The Founder: JBL started with J.B.L. – James Bullough Lansing. An
obsessed and possibly manic-depressive genius, Lansing invented
practically everything he could – even his own name.
He was born James Martini on January 14, 1902, in Macoupin
County, Illinois, to Henry Martini and Grace Erbs Martini. Macoupin
County, located north of St. Louis, was farming and mining country, and
Henry Martini was a mining engineer.
His son (the ninth of the Martinis’ fourteen children) took
after him. Engineering and machinery fascinated young James. It’s said
that around age 12, he built a small transmitter that put out a signal
strong enough to disrupt a local radio station.
James attended middle school and high school in Springfield,
Illinois, and took courses at a small business college there, but he
never got a formal degree in engineering. At some point in his young
adulthood, he added the middle name of Bullough (after a family he knew
in his late teens) and – for reasons that seem lost in the past –
changed his last name to Lansing.
He spent the early 1920s as an auto mechanic. After his mother
died in late 1924, Lansing moved to Salt Lake City. The town apparently
had work for an ambitious, driven young man who knew and liked
electrical machinery, and Lansing became an engineer at a local radio
But he wanted more. Not long after arriving in Salt Lake City,
he founded Lansing Manufacturing Company to build radio loudspeakers.
Soon thereafter, he found a businessman named Ken Decker to run the
financial and marketing side of the business, and Lansing settled in to
concentrate on technology.
The south-western United States’ centre of electronics
manufacturing wasn’t Salt Lake City, though. It was Los Angeles. Lansing
moved his company there in early 1927.
Welcome to Hollywood
His timing was perfect. On October 6, Warner Brothers premiered the
first talking feature film, The Jazz Singer. The film was such a
sensation that every studio in Hollywood suddenly demanded sound
equipment for their sound stages and for the networks of cinemas that
Unfortunately, the new talking film technology was crude. In
particular, it was too weak and rough for Douglas Shearer, chief sound
engineer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM, Hollywood’s biggest and most
prestigious studio, specialized in lavish musicals and other films that
needed great sound reproduction.
Shearer consulted experts who said that the best man to improve
movie sound was Jim Lansing. From 1933 through 1935, Shearer and Lansing
developed a system of horn-shaped speakers to improve cinema sound. The
Shearer-Lansing system worked so well that in 1936, the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it an award for technical
Lansing Manufacturing was flying high until Ken Decker crashed –
literally. A reserve officer with the Army Air Corps, Decker was killed
during aerial manoeuvres in 1939.
Without Decker’s talent for business, Lansing Manufacturing
suffered. By 1941, the only way its founder could keep it going was to
Altec Service Corporation, which handled maintenance and repairs
for cinema sound systems, needed a source of parts. In December of
1941, Altec bought Lansing Manufacturing for a reported $50,000 (about
$730,000 in 2009 dollars).
Altec to the Rescue
As the newly renamed Altec Lansing Corporation’s Vice-President of
Engineering, Jim Lansing was free to focus on developing new technology.
He and his engineering team invented, among other things, the A-4
speaker system, which became a standard for cinemas.
But Lansing had gotten used to running his operations his own
way, and he clashed with Altec Lansing’s management. His contract ran
for five years. When its term was up, he quit.
On October 1, 1946, he founded Lansing Sound, Incorporated.
Altec Lansing complained that using the name Lansing so prominently
impinged on Altec Lansing’s rights to the word. LSI soon tucked its
founder’s name snugly inside a new identity: James B. Lansing Sound,
J.B.L. and JBL
Lansing soon developed speakers for cinemas. His first components
were virtual copies – right down to the model names – of the speakers
that he had created at Altec Lansing.
Lansing was a brilliant engineer with an eye for innovative
designs and materials, but he was a poor businessman. His company lost
money and by late 1949 was about $20,000 (roughly $180,000 in 2009
dollars) in debt.
Lansing had always suffered from bouts of depression. On
September 24, 1949, apparently upset over the decline of his beloved
business, the founder of JBL took his own life.
JBL after J.B.L.
Lansing had had a $10,000 life insurance policy, one third of which
went to his wife and the remaining two thirds to the company. Using the
company’s share, about $60,000 in 2009 dollars, corporate treasurer
William Thomas began to pull the firm out of debt. In the early 1950s,
Thomas bought out the share of the company that Mrs. Lansing had
inherited and became the sole owner.
Thomas knew that he had a great asset: Jim Lansing’s name.
Despite Lansing’s financial agonies, he still had a tall reputation for
creating top-quality audio electronics. Thomas launched the Jim Lansing
Signature series of loudspeakers, devoted to superb quality in design
But one series of speakers wasn’t enough to keep the company
going – especially after Altec Lansing objected to Thomas’ use of the
valuable Lansing name. After long negotiations, Thomas agreed to stop
using the word. From then on, James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated,
would refer to itself and its products as JBL.
Consumers and Professionals
Thomas kept his company moving with the times. As cinemas added
stereophonic sound, Thomas signed contracts for JBL to design new
components for cinema audio manufacturers Ampex and Westrex.
The early 1950s saw the birth of high-quality consumer audio.
The phrase “hi-fi” (high fidelity) entered the American vocabulary, and
popular magazines presented photo spreads on new record players. To take
advantage of the new market, Thomas hired industrial designer William
Hartsfield, who produced a loudspeaker named, naturally, the Hartsfield.
The speaker was a hit, and JBL was suddenly a power player in home
In 1957, engineer Richard Ranger and designer Arnold Wolf
created the striking sound system Paragon. Housed in an elegant hardwood
cabinet, the Paragon appealed to consumers as both a superb record
player and a stylish piece of living-room furniture. It proved so
popular that JBL continued to make and sell the Paragon for a good 25
Even while it was growing strong in speakers and other
components for the home, JBL was also spreading into what is now called
pro audio. In the 1950s, electric-guitar pioneer Leo Fender called JBL’s
model D130 the ideal loudspeaker for his creations. Guitarists
everywhere started plugging their axes into D130 speakers.
A few years later, in the early 1960s, JBL worked with Capitol
Records (home of the Beatles and the Beach Boys) to develop monitors for
recording studios. The resulting system, the 4320, was so successful
that to this day, JBL’s professional division develops components for
recording studios worldwide.
Encouraged by these successes, William Thomas formally
established JBL Professional as a separate division of the company in
the late 1960s. The consumer division continued on, known simply as JBL.
JBL, Meet Harman
Sidney Harman was the founder (with Bernard Kardon) of the audio
company Harman Kardon. The company was as innovative as JBL; Harman
Kardon had, among other things, created the stereo receiver.
But Harman wanted to grow stronger in the audio business. Harman
Kardon had made him so prosperous that he could and did acquire the
Jervis Corporation, a small conglomerate based in New York. Jervis made
an offer for JBL.
After twenty years building one of the biggest successes in
audio, William Thomas was willing to sell him JBL. In 1969, the deal was
done. JBL now belonged to Jervis, which would eventually be renamed
Harman International Industries, Incorporated. Arnold Wolf, designer of
the Paragon (and the JBL logo), became JBL’s president.
The Boom Years
Under Harman, JBL grew into something close to what it is today: an
audio maker that takes its expertise in theatrical and recording-studio
sound systems and applies it to the home. In 1969, the company installed
the technology of its model 4310 and 4311 monitors (very popular in
recording studios) in the L100 speaker for home systems. The L100 became
an enormous success, selling more than 100,000 units over the 1970s.
In addition to using its existing technology, JBL spent the
1970s and 1980s developing new bursts of innovation. In the middle
1970s, for instance, JBL engineers developed Symmetrical Field
Geometry™, a speaker assembly that reduces sonic distortion. A few years
later, the company’s engineers created Bi-Radial® horn technology,
which improves sonic performance over a range of frequencies.
Meanwhile, Harman International’s worldwide reach helped JBL
serve people who might otherwise never buy JBL products. The company has
made particularly strong inroads in Japan. Since the 1980s, for
instance, ultra-high-end loudspeakers such as the prestigious K2 and the
powerful, room-dominating Everest DD6600 have earned raves in Japanese
audio magazines and high sales in Japanese stores.
JBL Today and Tomorrow
For decades, Sidney Harman continued to lead Harman International
Industries. In May of 2007, as he approached his 88th birthday, he hired
Dinesh Paliwal as the company’s chief executive officer.
Paliwal, an engineer with degrees from the Indian Institute of
Technology and Miami University of Ohio, came to Harman having
previously headed up global power and automation technology leader ABB
Ltd. About a year after coming to Harman International, he succeeded
Sidney Harman as the company’s chairman.
The engineers, executives, and other employees of JBL watched
these changes with considerable interest, but none of the changes swayed
them from their usual concern: making great audio products. They’ve
been setting new trends in fashion by partnering with sportswear company
Roxy for a line of colourful headphones. They’ve been devising speakers
and players for fresh sources of entertainment such as high-definition
television, Blu-ray Disc™ technology and Apple’s latest iPod and iPhone
models. And they’ve been keeping an eye on every other new opportunity
coming down the road.
What exactly are those opportunities? Well, we can’t say what
they are (we have to have some corporate secrets, after all), but we can
say one thing. As JBL’s people continue the traditions of high-quality
craftsmanship and technological innovation that have always marked the
company, we’re sure that Jim Lansing would be proud of us.
JBL, a unit of Harman International Industries, Incorporated, designs
and builds audio equipment for consumers, the entertainment industry
and the automotive industry.
JBL takes its decades of experience making speakers and other
equipment for concert halls and other public venues, and uses it to
create audio equipment for consumers around the world. You can enjoy a
movie, ball game or concert as part of a huge crowd or in your home –
but either way, you can catch all of the sounds with superb clarity
through JBL components.
James B. Lansing founded JBL the year after leaving Altec Lansing as their Vice President of Engineering in 1945. The company was first called Lansing Sound, Incorporated, and dated from 1 October 1946 and then changed its name to James B. Lansing Sound. The first products model D101 15-inch loudspeaker and D175 The high frequency driver. The D175 remained in the JBL catalog through the 1970s. Both of these were near copies of Altec Lansing products. First original product was the D130, a 15-inch transducer for which a variant would remain in production for the next 55 years. The D130 featured a four-inch flat ribbon wire voice coil and Alnico V magnet. Two other products were the 12-inch D131 and 8-inch D208 cone drivers.
The Marquardt Corporation gave the company early manufacturing space and a modest investment. William H. Thomas, the treasurer of Marquardt Corporation, represented Marquardt on Lansing’s Board of Directors. In 1948 Marquardt took over operation of the JBL. In 1949 Marquardt was purchased by General Tire Company. The new company was not interested in the loudspeaker business and severed ties with Mr. Lansing. The company was reincorporated as James B. Lansing, Incorporated, and moved to its first private location on 2439 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles.
A key to JBL’s early development was Mr. Lansing’s close business relationship with its primary supplier of Alnico V magnetic material, Robert Arnold of Arnold Engineering. Arnold Engineering extended favorable terms and deep credit to Mr. Lansing. Robert Arnold saw JBL as an opportunity to sell Alnico V magnetic material into a new market.
James Lansing was noted as an innovative engineer, but a poor businessman. For the next three years Mr. Lansing struggled to pay invoices and ship product. As a result of deteriorating business conditions and personal issues, he took his own life on September 4, 1949. The company then passed into the hands of Bill Thomas, JBL’s then vice-president. Mr. Lansing had taken out a $10,000 life insurance policy naming the company as the beneficiary. That allowed Mr. Thomas to continue the company after Mr. Lansing’s death. Soon after, Mr. Thomas purchased Mrs. Lansing’s one-third interest in the company and became the sole owner of the company. Mr. Thomas was responsible for revitalizing the company and spearheading a remarkable period of growth for the two decades following the founding of JBL.
Early products included the model 375 high frequency driver and the 075 UHF (Ultra High Frequency) ring radiator driver. The ring radiator drivers are also known as “JBL bullets” because of their distinctive shape. The 375 was a re-invention of the Western Electric 594 driver but with an Alnico V magnet and a four-inch voice coil. The 375 shared the same basic magnet structure as the D-130 woofer. JBL engineers Ed May and Bart N. Locanthi created these designs.
Two products from that era, the Hartsfield and the Paragon, continue to be highly desired on the collectors market.
In 1955 the brand name JBL was introduced to resolve ongoing disputes with Altec Lansing Corporation. The company name “James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated” was retained, but the logo name was changed to JBL with the distinctive exclamation point logo.
The JBL 4320 series studio monitor was introduced through Capitol Records in Hollywood and became the standard monitor worldwide for its parent company, EMI. JBL’s introduction to rock and roll music came via the adoption of the D130 loudspeaker by Leo Fender’s Fender Guitar company as the ideal driver for electric guitars.
In 1969, Bill Thomas sold JBL to the Jervis Corporation (later renamed Harman International) headed by Dr. Sidney Harman. The 1970s saw JBL become a household brand, starting with the famous L-100, which was the best-selling loudspeaker model of any company to that date. The 1970s also saw a major JBL expansion in the professional audio field from their studio monitors. By 1977 more recording studios were using JBL monitors than all other brands combined, according to a Billboard survey. The JBL L-100 and 4310 control monitors were noteworthy, popular home speakers. In the late 1970s, the new L-series designs L15, L26, L46, L56, L86, L96, L112, L150, and later the L150A and flagship L250 were introduced with improved crossovers, ceramic magnet woofers, updated midrange drivers, and Aluminum deposition phenolic resin tweeters. In the mid 1980s the designs were again updated and redesigned with a new titanium-deposition tweeter diaphragm. The new L-series designations being the L20T, L40T, L60T, L80T, L100T, and the Ti-series 18Ti, 120Ti, 240Ti, and the flagship 250Ti. To test speaker drivers, JBL in Northridge used the roof as an outdoor equivalent to an anechoic chamber.
Over the next two decades JBL, went more mass-market with their consumer (Northridge) line of loudspeakers. At the same time, they made an entry into the high end market with their project speakers, consisting of the Everest and K2 lines. JBL became a prominent supplier to the tour sound industry, their loudspeakers being employed by touring rock acts and music festivals. JBL products were the basis for the development of THX loudspeaker standard, which resulted in JBL becoming a popular cinema loudspeaker manufacturer.
JBL was formerly used in Ford’s top-of-the-line vehicle audio systems, as competition with Chrysler (whose cars used Infinity (audio)) and Nissan (who used Bose Corporation). Today, Toyotauses JBL systems in its product line-up.
MIX WITHOUT BOUNDARIES
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