Back in the spring when the editor asked me if I fancied reviewing the new JBL L100s I didn’t have to think about it long. People of my vintage (not a word I use lightly in this context!) may have fond memories of those days in the early 1970s, when the original JBL L100 first arrived here in the UK. To an impecunious Articled Clerk working for £500 a year (and Luncheon Vouchers – remember those?) in London with an already hopeless music addiction, these American beauties were the stuff of dreams, and way out of my financial grasp. Having seen press pictures of the new version, I lusted after the burnt orange grilles and the dials on the front for boosting or cutting the output from the midrange and high frequency drivers.
Many weeks passed and I had actually forgotten about the JBLs when my friendly DHL man rang the doorbell and delivered two enormous boxes and one rather smaller one. Between us we wrangled them in to the house and a fun few weeks started. Assembling the two dedicated stands should have been straightforward but the threaded rubber feet were awkward to attach. JBL really ought to take a look at that, because it surely does not need to be so frustrating. The stands themselves are simple enough, constructed of heavy steel with soft felt on the surfaces on which the speakers stand. They are tilted back to angle the loudspeakers up towards the listener.
Back in 1981 I bought a pair of Rogers Studio One loudspeakers and the JBL100 Classics reminded me of them in terms of size and stand arrangements. The only other comparable loudspeaker from a form factor perspective with which I am familiar is the Harbeth M40.2. Very large standpoints are no longer common.
Unboxing the L100s single handed was interesting but I managed it. Packed in the box were the wood framed grilles, which sadly were black and not blue or orange. The instruction book made me laugh out loud. These are “Bookshelf” models apparently. I have lived in the USA and yes, things there are often larger than we are used to here, but I defy anyone to show me a bookshelf big enough or strong enough to support these speakers. The build quality is more than adequate, though the walnut veneer is no more than workman-like, especially compared with some of the Italian loudspeakers that have passed through our room this year. Just as you could not disguise a Ford F150 truck as a Ferrari, the sheer physical size and shape of the L100s means that you have to accept them as they are.
I positioned the stands where my usual speakers go in our lounge and lugged each loudspeaker into place. These boxes are heavy. Once I had measured to ensure they were equidistant from the back wall I inserted my Tellurium Q Ultra Black II cable into the angled single wire binding posts and retired to a safe distance in anticipation of the fireworks to come. I had also ensured that the aforementioned dials on the front baffle were set to zero.
At this stage, I had not attached the grilles, as I found the loudspeakers fascinating to look at, with their creamy white woofers shining down the room at me. Something was nagging at me though and I realised that my slight (and self-diagnosed) OCD had kicked in. Then it dawned on me – these loudspeakers are not ‘handed’, so I was looking at either two left speakers or two right speakers. The forward firing bass port was on the left on both. Of course, as soon as I fitted the very thick grilles in their wooden frames that dissonance disappeared, but after much experimentation I definitely preferred the sound of the JBL100 Classics without their grilles so, I just had to deal with the visual incongruity.
I had rather expected these very large stand mounts to sound rather as they look – a bit big and brash. So much for preconceptions. What I discovered was that actually I had invited some very musical performers into my home. Yes, of course, feed them some AC/DC and crank up the volume and they boogie like crazy, and for anyone who lives predominantly on an aural diet of metal and heavy rock, they should go to the top of a shortlist for new speakers. And yes, they can handle plenty of power from an amplifier.
However, they are also capable of genuine finesse and delicacy. Listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos performed on original instruments, the lightness of the strings, the delicate harpsichord continuo and the sense of the recording space were delivered with an appropriate lightness of touch. In other words, they can do subtle as well as sledgehammer.
That said, I did not find them particularly involving as a low volume loudspeaker. If you want quiet music playing when the rest of the household has retired for the night, I would suggest looking elsewhere. But as a speaker to live with for the long term they have a lot going for them. When I attached the grilles I found that the immediacy of the sound was slightly diminished, particularly in the higher frequencies. Using the front dials I was able to experiment and to a large extent counteract the effect, and certainly my wife found the speakers less visually intrusive with the grilles on, but when home alone during the day I preferred to overcome my OCD and listen to the speakers without the grilles.
As I have mentioned before, we listen to our TV sound via the two channel system, and in this role the JBLs were excellent. Dialogue came across very well and they were more than capable of dealing with the dynamic swings of an action movie’s soundtrack.
But let us return to music. Obviously with the large 12” woofer they have a very full low end, but it is always fast and tuneful, and the midrange and treble frequencies are well balanced. Long listening sessions were not fatiguing at all. I played my usual somewhat erratic (perhaps eclectic is a kinder word) selection of musical genres. Lots of classic rock, blues-rock, heavy rock, folk, Americana, orchestral, vocal and choral music, along with some jazz and some world music. The JBL L100 Classics handled it all. They were fun to listen to, and that surely is the point!
To be honest, I think I was guilty of prejudging these loudspeakers in an unfair way. I am tempted to say that I should not have judged the bookshelf by its cover. Yes, these look old school – that is the point for heaven’s sake. It was interesting when I posted pictures of them in my room on the many and various audio-related Facebook groups to which I belong, these JBLs provoked far more audio-lust then most things that I post. JBL has an audience out there, eager to embrace these big speakers. There was genuine affection to be felt.
However, any piece of audio equipment has to deliver the goods sonically, and I am very happy to report that the JBL L100 Classics do that with panache. Yes they are big and a rather imposing presence in the listening room, but they are extremely musical and will bring a lot of pleasure to a whole new generation of listeners who were not even a glint in the eye when the originals first showed up. If you can, go and audition a pair – you will be in for a treat.