While finding a vintage amplifier or receiver with good sound and looks is fairly easy (though unfortunately not as cheap as it was a few years ago), in the case of speakers things get more tricky. The technology of building loudspeakers and their drivers has been developed considerably since the 1970s and even relatively cheap new speakers can have a decent sound, while a large part of vintage speakers are nothing special to plain bad. Those that can compete with newer products usually cost a lot, often much more than newer models with comparable sound quality. But if you want to build a fully vintage sound system, buying such speakers does make sense.
JBL L96 bookshelf speakers from the early 1980s are an example of speakers are both valued for a good sound and will be right at home in a vintage system. They are large, three-way speakers in enclosures finished with a natural veneer. All three drivers are vertically arranged in one line to provide a better reproduction of spatial characteristics of the recording. The white cones 10-inch woofers with foam suspensions look very distinctively. They are moved by a quite extensive and meticulously designed 3-inch coil, magnet and coil tunnel system.
The midrange drivers with fabric suspensions appear quite ordinary from the outside, but they have huge magnets, 7/8 inch coils and 5-inch cones (like woofers in some new speakers). They are housed in isolated sub-chambers to prevent interaction with woofers. Highs are reproduced by light domes made of a phenolic material coated with aluminium. The domes are protected by a metal mesh. The speakers are additionally equipped with high and midrange tone controls, allowing to adjust the frequency response to individual preferences and room acoustics. The bass port was placed on the front of the speaker, making speaker placement a bit easier.
The speakers were brought to us for repairs. The problem was quite typical: one woofer was quieter and heavily distorted. The culprit was a burnt coil, which unfortunately could not be saved. It is also very specific, so attempting to repair the driver with an aftermarket coil makes no sense, it will change the driver’s sound for the worse. A search gave us a number of repair options: we found original JBL repair kits (a coil with a cone) and a freshly refoamed woofer (unfortunately the suspension was glued to the outer part of the cone which looked ugly). Since both the kits and the woofer were only available in the US, we decided to buy the whole woofer to lower the risk of the coil being damaged in transport. The parcel arrived undamaged, but it turned out that the driver was refoamed improperly, because the suspension was glued unprofessionally, the coil was not centred and scratched against the tunnel walls. Fortunately, the coil itself was OK, so it was possible to use it to repair the original damaged woofer (its cone was not visually destroyed by the suspension glued to the wrong side).
Once the repair was done, we could finally listen. We must admit that JBL L96 are very good speakers. Their sound is at the same time precise and pleasant. Bass does not dominate, but it is clear, very well controlled and can go quite low. Midrange is accurate and even, neither too forward not recessed. The vocals are natural, clear, without unnecessary sharpness. Only the highs sounded bit too forward to us, but fortunately the speakers give the possibility of adjustment of both highs and mids. In our case, adjusting the tweeter control pot to -2 dB was enough to tame the highs without a loss of sound quality. Note that we listened grilles removed; it is quite possible that with them on, the tweeter adjustment would not be necessary. What’s more, in addition to very good sound precision in all parts of the frequency range and good tonal balance, the speakers offer good imaging, drawing a sound stage with satisfactory width and depth.
JBL L96 definitely earned our recommendation. They combine classy, precise sound with a solid design and look that matched vintage equipment perfectly. At the same time, their appearance is universal enough not to look out of place in a more modern audio system. They are not cheap, but, as we already mentioned, good vintage speakers rarely are.
Model: L 96
Years 1981 – 1982 (or 1985, depending on the source)
Manufactured in: California, USA
Finish: Walnut, oiled veneer
Dimensions: 597 x 362 x 298 mm (H x W x D)
Type: 3-way, ported
Woofer: 1x 250 mm (LE10H-1)
Midrange: 1x 130 mm (LE5-12)
Tweeter: 1x 25 mm (044)
Crossover frequency: 1100 Hz, 3700 Hz
Recommended amplifier: up to 250 W per channel (or 150 W per channel, depending on the source)
Sensitivity: 89 dB / 1W / 1m
Frequency response: 30-20000Hz