For this, my (much delayed) first review for Enjoy the Music.com™, I have picked a product from a brand that has only quite recently enjoyed any significant success here in the UK, namely French producer Focal JMlab, who manufacture drive units under the Focal name, and complete loudspeakers under the JMlab label. The drive units are available to third party producers, but are not widely used, in large part because they use a lot of rather expensive materials, and involve a significant element of skilled hand labour. From what I saw when I visited the company in south east France not long ago, they appear to be under pressure to make enough of some key drivers to keep pace with their own internal requirements. For the record though their main OEM customer is a prestigious one, Wilson Audio, and JMlab's main and most costly speaker range, the Utopia series, is very much in keeping with Wilson Audio, at least if judged by broad ambitions and pricing.
A noteworthy feature of the Mezzo Utopia, third down in the flagship Utopia series, and one of the reasons for the luxury class pricing, is that although at first glance it looks like a large monolithic box, the reality is that it consists of three separate enclosures. Clear air is visible front from to back if you're looking from the right angle, perpendicular from the plane of the tweeter baffle. The tweeter helps define the optimum listening height. The use of separate enclosures, which are joined by full height side panels, has a number of consequences, the most important of which is that there is less coupling between the enclosures responsible for the various frequency bands. The value of this has been demonstrated to me in other designs, for example from B&W (whose Nautilus range employ elastic decoupling of the tweeters), and from Ruark (whose Sterling models use more conventional nested enclosures). In general, the effect is clearer textures and more articulate music making, but from the structural point of view the more complex construction inevitably means a much higher selling price, and the Mezzo Utopia also weighs a ton, which can make handling a problem.
What Dreams Are Made Of?
The drive units and their geometric relationship with each other are also worthy of note. The tweeter is 1" inverted dome which uses a powerful motor system with windings made from Telar 57, which is said to be the only material capable of magnetically conducting the high flux levels generated by the powerful Neodymium magnet system. The dome is coated with a layer of titanium dioxide for damping and to improve resonance control, and hence high frequency behaviour. This is a seriously expensive unit, which is made in house with a mixture of numerically controlled machinery and hand assembly. The midrange unit and bass driver have 6" and 11" cones respectively, which are made from two layers of Kevlar around a core of polystyrene microballs (sic), which forms a sandwich which is extremely stiff yet astonishingly light, and which goes a long way to suppressing the usual cone resonances. The baskets are diecast, and the magnet structures and coil windings are designed for high power, and good linearity at high sound pressure levels. I bought a small pile of these back from the factory after my visit, and can attest to how light and stiff they are, but as noted earlier there is a strong element of hand manufacture and their pricing is correspondingly high. The crossover, which is built into the tweeter enclosure, is hard wired, and is effectively immune to the pressure variations behind the cones from the larger drivers, and due to the distances involved from the flux variations from their magnets when reproducing music. The three baffles are not quite coplanar, and are tilted gently towards each other, which provides a measure of time alignment and dispersion control.
Another feature of the Mezzo Utopia, indeed all JMlab speakers, is that the company bucks the usual trend towards multi-wiring, and the Mezzo Utopia manages with just a single pair of WBT input terminals. They are capable of accepting rear mount and side fitting 4mm plugs simultaneously, which is the way they were wired with the biwire speaker cable available for this test. Questioned on this during my visit to the factory, I was simply told that they didn't like their speakers being reinvented by users, which makes a certain kind of sense, but completely turns its back on any possible improvements that bi-wiring or (as in this case) tri-wiring might produce. Their published information gives what at first sight appears to be a slightly more coherent explanation, but on examination it still makes little real sense, so let's move on.
My interest in this speaker, and the reason why it has floated to the top of the pile of products that I wanted to introduce to you this month, is that it is very special indeed that has done more for my listening pleasure than almost any other loudspeaker I recall, and indeed it is by any reasonable definition a true landmark product. But it is not altogether easy to explain why. Perhaps the best way I can approach this is to say that this is one of the very few large, full bandwidth loudspeakers that sounds as good as many smaller, limited bandwidth ones. It has never been much of a problem for many manufacturers to make small, two way vented speakers which may only cost two or three hundred dollars, but which make fluid, well integrated and properly balanced music. But upping the ante by demanding an extended bass response and higher replay levels inevitably means that the technology starts to get in the way. Enclosure sizes grow, and controlling the resonant behavior of unsupported, or even well braced and damped panels, increases exponentially. At the same time the drive units are being asked to cover greater bandwidths with greater excursions, and this is almost bound to compromise the integrity with which they tackle the bread and butter stuff, at least to some extent. Extra drive units may also be required which means, typically, two crossover points where one was enough with smaller speakers. Whatever else they may be, crossovers are always bad news from the sound quality point of view as two non-coincident drivers can only ever be optimized with respect to phase and amplitude linearity on a single axis, and even for a single listener, wall reflections will be based on a family of off-axis phase/amplitude responses that are bound to be far from ideal.
Without going through the whole nine yards, lets summarize simply by saying that most large loudspeakers are colored, inconsistent spatially, and in most respects qualitatively inferior to any number of small 6 or 8 inch 2 way designs that will not cost you a king's ransom. But the audiophile continues to chase after the chimera of extended bandwidths and higher SPLs, and the JMlab Mezzo Utopia is one of the very few ways in which this aim can be realized, while avoiding most of the usual compromises.
If there is a point of contact between this speaker and other good big speakers, I would point to some of the better big panel speakers, electrostatics in general, and Martin Logan in particular. Most Martin-Logans are hybrid moving coil/ELS designs, but the company has gradually learned to marry the conflicting dynamic and polar behavior of these two technologies, in part by keeping the crossover point low enough that the join falls where the ear/brain neither notices nor cares. Even so, the optimum comparison perhaps is with the solitary full range electrostatic in the Martin Logan armory, the CLS2Z. Of course the comparison can only be taken so far. The CLS2Z tends to image like a pair of outsize headphones, limiting the area over which a decent stereo image can be heard, and even then it tends to thrust the sound of lead instruments and voices in your lap. The Mezzo Utopia is rather more conventional in this respect, with a close, but still reasonably naturally distanced soundstage, with moderate soundstage depth and excellent width, assuming optimum setup with the main speaker axes intersecting just behind the listener's head. Off axis imagery is also fairly strong and consistent.
But in other areas the comparison works well - up to a point. The Mezzo Utopia has a discipline, transparency and clarity that is unusual to the point of rarity in the world of moving coils. Notes start and stop with lightening precision and sometimes frightening speed, so that finely detailed and potentially aggressive recordings - try the Danse des garcons from Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra in the high octane account from Ivan Fisher conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips 456 575-2 - sound refined, natural and with every detail easy to follow without apparent underlining or signs of treble excess. Unlike most panel speakers, the Mezzo Utopia also has real bass muscle, and works at low or high volume levels with none of the usual narrowing of the dynamic or tonal compass as the volume is increased.
This is not to say that it is beyond reasonable criticism. Auditioned alongside the B&W Nautilus 802 - incidentally much better in my view than the almost undriveable Nautilus 801, and certainly another viable contender for state of the art in this market sector, the JMlab is leaner, drier and has a less physical bass delivery. The bass not limited in LF extension, and it is tuneful and quick beyond the call of duty, while integrating into the midband with a seamlessness that belies its complexity. But it lacks the physical presence, the warmth and the palpable kick in the pit of the stomach that the B&W can generate. If anything this tendency is exaggerated a little by the tweeter, which although close to being tonally neutral, it is still just perceptibly bright and sharp sounding - another characteristic it shares with just about every electrostatic speaker I know with the exception of the Quad ESL63.
By contrast, the midband is near perfect. As well as being exquisitely detailed, it is refined and layered spatially, and it allows the speaker to recreate small scale chamber music with a lifelike image scale, while remaining man enough to generate a realistically scaled orchestra. A particular feature of the Mezzo Utopia that springs in part from its excellent integration is the issue of timing. The whole feel is of strong pace and articulation, and of everything working together to drive the rhythmic elements of the music forward. Again this is an area that is usually much better handled by smaller, simpler designs.
The ratings at the end of this story tell the tale as far as I can judge, but much depends on the minutiae of setting up: and in particular positioning, orientation, and the types of cable used, which in this case was Nordost SPM Reference, which has characteristically fine detailing and a lack of superimposed granularity of the kind that becomes all too obvious with most thick, heavily stranded cables when used in this company. The choice of amplification is also particularly important, but not for the usual reasons. Indeed the quoted sensitivity of 92.5dB suggests that a big amplifier is not top of the list of requirements, but I have rarely encountered any speaker so adept at showing the qualitative differences between amplifiers. Suffice to say that some of the best results on test were had from small integrated amplifiers from Krell and YBA, and quite acceptable ones from a near-budget Marantz model called the PM7000, while some very expensive and exotic amplifiers fell flat on their faces. Another story, for another time...
Type - 3-way, front ported floor standing design
Price - £7,300 a pair
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