BEGINNINGS 1960's 1970's


JBL Professional Monitors of 1968

Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle




Original Pro Drivers
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

JBL began the decade with a remarkable opportunity to firmly establish itself as a major player in the professional market. Graybar Electric Co. was the major distributor of electrical and communications equipment in North America. Altec Lansing had been one of their largest suppliers, but ended their relationship in 1959. Altec had grown to the point that they wanted control of their own distribution network. Graybar was desperate to replace this major avenue of business and approached JBL. JBL agreed to begin a fast track program to develop a base series of products. Graybar wanted a product line that covered the same scope of the previous Altec distribution. For the first time, with the exception of speaker enclosures, JBL developed products solely intended for the professional market. Prototypes of three amplifiers and one mixer were developed from scratch. Even the loudspeaker components had unique castings to distinguish them as professional products. However, before production began, the relationship with Graybar fell apart. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Graybar and JBL could not come to agreement on a sales arrangement and all of the products developed for this initiative were dropped. Nonetheless, this event marked the beginning of what would become JBL Professional. In other words, it marked the beginning of development and marketing of products that were only intended for the professional industry.

The market segment that was the first to establish JBL in the professional field in a sustainable manner was completely unexpected. That was the Musical Instrument (MI) market. Again, it was an opportunity that came to JBL instead of being sought out. However, it was the manner in which JBL seized that opportunity that would result in a market pre-eminence that is maintained to this day.

As early as the 1940's, Les Paul had sought out Jim Lansing to supply loudspeakers in his development of the solid body electric guitar. However, it was the rise of the electric guitar in the popular music of the 60's that generated significant demand for JBL loudspeakers. Initially, it was musicians buying individual loudspeaker components from JBL,  and in particular, the "D" series of extended range drivers. This became a viable market segment when Leo Fender approached JBL in the early 1960's to become an OEM supplier for their entire line of guitar amplifiers. JBL agreed, and initially supplied the same "D" series components as in their domestic line. However, it soon became apparent that these speakers were outside of their design limits in this demanding application. The high output, high power nature of amplified music was driving these components to destruction.

140F MI Driver
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

In 1963, Harvey Gerst of JBL approached Bill Thomas with a proposal to develop a ruggedized series of drivers just for the MI market. Bill approved his proposal and it resulted in the "F" series of drivers, purposely designed for MI application. They were based on the original "D" series, but used tougher suspension designs and slightly larger voice coil gaps. They were a resounding success. New OEM's such as Sunn and Kustom became major customers of JBL.

JBL would get its foot in the door of the broadcast and studio segment of the professional market in the 1960's as well. As in the cinema market, they would be up against their greatest rival, Altec Lansing. Altec had a lock on the studio monitor business with their 604 Duplex and A7. Were it not for a misstep of Altec in 1962, JBL may never have gotten the opportunity to enter and eventually dominate this market. That misstep was Altec's introduction of the 605A Duplex. The 605 was introduced as the next generation Duplex and replaced the previous 604D. However, it's primary development objective was cost reduction as opposed to improved sonic performance. The magnetic motors of this driver were significantly reduced in size compared to the preceding 604D. It resulted in a 3db drop in sensitivity in addition to subtle changes in sonic character. Industry response was entirely negative. Sales of the 605A dropped significantly in comparison to the 604D. It resulted in such a backlash, that for the first time, major record companies began considering alternatives.

At the time, JBL had developed the D50SMS7 as their first dedicated studio monitor. It consisted of the S7 home component kit installed in an industrial cabinet. JBL was having a very difficult time breaking into the market with this system until the Altec 605A introduction. All at once, they found a receptive industry. In particular, Capitol Records had a relationship with JBL through Bill Thomas. Capitol had a facility in the vicinity of JBL's Casitas headquarters and Bill had become acquainted with their management. Bill convinced Capitol to try the D50 monitor once the 605A backlash had become evident. Capitol was very pleased with this system. They were impressed enough that they eventually standardized all of their studios on JBL monitors.

Eventually, Altec had to admit their error and reintroduce the 604 as the 604E Super Duplex. However, by then, the genie was out of the bottle. The close of the decade saw the development of two significant JBL monitors that expanded their customer base beyond Capitol Records. The first was the 4320, which was a refinement of the D50. It used a higher cross-over frequency for increased power handling and better integration between the horn and 15" bass driver. The result was a studio monitor that had flat axial response and flat power response - something that the 604/5 could not match. It resulted in widespread industry acceptance.

The second significant JBL monitor from the late 60's would become an industry legend. That was the 4310 bookshelf monitor. The 4310 had a unique design goal. That was, to mimic the sonic character of the industry standard 604 in a small package. Even though JBL was making inroads in the monitor business, they could not displace the 604's reputation as an industry standard. What is interesting, is that the 604 was anything but accurate. It had a pronounced midrange peak and a high frequency response that is noticeably rolled off. However, because it had become ubiquitous in studios throughout the 40's and 50's, it became a reference that all studio engineers knew how to work with. This was arguably more important than accuracy since it was a consistent basis of comparison.

Bob Fine, a prominent New York studio owner, set the original design objectives for the 4310. The need for a small package was the result of the introduction of eight track recorders. Bob's first approach to using this technology was to install a monitor for each individual track. It was not possible to mount eight 604's in a control room, and hence his request to JBL to develop a compact monitor. While this approach to monitoring would not last long, the small package 4310 that resulted from this demand soon found use in new studio applications.

The 60's saw the rise of small independent studios. The 4310 was perfect for their smaller control rooms. The 4310 was also small enough to be mounted directly on the console bridge for nearfield monitoring. This had the great benefit of minimizing the effects of room acoustics. The close proximity of the monitor meant that the engineer was exposed to a high proportion of direct sound from the monitor, and lower levels of sound reflected off of walls and ceilings. It is these reflections that can greatly degrade the sound of a loudspeaker.

There is an interesting anecdote on the development of the 4310 that speaks to the empirical nature of loudspeaker design during that era. Ed May was the JBL engineer responsible for the development of the 4310. He took an existing two-way design, the L88, and added the LE5 driver to increase the midrange output to match the 604's peaked response. Corporate pride precluded acquiring a 604 to make a direct comparison. However, so well known was the 604 "sound", that Ed May had no trouble replicating its sonic character through subjective listening tests.

The close of the 60's saw JBL take one more run Altec's stranglehold on the cinema market and it resulted in the same resounding lack of success. Just like the 604, the Altec Voice of the Theatre (VOTT) was an industry standard due to it being a reference and not due to its accuracy. The uneven response of its horn/reflex enclosure and restricted high frequency extension was well known in the industry. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had certified the VOTT as the standard for motion picture sound. Going against a standard set by such an important industry body was next to impossible. Nonetheless, JBL tried.

The attempt was the Cinetron system of 1969. It used direct radiator bass enclosures with a high frequency horn. It introduced the 2397 "Smith" horn that had very wide dispersion, even at high frequency extremes. After extensive development work, JBL sold exactly one installation. The VOTT standard was as impenetrable as ever.