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JBL 4367 Studio Monitor loudspeaker

1/5/2023

One day in the mid-1990s, my friend J and I sat sprawled on the carpeted floor of a hi-fi shop in lower Manhattan, playing records. J, who was employed there as a salesperson, had dimmed the lights and locked the door of the listening room behind us to make sure we wouldn't be disturbed by actual customers. Earlier, he had lugged in a pair of homemade speakers that an elderly woman brought to the store, hoping to sell some of her late husband's gear. The cabinets were made of thin, unfinished plywood and resembled floor fans. Mounted at the center of each box was a late-1960s 10" Tannoy dual-concentric driver. We knew these must sound as chintzy as they looked and set them down carelessly on the carpet a few feet in front of us before hunkering down to listen to Dark Side of the Moon.

When the first notes blasted out of those plywood boxes, we turned toward each other, the what-the-f**k expression on J's face mirroring my own. The music sounded explosively dynamic, textured, present, vast, and effortless. The notes seemed saturated with a kind of Kodachrome glow and held our attention complete-y. I've never been a fan of that Pink Floyd record, but the Tannoys turned the experience of listening to it into a kind of Technicolor spectacle that offered sonic and musical thrills.

The far wall of the listening room was crowded with inventory: slender, beautifully finished floorstanders, some with five-figure price tags. That afternoon, we listened to them all, and in comparison to the old lady's speakers, they played music in a tentative and uptight way, like A-students fretting about getting into a good college. Listening to the homely Tannoys felt like dancing at a favorite dive bar, three drinks in.

"I'm buying them," I yelled, not even having asked the price. "No you're not, because I am," J shot back. He worked there. He had dibs.

Later that week, I tracked down a vintage audio dealer in the UK and placed an order for a clean pair of late-1960s Tannoy IIILZs. Since then, I've lived with a number of speakers, vintage and contemporary, but that afternoon lingers in my mind as the moment when I heard music reproduced in the way I'd always wanted.

These days, I live with a pair of 1966 Altec Valencias. Each time I listen, they reward me with some of that sprawled-out-on-the-floor excitement. I've even grown to enjoy their wood-lattice grilles, which somehow look both midcentury futuristic and church-basement dowdy. The sound of their horn-loaded compression drivers and paper-cone alnico-magnet woofers lends recorded music a sense of presence, richness, and drama that I find difficult to live without. As Mike Pranka of Dynavector USA, another Altec owner, remarked recently in an email, "Anyone who doesn't appreciate the way music dances through the Valencias is to be pitied."

The notion that vintage audio designs may have something to teach us is widely accepted in Europe and especially Japan, where classic components from the likes of Tannoy, McIntosh, Klangfilm, and Western Electric often command higher prices than new gear. The pages of Japanese audiophile publications like Stereo Sound are rife with lavishly photographed examples of the Marantz 8B amplifier and the EMT 927 turntable. Nevertheless, here in North America, many of us seem to have settled into a belief that year after year, audio products follow a steady asymptotic curve toward perfection. The late and sorely missed Art Dudley used Altec Valencias (and later the nearly identical Flamencos) as his reference speakers, but it's no secret that some of his readers, and even fellow contributors, considered his choice quixotic. When I began writing reviews for this magazine, the editor, Jim Austin, emailed to politely ask whether I was planning to evaluate new, perfectionist audio equipment using 55-year-old speakers that you connect to speaker cables with tiny, slotted-head screws.

I wrote back explaining that while a lot of factors went into the complex phenomenon of musical engagement, what mattered most to me about the sound of a hi-fi was dynamics. Anyone who's stood next to a drum kit when someone begins playing it knows how startling live instruments can sound. To me, the ability of a hi-fi to startle is the main source of drama in reproduced sound.

There can be no doubt that since the heyday of the Altecs, speaker designers have learned to achieve more linear frequency response and more precise imaging, and to pay more attention to things like horizontal dispersion and controlling cabinet vibrations. In the 1970s, the heyday of speakers like the LS3/5a, it became popular to disparage older designs for their "colorations": sonic manifestations of an uneven frequency response. At the same time, many commercially produced speakers became not only smaller and less sensitive but also, on the whole, less dynamically capable. Their accuracy often came at the cost of excitement. From the vantage of the present day, it seems obvious to me that dynamic compression is a coloration, too—potentially a more meaningful one than frequency-response peaks and valleys. Dynamically inert speakers are at best musically limited: Try playing loud reggae on typical minimonitors. At worst they can sound downright dull.

Following our exchange, Jim and I had several wide-ranging conversations about speakers, both vintage and contemporary. We didn't always agree, but I found these conversations thoughtprovoking and enjoyable. Eventually, Jim proposed that I review a series of contemporary speakers that hopefully would share some of what I loved about the Altecs with fewer sonic compromises. The idea struck me as potentially instructive: From time to time, it's useful to hold one's convictions up to the bright light of reality. What if my love of vintage speakers turned out to be a result of confirmation bias or, worse, some kind of Jetsons decor fetish? What if a pair of contemporary speakers made me want to finally break up with my Altecs?

The JBL 4367 Studio Monitor
To round up a candidate for the first review, I spoke to people in the industry and audiophile friends and read reams of articles and reviews. When I mentioned unrestrained dynamics, a speaker that kept being mentioned was the JBL 4367 Studio Monitor ($16,500/pair). On paper, the JBL shares a surprising amount of DNA with my half-century-old Valencias. Both are large, two-way designs with a horn-loaded compression driver, a 15" woofer, and a simple crossover. Altec Lansing and JBL are named after the same person (JBL is an initialism of founder James B. Lansing's name). And the 4367's model designation and blue baffle is a nod to nearly 50 years of extremely cool-looking JBL studio monitors, many of which show up in the pages of Japanese audio magazines, usually shoehorned into confoundingly small rooms and driven by tube amplifiers. In a white paper, JBL describes this lineage as "increasingly louder speakers of steadily greater dynamic capability." That sounded like fun.

What turned out to be not so much fun was extracting the 119lb 4367s from their cartons and heaving them into place. Their big-boy woofers, horns, and chunky, front-ported, walnut-veneered cabinets may suggest that the JBLs are meant to appeal to a retro sensibility. But taking a close look behind the grilles (which I did not use because I wanted to keep those denim-blue baffles visible) revealed that there's nothing retro about their engineering.

Above those ports and the woofers—which feature "Aquaplas-treated Pure Pulp cones," dual voice-coils, and neodymium magnets—there's a horn (JBL calls it a waveguide) connected to a high-frequency compression driver with two polymer diaphragms, each with its own voice-coil, neodymium magnet, and motor. The wide, rectangular waveguide—intended to allow for wide dispersion while minimizing floor and ceiling reflections—is made from a dense composite. Just below its mouth are two dials for controlling output levels in the high-frequency (from 660Hz to 9kHz) and ultra-high-frequency (from 4kHz to beyond 20kHz) ranges, allowing adjustment from –1dB to +1dB in 0.5dB increments. On the back of the cabinets there are two sets of gold-plated binding posts connected by jumpers, which can be removed to allow for biwiring or biamping. The 4367s rest—heavily—on four low-profile brass spikes with optional cups to protect wood flooring. Their claimed 94dB sensitivity suggests that they'd be suitable partners for low-powered tube amplifiers, but the published impedance graph leaves room for doubt (footnote 1). More on this later.
 

Footnote 1: The JBL's impedance magnitude, but not the phase angle, is published in a white paper on the JBL website. For a more thorough characterization, see John Atkinson's measurements in the Measurements sidebar.

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