BEGINNINGS 1960's 1970's


"Jim Lansing Theatre Sound System" of 1954
(Also Manufactured as Westrex T550 and Ampex 6000C)

Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle



Prior to establishing Lansing Sound, Incorporated in 1946, Jim Lansing's reputation was largely made in the professional loudspeaker market. That market was dominated by one segment cinema sound. From the Shearer System to the Voice of the Theatre (VOTT), the Lansing name had become associated with the finest in cinema loudspeakers. However, by the time Jim decided to strike out on his own, that market had matured with only a few prominent vendors. Foremost amongst these vendors was Jim's previous employer, Altec Lansing.

Lansing Sound would begin as an extremely small scale venture with only four employees in the first year and little working capital. There were nowhere near the resources necessary to develop and manufacture systems of the scale of the VOTT. Jim had no choice but to begin with systems that would only be suitable for small theatres, and thus restricted his market. There was one benefit in starting off with small systems. That was the opportunity to design dual use loudspeakers that could find application in both the high-end consumer market and cinema market. This became the objective of the first products of Lansing Sound. The first system was the D-1000 series that consisted of the D130A, D175 and H1000 components. The enclosure was available in utility finish for cinema applications and fine wood finishes for home use.

The company struggled in the first three years and seemed to always be on the verge of bankruptcy. It would be a seminal contract for Fox's west coast theatres that gave the company its first, firm financial footing. Jim convinced Fox to install his D1000 system in a number of their theatres. This would mark the beginnings of JBL in the professional market.

Nonetheless, for the next twenty years, JBL would primarily be known as a high-end home loudspeaker company. This was a result of the marketing focus brought by Bill Thomas after he assumed control of the company upon the Jim Lansing's death in 1949. Bill astutely foresaw the rise of the hi-fi market that had its beginnings in the late 40's and early 50's. In contrast to the mature cinema industry, the consumer market was just establishing itself and would see exponential growth for years to come. Bill Thomas initially concentrated product development and marketing on this segment.

Thomas was never one to overlook a market opportunity so that the professional industry was not completely ignored. However, he took advantage of professional opportunites brought to him as opposed to actively seeking them out. The first opportunity was the TODD AO project that started in 1954. This was a new development in cinema screen format and sound. It was a contemporary of Cinerama and incorporated a wide screen projection system and multi speaker sound system. Ampex was brought in to undertake the technical design under the direction of Ross Snyder. Ross knew of the reputation of Jim Lansing and his products back in the 1940's. It led him to seek a meeting with Jim in 1948 where he was further impressed with the man and his work. Ross never forgot this meeting, and when the TODD AO project began, he sought out JBL as an initial supplier for the design prototype.

Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

By that time, Bill Thomas was running the company and Bart Locanthi was responsible for technical design. Ampex paid for the development of a loudspeaker system just for this project. It would be known as the D55, or its more famous nickname, the JBL "Scoop". This, and its smaller sibling, the D43, would remain in JBL's catalog until the 1980's as the 4530 and 4520.

Ten speaker systems were required for the prototype. Initially, JBL did not have enough production stock on hand to fill this order. Ross states that two very special compression drivers were substituted to make up the order. According to his recollection, they were 2" diameter throat drivers that Bill Thomas stated were "hand built by Jim Lansing". They were considered so valuable to JBL that Ross had to commit to returning the drivers after the prototype project. These drivers have a unique significance to legacy of Jim Lansing that will be explained later.

The prototype loudspeaker systems were a success and negotiations were begun with JBL to provide production quantities. Given the small scale of JBL at the time, and the consumer focus of the company, Bill Thomas was not comfortable to expand to meet the demand for a potentially limited production run. As an alternative, it was agreed that Ampex would undertake manufacturing of JBL designed loudspeaker components under a licensing arrangement. For a number of years afterwards, Ampex would produce and market cinema components labeled "Jim Lansing by Ampex".

At around the same time as the TODD AO project, JBL was approached by Westrex to develop cinema loudspeaker systems. Westrex had been the export arm of Western Electric (WE). In 1938, WE had divested the domestic supply of cinema sound systems to Altec as part of a consent decree that resulted from a federal anti-trust action. In the 1950's Westrex decided to make a concerted effort in cinema sound for the foreign markets for which they still held rights. JBL was approached to both develop and supply product for this market.

JBL 375
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

John Frayne of Westrex worked with Bart Locanthi of JBL to develop brand new products for this project. At a pivotal meeting between Frayne, Locanthi and Thomas, John brought out an old WE 594 compression driver and asked if JBL could produce a modern equivalent. The 594 was unique in utilizing a 4" diaphragm and 2" horn throat. It had long been out of production as a result of the 1938 consent decree and no one was making a compression driver of this size and output. Bart examined this driver and quickly agreed to develop a prototype. The prototype was functionally the same as the 594 but replaced the field coil of that driver with a permanent Alnico magnet. The resulting driver was the JBL 375, introduced in 1954, and this driver would become the most significant professional device ever developed by JBL. As will be seen, it was singularly responsible for providing opportunities in new professional markets for the next two decades.

Now is the time to revisit the "special" Jim Lansing drivers provided to the TODD AO project. Until recently, it was thought that the 375 was the first example of what is referred to as a large format compression driver after the WE594. While this is true for production drivers, it would appear that Jim Lansing personally built prototypes of a large format driver years before the 375. Unfortunately, Bill Thomas's request to have the drivers returned to JBL was not fulfilled and these drivers have been lost to history. However, there is a tantalizing record of preliminary design sketches referring to such a driver, but no record of its actual manufacture. Thus there remains an element of mystery to this device.

Theatre System Drivers
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

The 375 was only one component of the system developed for the Westrex project. A unique bass driver, the 150-4C was also produced. This driver had a deep, straight sided cone to provide the stiffness required for horn loading while remaining light in weight for maximum efficiency. Four of these drivers were mounted in a massive new enclosure - the T550A. John Frayne worked with Bart Locanthi to develop new acoustic lens to be used with the 375 driver and two of these driver/lens combinations were mounted on top the the T550A. For the first time, JBL had produced a theatre system of a scale that could compete with the largest Altec VOTT systems. The T550A was sold directly by JBL as "Jim Lansing Theatre Sound System" and was also manufactured by Ampex as the C6000.

The T550A enclosure bears closer examination. Its roots were not in theatre system design, but rather high intensity sound simulation. Bill Thomas's background was in military aviation and he maintained separate companies in this field. These companies were involved in high intensity sound sound simulations for battlefield conditions, and later, missile launch simulations. Research in these fields were brought to bear in the design of the T550A's horn flare. In contrast to the combination horn loading and bass reflex principle of the competing Altec VOTT, the T550A was purely horn loaded since the back enclosure was sealed.

With the Ampex and Westrex theatre projects, it would appear that JBL was poised to be a major player in the professional sound industry in the 1950's. However, this was not to be. The TODD AO system, that was the heart of the Ampex collaboration, lost out to the competing Cinerama system for market share. Westrex was never able to develop a sizable overseas market. In both cases, JBL was going up against Altec in providing the sound systems that competed against these projects. At that time, Altec had a virtual monopoly in all market segments of the professional sound industry. JBL ended the 50's growing and strong, but strictly on the basis of their success in the high-end consumer market. Professional sound was again relegated to a peripheral status.