Platinum Record: Audio pioneer JBL celebrates 70th anniversary

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Technology

If you’re a married couple, commemoration of your 70th wedding anniversary is referred to as a “platinum” celebration. In many parts of the world, once you surpass 50 years of wedded bliss, it is considered quite an achievement. Upon request, the monarch, president or prime minister may offer an official proclamation and personal congratulations to you and your beloved partner. If you’re Roman Catholic, you can even apply to receive a special Papal blessing as a reward for spending more than half a century together.

With companies that manage to successfully stay the course for seven decades or more of uninterrupted operations, there is also cause for congratulations, and such is the case with the company we know today as JBL Incorporated, which celebrates its 70th anniversary later this year. For those of you who might be planning to send a card or perhaps purchase a little something in platinum for the world-renowned audio systems and solutions provider, October 1, 2016 is the official date they become a septuagenarian.

Early Roots and Corporate Evolution

JBL was founded in 1946 by James Bullough Lansing (born James Martini of Macoupin County, Illinois). Like many boys, Martini was especially interested in electrical and mechanical objects. Leyden jars and crystal radios were of particular fascination to young James. Legend has it that while still in his teens he built a radio transmitter so powerful it caused enough local interference to warrant an order to shut it down.

Lansing later got work as a radio telegrapher on the high seas and at a radio station, on land. Around this period he befriended Kenneth G. Decker, his eventual business partner. Assuming better opportunities in Salt Lake City and later, Los Angeles, the pair headed west and established the Lansing Manufacturing Company (LMC) in 1927 out in L.A. LMC’s top-selling products were six- and eight-inch cone loudspeakers for radio sets and consoles.

With LMC focusing on radio production in the late 1920s, Western Electric (WE)—the manufacturing arm of AT&T—saw an exciting opportunity to jump headfirst into the motion picture sound arena. WE quickly became the dominant player in cinema “talkies” as early titles such as The Jazz Singer began to bring a whole new dimension to the film world. About a decade later, the U.S. government acted to undo the virtual monopoly WE held in the motion picture sound field, opening the door for companies like Altec Service Corporation to compete on a level playing field.

By the early ’40s, LMC began to experience difficult economic times and it proposed a sale to Altec in order to stay afloat; they ultimately agreed to the proposed terms of a $50,000 purchase price. The combined company was rebranded Altec Lansing Corporation (ALC). While at ALC, with the financial concerns now lifted, Lansing focused on loudspeaker development. Five years later, with his non-compete agreement now at its official expiration date, few were surprised when Lansing departed to launch JBL.

JBL Today

Of all American-based audio companies, JBL holds the record for its overall longevity, and the corporate clock is still ticking and going strong. According to a company source, you will most likely be listening to JBL loudspeakers in more than half of all motion picture theatres around the globe. It is also a safe bet that any recording you hear while enjoying the latest movie on the big screen in that cinema’s auditorium will most likely have been monitored and/or mastered over JBL loudspeakers at some stage along the way in its production process.

JBL has a nice, long heritage to be proud of, but how do they stack up against today’s high-end worldwide audio competitors? According to Dan Saenz, the company’s customer solutions manager for the cinema market at JBL Professional, “We differentiate ourselves through the technology of the sound system and we are constantly introducing new technological innovations in speakers, amplifiers and processing.

“When it comes to speakers, we develop and build our own drivers. No one else in the audio industry is doing this. A great example is our new 9350 [a high-output/high-impact surround-sound loudspeaker for the theatrical exhibition market]. In amplification, we have created a proprietary technology called DriveCore, which allows us to develop smaller and more efficient amplifiers, packing more power into a smaller form factor.”

Under the watchful eye of its NYSE-listed parent company Harman International Industries, Inc., JBL is constantly evolving and changing to better serve their clientele. Over the past year they pivoted to a vertical market-focused, customer-centric strategy, as opposed to the prior operating philosophy, which was more centered on promoting and selling specific brands.

Reporting to Bryan Bradley, senior VP of Harman’s Entertainment Strategic Business Unit, Saenz fills a key leadership role at JBL’s Cinema Group, with a focus on overall theatrical exhibition sales and service rather than managing various product brands within the organization. “Our go-to-market strategy and customer interface have been streamlined in the recent 12-month period. The results can be seen in our sales channel, and this unified approach in market messaging and product development is producing desired results. It’s a very exciting time for us, given JBL’s legacy in cinema, and through the recent corporate transformation we have become a true vertically integrated audio systems solution provider.”

The company is also collaborating with adjacent and affiliated suppliers and manufacturers, which will be even more critical as new cutting-edge technology continues to push the cinema-going experience in various new and exciting directions. As a result, JBL is working to best align their internal corporate efforts with external forces.

When it comes to the Hollywood studios, it’s worth noting that a lot of them are creating their own content on Harman systems, including JBL, Crown and BSS. According to Saenz, “We are collaborating with the studios when it comes to their sound system needs and are always looking for more opportunities to work together.”

The Sound of Cinema’s Future

What should we expect next from JBL? According to Saenz, moviegoers will be seeing—and, of course, hearing—the company continue on its present path of innovating on both the product and the component level. The organization is constantly striving to further improve the cinema-going experience. Just as important will be its system-level innovation. 

“We are looking to improve every aspect of the cinema experience and part of that has to be our system approach,” Saenz states. “Remember that we just recently reorganized Harman Professional to be a more streamlined and customer-focused entity. We will also continue to deliver system solutions that will be innovative and market-leading.” 

Film JournalInternational asked Saenz to take a look into his crystal ball. We posed the question that if one enters a movie theatre five years from now, how might that overall experience be any different from it is today? 

“We see the cinema-going experience changing in two areas, both within the cinema and within the cinema complex—the amenities. Exhibitors are moving beyond being movie theatres. The direction that they are headed is toward becoming true entertainment destinations. Within the cinema, it’s not only the big-title movies, but it’s going to be more gaming, more alternative content with concerts and VIP areas. 

“These changing needs will alter product and system requirements, which we at JBL are actively looking at. In addition to this, immersive audio will continue to increase on a number of screens as the cost of the components and systems comes down, with a better experience for attendees. Outside of the cinema, there is a drive toward creating one-stop entertainment complexes. With the combination of restaurants and cafés in these complexes, audio will be an important part of these additions through setting the appropriate environment.”