JBL Aquarius 2A and 2
Harman International, Courtesy Arnold Wolf


Before considering JBL in the 1970s, it may be useful to examine the circumstances that surrounded the start of the decade. The acquisition of JBL by the Jervis Corporation in 1969 marked a period of rapid change, some inevitable dislocation, and the setting of new directions. Even before the shift in ownership there were a number of alterations in organization and focus.

For example, the fluid personnel situation during this period led, indirectly, to the development of the Aquarius series of loudspeakers. Bart Locanthi was lost to JBL during the transition and Ed May, the chief transducer engineer, was involved in a number of long-term projects like the Studio Monitors. As a consequence, the technical staff that remained while very knowledgeable about sound system applications was relatively inexperienced in actual transducer/system design. Marketing remained in the hands of Tom Jennings, an energetic individual who Thomas had hired some time after Ray Pepe's sudden death. Jennings's youthful, aggressive style provided an unquestioned stimulus to sales even as it tended to estrange some dealers and personnel within the company. It was Jennings who originated the Aquarius concept (late in 1968) a shrewd response to the then-current "Age of Aquarius" pop culture phenomenon.

Jennings wanted to create a radically different line of loudspeaker systems in order to capture fresh attention from the public and the press. He obtained the cooperation of the Griffith Park Planetarium to stage a gala product introduction in the star theater. His idea was to place a ring of new systems around the perimeter of the space and to present a multi-channel sound track in conjunction with a laser display. This prospect obliged the company to develop a brand-new line of loudspeakers in a very short time, using untested acoustical designs. The underlying principle was to use indirect radiation of the low frequencies. This was done by loading the rear-facing transducer output into a narrow volume formed by a secondary rear panel spaced away from the primary structure a controlled distance something in the order of one to one and one-half inches. This "radial diffraction slot" approach (as it was termed) was intended to permit enclosure placement almost anywhere in the listening space with little loss of stereo imaging. All of the systems employed direct radiating transducers for the mid- and high-frequencies (except for the Aquarius 4, as noted below). A collateral benefit of the acoustical treatment was that it afforded unusual freedom in the creation of various enclosure designs. Indeed, the brief to the Wolf office was considered an industrial designer's dream assignment: a group of highly dramatic contemporary design statements with virtually no limitations on form, size, or finish.

JBL Aquarius Product Line
(Left to Right 2A, 2, 1, 3, 4)
Harman International, Courtesy John Edwards

The end result was the Aquarius series: 1, 2, 2A, 3, 4 and, much later, the Aquarius L120. The esthetic range of the series was extended by offering alternative materials, finishes and, in the case of the Aquarius 2A, an alternate enclosure as well. The Aquarius 1 was available in satin white lacquer or walnut; the Aquarius 2 was oiled walnut, while the 2A came in satin white or bright red lacquer; the Aquarius 3 was offered in either white lacquer or walnut, as was the Aquarius 4 and Aquarius L120. One of the additional marketing features of the L120 was the choice of any one of eight brilliantly-hued grille fabrics for the top section. All these visual designs were the joint effort of Douglas Warner, Robert Onodera, and Arnold Wolf.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Aquarius systems was a public relations coup. Many publications featured striking photographs of the products and, in 1971, the California Design 11th triennial exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum displayed the entire series. Despite the initial favorable attention, however, most of the product group did not achieve great success in the marketplace -- due, most probably, to an assortment of sonic deficiencies.

Interestingly and perhaps counter-intuitively, the two products that did find considerable acceptance were the columnar or "tower" models. Both of these systems placed their low-range drivers at the top of the enclosure's lower section, facing upward and directing their output into a precisely engineered radial horn element. This produced a full 360 degree dispersion pattern. In the case of the Aquarius 4 (very probably an Ed May design), an LE8T 8-inch transducer without the white aquaplas cone treatment was used as the woofer.

This was paired with the 2-inch LE20 high frequency unit that was separately loaded by a radial horn diffuser mounted on the upper rear panel. To quote the Aquarius product literature, "These right angle dispersion patterns interact with each other to provide an immense sound stage that belies the modest dimensions of the Aquarius 4 itself." Hyperbole aside, the system did provide impressive performance, especially when placed in proximity to a suitable wall surface to allow a reflective dispersion path for the high frequency driver.

JBL L120 Aquarius Q
Harman International, Courtesy Ed Lacinski

Building on the success of the Aquarius 4, a larger expression of the same principle was introduced in 1974. This model, the L120 Aquarius Q (designed by Pat Everidge), was a three-way system that employed a 10-inch low-frequency driver similar to the 125A used in the Decade series, an LE5 5-inch midrange, and an LE25 one and one-half inch unit for the high frequencies. The LE5 was situated in a wave guide, the lower surface of which formed the diffuser for the l.f. transducer. With the LE25 mounted on one of the four vertical sides, the enclosure could be rotated to achieve either front, side, or rearward dispersion of the high frequencies.

An interesting production problem was encountered in the manufacture of the 360 degree stretch fabric grille. Not wishing to show any stitched seam, the only solution (which was researched and implemented by James Barthell) was to have the sleeves custom fabricated as a tube by a knitting mill, employing the same machinery used for knitting socks. The top surface of the enclosure consisted of a square of dark gray plate glass on the theory that the columnar shape of the system would inevitably suggest secondary use as a pedestal.

Musical Instrument Speaker
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

A further important development during the transition period to Jervis [Harman] ownership was the explosive growth of the amplified guitar market. As previously noted, the utilization of the D-130 15-inch extended range loudspeaker by the Fender company greatly expanded sales of that product and other individual transducers favored by the rock musicians. As part of JBL's response, a separate musical instrument loudspeaker category was set up with unique product labeling to denote the specialized application of those transducers. Some technical modifications were introduced as well; principally in the area of improved heat dissipation characteristics. The company continued to supply Fender for many years on an exclusive private label basis.

Coincident with the sale of the company, Tom Jennings was replaced by Irving Stern, the incoming Vice President of Marketing, who subsequently appointed Larry Phillips as National Sales Manager.

 @2001 Arnold Wolf
with contributions from
Greg Timbers, Mark Gander
and John Eargle.