JMlab Micron & Micron Carat loudspeaker John Atkinson, June 1996
While large, floorstanding speakers appear to offer the most material for the buck, I feel that small stand-mounted speakers both offer the best value in sound quality, as well as standing the best chance of sounding good in moderate-sized listening rooms. In recent months Stereophile has reviewed a varied group of such speakers. In order of descending price, these include the Acoustic Energy AE2 Signature ($5495/pair, November '95); Dzurko Acoustics Jaguar ($4500/pair, reviewed elsewhere in this issue); Totem Mani-2 ($3995/pair, February '96); Platinum Audio Solo ($2498/pair, November '95); Coincident Speaker Technology Troubador ($1495/pair, January and February '96); Joseph Audio RM7si ($1299-$1499/pair, February '96); Acarian Alón Petite ($995-$1195/pair, January '96); Phase Technology PC80 II ($699/pair, December '95); and Spectrum 108cd ($399/pair, December '95).
The variation in sound quality in this group was as wide as the price range, with the Acoustic Energy AE2 and Totem Mani-2 achieving the highest absolute quality. However, the Platinum Solo, Alón Petite, and Phase Technology PC80 perhaps offer the best values for money, albeit at differing performance levels.
This month I review three more small stand-mounted speakers. One is from the UK, B&W's Compact Domestic Monitor 1; one from France, JMlab's Micron Carat; and one from Canada, the latest version of PSB's Stratus Mini. All are reflex-loaded two-ways. All could be regarded as high-performance minimonitors. All are very competitively priced.
JMlab Micron Carat: $695-$850/pair
This is the current version of a speaker that was reviewed in Stereophile a few years back by Dick Olsher (September 1991, Vol.14 No.9). Definitely a miniature in size, the Carat is the smallest speaker in a large range from JMlab, a French manufacturer whose Focal division is a major supplier of drive-units to high-end audio companies. [See Jack English's review of the Utopia, JMlab's flagship speaker, in the May '96 Stereophile, Jonathan Scull's sidebar interview with JMlab/Focal president Jacques Mahul, and his full interview with Mahul in April 1998, Vol.21 No.4—Ed.]
The original Carat used a Focal tweeter with an inverted (concave) dome made from Kevlar. This was replaced by a unit with a titanium diaphragm; the current version uses Focal's Tioxid: a titanium substrate anodized to give a hard oxide coating. The 5" woofer is the same, however: a plastic-cone unit with two voice-coils connected in parallel.
Two sets of five-way binding posts allow for bi-wiring/bi-amping. (Some of these posts worked loose during testing.) The woofer crosses over to the tweeter at 2.2kHz, with the crossover components mounted on a small printed circuit board glued to the inside of the rear panel above the plastic input panel. The internal connections are all soldered. The (apparently) unbraced cabinet is constructed from ?" MDF and is lined with pink foam. Both drive-units are rabbeted into the front baffle and the vertical edges of the baffle are chamfered, both to optimize diffraction. The reflex vent, 1.7" in diameter and 5" deep, is mounted on the rear panel above the terminal panel. The port outlet isn't flared.
The Micron Carat is definitely a small speaker: when driven by the solid-state Levinson amplifier its balance sounded somewhat uptilted in the treble, with no low- or midbass to speak of. This balance threw instruments with a good proportion of HF energy—cymbals, for example—forward in the mix, though vocal sibilance was well-controlled. On the other hand, it was a little unkind to vintage recordings, making more evident the excesses of early solid-state miking consoles and old analog tape recorders. (I am not saying that these recorders were intrinsically poor-sounding, just that when the engineers drove the tape hard to lift the signal well away from the noisefloor, the added third-harmonic distortion could add a bright, grainy fuzz to the sound.)
Though very low frequencies were missing in action, the upper bass had a pleasant degree of bloom. This is the old BBC LS3/5A trick: slightly exaggerate the region where the harmonics of bass instruments exist and the ear is fooled into thinking more bass is present than there really is. It doesn't always work: On the new Stereophile recording of the Liszt B-Minor Piano Sonata (STPH008-2), the controlled majesty of the deep left-hand notes was diminished. The bass quality itself was reasonably quick-sounding, the little JMlab reproducing music's low-frequency rhythmic flow in a handy manner. And its dynamics were impressive for such a small speaker. It easily raised average spls in the mid-90s in my room without strain, though pushing it to 100dB gave rise to some feelings of midrange overload and congestion.
The midrange was uncolored. I thought I occasionally caught a hint of a "cupped-hands" character, but it was so fleeting that I could never actually be sure that I actually heard it. And the transition to the tweeter region seemed well-managed: the Carat easily speaks with one voice. I've already noted the slightly bright balance in the mid-treble. The top octave sounded airy and spacious, and exceptionally clean for what is really an inexpensive speaker. There was never any high-frequency grain evident.
It was the insight into the recorded soundstage given by the Micron Carats that kept them returning to the listening room during the review period. Stereo images had a tangibility that reminded me that "stereo" is derived from the Greek stereos, meaning "solid." Even though the speaker's tonal balance made the instrument sound smaller than it really was, there was a palpable sense of a Steinway hanging between and just in front of the loudspeakers with the Robert Silverman Liszt CD. There was also a little bit of extra ambience audible compared with the B&W Compact Domestic Monitor 1 and the PSB Stratus Mini. The image was also commendably stable in that it didn't splash to the sides at any frequencies, something typical of inexpensive speakers with resonant problems in the midrange and treble. I no longer have them around to compare, but I suspect the Micron Carats rival the Spica TC-60s in the precision of stereo imaging.
When Jon-a-ten and Kathleen Scull visited Santa Fe while I had the JMlabs set up, we spent a pleasant afternoon doing the audiophile thing. We first listened to the speakers with the Levinson No.333, which, due to its grain-free midrange and effortless sense of power, I feel is the best-sounding amplifier yet to come from Madrigal. "Okay," agreed J-10, "but let's try the little Cary single-ended amp." So we did, sticking to CD as source.
Ahh! Yes, the sense of awesome power in reserve had gone. And the bass lost some of its sense of definition. But the bloom! The imaging! The sense of instruments and voices being physically present in the room! As we say in the UK, when confronted with something that almost transcends our expectations: "Not bad."
The JMlab's tonal balance was rendered more palatable by the tube amplifier. I had expected this combination's highs to sound excessive, due to the interaction between the high output impedance of the amplifier and the speaker's modulus of impedance (see fig.1 in the "Measurements" section). Instead, the mid-treble fell into better balance with the low treble and midrange, the result being a less "small," less bright presentation. And the inexpensive speaker was not at all embarrassed by the fact that the amplifier cost more than four times as much.
The Sculls and I finished our auditioning of the JMlabs with analog. Okay, I do have a nice record player, costing around $8000 at retail. But for reasons that now escape me, I was feeding its outputs to the $259 Audio Alchemy VAC-in-the-Box phono preamplifier. Nevertheless, with the Cary 300SEI driving the Micron Carats, the analog simply creamed the digital coming from my big (and expensive) Levinson CD player. In the immortal words of Sam Tellig, there was just more there there. Don't you just hate it when that happens?
JMlab's Micron Carat offers a good blend of clarity, dynamics, and imaging accuracy. However, it is definitely a small speaker, with a lightweight bass and a treble balance that will both be unforgiving of inexpensive electronics and source components and gives rather a "wispy" sound balance with good solid-state amplification. It isn't a speaker for all reasons, but coupled with a well-matched, high-quality tube amplifier—the single-ended Cary worked well—the Micron Carat will give a musically satisfying sound, particularly when it comes to soundstaging, at an affordable price.