One afternoon in the summer of 1969, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang took sound engineer Bill Hanley to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y., to show him the grounds for the concert he was planning. The moment Hanley looked out at 700 acres of grassy hillside, he knew the only way to throw sound that far was to build a system from scratch. Soon, two towers of yellow construction scaffolding rose 70 feet in the air, each cradling two clusters of speaker cabinets. The cabinets were 6 feet high, 7 feet wide and weighed half a ton each. Hanley had stuffed each of them with four quads of 15-inch speakers—D130s, they were called, made by a California company called JBL.
Plenty of history was written at Woodstock, as everyone knows, but one of the lesser-known chapters concerns JBL, a brand that was already 23 years old in 1969, but one that, after two days of punching out a clear, powerful sound, became legendary.
That legend endures—even though, as the company’s CMO Ralph Santana points out, many of his customers aren’t aware they’re consuming his product. “There are times when you can see JBL,” he said, “and times you can’t.” Been to a Yankee game? Then you’ve heard JBL speakers. Remember the Trump and Obama inaugurals? Those were piped through JBL, too. Some 70% of movie theaters use JBL sound and so, of course, do rock concerts.
James Bullough Lansing (1) got his first break making speakers for MGM and founded the company that still uses his initials. JBL speakers got their baptism by fire when they punched out three days of live rock at Woodstock in 1969 (2) and found fame again as part of the Grateful Dead’s storied Wall of Sound (3). Today, JBL’s consumer products are mostly based on Bluetooth, like the Live Series Headphones (4) and the Charge 4 portable (5).
Courtesy of JBL; Woodstock: Clayton Call/Redferns/Getty Images
But why would consumers care about the feats of an industrial acoustic provider? Because JBL also does a vigorous business in home speakers (it makes the best-selling Bluetooth-enabled speaker on the market) and anchors its branding on the promise of putting its professional-grade technology into a home product. “We deliver sound the way the artist intended it to be heard. That’s a hard thing to do when you go from a big box to a small box,” Santana said. “And that’s what we’ve brought from studio speakers and theaters. We brought all that signal process into these newer devices.”
James Bullough Lansing cut his teeth in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, just as motion pictures were beginning to adopt sound, and built cone woofers for the Loews theater chain. After WWII, he started James B. Lansing Sound that went on to produce some of the best speakers ever made, including the D130, which Leo Fender put into his guitar amps. Beatles producer George Martin took JBL speakers back to the U.K. with him. And when Owsley “Bear” Stanley built the Grateful Dead’s 28,000-watt Wall of Sound PA system in 1973, he used 586 JBL speakers.
SPEAK TO ME Few brands are lucky enough to star in a legendary ad—and fewer still starred in a legendary ad that wasn’t even theirs. In 1979, Maxell commissioned the Scali, McCabe, Sloves agency to showcase how its UR Type 1 audio cassette delivered superior sound. The result was photographer Steve Steigman’s “Blown Away Guy,” a cool dude in a Le Corbusier chair holding on for dear life as his stereo system dished up a tidal wave of fidelity. The ad was an instant classic, so much so that Maxell revived it in 2006. But regardless of how audiophiles felt about Maxell, they noticed that speaker on the floor with the signature waffle foam grille. It was a JBL L100.
Marquee projects aside, it was JBL’s renown in the dens of suburban dads that kept the brand top of mind, especially the L100 loudspeaker (see sidebar), which sold 125,000 pairs in the 1970s and remains in production today.
It’s harder to find as many hi-fi fathers now, and other changes have come since the good old analog days. JBL is now part of South Korean electronic colossus Samsung, and its bread-and-butter products aren’t bachelor-pad floor speakers but portable Bluetooth speakers like the Flip 4 and the Charge 4, along with headphones. But the brand’s mission is unchanged. It uses the technology perfected in professional settings and makes it available to the average buyer. “We’re really playing our own game by bringing those credentials to the story we’re telling,” Santana said. “It’s really about elevating the experience and bringing that signature professional sound.”
A sound like the sound that blew half a million people away at Woodstock, 50 years ago this summer. “I thought the sound was great,” Lang later said. “And everyone I talked to thought the sound was great.”