A couple of weeks ago, Ian Mackenzie had posed a number of questions to me in the following L100 thread:
I had been meaning to reply to these questions, but didn’t have the time to do them justice until now. Rather than tacking on to that thread (which had already morphed well beyond its original topic), I decided to create a new one. If anyone is still interested in an elaboration on the historical perspective of the L100 and subsequent monitors, here is my take.
The L100, while arguably the most successful loudspeaker system produced by JBL, was not a make or break product for the company. If I had to pick the single greatest aspect of its success, it would be the doors it opened for JBL into the mass market, and this became a double edged sword. On its own, L100 sales were never the primary revenue source for JBL, since the company had a fairly diversified product line by the time it came along. Even during it’s heyday, I’ve been told that the Decade series generated more revenue than the L100. The important fact to note is that the success of the Decade series would likely never have happened without the L100.
Prior to the L100, JBL was primarily known as a high end speaker company. While they did have lower end product, it never was responsible for a significant portion of the company’s revenue. The L100 changed that overnight. The successful marketing campaign that sold the L100 as the tool of professionals, and more importantly, the rise of high power rock music, led to sales of the L100 that far exceeded expectations. Dealers were clamouring to gain JBL as a product line. For the first time, JBL was gaining widespread brand recognition with the public. It was this new found brand recognition that allowed JBL to launch the Decade series as a high volume product through a vast dealer network. This would not have been possible without the increase in JBL’s profile that was brought on by the L100.
I’m not sure there was much cross-pollination between the studio and consumer markets that drove L100 sales. For example, no one in their right mind would buy an L100 for use as a studio monitor. That is because the acoustically identical 4311 could be had for around two thirds of the cost of an L100. However, by end of the 70’s, many people were buying 4311’s for home use because of this price differential and this was partially responsible for the demise of the L100.
Up until the mid 70’s, JBL’s U.S. dealers were bound by “Fair Trade Laws” (a misnomer if ever there was one). These laws contractually bound the dealers to sell at minimum prices set by the manufacturers. If a manufacturer insisted (and JBL did), the dealer could not offer a discount off of the retail price. This meant that JBL was working off of very high margins, particularly for high end speakers. However, for reasons that are not clear to me, the pro speaker dealers were not bound by the fair trade laws. They could, and did, heavily discount prices compared to the manufacturer’s list. This is why a 4311 could be had for two thirds the price of an L100. Consumer retailers soon figured this out, and it wasn’t long before 4311’s began showing up at hi-fi outlets (usually grey market). This undercut the sales of the L100 which led to its discontinuance in 1977, while the 4311 went on for a number of years afterwards.
The 4311 had a similar effect on studio monitor sales that the L100 series did for consumer sales. However, while the L100 opened the door for low end speakers from JBL, the 4311 opened the door for high end monitors. The widespread use of the 4311 as a nearfield monitor raised the profile of JBL within the studio industry and eased the introduction of the higher end 4333/40/50. Again, with the advent of high power rock music, JBL positioned itself as the only company with main monitors that had the output and dynamic range dictated by this genre.
What is interesting to note about this time is that studio sales did not make up the majority of overall monitor sales. It has to be understood that there has never been a great number of recording studios, particularly those that have need for large main monitors. World-wide, the number is around 2000 professional studios. The 43xx monitors gave JBL a foot in the door for studio speakers, but more importantly, it gave them product they could use for the larger professional market. These 43xx monitors became JBL’s first installed sound speaker line. In particular, the 4350 gained wide popularity as a disco speaker during the late 70’s.
Even more important to the 43xx product line was the export market, and in particular Japan. What is surprising is that the export sales were driven by the consumer market and not the pro market. The 4340 and subsequent 4343 hit a market sweet spot in Japan for reasons that I do not fully understand. Part of it had to do with the prestige of having a professional speaker for home use that seemed to carry great weight in that market. A larger part had to do with the sonic character of that system that meshed perfectly with the Japanese market demand. The net result was that, by the end of the 70’s, there were more 43xx monitors sold into Japanese homes than all other 43xx sales combined.(domestic and pro).
So what is the final legacy of the L100 and 43xx monitors? It can be argued that these systems were responsible for initiating JBL’s growth into the most successful speaker company in the world. This remains true for the professional market. However, while JBL’s domestic market continues to gain in overall sales, it can no longer lay claim to having the largest market share. Of more interest to the readers of this group, the L100 can also be attributed as the driving force behind the change in JBL’s market focus, from a high end speaker company to a more mass market supplier. This is what I meant earlier when I said that the L100’s mass market success was a double edged sword.
JBL soon discovered that the mass market held far greater growth potential than the high end that had been their traditional niche. Over the next twenty years, the target market was gradually driven down until the Circuit City’s and Best Buy’s of the world became the primary outlets. In the process, the independent, high end dealer network was dropped.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a concerted effort to regain the considerable brand equity that remains in the JBL name. For the first time in a long time, the current president of JBL Consumer is an insider that recognises the heritage of the company. For the first time in a decade, JBL has a domestic product line-up in the 2k to 10k price range with the Tik and Performance series and there is new product on the way. Also, for the first time in 20 years, the “Statement” speakers are being marketed domestically.
This upscale marketing remains a tough row to hoe, since a JBL high end dealer network no longer exists. However, JBL is actively building on its Synthesis dealer network to become an outlet for their high end systems as evidenced here:
In conclusion, the L100 and sister studio monitor legacy is strong within JBL, and arguably carries more influence than any other product series from the company. The effect has been both positive and negative. Overall, I would have to say the net effect is positive, because JBL grew to become a dominant market player in a field that has seen most of its competitors drop by the wayside. To end on a positive note, I am more encouraged now with the new high end product offerings from JBL coming on stream then I have ever been in the past decade.