Pros: efficient; beautiful wood veneer; durable; can play loud
Cons: too much upper midrange energy; shallow soundstage depth; disappointing micro-dynamics
I don't think I'd heard of the JBL 4311B until I refinished a couple of pairs recently for someone here in the Bay Area. I am told that they are studio monitors that more-or-less replaced the famous JBL L-100 of the early- and mid-1970s, and that the woofer and tweeter are the same as those in the L-100, while the midrange is slightly improved.
Aesthetically, they're fairly similar to the L-100s, except that the midrange and tweeter level controls are now accessible with the grilles on. The grilles themselves are generally tasteful black cloth, rather than the tacky egg cartons of many '70s JBL L-100s.
The 4311Bs are large bookshelf-style speakers, measuring 23 1/2" tall x 14" wide x 11 3/4" deep. They are finished in beautiful (and easily restored) walnut veneer, and weigh about 44 lbs each. As with the L-100s, each cabinet houses a 12" woofer, a 5" inch midrange, and a 1 1/2" tweeter. Because they are ported speakers, they are expected to be efficient, but with only moderate bass extension. Pairs of JBL 4311Bs sell on eBay for anywhere from $200 to $550, depending on condition of the drivers, screens and walnut cabinets.
Readers of my vintage loudspeaker reviews know that I'm more of a fan of the "East Coast" sound than of the "West Coast" sound, and that I recommended the "West Coast" JBL L-100 primarily for rock enthusiasts and folks who like to party hearty and play their music loud. The L-100s sounded dynamic, punchy and bright in my system, but they never fully sounded like music to me, and I was glad to get back to my Dynaco A-25s, KLH 6s, AR-2axs, New Large Advents and (reference) Cambridge Soundworks Towers when the L-100s went home to their owner.
I thought it would be interesting to see how the slightly more "modern" 4311Bs compared to the L-100s.
Setting up the JBL 4311Bs is straightforward, though you need a fairly strong back and good eyes. The push pins on the back are relatively small and aren't as easy to use as the banana plugs of Dynacos or the thumb screws of ARs, KLHs or Advents (unless you use really small gauge wire). The speakers are large, dense, and bit "front-heavy," so be careful when moving them around. The mid and treble controls on the front had a nice firm feel to them and functioned well.
The JBL 4311s are very attractive speakers, I think. Most of my vintage audio buddies and I agree that JBL and Acoustic Research had some of the nicest veneer on their speakers during the 1960s and 1970s, and the veneer on the 4311Bs is no less beautiful than that of the earlier L-100s. It tends to be dark and rich-looking, with interesting grain. The grilles of the 4311s tend to be simple dark cloth, yielding a look of functional elegance. The two-inch bottom panel holding the mid and treble controls is tastefully done.
I did my listening with the speakers mounted on 20" stands, about 3 feet from the rear wall and at least 4 feet from any side walls. Associated equipment for this review included: NAD 521BEE CD player, AR ES-1 turntable with Shure M97xE cartridge, conrad-johnson MF-80 power amplifier, NAD 1020 preamplifier, and an M&K V-2B subwoofer.
The first CD I put on with the JBL 4311Bs was Standards, Volume 2, by the Keith Jarrett Trio. This extremely well-recorded jazz trio recording is a good reference CD, as it presents drums, acoustic bass, and Jarrett's piano in a nice, neutral acoustic setting. From my kitchen (the "other room" test, as I fetched some wine) things sounded bright and punchy with the mid and treble controls set to neutral. Before returning to my listening seat, I dropped the mid control to 10 o'clock and the treble control to 11 o'clock, as I prefer a little extra image depth over "presence."
As I listen and write, Keith Jarrett's piano sounds nice and "plinky," and not thrust too far forward in the soundstage. Jack DeJohnette's drums are presented with a pretty good amount of snap, and I can hear bassist Gary Peacock's individual bass notes. However, as with the JBL L-100s, there is not much of a sense of soundstage depth. In addition, there is not as much air around the cymbals as I've grown used to with my Cambridge Soundworks Towers.
I decided to try something completely different: some of Gordon Lightfoot's earlier (pre-Reprise) recordings. These aren't particularly well-recorded, but I wanted to see how the JBLs would capture Lightfoot's guitar and vocals. As I listen, his voice sounds fairly neutral, but with a noticeable edge to the vocals. I believe this edge to be on the recording, but it is slightly exagggerated by the 4311Bs. As I listen to "Song For a Winter's Night," a favorite of mine, I notice that there's a bit too much upper-midrange energy, thrusting the image of Lightfoot and his guitar forward a bit, and robbing the music of a bit of warmth. The "sleigh bells" also have more upper midrange energy and less treble energy than I'm used to.
Next, I tuned in to our local classical station, KDFC. It's with classical music that the KLH 6s, with their slightly warm and round sound, really excelled. As I listen to a Romantic symphony (one I don't know) on the JBL 4311Bs, the overall balance is good, and flute sounds particularly sweet, but I notice that micro-dynamcis seem a bit compromised. I'm not hearing the subtle things that make massed cellos sound real, and the music sounds a bit compressed overall, even though the JBLs have no trouble playing loud. I also wish there was a bit more low bass "oomph" to propel the music forward. To be fair, I have the speakers on stands several feet from the nearest wall, but that didn't bother my KLH 6s or Acoustic Research AR-2axs quite as much.
Next, I went back to one of my standards, Govi's Seventh Heaven, a CD recording of acoustic guitar music accompanied by bass and percussion. The guitar sounds pretty good overall, but there is more grain and less space than I would like. I miss my Dynaco A-25s or New Large Advents as I listen to this one.
OK--these are supposed to be rock speakers. Enter Tom Petty's Wildflowers. A lot of that CD is "folky" sounding, but it rocks on a few cuts as well. I'd been listening in my truck, so I brought it in. What surprises me as I listen is that even on rock, the 4311Bs continue to sound a bit midrangy and compressed. The bass isn't "rocking" as I expected it to, and drums don't have that much snap. As I crank up the volume, the 4311Bs maintain their composure, but I don't find myself getting into the music.
I decided to do an unusual (for me) comparison. Usually I compare whatever I'm listening to with my "East Coast" references, including New Large Advents and Acoustic Research AR-2axs. This time I took the 4311Bs down and replaced them with my early ADS 400s, a small bookshelf speaker that sounds tight and articulate but a bit bright. The first thing I noticed was that overall clarity increased with the ADSs. Music sounded cleaner and better defined through the little 400s. They also seemed to have less upper midrange energy and more extension in the highs. Image depth was much greater, and the soundstage now spread behind the speakers. Cymbals in jazz and rock music also sounded more natural. I much preferred listening to music through the ADS 400s.
To be honest, I'm not sure that I could tell the 4311B from the JBL L-100 if you put a blindfold on me. Both struck me as bright and punchy but lacking in soundstage depth and articulation. I was surprised that things like drum rim shots and cymbals did not sound better through the JBLs. To their credit, they are efficient, and you don't need a lot of power to drive them (though I've read on some blogs that they sound best with lots of power), but they just don't sound as musical to me as the best vintage loudspeakers.
Interestingly, their upper midrange peak (if that's what I'm hearing) might make them work as recording studio monitors, and that is what they were designed to be. Although they're not very revealing of soundstage depth or micro-dynamic contrasts, they are revealing of upper midrange problems in recordings. Whereas some speakers smoothe over problems in the critical midrange, the JBL 4311s do not. But this characteristic means I couldn't enjoy the music as much as I could with several other speakers.
The JBL 4311Bs are really nice to look at and they are easy to refinish. They also are quite efficient and play loud without strain. As such, I'd think they would make good party speakers. My little ADS 400s would probably burn up at volume levels that wouldn't bother the JBL 4311Bs. The JBLs also tend to be quite durable. Like Dynaco A-25s, they generally don't need woofer refoams every 20 years, as do some AR and all Advent speakers. And they don't have the midrange and tweeter control (continuous potentiometer) problems that plague older AR speakers. The 4311Bs also have collector value; there are JBL buffs out there who love to collect and restore them. If you can score a pair on the cheap and fix them up, I'd say it's worth it to do so. But for a speaker to serve as the voice of a high quality vintage system, I'd much prefer Dynaco A-25s (unless you like to crank it up), Acoustic Research AR-2axs (good all-around speakers, but beware those midrange and tweeter pot problems), New Large Advents (also good all-around speakers, but often in need of a woofer refoam), or KLH 6s (especially for classical music). If you like the more efficient and more aggressive West Coast sound, I'd opt for a pair of Klipsch Heresys over JBL L-100s or 4311Bs.
As with the better-known JBL L-100, I'll give these a guarded recommendation for partiers and collectors at 3.5 stars.