The history of the JBE range of turntables from the late '70s and early '80s is very difficult to pinpoint with real accuracy, but since launching this website many years ago, I have been contacted by lots of owners, each with a story or turntable which has helped to fill in the blanks.
Many of you who find this website will probably do so after having seen a JBE Series 3 (perhaps on eBay where they come up for sale on a reasonably regular basis). The distinctive Welsh slate platter and equally distinctive 6-disc platter are JBE trademark features, but it's now clear that the JBE story starts much earlier that the Series 3, which I’m pretty sure was launched in 1978 and remained in production until the latter part of 1982, when the firm ceased trading.
It seems increasingly likely that the origins of JBE can be traced to another product, sold under the Environmental Sound banner. This company was run by John Bryant and was a trading name of his parent company, called JB Manufacturing Acoustics and Design Ltd. Originally based in Sussex, I believe Bryant moved the operation up to Northallerton on the promise of some form of enterprise grant (possibly in 1976), which subsequently did not materialise. He launched Yorkshire HiFi with a small range of speakers which were called the ES 1-3 and 2-3. One can only assume that the ES stood for Environmental Sound. Yorkshire HiFi ceased trading in 1985, but the JBE story had run its course by then.
What we can be sure of, is that Environmental Sound launched a range of turntables, all with the now distinctive 6-disc platter design. These featured a black acrylic plinth and the platter itself had a smaller central disc. Mounted on a black acrylic sub section of the plinth, the outer discs on these turntables were fully supported by the base, where on later JBEs the discs just clip over the edge of the sub platter.
The first JBE branded turntables began appearing, I suspect, from around 1975 and featured a range of turntables from the JBE 3001 to the JBE 8001. Three different plinths were on offer, a clear acrylic, a black acrylic and a black acrylic with top skin of anodised aluminium. Two different sizes of plinth were available, these being 17 1/8in wide by 13 1/8in deep or 19 1/2in wide by 14 1/2in deep. This gave you the six different models, with the wider plinth designed specifically to accommodate the Dynavector DV505 tonearm. Each turntable could be ordered with either the distinctive JBE platter or a more conventional platter which I suspect was of Technics origin.
Who was marketing these? Well I think they may have still been under John Bryant's control and sold via a new company he established, which I know was called JB Electronic Systems and Equipment.
And the JBE name itself? Well that has to stand for John Bryant Electronics, doesn't it?
Just to add a little confusion at this early stage, you'll see elsewhere on the site that I have images of several other JBE style turntables, one of which is called an FP2001. This surely has to be a predecessor to the 3001, but shows little plinth resemblance to the Environmental Sound offerings. FP stands for Freelance Plastic Company Ltd. The brochure shows the company based in Epsom, Surrey (more information within the model section).
So what of the slate JBE turntable? I had thought that the Series 3 was not available until 1978, but was contacted by an owner who bought his Series 3 at the UK Audio Show in 1977, directly off the Janorhurst stand. I'm convinced his is one of the earliest examples, as the SME cut out is inline with the plinth and not at an angle as all other examples are. He remembers that both slate and acrylic plinths were available, as well as clear or smoked lids. His control box is die-cast aluminium, not the black plastic of every other examples I've seen. So again, one of the very first examples, perhaps even launched at the show?
Whether John Bryant joined forces with another company, I cannot be sure, but JBE Limited appears to have been (re) launched as a specialist hifi division of Janorhurst Limited (Arnold Electronics) with Tom Arnold at the helm. Much of my information has been gleaned from Gramophone magazine's online archives, and the earliest mention I can find of Janorhurst is in 1977, when the company had launched the Groovac Mk111, a record cleaner with a vacuum action. By 1979 either the same product or a revamped version of it was being marketed as the Disc-A-Vac. Other hifi ancillaries were also available, with Janorhurst launching a range of audio switching units in 1978 and, in 1979, a range of speaker stands.
Janorhurst operated from Century House, Shortmead Street, Biggleswade, in Bedfordshire. Having had contact with an employee of the company I'm led to believe that the business moved from here after a factory fire, settling briefly in Stevenage and then to Bedford until when the doors closed for good.
Janorhurst continues today as Jantec, working within the electronics industry. Original JBE MD, Tom Arnold, remained a Managing Director of Jantec for many years. The company is still based in Biggleswade.
One good way of dating any JBE turntable is via a manufacturing date sticker on the side of the Matsushita Electric Industrial phono motor used throughout the life cycle of the turntables. On my 3001 there's a date of Sept 1976, and the 7001 has a date of January 1977.
A copy of the HiFi Yearbook of 1979 does not help to clarify matters! While it does not list JBE as a turntable manufacturer (Janorhurst is in there, with regards its other products) it does list Environmental Sound and shows a number of JBE style turntables (EST 4X, EST 5, EST 6 and EST 7). The yearbook may well have actually been released at the end of the previous year and this may have therefore been before JBE launched the slate based Series 3, but why are these turntables still in existence when the JBE 3001 to 8001 turntable range has already been available for several years? It's a question that I cannot currently answer with any certainty.
By 1980, Janorhurst was actively developing JBE as a brand in its own right, with the launch of the JBE Diamond speakers in 1980. As with the slate plinth of the Series 3 turntable, the Diamond speakers were also launched with slate tops and bottoms. Gramophone describing them… "unusual cabinets with Welsh slate tops and bottoms were dispensing unusually uncoloured sound when I called."
In 1981, JBE moved out from the shadow of Janorhurst, moving to dedicated premises at Unit 5, Industrial Estate, Dean Street, Bedford. The plan at this stage was to build a broad spectrum of hi-fi components, in addition to the JBE turntables and Diamond loudspeakers it was already manufacturing.
I suspect that two factors conspired against the company's future success. Much is made on the hi-fi forums today of the battle between belt-drive and direct drive turntables, and the trend at the time was certainly towards belt-drive offering a superior performance. So the JBE was fighting against the tide of belt-drive offerings at the time.
Secondly, I wonder if the separation of parent company Janorhurst and its sibling probably also played a part. I can find no mention of JBE after April 1981, when the separation of the two operations was covered by Gramophone. How long it lasted after this I’ve yet to establish. My suspicion is no later than 1982!
And as a final intriguing thought, enthusiast Allister Hardwick contacted me with a huge amount of information, including the fact that when he met Arnold while the company was still in existence, Arnold hinted that just one Series 4 had been produced, which Arnold was keeping at home!