JBL’s new vintage speakers are “designed for reality”

The new Authentics line reclaims the past but speaks directly to the present, as affirmed by Christian Schluender, Vice President of Design at Harman, of which JBL is part, in a conversation with Domus.

JBL is a very popular brand. This is largely due to its line of portable speakers, which have become ubiquitous in recent years and seem to find their way into the hands of people from all walks of life. JBL is known for both its forays into nostalgia, such as the Panderis audio system, and its forays into innovation, such as the groundbreaking JBL Tour Pro 2 headphones with an integrated screen. With its latest release, the brand is reconnecting with its more than 75-year history. Enter the Authentics connected speakers, a trilogy of varying sizes, delivering music with an enveloping sound experience thanks to spatial audio and Dolby Atmos technology on the 500 model. These speakers are the first in the world to offer dual activation for Alexa and Google Assistant, voice assistants that play a pivotal role in 85 percent of European homes, according to the brand. Of particular note, these speakers deviate from much of JBL’s recent offerings due to their “discreet echoes of heritage from the retro design era of the 1970s”. This choice stems from meticulous consumer research – JBL never seems to move by accident: for 64 percent of European respondents, design is crucial to creating an “immersive and refined” audio experience, and for 55 percent it is important that the look has a vintage feel.

“Newstalgia” is a trend that blends vintage aesthetics with modern technologies, explains Christian Schluender, SVP and general manager of design at audio powerhouse Harman (which owns JBL). He is speaking from the stage of a JBL-organized event to launch the Authentics product line during the days of IFA, Europe’s largest consumer technology trade show. In the past, both the JBL and Harman brands played a central role at this event. But post-Covid, things have changed, favoring a media-centric presentation style. This approach combines the art of product storytelling with DJ sets and fun karaoke sessions. The event takes place in a cool location, a converted former parking garage in an upscale part of Berlin (behind Savignyplatz). Invitations were extended to international journalists and influencers, now mingling under the DJ decks or in line for a drink.

Harman’s (and by extension JBL’s) approach to design has changed with Covid, Schluender tells Domus. This change is most evident in the design process itself, as the product team, including designers and engineers, has always been “very international”. As a result, the approach to creating new devices has always been very international too. The pandemic has indeed broken the magic of the melting pot. “We’re going to expand the international footprint of the design team”, he announces.

But it is more than that. Because of Covid and the geopolitical situation, he says, design is changing. “People are looking for simplification”: they want products that do precise and specific things and communicate them in a simple way. Simplicity is the new buzzword in design. There is also a need to simplify aesthetics. “Simple shapes, simple standards, simple forms, even the transition surface development is very very simple”. There’s also a growing emphasis on authenticity. The desire for materials that feel “real”, such as wood, has gained prominence.

Design references come from fashion and interior design. But also from automotive design. Schluender praises Polestar and its design approach, “their stunning, beautiful, simplified vehicles, the simplified exterior shapes and color palettes; the super simple assembly, and these beautiful little accents like the little seatbelts”. For Harman’s SVP, Polestar is “on the pedestal” right now.

Polestar, as a separate entity from Volvo, has made a point of not having a history behind it. JBL’s position is exactly the opposite. “Yes, we have this heritage”, replies the SVP. “But if you look at the design itself, we were able to add those accents and build on that right, so we are simplifying and building on that”. And he cites the story of the JBL L100, a set of loudspeakers from the 1970s that served as a deep source of inspiration for the new Authentics speaker line. The JBL L100 was conceived by a visionary designer in California who “wanted to change the world by changing the speakers everybody had”. His original design idea, which introduced colored foam grilles in a square pattern (Quadrex) and implied a certain texture, was not quite feasible at the time, and now finds fulfillment in the Authentics line.

JBL L100

“It’s still relevant today because it was simple”, Schluender says, echoing what has already been said about the importance of simplicity. And again, “we can pull the heritage of something simple to the future”.

Schluender, with whom we chat backstage, interrupted now and then by deafening soundchecks, is a man with a deep voice and an easy way with words, capable of rattling off disruptive concepts, sometimes even counterintuitive ones, as if they were truisms. As the saying goes, he is a designer with a vision, backed up by data from JBL’s many research efforts, an essential foundation for Harman’s design choices. When discussing the aesthetics of the Authentics, which enhance the L100’s cue with gold-plated profiles and a custom-designed control center, rounded corners and dark square foam grilles, Schluender explains that at the core of JBL’s ethos is the freedom to express yourself. “And what better place to express yourself than at home?”.

That’s why the reference is not to “some artificial Nordic decor”, as he wryly comments, “it’s stunning, and the world just isn’t made that way”. Instead, the idea behind Authentics was to design a device that could fit into a small home in Hong Kong or London, as well as a larger space. “So we really designed it for people who have all different types of houses. The design is meant to blend in, so the color palette is extremely neutral. But we’re still able to have those beautiful splashes of detail, like a gold color, that dark color”. Authentics are not made for designers, he reiterates. And then, with total simplicity, he rattles off a phrase that could easily be the slogan for JBL’s new line: “It’s designed for reality”.

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