JMlab Micron & Micron Carat loudspeaker Jacques Mahul Interview

Sidebar 3: Jacques Mahul on Home Theater and the Music of Language

Jonathan Scull: Where is high-end audio going, Jacques? How will it coexist with Home Theater?

Jacques Mahul: In my opinion, Home Theater was very successful in America because it represents a typical American trend. The Europeans are following, but not all of them. Mostly the French. And although the French are cinema-mad, I still don't see any big growth for Home Theater, no more than where it is today. It may seem a little bit strange to say that, but...Home Theater products are cheap products. They are in general so low-end that the speakers, for example, may not even be considered as speakers at all, so to say. Just a device to make the sound, you know?

For us at JMlab/Focal, it's not even our market. In fact, it's not even hi-fi. It's something different. For example, if you consider the Walkman recorder you're using today, here you have the microphone and there you have the speaker, but it's not hi-fi. So, it's the same with Home Theater. It's a door open to the low end.

Scull: And that's all it will ever be?

Mahul: Yes, I am sure you will always find people in love with music. That is clear. Music is everywhere, even in the shop when you buy your newspaper in the morning. Perhaps it is true that imaging as a concept is important for audio reproduction, but you have not the imaging everywhere you listen to music—as when you listen in your car, for example. So, I think you will always have people needing high-quality music reproduction on a stereo high-end system.

Scull: Some people in the States feel that Home Theater will be the death of high-end audio.

Mahul: Not at all. I don't believe it. Perhaps in Europe hi-fi will suffer a little from the rise of Home Theater, but once it reaches the level of what it is in America, the Europeans will view it as just...

Scull: An appliance? Like a toaster!

Mahul: Yes. Exactly.

Scull: Nevertheless, Focal/JMlab makes some Home Theater products.

Mahul: Yes, of course. And I like enough to look at a good movie in good condition and with good sound. But I don't consider that experience the death of hi-fi.

Scull: The other evening, you were expressing in a very interesting manner the notion of East Coast sound, West Coast sound, German, French, and English "sound," and relating all that to the nature of the language.

Mahul: Oh, my English is not very good, you know? I was explaining that to you in French! But okay, Jon-a-ten, I'll try...

This is a theory about taste in reproducing music, historically connected to the language of a country by the rhythm, the dynamics, and the frequency range of its language. And the influence of these language on the music of the country. You know, for example, the music created by the Japanese can't be compared to the European. Or to the Africans. People make the music of their language, and the reproduction of this music is quite different place to place. The taste of each country is different; my theory is that each tries to compensate for whatever is lacking in their own language with their music. If a language is short of treble, then they like treble in their music. If it is short of bass, they like strong bass. If it is low in dynamics, then they like high-dynamics music.

For a long time, I was wondering why the English people and the French people, which have always been...

Scull: Enemies? [laughs]

Mahul: Yes, always enemies! [laughter] But the question is, why also they have not the same taste in reproducing music. It is difficult for me to imitate the cadence of each country because I don't speak many languages, but it is clear that even between the English and the Americans you have not the same...

Scull: ...inflection?

Mahul: Yes, thank you, inflection. The Americans are more loud overall, but with less dynamic range than the British. At a regular level of speech, that is. The British are have more dynamic range, especially for the women. And the English they can talk very slow and very softly, but also very sharply and loudly. They say "Hell-ooo" and "Nice to meet you." with a rapidly rising and falling inflection.

Scull: Yeah. They also say, "Yes, the weather was beautiful last week, and it's going to be beautiful next week after you leave...!"

Mahul: [laughs] Yes, that's true! Americans like dynamics more than the British because your language is more monotone than in the UK. The French are talking most of the time rather softly and monotone also, you know. Sweetly, but not a lot of dynamics. The Americans talk more loudly, but with a low overall frequency range too, especially in the treble. Bass, okay, but much less treble. The Italians, they speak with rather a large bandwidth [laughter] and also some high dynamics.

Scull: That's for sure!

Mahul: With other languages, it's more difficult to describe, but for example: Russian people talk with low dynamics and mainly in the bass. And the Scandinavian people, they're a little bit like the Russians. That's why the Swedish like West Coast sound.

Scull: You mean big bass and high dynamics?

Mahul: Yes. East Coast sound is more balanced, you know. When you listen to the Swedish language, you can fall asleep in your chair in ten minutes! That's why they like that Cerwin-Vega sound! Poom, poom! The Swiss, well, they have no language, so they're in-between, so to say. Pedagogic and esoteric, they're interested in neutrality. The Italian and Spanish like very much the English sound. And I think that is because they have a high-dynamics language, and they cover rather a large bandwidth, so they like a softer sound in music reproduction.

As for the French, it's difficult for us, but our tastes are more similar to what the Americans prefer. The difference is in the overall level. It's less in France—not very dynamic, not too many big swings of tone. Germans fit this model very well—they are very, very typical. Their language reinforces the bass and the lower midrange—you can hear this even on the TV or radio. They like plenty of treble in their music. And it does give some sense of clearness to the sound. So, all the German manufacturers produce very high levels for their tweeters. Maybe next, perhaps if I study Sanskrit, I can talk about them and see if my theory is correct or not. [laughter]

Scull: It sounds very rational to me...

Mahul: One other example. The Japanese language exists mainly in the treble. You know, Japanese linguistics is lacking in the bass. So, they like the softer sound of old English products, like Tannoy and Westminster. In France, we are a midrange people. [laughter] I would not say average people, but certainly midrange. [laughter] But it's interesting, because in France, we don't like what is extremist, you know?

Scull: Except the students.

Mahul: Yes, exactly! Except the students. But the French culture is always to trying to mix things together and avoid going to the extreme.