All in all, the designers at JBL did a great job of recreating the iconic loudspeaker.

Lastly there are the stands. My own views about their optional nature notwithstanding, they are solid, well-built, and complete the L100 Classic’s look in a way no third-party stand is likely to do. There are preinstalled foam strips along the platform portion of each stand, which come fully assembled by the way, to curb the possibility of any damage being done to the speakers’ cabinets. The substantial rubber feet that you have to screw onto the bottom four corners of each stand are also a nice touch, though I can imagine tweakers wanting to replace them with something even more “high-end” like dolphin skin spikes or anti-gravity pucks (kidding, of course).

The Hookup
JBL_L100_Classic_Blue.jpgMy pair of L100 Classics arrived in their individual factory boxes, along with a smaller box that housed the stands. While the speakers themselves arrived undamaged, the factory boxes looked a little worse for wear. Furthermore, there was a noticeable lack of packing materials surrounding the L100 Classics. JBL opting instead for heavy-duty cardboard top and bottom pallets of each speaker, with reinforced cardboard pillars in all four corners that protect the speaker and hold it firmly in place dead center of each box, several inches from the outer walls. So, while the outer box looked like it had gone rounds with a Honey Badger, the speakers themselves were in pristine condition. The metal stands were packed in a similar fashion, though their outer cardboard box arrived far more intact.

Honestly, once I realized both speakers arrived unharmed, I cared less about the condition of each box, and tore them both open like a kid on Christmas. I appreciated not having to waste time building the stands, as it meant I was able to get the L100 Classics up and running that much faster.

I placed the L100 Classics in my living room where pretty much every other speaker I review sits: about eight feet apart (tweeter-to-tweeter), and roughly 13 inches from my front wall. When resting on their stands, the L100 Classics sit much lower than any bookshelf or even floorstanding loudspeaker you’ve likely ever seen. The stands allow for the speakers to sit low, but with an upward rake, which (in theory) further reinforces their bass response, while allowing for proper imaging and a far more expansive soundstage when compared to placing each L100 Classic on the floor. In truth, the speakers are very much designed, or should I say voiced, to sound their best when placed atop their stands--another reason why I don’t consider them to be optional.


I powered the L100 Classics with my Crown XLS DriveCore 2 Series amplifiers mated to the preamp outputs of my Marantz NR1509 AV receiver (reviewed here). Source components included my Roku as well as a U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus turntable. All cabling was commercial grade, OFC wire, be it interconnect or speaker cables.

I experimented with the speakers’ HF and MF level controls, opting to leave them in their neutral position (3 o’clock), though my fiance did like the sound when the speakers’ HF levels were closer to the max position. To each their own, but for the purposes of this review I left them in their neutral position. A quick run of Audyssey MultiEQ through my Marantz and I was ready to rock-n-roll, literally.

Performance


Starting with some two-channel music, I cued up a recent jazz find on vinyl by Panama Francis and the Savoy Sultans, Volume 1 (Classic Jazz). This fun and plucky classic sounded positively live through the L100 Classics. The entire album’s presence was infectious and a little surprising. Honestly, I’m not one who waxes poetic about vinyl. Yes, I like it. I even prefer it over digital. But I do not consider it to be superior in any capacity--it’s just what I prefer. That being said, the sheer dimension portrayed via the L100 Classics was otherworldly. The palpability of the musicians, both in scale and weight, as well as their placement in three-dimensional space, was among the best I’ve heard.

This revelation is in direct contradiction to my memory of my original L100 Classics. I recall the original as being lively and punchy, but ultimately lacking in nuance, something the new L100 Classic doesn’t suffer from. If anything, despite its driver’s mundane makeup, the Classic does more with less, and even embarrasses costlier speakers with respect to its ability to replicate the subtlest of musical cues.

The trickling keys of Red Richards’ piano sounded so close to the real thing that it made me laugh a little during the recording. Likewise, for Howard Johnson’s alto saxophone. The only caveat I had during my listening test with this record was that the bass did lack that last quarter or half octave of range, which cost it a touch of scale, though its dynamics and upper registers were on absolute point. Aside from that, the L100 Classic ranks as one of the more coherent three-way loudspeakers I’ve ever heard.

Lastly, despite its size, the Classic is capable of an aural disappearing act unlike any speaker I’ve heard in recent memory. The speakers’ dispersion characteristics, no doubt aided by their low angle and upward rake, are truly encompassing--responsible for a defined dome of sound that manages to be as wide as it is tall, and all from a “bookshelf” loudspeaker that rests, essentially, on the floor.

Song Of The Islands


Moving on to some more modern tunes, I opted for Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” (Elektra). If the sound of the L100 Classic via my U-Turn Orbit turntable was organic, the digital richness of the presentation of “Nothing Else Matters” was positively crystalline. This isn’t a knock against the L100 Classic, for this recording, as clear and well defined as it is, does lack a bit of imperfection--dare I say naturalness.

All that said, my new takeaway from the L100 Classic’s performance is that it’s positively unflappable at seemingly any volume. Moreover, like many high-end Harman products I’ve demoed in my travels, the L100 Classic’s sound doesn’t really change as the volume rises; it simply gets louder. There is no flattening of the soundstage, no harshness in the high frequencies, and zero loss of definition in the lower midrange and bass. The overall sound, at any volume, is incredibly neutral, meaning (for me) fatigue is a non-issue during spirited listening sessions. Also, because the L100 Classics play loud and effortlessly so, I feel they should come with a warning. The sound was so good when pushed that I often didn’t realize just how loud they were until I looked down at my SPL meter.

Hetfield’s vocals were rendered with such fervor and weight through the L100 Classic that I felt like I was in the room with him. The speaker, when setup properly, has one of the most stable center images I’ve ever heard, and it’s one that does step forward of the speakers’ front baffles. The stereo performance of “Nothing Else Matters” seemed positively surround-like through the L100 Classics, as they easily overcame all four boundaries of my listening room.

Every instrument, even at volume, was rendered with near perfect tonal accuracy, and so clearly set in a three-dimensional panorama of space that I often looked about, front to back, left to right, as if I could see the musicians in my room. Again, my only gripe was that the L100 Classic lacked that last bit of oomph down low, which I had difficulty accepting given the presence of a 12-inch woofer. Needless to say, Lars’ drum kit had all of the explosiveness I could ask for; it just lacked a little of that concussion of air, that displacement that some speakers have or that a sub ultimately gives you. And if I may, despite not possessing a tweeter made from adamantium or bald eagle talons, the L100 Classic’s tweeter is an airy and sparkling delight; one I would rather listen to for hours on end over some of the latest speakers sporting Beryllium.

Metallica: Nothing Else Matters (Official Music Video)

Moving on to movies, I cued up the little-known Ivan Reitman film, Draft Day (Summit/Lionsgate), starring Kevin Costner as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns.

Quick aside first, though: a few years back I lived with a home theater setup comprised of three JBL 3677 screen channel speakers as my left, center, and right speakers. If these speakers don’t ring any bells you’re forgiven, for they are actual commercial cinema speakers made by JBL. If you have a large enough room, the 3677s are small enough to work in a home setup. To date, my theater comprised of 3677s and matching JBL cinema surrounds ranks as one of the best I’ve ever put together or heard. I don’t have that theater anymore, largely because I don’t want a theater that large (or complicated), but also because the 3677s are best hidden from view, as they are designed to go behind an acoustically transparent screen.

The reason I’m sharing this with you is simple: the L100 Classic is just as capable a home theater (or theater) speaker as it is a musical one. In truth, the L100 Classic sounds eerily similar in many ways to my beloved 3677s, but with none of the downsides. Furthermore, I now lust after a new setup, one that is built around three L100 Classic loudspeakers up front, resting below an 84- or 92-inch LED UltraHD display… but I digress.


Draft Day is not an action film nor an epic in its scale. What it is, though, is a dialogue lover’s dream. There’s something about the way dialog sounds in a commercial cinema that never really translates to the home. I think this has to do with two things: scale and the fact that most commercial theater speakers utilize horns. Horns have a focus and a presence about them that is hard to replicate or beat. They work in large theaters because they do a great job at filling space and matching the scale of the visuals on the screen.

The L100 Classic doesn’t feature any horn loading, and yet I heard that same scale and presence while watching Draft Day. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I simply cannot get over the L100 Classic’s center image, which in this case was my virtual center speaker. The L100 Classic just has a way with vocals, male or female, that sounds right. Every subtle inflection, texture, and phrasing shone through the L100 Classics with pitch perfection.

Another thing that stood out was the speakers’ ability to balance complex passages, or in this instance scenes, with ease. While I know this too comes down to my choice in electronics and the source material mixing, it was the final link in the chain--the L100 Classic--that didn’t let any single element down. The scenes that took place inside Radio City, what with the crowds, unfolding drama, and background score, were all portrayed with equal importance through the L100 Classic. The dynamic swings were class leading and, again, the speakers’ ability to create a convincing three-dimensional space was impressive.

Draft Day (2014) Official Trailer - Kevin Costner, Chadwick Boseman


Convinced of the L100 Classic’s capabilities, I opted to end my evaluation with the Beastie Boys sequence towards the end of Star Trek Beyond (Paramount). I cued this scene up partially to piss off my neighbors and partially because I just wanted to have a bit of fun. At the end of the day, as wonderful I consider the L100 Classic to be, it is also a speaker that is just fun to take in, which I actually think is the most important critique I can levy towards this speaker.

The original L100 was so beloved in large part because it gave you so much of everything so readily. True, it wasn’t a precision instrument, not like the Classic, but it was fun. It was rock-n-roll. And the new L100 Classic is, too, for it possesses all the right moves and DNA of the original, whilst kicking things up a notch and being a truly capable, critical loudspeaker in the audiophile tradition.

Sabotage - Beastie Boys | Star Trek Beyond | Epic Scene | Swarm Ships

The Downside
I must admit, I had high hopes for the L100 Classic, though my hopes were not pinned on the speaker being as good as it is, but rather that it would satiate my itch for nostalgia. Obviously, the speaker did that and more, but the real surprise (for me) was despite the L100 Classic’s decidedly low-tech components, the speaker itself possessed an incredibly high-end, modern, dare I even say, classy sound.

So, where’s the downside you ask?

Well, if I’m going to put the L100 Classic on a proverbial pedestal, which I am, then there are some items that need addressing. Starting with the appearance, the speakers are gorgeous, truly, but while the veneer looks the 1970s part, it also feels rather dated. I think JBL could’ve given us a better, more modern finish (or finish options) and still had a speaker worthy of the L100 name. The walnut veneer finish of an Eames chair or even generations-old Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series is superior to that of the one found on the L100 by a wide margin.

While I have no issue with JBL using materials as non-esoteric as paper and metal, especially when they sound as good as they do here, I do sort of wish those iconic grills were attached to the speakers via high-strength magnets rather than push pins straight out of the 1970s. The push-pin design of the L100 Classic’s grills is sure to break with repeat adjustment. My vintage pair of L100s lacked grills due to this design flaw, and I just think it’s another example of where the JBL engineers may have stuck too much with tradition.

I also wish the stands were finished a bit nicer and that the portions that come in contact with the speakers used more than a few thin strips of foam to protect the already thin veneer from the rough textural finish of the stands themselves. Oh, and have I mentioned that the stands are not optional and should just be included with every pair of L100 Classics?

If this sounds a bit nit-picky, rest assured it is, as the only audible gripe I have with the L100 Classic is that for truly full-range sound you really need to add an outboard subwoofer. This adds to the system’s overall cost of ownership, but maybe more importantly, there is no sub in the JBL Synthesis arsenal that I would mate with the L100 Classic. Sure, there are subs in JBL’s catalog, but none that share the same retro design aesthetic. Maybe one of JBL Synthesis’ in-wall subs is the best way to go for those not wanting to disrupt the vibe put forth by the L100 Classic, but then you get into a whole other conversation about construction costs, etc.

Competition and Comparisons
As I said in the intro: what was old is new again. Turntables are fashionable, and so are retro-looking amps and preamps. JBL is not the only loudspeaker manufacturer touting heritage products. Klipsch has been king of the retro game for years, what with a few of their now Heritage branded speakers having never ceased production. There are more than a number of Klipsch loudspeakers that are going to appeal to the same type of customer that would be interested in a pair of L100 Classics.


Klipsch’s Heresy III, at roughly $2,000 a pair, is a low profile “bookshelf” loudspeaker in the tradition of the L100 Classic that has garnered more than a bit of cult following. There’s also the more comparably priced Cornwall III at roughly $4,000 a pair. Klipsch, like any speaker company worth a damn, has its own “house” sound, and as a result, which speaker is right for you is going to come down to personal taste. I don’t have an issue with Klipsch’s sound, though I will admit, the L100 Classic possess similar dynamic properties, coherence, and focus as Klipsch, but with none of the drawbacks of horns.

Getting away from speakers that appeal to a retro design sensibility, I do think the L100 Classic does compare favorably with the likes of some high-end stalwarts such as Harbeth, Devore Fidelity, Wilson, Bowers & Wilkins, and Revel. The L100 Classic probably has the most in common sonically with its Revel sibling, but unlike Revel, I found the L100 Classic to be far easier to drive to satisfying levels, and all that that implies.

As for Bowers & Wilkins, I actually think the L100 Classic in some ways sounds better than my old 800 Series Diamonds, though the 800 Series do seem to plunge a little deeper. Though, like the Revels, the 800s were absolute pigs when it came to their thirst for power, something that just isn’t as much the case with the L100 Classic in my experience.

Lastly, Harbeth and Devore Fidelity are two brands that I think are at the top of the heap in terms of their sonic capabilities, with Harbeth even being able to grab at a bit of that nostalgia like the L100 Classic. The Devore Orangutan O/96 loudspeaker is one of the finest loudspeakers I’ve ever heard, full stop. And while I do consider it to be the L100 Classic’s superior, the delta between the two isn’t that great, which makes the L100 Classic all that greater of a value considering the O/96 retails for $12,000 a pair.

Harbeth is known the world over for their coherence and midrange transparency regardless of which model you choose. Again, I do think the Harbeth has it over the L100 Classic ever so slightly in these arenas, but not by much. Moreover, the L100 Classic can do things I’ve never heard Harbeths do, like rock out with their… well, you get the idea.

Conclusion
I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that I am positively bowled over by the JBL L100 Classic. At $4,000 a pair, the speakers aren’t inexpensive by any stretch, but they’re far from the most expensive loudspeakers available today. True, they do require a few added items to be perfect, starting with their $300 stands, as well as a third-party subwoofer, which raises the total cost of ownership. But even at $5,000 to $6,000 for everything, I consider the L100 Classic to be an absolute steal, for they are just as much a high-end, audiophile-grade solution as any of the costlier competition.

This makes the L100 Classic a bit of a unicorn, in my humble opinion. A truly high-end loudspeaker with superb style and heritage; one that possesses no real esoteric or buzz-worthy features that yet manages to outright embarrass the competition. It is not a mere sequel to the original L100, for I feel the comparison--apart from its visual design--sells the L100 Classic short. It is the superior loudspeaker in every way. The L100 was the L100, but it’s not the one sporting the Classic moniker now, is it? No, the L100 Classic is bound to be the real classic in this family tree, and likely the one we’ll come to remember generations from now.

Additional Resources
Visit the JBL Synthesis website for more product information.
JBL Announces the L100 Classic Loudspeaker at HomeTheaterReview.com.
JBL Synthesis Announces SCL-2 In-wall Speaker at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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