JMlab Mezzo Utopia loudspeaker Page 3

That description seemed to correlate very well with the perceived subjective balance. The Mezzo did sound a touch rich and heavy, but only a touch—I dare say a slightly larger room, or one with greater low-frequency absorption, might suit it even better. The sound was also just a shade laid-back and reticent, especially in the way voices were projected—yet not sufficiently so as to spoil my enjoyment, even at very low listening levels. Though I tend to favor a more open and forward upper midband, I had little trouble living with and even getting to like the Mezzo's slightly laid-back and essentially forgiving nature.

One way of modifying the Mezzo's bass output involved rolling up some very large socks and stuffing them into the ports. It may not do much for the aesthetics, but it did trim 2-3dB from the bass output below 150Hz. (Theoretically, such stocking-stuffing also reduces bass power handling while improving phase linearity.) Sometimes it sounded slightly preferable too, but this was by no means a clear-cut improvement; the result tended to vary from disc to disc, depending on how the recording itself had been balanced. While port blocking remained an option, I ended up with the ports open for most of the time, enjoying the richness and warmth while admitting that JMlab actually seemed to have got it about right.

All of the above is just window dressing. The way a loudspeaker presents sound is important in formulating an initial impression, but says nothing about its skills in musical communication. The ear-brain is actually quite tolerant of differences in frequency balance, and usually makes its own adjustment to a change of loudspeakers after half an hour or so, just as it does to a change of rooms. The real reason I find it important to specify the perceived balance accurately is to avoid being fooled by some anomaly or other. Once the balance has been defined, it becomes much easier to separate the fundamental underlying qualities from the superficial character.

Superficially, the Mezzo seemed as good as any and better than most. Fundamentally, it was a killer. One of the biggest challenges for any loudspeaker is whether it can open the doors onto new types of music. The UK has a fairly highbrow, commercial-free, classical music radio station called BBC Radio 3, which I sometimes turn on for general background relaxation while working. With the Mezzo Utopia, I discovered I wasn't getting much work done. I kept sitting back and finding myself getting sucked into the music—even the singing stuff, which usually tends to make me reach for the Mute button. Neither organ recitals nor choral works are part of my regular musical diet, yet I found myself paying surprising attention to both, and deriving considerable pleasure and enjoyment therefrom.

After that baptism, the familiar stuff was a doddle [Britspeak for "piece of cake"—Ed.]. Though I wouldn't describe the Mezzo as the fastest or most dynamic speaker around, it tripped nimbly enough through my toughest Dance tracks. The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and Fatboy Slim all sounded suitably raucous and went satisfyingly loud as required, even though this speaker wasn't their natural métier.

It was the acoustic material that really highlighted the Mezzo's strengths. I've had a vinyl bootleg copy of Dylan's electric "Royal Albert Hall" concert for years, but acquiring the official Columbia/Legacy CD of Live 1966 concert gave me some sympathy with the slow-handclapping audience. The acoustic set is so toe-curlingly good, so expressive, clear, and real, that it is the disc I play most often. The Mezzos brought an astonishing "you are there" musicality to this 33-year time-warp.

This achievement of genuine musical intimacy was maybe the Mezzo's greatest strength. It's something I normally associate with small loudspeakers, and that big speakers often don't handle too well. But the Mezzo managed it, no sweat, along with the sort of weight, scale, and dynamic freedom no tiny lightweight will ever match.

The Mezzo also proved exceptionally tolerant of "difficult" source material. I'd dug out my very old Velvet Underground albums a couple of weeks earlier, when a pair of Wilson-Benesch Bishops were occupying the soundstage. The Bishops gave a salutary reminder of what remarkable music lay locked in those grooves, but the warts'n'all presentation had led me to cherry-pick tracks. I went back to these albums with the Mezzos, and spun my way happily through all four sides, with repeats.

I don't think the Mezzo was covering up the undesirable bits, though its more laid-back presentation probably helped. It just had an uncanny knack of drawing the music out from the grunge, helping the brain focus on the bits that mattered and ignore the detritus.

Just how and why it could do this is harder to answer. Several factors spring to mind, all of which probably play a part. There's the healthy sensitivity (I wouldn't seriously dispute the manufacturer's claim for 92.5dB/W, though my earlier, Hi-Fi Choice, samples were about 3dB below this, which remains mysterious); and there's the time-aligned baffle, which allows the three drivers to more closely replicates a point source than with most large speakers.

But above all, I find myself contemplating the tweeter. As a general rule, I don't much like tweeters, which tend to be spitty little things altogether too keen to draw attention to themselves. Many years ago, I remember hearing a respected speaker designer (I can't remember who) dismiss them as "nasty little resonators," a description I've never forgotten. This Focal tweeter seemed to be the exception that proves the rule. It hasn't been potted down to hide its inadequacies (a technique common enough among mass-market speakers); rather, it tended to be balanced just a touch bright, but got away with it by sounding clean, clear, free from unwanted fizz, and full of musical information. I can't prove the tweeter's superiority, of course, but have a hunch that this might be the key factor in the Mezzo Utopia's undeniable charm.

I'm not the best person to criticize the Mezzos' stereo imaging; I've never managed to tune myself into the subtle minutiae of soundstaging, which some contemporaries analyze to the nth degree. Still, I was happy enough with the Mezzos in this area, and appreciated their fine focus and general freedom from boxiness. Even sitting well off-axis (as is often my wont), with the speakers slightly toed-in, there was plenty of audible space around, between, and beyond the speakers, and no tendency for the sound to "clump" around the boxes.

The Mezzo is not an easy speaker to criticize, but if it had a weak spot in comparison to some of the competition I've heard recently, it would seem to lie in the bass. It didn't, for example, have the drive, grip, and authority of the magnificent 15" driver used in the Nautilus 801—though that, in turn, could be a trifle overwhelming in my room. Nor did it have the uncanny freedom from box colorations that I've heard from the carbon-fiber-composite enclosures used by Wilson-Benesch in the A.C.T. One and Bishop. In ranking order, I'd put the Mezzo somewhere between the two WB models. It had comfortably more weight and authority than the A.C.T. One, but also a degree of thickening to textures. I was slightly conscious of the energy build-up in the heavy box, which lacked the Bishop's overall smoothness and clarity.

Power handling and loudness capabilities are impossible to define with any meaningful precision, because both depend to a very large extent on the choice of program material. With the assistance of the big 250Wpc Electrocompaniet AmpliWire, my heaviest Dance/Techno type material did rather push the excursion capabilities of the Mezzo's 11" woofer, especially with vinyl sources (as tends to be the case with ported systems)—and there wasn't anything like the reserve headroom and freedom from stress that were evident with the 15" driver in the big B&W Nautilus 801. That said, the Mezzo's three-way configuration and decent sensitivity together provided ample loudness for almost all applications in my listening room.

Every loudspeaker represents a series of complex compromises between a whole series of conflicting capabilities. The Mezzo Utopia doesn't attempt to break the rules of physics, but it does deliver a remarkably fine all-around performance in a medium-size (2000-3000ft3) room. For me, its biggest strength was the way it managed to combine the sort of intimate musical coherence and communication of a high-class two-way design with the typical scale and weight of a full-size floorstander. This may sound like an easy enough task, but in my experience a three-way seldom works as well as a simpler two-way at low or normal listening levels, while the two-way will tend to run out of steam when you crank up the volume. The Mezzo Utopia's real strength is that it is, in so many ways, "just right," as Goldilocks might have put it.

US Distributor: Audio Plus Services
P.O. Box 3047
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
(800) 663-9352