JBL has a history going back 95 years: the company was founded in 1927 in Los Angeles to make speaker drivers for radios, and had close links with the movie business from the period before World War II, right through to being the reference brand for the development of the THX cinema system. These days its speakers are still found hidden away in cinemas worldwide, but it’s probably best-known for more visible applications, ranging from studio monitors to the speaker cabinets used in huge PA rigs for rock concerts. And it’s that heritage it channels into the compact bookshelf/standmount 4309 speakers, part of an unashamedly retro range combining classic styling with a thoroughly updated sound. The 4309 may look like they’ve just escaped from someone’s den during the mid-60s, but they’re huge fun to listen to, whether with driving rock or dance music or the smokiest of jazz.
There are some huge models in the company’s studio monitor range of which it’s a part – but the 4309 is a compact design, standing just under 42cm tall. However, its style is distinctive, with the mid/bass driver fitted into a blue-finished baffle you can cover with the foam grille supplied or leave revealed for the full ‘studio’ effect, and a choice of natural or black walnut finishes to the hefty cabinets. Although it’s quite a small speaker, each one weighs almost 11kg, indicating how robustly it’s put together. But the dominant feature here is the high-frequency driver assembly: the 25mm soft-dome tweeter is mounted deep inside a horn assembly derived from the company’s flagship HDI speaker range, designed to control dispersion – the way sound spreads from the driver – for excellent definition and imaging. Whether you listen to them close-up, monitor-style, or across a room, the 4309s deliver excellent stereo soundstage pictures and focus.
It’s a technology the company has used and developed since the 1920s, and it works so well that the speaker features a little control on the front panel, just below the compression driver, to allow the user to tune the ultra-high-frequency output – you can soften it a shade or crank it up a bit to suit your room, the rest of your system, and whether you want the sound with maximum attack or just smoothed a little. Meanwhile, although the mid/bass unit isn’t huge – its old-school pulp cone is just 16.5cm across – it’s built to handle plenty of amplifier power, and its cast chassis ensures rigidity for maximum dynamics. Like the tweeter, this driver draws on JBL’s pro-audio background and twin forward-venting bass ports both ensure low-end clout and make it easy to position the speakers in the room. Finally, those very retro-looking cabinets benefit from extensive internal bracing, keeping resonances at bay and isolating the treble driver from the vibrations of the woofer.
Used on the 60cm-ish stands JBL recommends, or even on open shelves using the isolating footpads supplied, the 4309 soon establishes itself as a design able to deliver a view of the music they’re playing that’s full of vitality and impact, but also with plenty of subtlety and detail. You don’t need a huge amplifier to drive them, as they’re reasonably efficient – JBL suggests 25W as minimum, and 150W maximum – so they’re perfectly able to be used with sensible entry-level amps or all-in-one streaming systems, but while impressive with not much power, these speakers have more than enough capability to show what some serious amp power and quality can do.
If you must place the speakers wide apart, say more than 2.5m, angling them in a little towards you will tighten up the sound, but provided you can use them closer together the horn design will deliver their almost uncanny sense of focus and presence with the 4309s facing straight into the room. While these are undeniably hilarious rock-boxes, being able to go loud and deliver plenty of excitement with not much amplifier power, whether you’re playing guitar-band live sets or thumping R’n’B or electro music, they also have the refinement to smooch through some breathy saxophone jazz, bring out superb character with vocals, or even let you listen deep into a small ensemble classical work – or a large orchestral one, for that matter.
True, these aren’t speakers you’d choose to fill a massive space with music – there are plenty of others for that in the company’s range, right up to the massive 4367, with its 38cm woofers looking like something out of a PA-stack bass cabinet – but in a more conventional domestic space the 4309’s combination of clarity and insight into recordings, plus that awareness that they can be a riot when unleashed in anger, is highly attractive.
Provided you like the somewhat vintage looks of these speakers – and let’s face it, you wouldn’t be buying them if you didn’t – they have a winning mix of definition and sheer enjoyment. They sound best when placed on rigid 24in/60cm stands, which needn’t be too expensive, and can be driven by almost any reasonable stereo amplifier of around 50W per channel or more – or even one of the new-generation network audio all-in-ones – to excellent effect. Which finish to buy? Well, both are high-quality, and of course it will depend on your décor, but for the full Californian vintage monitor vibe, the natural walnut look is the only way to go.
Combining distinctive styling with highly-developed driver technology, and easy to drive even with modest amplification, the 4309s will put the fun back into your listening without sacrificing finesse or all the hi-fi niceties, such as superb stereo imaging, speed and definition.
A Love Supreme, John Coltrane
Somehow one of the best jazz albums ever made works beautifully with the little JBLs, from the way they track the rhythms underpinning Coltrane’s soaring sax to the way they place the performers in this 1960s recording. It sounds like the recording these speakers were made for
Living Proof, The War On Drugs
The latest TWOD set is big, lush and fine-detailed, and the 4309 speakers deliver it with a wonderfully up-close view of the lavish production, from Adam Granduciel’s vocals to the game of ‘spot the 80s influence’ throughout. Lovely stuff!
Son of a Preacher Man, Dusty Springfield
And yes, these speakers do vocals superbly well, as is clear from a play of the still-unsurpassed Dusty in Memphis set from all the way back in 1969. Glorious brass accompaniment and arrangements, with good weight and substance, and her voice can still create shivers
It’s all too easy to take hi-fi too seriously, but the 4309 combines all the serious stuff with an exuberant, inviting sound that brings out the spirit in a huge range of music. This is much more than just an exercise in nostalgia.