I just tested JBL's new retro-style speaker — and the sound is stunning

JBL L42ms on table
(Image credit: JBL)

JBL is on a roll with wireless speaker systems right now, and the retro-styled JBL L42ms integrated music system announced earlier this year is the latest to go on sale.

It joins the company's larger JBL L75ms ($1,500) as a more compact and affordable option ($999 / £999) in its high-end Harman Luxury Audio Group speaker line, and I've been lucky enough to be among the first to try it out at home.

We've seen several new speaker systems arrive from the maker in the last few months. From the latest versions of popular ultra-portable speakers including the JBL Clip 5 and JBL Go 4, to the JBL Authentics 300 portable wireless speaker that was announced at IFA 2023 that sports the same classic Quadrex speaker grille as the L42ms and L74ms luxury audio models. 

Several JBL speaker models rank among the best Bluetooth speakers we've tested, but the JBL L42ms is designed to rival static music systems from audiophile brands such as the KEF LSX Lite, Sonus faber Omnia, or even Bang & Olufsen Beolab 8, many of which rank among the best music systems for style I've tried.

JBL L42ms: A modern music maker with classic style

JBL L42ms on a bench

The L42ms has a curved front baffle and grille, and is available in black walnut or natural walnut real wood veneer finishes. (Image credit: Future)

The JBL hits the mark, and the music system's minimal tabletop design is right on trend. The curved wooden cabinet housing has been acoustically treated and tuned to achieve the sonic signature of JBL's classic stereo speaker series in a single cabinet.

Hidden behind that distinctive speaker grille, the JBL L42ms has angled speaker drivers with dual 4-inch (100mm) woofers and dual 0.75-inch (20mm) Aluminum dome tweeters to help to create a wide stereo soundstage from a single speaker cabinet. The only thing that lets it down in the style stakes, is that the grille isn't available in alternative color options as with the company's L100 Classic MkII speaker series, and the likes of rival music systems such as the Naim Mu-so.      

JBL L42ms $999 @ Best BuyPrice check: $999 @ Crutchfield

JBL L42ms $999 @ Best Buy
The JBL L42ms integrated music systems joins the larger JBL L75ms ($1,499), but shares the original's Classic Series design inspiration and is available in black or walnut wood veneer finishes with 1970s-inspired Quadrex foam grille. The L42ms music system is rated at 200W total power output, and includes wireless connectivity via Apple AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast, and Bluetooth.
Price check: $999 @ Crutchfield 

In terms of whether the JBL L42ms is one of the best music systems for style, it has all the right credentials. The build quality is strong, and despite the vintage styling, there's a dizzying number of ways to connect to your favorite wireless audio sources and stream true hi-res content up to 24-bit/96kHz. Whether it's connecting to home-networked UPnP devices around the home over Ethernet or Wi-Fi, via Apple AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, or Tidal Connect, the JBL does it all. 

The JBL L42ms is Roon Ready too, and has Smart Things support to enable it to be integrated with a smart home app, as well as Bluetooth. Plus, there's HDMI ARC, meaning to can be connected to a TV just like the best soundbars, and line-ins via stereo RCAs and a 3.5mm jack for wired connectivity options to external audio sources.

The JBL Premium Audio app provided access to Internet Radio, Podcasts, Amazon Music HD, and Qobuz during my testing — some of the best music streaming services we've tested — and it's likely that more will be added to the app. One downside on the app, was that I didn't appear to be able to adjust the speaker's sound settings, or at least not as far as I could tell. 

Another thing to mention that some users might want to factor in is that I found the controls and pin prick lights on the speaker unsatisfactory indicators at displaying the selected source or volume level. Plus, there's no way of knowing whether SFX ('Stereo Wide') mode is enabled or not. Nope. This system gives few visible clues on its status.

JBL L42ms: Class-leading sound

JBL L42ms with speaker grille removed

Behind the grille are a pair of dual 4-inch (100mm) woofers and dual 0.75-inch (20mm) Aluminum dome tweeters with waveguides to create a wide sound-field. (Image credit: Future)

JBL has rated at the L42ms at 200W Class D power output that drives a pair of dual 4-inch (100mm) woofers and dual 0.75-inch (20mm) Aluminum dome tweeters. It's a rich and more powerful sound that digs deeper than I imagined when streaming Geoff Castellucci version of "The Sound of Silence" via Tidal in CD quality.

The depth and the weight of the extraordinary vocal is surprisingly convincing, and despite being a relatively compact speaker system compared to my floorstanding hi-fi tower speakers I usually listen to, the JBL doesn't disappoint in terms of its low-end frequency delivery.

JBL L42ms showing JBL Premium Audio app

(Image credit: Future)

There's not much in the way of sound personalization, but there is a useful -3dB bass contour switch at the back to alleviate excessive bass should the speaker ports at the back be placed too close to rear and/or side walls. 

Percussive, uptempo tunes sound really engaging. I like the way I can hear the multiple drum stands in Nadine Shah's "Greatest Dancer." There's a lively energy to the track when played on the JBL that's sometimes difficult to capture on lesser speaker systems. I definitely got more of a sense of stereo too, thanks to the angled speakers beaming sounds out into my listening room.

Vocal clarity was great with my go-to test tracks, and I liked the way the JBL appeared to capture the acoustic space around tracks I know well like the beautiful vocal, piano, and guitar on "Dream of Sheep" by Kate Bush.

Despite some minor misgivings about the controls and tiny display lights, I love the JBL's L42ms mid-sized proportions and retro looks. This is a thoroughly modern speaker system with audiophile credentials. It can stream everything you throw at it or be placed on a stand and hooked up to a screen to bring a boost to your TV sound. It's an incredibly versatile music system and a whole lot of fun.

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Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

After 2.5 years as Tom's Guide's audio editor, Lee has joined the passionate audio experts at audiograde.uk where he writes about luxury audio and Hi-Fi. As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.