These retro speakers offer modern acoustics


It’s been nearly a year since I reviewed the JBL L100 Classic, a reimagining of one of the most famous speakers of decades past. It quickly became one of my favorite speakers.

With the smaller (but not certainly not small) L82 Classic, JBL has outdone itself again, at least in the reviewer’s eyes. At $2,500, it is one of the most enjoyable speakers to grace my apartment — one that looks good, sounds great, and has the measured performance to back it up.

Design

The retro look — a boxy wooden design with a massive woofer — is likely to be divisive, but I love how different it looks from almost anything else on the market. It’s a statement piece, and it fits the Brooklyn hipster-ish vibe of my apartment well, though I do wish the speaker came in lighter tones; I think a finish in white with lighter wood wrap could better fit many kinds of modern decor.

As with the L100 Classic, the L82 can be ordered with the line’s iconic waffle-iron-looking grille in black, blue, or orange. I would’ve opted for the blue, personally, but the black unit I reviewed is a neutral option that should work in many people’s homes. I just wish the grilles used magnets instead of annoying friction-based pegs. Not everything needs to be retro.

JBL does make custom stands for the L82 at $250 a pair, which sit a little lower and angle the unit up slightly. But unlike the L100 Classic, for which I thought the custom stands were necessary, the L82 can just about fit on a typical bookshelf speaker stand without looking ridiculous.

In any case, you’ll want to set them on a sturdy surface, as the L82 comes in at a hefty 28 lb per speaker, what with its large, boxy design and 8-inch woofers. Unlike the L100 Classic, the L82 is a 2-way design with just a woofer and a tweeter. This can often create problems for integration due to the large difference in size between the units, but as we’ll see later, the tweeter’s waveguide and ability to extend lower than usual, ensure a smooth transition between the lows and highs.

The Setup

Before we get to the sound, it’s worth noting that the L82 has a customizable sound profile — something rare to find in a passive pair of speakers (as in, one that requires external amplifiers and doesn’t feature digital signal processing).

This is thanks to a high-frequency knob which gives you fine control over the speaker’s upper frequency response. The knob covers a wide portion of the frequency range, and therefore can effectively change the speaker’s sound rather dramatically. Too bright? Turn the knob down. Too dark? Turn it up!

I wish more speakers would include physical controls like this. Though you can always EQ the sound manually through an AVR or other device, sometimes just a slight change in the tilt of the frequency response is the difference between a speaker sounding ‘good’ and ‘great’ in your home.

Another way the L82 let you tweak sound is in how you position the speakers. Unlike the L100 Classic, which had an asymmetrical layout in which the tweeter was always on the same side of the body, the L82’s tweeters are mirrored.

This means you can adjust the soundstage of the speaker to a notable degree depending on which speaker you choose as your left and right units. You can have the tweeters on the inside edge for a slightly more focused, slightly more compressed soundstage, or on the outside edges for a slightly more expansive but diffuse soundstage.

JBL doesn’t provide a specific recommendation in the L82’s manual, but Chris Hagen, the L82’s designer, told me:

“In setups where the speakers are widely spaced compared to listening distance, the speakers should be placed so that the tweeters would be inboard, or closer to each other. This would also be the case if both speakers are inside of, but next to, reflecting surfaces (such as the walls, or large pieces of furniture).

If the speakers are placed closer together than the listening distance and there are no reflecting surfaces just outboard of them, then it is recommended to place the speakers so that the tweeters are outboard, or furthest away from each other.”

I preferred the outboard position. Though the speaker sounded good with both setups, the difference in spatial presentation was quite obvious in my home, with the outboard position yielding a more expansive soundstage, even if I tried moving the speaker to compensate for the difference in tweeter position. Your mileage may vary.

The Sound

I have to admit, I was a little nervous going into this review. The L100 Classic is one of my all-time favorites, and I didn’t know if the L82 would be able to recapture that feeling. After all, I’ve listened to some amazing speakers since then.

My worries were misguided. The L82 are wonderful.

Like the L100, there were three things that stood out to me in particular: First, a fantastic, expansive soundstage. Second, an overarching sense of neutrality despite the retro looks. And three, a toe-tapping sense of dynamics one rarely finds in bookshelf speakers.

Although impressions of soundstage will vary from room to room, the L82 managed to throw an image that seemed to extend well beyond the edges of the speakers — both horizontally and vertically. The sense of scale is impressive; on albums for operas and musicals like the excellent Hadestown, the L82 make it easy to imagine singers occupying a physical stage in front of you rather than being replicated from a pair of boxes.

The L82 shares a tweeter and a shallow waveguide with the L100 Classic that is designed to throw out a wide soundstage rather than the deep waveguides or horns that tend to narrow the soundstage on some modern speakers. The Buchardt A500, for example, has a slightly more focused soundstage than the L82 as positioned, but I preferred the L82’s sheer sense of scale in direct comparisons.

In terms of tonality, it’s easy to assume the L82 would have a ‘retro’ sound due to the looks — one might anticipate exaggerated bass, sizzling highs, or other obvious coloration to give it some kind of special charm. But no — these are speakers neutral enough I’d be happy to use them as studio monitors.

That’s not to say they are completely devoid of character. The speakers did have just a bit of a midbass emphasis that give kick drums some extra oomph — a ‘flaw’ I do not mind. Though bass quantity can vary depending on your home and placement, the L82 reach low enough that most users probably don’t need a subwoofer (although I always recommend one).

This is especially true if you mostly listen to acoustic music, but even on Beyonce’s ‘Partition,’ a track that starts with a frequency sweep that sounds like a subwoofer test, the L82 manages to present all but the deepest sub-bass. You should get useful energy into the 30 Hz region in-room.

On the treble front, the default ‘0’ knob setting may have just a tad more ‘sparkle’ than neutral if you aim the speakers right at your listening position, but as I preferred them with just a little bit of toe-in, I found the default balance largely appropriate.

In any case, these are relatively subtle traits that can be tweaked by knobs and positioning; the prevailing impression is one of transparency. Vocals shine in particular, to my recollection having a more neutral tonality out of the box than perhaps any speaker I’ve heard since the Dutch & Dutch 8C.

Lastly, ‘there’s no replacement for displacement,’ as the saying goes; in this case, that means the 8-inch woofer offers relatively effortless dynamics compared to the typical 5 and 6-inch woofers in your average bookshelf speaker. Though I tend to listen at don’t-annoy-my-neighbors volumes, I got the distinct impression the L82 was able to hit dynamic peaks more cleanly than most speakers meant to be mounted on a stand. When I did risk an annoyed knock on my door, the L82 managed to get as loud as my ears could handle without any audible distortion.

The measurements

I almost always outline my listening notes before taking measurements, as I try not to let the data color my subjective thoughts too much. I also like to think I can puzzle out most of the qualities of a speaker through listening alone.

Sometimes I’m a bit off from the mark, but this doesn’t seem to be one of them. I noted the L82’s prevailing characteristics are neutrality with an expansive, accurate soundstage, and this is evident in the measurements.

Some background: Using a technique that allows me to reduce the influence of reflections from my measurements, I can approximate the speaker‘s “true” sound as it would be measured in an anechoic chamber. We begin with a graph called a ‘spinorama,’ so-called because it involves rotating the speaker around its horizontal and vertical axes to capture its sound at 70 different angles. Yes, that is as tedious as it sounds.

The spinorama was actually developed by researchers at Harman, JBL’s parent company. It distills those multitudinous data points into one simple graph, giving us a useful summary of both the speaker‘s direct sound and how it radiates sound into a room. This single graph is usually enough to separate the good speakers from the bad ones.

Here’s the spinorama I measured for the L82 Classic with the HF knob at its default setting: