JBL L96: Vintage bookshelf speakers for demanding listeners

7 Replies

Gallery Renovations Reviews

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 brochure

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.

High and mid frequency controls

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).

Repaired woofer

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.


General information

Manufacturer: JBL
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)

Technical data

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
Impedance: 8Ω


  1. Валерий

    Swap out a couple of crossover capacitors and you ll have a fantastic sounding, beautiful set of vintage Japanese lattice-grille speakers. I used to own a set of these myself, they re great performers when paired with a suitable amplifier, and they really look fantastic in any room. Sony doesn t get a lot of love today (although their yellow Kevlar-coned speakers are actually quite good sounding and have very extended treble frequency response great for EDM, at the expense of being very inefficient) but their vintage offerings were quite well respected. These big, powerful 3-way speakers offer the very unusual set of square-framed woofers and midranges, too. Definitely something different!

    1. rafal lisinski Post author

      I think you’re talking about completely different speakers, JBL L96 don’t have lattice grilles, square-framed drivers, and they were not made by Sony or in Japan 🙂
      I do agree that some of those vintage Sony speakers are very interesting though.

  2. Mark

    Hi there,

    the article would have been even more interesting if you had documented some phases of the repair in particular that of replacing the coil. I myself had to replace the spiders of the woofers (122A) in my JBL l65 so I was curious about how did you manage that repair as I think some steps are in common with the replacement of the spiders done by me. Anyway thanks for keeping such great speakers like these still alive. 😉

  3. Alias

    I disagree with this sentence:
    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.

    Maybe you’ve never listened to a pair of Grundig, or Braun, or Advent speakers from the 70s? These are from the 80s and I tell you that compared to a couple of Harbeth 30, much more recent, I sold the Harbeths and kept the JBLs

    1. rafal lisinski Post author

      I did, and I agree that some vintage Grundigs and Brauns (and speakers from other manufacturers) are good (and some are great). But those that are good are not that easy to buy and tend to be expensive. It is much easier to find relatively inexpensive good sounding speakers designed and made after 1985. A pair of Quadral Tribuns from the late 1980s costs a quarter or less of what JBL L96s do. You can even buy floorstanding Quadral Aurum 7s for much less than JBL L96s, and those are in a different league. Same goes for smaller speakers. Mission 760i will outmatch any similarly priced small speaker from the 1970s, and many that cost much more.

  4. Craig Buy


    I have some l96’s. I bought them for £35 about 18 years ago and they used to actually belong to a chap from Spandau Ballet. It was the absolute best £35 I ever spent.

    My l96’s are still working very well but the crossover pots do make a little noise. Is it possible to clean or overhaul these in any way??
    Also, the mid range has been repaired before I had them. I dont really know if it effects the sound because they have always been that way & they do appear to sound pretty good. Do you think it worth re coning these??

    1. rafal lisinski Post author

      Wow, at £35 it was practically a gift! Yes, you can clean the pots, but if the only problem is a little noise during adjustment, I would not do that. Accessing the pots without doing damage is not easy. You have to remove the woofers, remove the rectangular badge around the pots (it’s glued on), only then you can access the screws to unscrew the pot section and take it out through the woofer mounting hole in the enclosure. And then you can finally clean the pots. There’s a video that can help. it does not show the whole procedure, but enough to know how to do it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=IJs2qwrlCMM

      Midrange reconing – hard to tell, depends on how well it was repaired. Was it just one midrange driver that was repaired, or both? If just one, you can compare the sound to the other speaker. If both, and if they sounds fine to you and looks good, I would probably leave it alone. Reconing (if you want it done well) will not be cheap, same goes for replacing the midrange drivers. There’s one on ebay right now and it costs more than what you paid for the whole speakers, plus expensive shipment from the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *