JBL L-100 loudspeakers: Great for rockin' out but ultimately not for me
Apr 15, 2009 (Updated Dec 1, 2009)
Review by Horswispr
Rated a Very Helpful Review
The JBL L-100 is one of the best-known home stereo loudspeakers of the 1970s. It was to the "West Coast Sound" what the AR-3a and Large Advent were to the "East Coast Sound." For those not hip to audio jargon, the West Coast Sound is associated with great dynamic range, punchy mid-bass, and the ability to play loud. The East Coast Sound is associated with a mellower balance and perhaps a greater degree of refinement.
Recommend this product?
The JBL L-100 is a fairly large bookshelf speaker, measuring 23 1/2" tall, 14 1/2" wide, and 13 5/8" deep. Each one weights probably about 45 lbs. The largish cabinets each house a 12" woofer, a 5" inch midrange, and a 1 1/2" tweeter. Mid- and high-frequency adjustment controls are available behind the removable grilles, and the cabinets are finished in really nice walnut veneer.
I've restored several pairs of L-100s, and listened to a couple of pairs, so I thought I'd share my impressions of them. Associated equipment for this review includes: NAD 521BEE CD player, AR ES-1 turntable with Shure M97xE cartridge, conrad-johnson MF-80 power amplifier, modded older Musical Fidelity preamplifier, and an M&K V-2B subwoofer. Comparison speakers include: Cambridge Soundworks Towers, Acoustic Research AR-2axs, Dynaco A-25s and Large Advents.
The cabinets of JBL L-100s are guite beautiful. The quality of wood JBL used compares with that of Acoustic Research and the nicest Dynacos I've refinished. If you buy a pair that's a bit tired looking, a light rub with a favorite oil should be enough to bring out the grain and make them look quite nice. If they need refinishing (due to deep scratches, missing veneer or damaged corners), your wood refinishing friend will be happy because JBL did not use gobs of polyurethane or other laquers on L-100s. The bottom line: beautiful wood, easily restored.
The JBL screens are another story. They were big ol' foam things and came in several colors. I could see them fitting into someone's Andy Warhol-influenced '70s living room, or a well-heeled college student's dorm room, but I've always found them to be a bit vulgar. Plus, 30 years later, they're notorious for having either rotted out or absorbed spilled coke or bong water. The nicest looking L-100s have either more understated black foam or simple black cloth. Properly outfitted, a pair of L-100s looks very pretty, impressive even.
Like other large "bookshelf" speakers of the 1970s, including AR-3as, AR-2axs and Large Advents, the JBL L-100s are a bit large to be easily absorbed by your average bookshelf. They will dwarf your Patterson and Hillerman paperbacks and probably stick several inches out from the shelf unless you have some mondo bookshelves. They're probably best served, both aesthetically and acoustically, placed on small stands to get them a few inches off the floor.
The speaker wire hook ups on the back are a pain in the neck. They are tiny push pins that accept only very small gauge wire. I much prefer the banana plugs of Dynaco A-25s or the good quality thumb screws found on Acoustic Research and Advent speakers.
Other than that, they're pretty easy to set up. Find a place where they sound good, adjust the mid- and treble-level controls and you're ready to go.
I should confess before I start discussing the JBLs' sound that I am an East Coast guy (though I grew up in Chicago). I did grow up on rock 'n roll, and I do like to listen loud sometimes, but my overall preference is for a slightly mellow, relaxed sound, with good soundstage depth and overall "musicality." Still, the horn-loaded Klipsch Heresys succeeded in wowing me, so I guess I'm open to new things.
My first impressions upon hearing the JBL L-100s were that they were quite efficient and sounded relatively clean. The nine-o-clock setting on my preamplifier volume control produced a higher volume level than I was used to, and the sound was initially quite crisp and clear.
On rock recordings, the sound was dynamic and lively, but I soon noticed that the soundstage was foreshortened relative to what I was used to. I couldn't really listen into the music like I could with Acoustic Research AR-2axs, Large Advents or my reference Cambridge Soundworks Towers. Some subtle details seemed to be missing. Still, the L-100s played loud without sounding strained, and the mid-bass was tight and punchy. If you're a rocker and like high volume, I'd take the L-100s over Dynaco A-25s, which tend to compress at high volume.
It was when I started listening to female jazz vocals that I realized that the L-100s were probably not speakers I would want to have in my reference vintage system. Through my Cambridge Soundworks Towers, and in slightly lesser degree through AR-2as, Large Advents, and Dynaco A-25s, Diana Krall's voice (When I Look in Your Eyes) sounds smooth and effortless. Accompanying instruments sound natural and spread across the soundstage around her. Through the L-100s, her voice sounded slightly hard, and I couldn't quite generate a sense of her in a real acoustic space as I could with the other speakers. Adjusting the mid and treble- controls did not change this.
It happened again when I listened to classical music on KDFC, the local classical music radio station. The sound seemed bright and punchy, but it didn't sound natural to me. I was always aware that I was listening to speakers, not music.
When I listened to old DG recordings of Bach organ music, the bass was tight and full, but it didn't go as low as the ARs, Advents or Cambridge Soundworks Towers. I never got that sense of "in your gut" room lock that I sometimes got with the other speakers.
On Michael Hedges's Aerial Boundaries, a nicely recorded album of really lush and dynamic acoustic guitar, the sound was initially impressive, but the guitar sounded a tad overly bright and aggressive, and the guitar sound didn't melt into the seemingly infinite acoustic space the way it did with the other speakers, especially the Cambridge Soundworks Towers. The JBLs' lack of soundstage depth, as well as the loss of subtle musical details, made the presentation less emotionally evocative than with the other speakers.
I was done with the L-100s after only a few hours of listening. If I had a larger space, and listened mostly to rock music at loud levels, I might consider them. But for me, they just weren't musically convincing enough to warrant an unconditional recommendation. I prefer the sound of Acoustic Research AR-2axs, Large Advents (both original and "New") and even the smaller Dynaco A-25s (provided you don't crank 'em up too much). The JBL L-100s do have a lively, dynamic sound, and they do have relatively tight mid-bass, but to me, the mids and highs were not as delicate or refined as with several other vintage (not to mention modern) speakers.
I hope someone who is a West Coast kind of guy or gal reviews these on Epinions so you can get a Point/Counter-point perspective on their sound. Interestingly, I do really like the sound of Klipsch Heresys, a really efficient and forward-sounding horn-loaded loudspeaker that can be found on Ebay for $300 to $500 per pair. The Heresy's lack of deep bass is a negative, but I've never heard instruments sound as "in the room" as with Klipsch Heresys. So my preference for Acoustic Research AR-2axs, Dynaco A-25s and Large Advents over JBL L-100s can't be attributed entirely to my preference for that mellow East Coast sound.
The Cambridge Soundworks Towers, my references, were $1500 speakers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so that might not be a fair comparison, but I wanted to include them in the discussion since I know their sound so well.
On the positive side, the JBL L-100s are classics, and, properly refinished, they are quite beautiful. Plus, yes indeedy, they can rock. If you're a youngun' who wants to get into vintage gear, or an old-timer who wants to get back into your old Who and ELP records at high volume in the garage while your wife watches Friends re-runs in the family room, the L-100s might be just what you're looking for. With JBL L-100s, you can rock out at high volume without worrying about frying voice coils, as they are well-built speakers with heavy magnets and high quality drivers. L-100s go on Ebay for anywhere from $200 to $450, depending on condition, and they probably won't lose value over time, as they haven't been made in decades.
If I were putting together a vintage reference system, I'd properly opt for a nicely restored pair of Acoustic Research AR-2axs, Large Advents, or KLH 6s (or Dynaco A-25s or A-35s if I lived in a smaller space). But the L-100s might appeal to those who prefer a more dynamic and slightly less refined sound. I'll give the JBL L-100s a conditional recommendation at 3.5 stars.
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Amount Paid (US$): 250
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