In the mid-1970's, two high-school buddies decided to fool around with component speakers and began building home loudspeakers for fun during their summer break from university studies. At first, they only showed them to their friends. Then, their friends bought a few of them, and they built a few more to sell at the local weekend flea-market. Soon, the hobby turned into a fun little business, and the two friends chose their first names' initials for the fledgling enterprise. While Jim Birch and Lucio Proni were turning their passion for sound into JL Audio, they had no idea what they were starting would eventually become one of the world's most respected audio brands.
During the 1970's, the partners tried their hand at a variety of business approaches with JL Audio. Initially, Lucio and Jim designed some simple home loudspeakers and hit the pavement to see if local audio shops might be interested in selling them. After exploring that avenue for a while with some success, they decided to open their own retail store, called "Speaker Warehouse," as a way to sell their products and provide loudspeaker repair services on a local level. As the word got out that these guys really knew their stuff about speaker systems, their small retail store in Hollywood, Florida began to thrive. Lucio started to design new products, including more home speakers, DIY speaker kits and DJ speaker systems, always scouring the marketplace for interesting products to carry in the store.
By the 1980's, Speaker Warehouse had become a flourishing business, selling, installing and servicing home, professional and car audio systems. Having a keen eye for leading-edge products, Lucio and Jim were early adopters of mobile audio amplifiers, which they knew could unleash some really amazing car audio systems. With lots of clean power now available, Lucio turned his sharp engineering eye towards loudspeaker systems for the car. Speaker Warehouse soon became known as the place where the wildest high-performance audio systems were being built. Car systems featuring twelve and fifteen-inch woofers, midrange drivers, tweeters, horns and insane amounts of power (Hundreds of watts!) were a daily occurrence in Speaker Warehouse's installation area.
During the 1980's, Speaker Warehouse expanded to three locations throughout the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. In addition to servicing loudspeakers, the stores were now full retailers for a wide range of home, professional and car audio products. During this time, the JL Audio side of the business became focused on professional and car audio products under Lucio's guidance, while Jim ran the day-to-day business of the retail stores. Frustrated that he couldn't source good low-frequency drivers for car audio use, Lucio decided to put his loudspeaker knowledge to use and design his own. This decision would turn out to be a gigantic turning point in the company's history.
The first JL Audio car subwoofer driver was the 8W2, an 8-inch woofer that was well suited to the ported enclosures Lucio was designing for Speaker Warehouse in those days. The sales and installation staff at the stores became very fond of using these simple-looking 8-inch woofers because they consistently delivered excellent output (and low-frequency extension that none of the larger drivers of the day could match). Several enclosed subwoofer systems, named "PowerWedge," were built with the 8W2's and were sold successfully by Speaker Warehouse and a few other retailers in the region. Variants of the 8W2 design in 10-inch and 12-inch sizes soon followed with similar success, along with a more power-capable 8-inch driver (8W3). In 1987, Lucio followed with more powerful W5 dual voice coil subwoofers in 10 and 12-inch sizes. Little did anyone know that a small crew of rabid car audio enthusiasts was about to turn the auto sound world on its ear, using this modest lineup of subwoofer drivers.
The Sound-Off Years: In 1988, one of Speaker Warehouse's salesmen attended a new type of event called a "sound-off" (that's what they called car audio sound quality competitions back then). Manville Smith came back from this event with an itch to build a car to compete under the Speaker Warehouse banner. Lucio loves a challenge... so, you can probably predict the rest. Lucio took Manville's Toyota Celica for a couple of weeks and built a pretty amazing system using Precision Power amplifiers, a mix of professional, car and home audio mid and high-frequency drivers, and a bizarre isobaric ported enclosure using eight JL Audio 8W2's. The performance of this system, especially in the sub-bass, was positively supernatural. As soon as the others at Speaker Warehouse listened to it and the car had won a few trophies at regional events, the bug spread like wildfire and the competition car projects began to multiply. The team seemed to grow by one car for every show it attended and began to learn the ins and outs of competition. Several other dealers competing on the regional circuit took note of the JL Audio subwoofer drivers used by the team and started to carry them in their stores. Among them was Alan Wenzel (more about him in the next chapter).
Throughout the 1989 IASCA season, a small fleet of Speaker Warehouse competition cars traveled around the Southeastern U.S., gathering points to qualify for the first IASCA Finals event. As the year progressed, upgrades were made and the buzz around the team began to build. Speaker Warehouse found itself building three competition-grade cars at a time, working late into the night to get the work done, in addition to dealing with daily business. Among these vehicles was Tommy Clark's legendary Ford van, known as "Rockit Science."
Throughout the 1989 season, the Speaker Warehouse crew kept hearing through the grapevine that the vehicles from the West Coast of the U.S. were ‘way ahead' of the Florida cars and that the Speaker Warehouse team was in for a rude awakening at the Finals. Lucio, Gary Martin (now in JL Audio's R&D Department) and the entire crew put in long hours upgrading all the cars to the highest degree possible. Fiberglass was experimented with for the first time, motorized amplifier racks were engineered, carpeted enclosures were replaced with vinyl-covered ones, cosmetic touches were added, and sound quality tweaks were applied to all the cars.
In the end, a total of seven Speaker Warehouse vehicles qualified for the IASCA Finals: Manville's Celica, Tommy Clark's "Rockit Science" Ford van, Adolfo Corripio's Honda Civic, Harry Lord's Toyota Supra, Tim Lublin's GMC Jimmy, James Campbell's Renault Medallion, and a dark-horse entry in the 1-100 watt Pro Class: Lucio Proni's 1987 Ford Mustang GT. Putting reason aside and going for broke, Lucio and Jim committed to the expense of sending the vehicles and the crew to Arizona to compete in the Finals. A transporter was hired to carry all seven vehicles cross-country. This would prove to be a very good move.
What many people don't know is that Lucio's Mustang almost didn't make it. The car had a great-sounding, basic installation when it qualified for Finals in the lowest-power Pro Division class. The plan had always been to give it a big upgrade before heading to Arizona, but time had run short and Lucio had given priority to all the customer cars and the other Pro cars. In the last few days before the trip, a huge amount of work was completed on the Mustang, but not enough to finish the difficult job of tuning a complex, twenty-driver system with all-passive crossovers. The car was loaded onto the transporter in a semi-completed state, with the hope that it could be made ready once the team reached Arizona. With one day to prepare before the big event, Lucio and Speaker Warehouse installer, Hector Yanez, tweaked and assembled the huge crossover network, while the rest of the crew cleaned the cars and got them ready for the show.
The competition field was huge, with over 200 cars registered and 30-35 cars in most classes. When the dust settled (and there was a lot of dust on the ASU band practice field), Tommy Clark took 1st place in the Amateur 501-1000W Class with his "Rockit Science" van, Manville Smith's Celica and Adolfo Corripio's Civic each took 1st Place in their Pro Classes, while Harry Lord's Supra came in 2nd in its Amateur Class. As for Lucio's Mustang...with its last-minute build and tune? It won "Best of Show" in the Pro Division, in addition to winning its class. The team from Florida had made a definite impression and, giddy with excitement, partied into the night... or at least until the sleep-deprivation got the better of them.
Of course, every single one of the winning Speaker Warehouse cars used JL Audio subwoofers, which naturally created quite a bit of curiosity among the car audio competitors at the IASCA Finals. Soon, the magazines began printing articles about the winning cars. Over the following months, the phone at JL Audio's humble headquarters started to ring as car audio dealers from around the country wanted to know more about these new subwoofer drivers. It was time to start thinking seriously about JL Audio as a "national" business.
P.S. In the following years, Speaker Warehouse continued to be a powerhouse team on the IASCA circuit. The team sent nine cars and took home five 1st place trophies in 1990 and continued their winning trend for the next five years. Tommy Clark's "Rockit Science" van went on to win three consecutive IASCA World Finals Championships (1989, 1990, 1991). All of the Speaker Warehouse cars that competed in the following years used JL Audio subwoofers.
Continue reading: JL Audio History: 1991-2011