When is a studio monitor not a studio monitor? When it’s a JBL 4349 Studio Monitor, of course!
That label threw me too, but JBL released the Studio Monitor series for consumers, not pro audio. It is part of their marketing campaign for those wanting the vintage studio monitor experience in a more traditional home system. Maybe it’s a little weird, maybe it’s kinda cool. Read on and decide for yourself.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
The JBL 4349 got me thinking about current vintage trends. Old ’70s receivers and audio gear currently command a premium much like old muscle cars. Much of the older hi-fi gear has a vintage sound that can be pleasing, but is often colored, inaccurate and littered with flaws compared to modern offerings–much like comparing old muscle cars to current supercars. The old V8 engines sound great, but the reality is these cars are slow, handle like hot garbage, and are inherently unsafe to drive in comparison to the most germane econoboxes on the streets today. So, why would JBL go the vintage route and how does it measure up to modern gear? Is JBL finding its roots, or is this a vintage throwback?
Inside the JBL 4349
JBL is part of the Harman Luxury Group, and when they contacted me about sending a pair of JBL 4349 speakers it piqued my curiosity. In our Part-Time Audiophile circles we’ve been curious about the hubbub around the JBL L-100 re-release a few years ago, and how that vintage speaker might stack up against more modern speakers.
I fondly remember my impressionable teenage years where my uncle had an L-100 powered by Kenwood electronics. His friend across the apartment complex had Bose 901s and they would have stereo wars across the complex. It was juvenile, but when you are 12 it was cool as hell. They also street raced their Toyota Corolla and Ford Probe against each other. Again, cool as a teenager, but juvenile as all hell. I think it just goes to show that some nostalgia ages much better than others.
Looking at the JBL 4349, it has a bit of that L-100 look and feel. But instead of a 3-way speaker with conventional cone midranges and tweeters, the JBL 4349 is a big two-way speaker with a radial horn for the upper midrange and treble. JBL packed a bunch of technology into this speaker and paid attention to several details during the design process, and that impressed me.
The JBL 4349 weighs in at a hefty 75 lbs. each thanks to real wood cabinetry and heavy internal bracing. The 4349 features a prominent radial horn with a 1.5-inch compression driver up top, and a 12-inch treated and folded paper cone for bass duties. The horn is constructed of an inert Sonoglass molded material. It looks like cast plastic but the Sonoglass material has a hair-like structure that JBL claims helps break up resonances.
The horn geometry is unique to JBL and was developed for horizontal and vertical dispersion while using the creases helps reduce throat resonances. Two trumpeted ports face forward at the lower corners of the cabinet, which you can see if you remove the robust speaker cover. Tone controls for the tweeter are located on the front cabinet between the horn and the woofer.
The speaker certainly reflects its studio heritage and is the second largest in the line up, which includes a bookshelf through a 15-inch model. They all share the same horn geometry and two-way implementation. The review pair came in black ash, but there is also a walnut finish that looks nice in a deliberately vintage way. The materials quality is top notch, but great materials do not necessarily make a great sounding speaker.
The speaker is not that tall, but the cabinet is wide and deep. To get the tweeter to proper listening height a stand is required. I happened to have some short metal stands that fulfilled that duty in a pinch; it looked janky, like it would fall over in a slight breeze, but no towers fell during the audition period. JBL recommends the purpose-built JS-120 stand for that duty (MSRP $330). It angles the tweeter back about 10 degrees, and stabilizes the somewhat front heavy speaker. Most folks will likely spring the extra cash for the stands considering the JBL 4349 MSRP price point of $8,250/pr USD.
80% of new car purchases are based on color. Henry Ford was famous for saying about the Model T, “The customer can have it in any color as long as it’s black.” The JBL 4349 does come in black ash or walnut, but the customer certainly isn’t spoilt for choice here. Much like cars the looks can be polarizing eliciting a love-hate opinion. If you like the vintage utilitarian look of the JBL 4349, great. If not I suggest you move along and spend more money on fancy aesthetics instead of sound quality.
According to Jim Garrett, the Senior Director of Product Strategy and Planning at Harman International’s Luxury Audio Business Unit:
“The JBL studio monitor line sells very well in Japan where our Nippon-counterparts love the studio monitor aesthetic. If you are into the more traditional Americana look, JBL has a less expensive more furniture oriented line, but the Studio Monitor line focuses more on sound quality over looks. In this implementation JBL had plenty of options on how to make this speaker look and decided on a definite vintage-era appearance that harkens back to past recording studios and the 4310 and 4320 models. The implementation is faithful to the 60s and 70s era. If you get nostalgic over that kind of thing then you’ll definitely enjoy the look. If you want a more furniture object de art you may want to look elsewhere.
“The design goals of the 4349 Studio Monitor series were to duplicate the dynamics and micro details of live music while still allowing for lower levels of listening. At 91db efficiency this speaker can accommodate lower powered tube amplification up to beefy solid state amps. With a crossover right at 1.5kHz the horn operates from the upper midrange into the airy sparkly regions while the bass driver is specified down to 31Hz. Chris Hagen was the lead designer and extra care was taken in the crossover by using quality parts with tight tolerances.”
JBL 4349 Gets on the Horn
“JBL pursues horn designs for good, not evil.”
Jim stated the above during our conversation. We were discussing how horns can be forward, shouty and difficult to integrate with conventional cone drivers. In the JBL 4349 Studio Monitor and the others in the series, the horn is critical to the sound quality and defines the tone of the speaker. So, JBL spent considerable time in developing the horn geometry, materials, and dispersion to match the quality of the compression driver they had developed.
Much like car guys extolling the virtues of normal aspiration versus turbo chargers, audiophiles will argue into the wee hours of the night about horns versus conventional pistonic cone drivers. In a past review I mentioned that I had only heard a few horn speakers that I felt I could live with for any length of time. I was curious how the JBL 4349 Studio Monitor would fit into that paradigm as many manufacturers seem to be crushing my paradigms lately!
The JBL 4349: Unboxing a Box Speaker
I like to verify that products work before I spend a lot of time setting them up properly. So, I unboxed the 75 lb. black ash cabinet speakers and hooked them up and fired up the music. I wasn’t worried about placement or even the assorted boxes and packing material strewn about, I just wanted to make sure they functioned properly. Even with much less than ideal placement, I was pleasantly surprised on how well the soundstage filled in between the speakers. Even sitting on the floor at odd angles they still managed to provide some modicum of imaging! Color me intrigued.
The JBL 4349 owner’s manual suggests a placement pattern with about eight feet of separation and a seating position about 10 to 12 feet away from the speaker, toe-in to taste. Setting up the JBL 4349 Studio Monitor was super easy and I found a satisfying placement in short order. The 4349 is a very forgiving and easy to setup speaker that can accommodate both near-field and more traditional placements.
With some additional listening and a few inches of movement and toe-in experimentation I settled in for serious listening. Much like a car, you don’t want to fiddle with the choke, check gages, and pray to the electrical gods that your Lucas wiring harness works, you want to turn the key and hit the gas! In this regard the JBL 4349 was a modern speaker that was easy to use.
The JBL 4349: Party Speaker or Undiscovered Classic?
Doing a bit of research before the JBL 4349 arrived, I stumbled across a review which summarized it as a “crank it up, party speaker.” Well, I have to say that while JBL can indeed fulfill the role of a party speaker and can play as loud as you care to drive it, it ain’t no unrefined party speaker. Many of the speakers I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing lately remind me of refined European sport coupes. They have silky midranges, sparkly tweeters, and authoritative bass–very “audiophile” sounding.
In contrast, I remember talking to an aftermarket suspension manufacturer that made upgrades for classic American muscle cars. His clientele wanted the nostalgic experience of the pony cars of the ’70s, but the performance of their Toyota Camry was better. So, he created a suspension package to bring those pony cars way up to modern handling standards. Folks got to experience the big throaty V8 with a classic car that could actually be driven and enjoyed. I see the JBL 4349 Studio Monitor in the same way. You get a vintage looking speaker with history mated with modern technology, and the results are stunning.
The 4349 is clean, like carnauba wax polished to a mirror finish clean. The radial horn can play from quiet to loud while maintaining both macro and microdynamics. Transients were fast and satisfying. I heard depth into recordings that I hadn’t heard on any of the prior speakers I’ve auditioned over the last year or so. Air and timber were spot on with a slightly forward presentation that still had depth. The upper frequencies weren’t as sparkly or magical as many speakers with dedicated tweeters, but triangles and cymbals still sounded right. As claimed, the radial horn did a superb job of revealing what was on the recording during loud or quiet passages.
The JBL 4349 walks a fine line between being ruthless on poor recordings while allowing great recordings to really shine. Even my poorest recordings were listenable and the really great recordings sounded great. Bass was satisfying, like doing clutch-dump burnouts on a high horsepower car. Plenty of grunt, noise, and feel with authoritative extension and control. On very deep recordings the bass driver won’t reach all the way down into the abyss, but from standup bass or piano on up the 12-inch driver was terrific and surprisingly articulate for its size. Bass was amplifier limited in a few instances.
I had several amplifiers on hand from the 10 watt First Watt SIT-1 to the 250 watt Classé Delta Stereo and only the SIT-1 didn’t provide satisfying power to the bass. The First Watt J2 with only 25 watts into 8Ω was probably my favorite with the 4349 Studio Monitor. Alas, I didn’t have any tube amps on hand to play with, but I could see any of them but the most flea watt offerings pairing extremely well with the 4349.
Soundstage was great with placement of the center image and instruments between the speakers solid and pinpoint. Like I mentioned before, the imaging was a little forward, but it had depth. It wasn’t precisely 3D, more like 2.5D. Speakers disappeared admirably with the speakers only being detectable during a hard pan left or right in the recording. The imaging sweet spot was fairly wide with little audible variation when you turned your head or moved several inches, which was impressive.
Despite the V8 style grunt of this speaker, it pays attention to micro details and has a delicacy that is compelling, much like replacing the horrid drum brakes with proper modern disc brakes that cut the stopping distance in half. Larger speakers often have difficulty with the subtle details of some musical passages, not so with the JBL 4349. It is a big speaker and has some of that big speaker sound, and it doesn’t quite do what diminutive two-way bookshelf speakers can do on intimate musical passages, but it feels like it can tiptoe when the music requires it.
A final item that horns paired with cone woofers can struggle with is integration. Tonally, a horn can have a fast, forward, and immediate presentation that is often at odds with a traditional cone driver. I’ve driven cars with swapped engines that completely destroy the balance of the car and the same can happen with speakers of differing driver technologies. The JBL 4349 integration is nearly perfect.
Tonally, there are some differences between the horn and the woofer, but around the crossover point I listened critically for artifacts and I couldn’t hear any. Room placement for bass can be difficult and ruin this integration, but again the JBL 4349 just looked at me and said, “What, I can play here, there, or anywhere, so quit messing with me buddy.” This has to be amongst the best integration of two different types of drivers I’ve ever heard.
The JBL 4349 made instruments sound like real instruments. I know this sounds obvious, but even some fairly refined speakers may sound great without making the music sound real. Sometimes the 4349 may have less refinement than other speakers in the price point, but if you are looking for an added sense of realism the 4349 does some magical things. The 4349 is a refreshing product because it departs from the current audiophile trends of smooth and refined midranges, sparkly tweeters, and tight, fast bass. No ceramic drivers, diamond tweeters, or carbon fiber will be found anywhere in the 4349 Studio Monitor.
In my opinion, it doesn’t need ‘em. This is a compelling implementation of a vintage product that is immensely satisfying. I race vintage race cars and there’s something about driving a vintage car that gives a visceral feel that many modern vehicles can’t match. The JBL 4349 Studio Monitor is similar in that it is a bit sonically unique in my experience in that it has similarities to a vintage studio monitor, but sonically it is a modern sounding speaker, being an evolution and not something completely new.
Horns can sound vastly different, choices of compression drivers notwithstanding, horn geometry and materials can make easily heard sonic differences. The JBL 4349 horn sound is unique. It doesn’t have the sonics of a Klipsch or Avantgarde, it is its own unique animal. I’m impressed with JBL’s technical knowledge and experience with horn technology and this implementation is worthy of praise.
Is the JBL 4349 Studio Monitor the best speaker I’ve ever had in my system? No. But the 4349 is not just a vintage money grab product like many currently on the market. JBL has invested considerable time, talent, and energy into the 4349 and it shows. Like car culture, there are folks who like the most cutting edge supercar while others appreciate the modernization of a classic. Both are valid pursuits and have a following, and much like that upgraded vintage V8 pony car, the JBL 4349 is a serious and enjoyable product that I will be sad to see go. It does things that no other speaker I’ve had in my system does – and I’ll miss those things. I consider the 4349 to be a modern implementation of a classic that will standup to the test of time.
Good design always does, and picking up a pair of JBL 4349s in 20 years will be just as compelling as picking up a pair today. The 4349 Studio Monitor forges its own path and bucks the flavor of the month design of current industry trends. I applaud JBL’s choices and the 4349 Studio Monitor is worth a listen and, in my opinion, an instant classic.