by Anthony Kershaw
I’ve been listening to JM Lab products for many years, primarily at shows and at a few Canadian dealers. They always seem to be on show. They look magnificent, feature top quality components and are in the upper echelon of high end pricing. Interestingly, they have never been among my favorites. Sure, all the models, from stand mounted monitors to the aptly titled Grande Utopia sound grand, indeed, but to my ears they miss some of the clinical nature of other similarly priced loudspeakers. Maybe the softer edge is the point. They are very popular and obviously appeal to a segment of the moneyed audiophile population.
So, it was fortuitous that my local dealer had the new range of JM Lab speakers, the Utopia III series center stage on a recent visit. The new Grande Utopia EM and the smallest Diablo Utopia flanked the model that caught my eye, the Scala Utopia. They look fantastic, a little more modern than the shiny exotic wood cabinets of the previous incarnation. And these JM Labs hide a few secrets that I shall reveal herein. The dealer offered me an extended listening session with the Scala and after a short time, I asked for a review pair.
The complexity of the speaker belies the simplicity of the setup and tuning. All the work has been accomplished in the design and manufacture, leaving the menial tasks a snap. The Scalas are heavy, weighing in just under 190 lbs each and contain proprietary drivers of the highest quality. The three way, floor standing design includes a iAL2 pure Beryllium inverted dome tweeter, a 6 1/2″ ‘Power Flower’ midrange “W” driver (3rd generation W composite sandwich technology, laser cut-out), and an 11” woofer of the same composite sandwich technology.
If you have some time, read the PDF file of the Utopia story available at the Focal/JMLab website. It is beautifully produced and makes very interesting reading about the inception, design and manufacture of these gorgeous speakers. The thought, intellect and sound design that makes up JMLabs is really quite something. Even if you dig below the marketing angle, the story still makes great audiophile reading.
The Utopias (always love that name for an ultimate concept!) are just over four feet tall and are a bass reflex design. The speakers have some self tuning components that can compensate for difficult rooms and positioning. In general, I’m a bit of a purist and do not like adjustable speakers, especially bass enhancements (BAM!). I figure, hey get it right on the drawing board, don’t ‘fix it in the mix’. My Scalas were positioned well away from the back and side walls so I did not test the adjustments. The adjustments include a Low, Normal and High for the tweeter, too. The sound can also be adjusted by JMLab’s ‘Focus Time’, a mechanical phase optimization for the drivers that can angle them towards the listener. Along with treble and bass adjustments, the Scalas should fit into any medium or large room.
At 92dB efficiency, even the most modest of amplifiers will drive them. Focal suggests a minimum of 40 watts, but I’d like to hear these with a ‘hefty’ SET. I used Audio Research and a Boulder amps to drive them. Both were effortless. The dynamics of these magnificent speakers were shown distinctly via both amplifiers and Audio Research and VAC preamplifiers. With high quality speakers such as these, audiophiles expect, and usually get micro and macro dynamics, bass slam, accurate instrumental and vocal timbres, and specific imaging and wide/deep soundstage. Well, no news, here. The Scalas are knockouts on all counts. Just splendid.
I began with a Channel Classics recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony with Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The orchestra was formed by Fischer from the best players in Hungary to record mainstream classics. They have had some success on Phillips. This recording on Channel is fantastic. It is incredibly dynamic and shows off the orchestra (and conductor) well. What was amazing on the Scalas was the lifelike timbre of the instruments and their absolute specificity in placement. The In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement) third movement was special in highlighting the fabulous replication of instruments in a real space. Listen to the quietly sustained piccolo; the purity of tone was unnerving, even to this flutist. And Mahler’s interesting ‘bundle of sticks’ percussion instrument, the Rute, was clear as ever. Most recordings make the instrument sound like spindly wood on a stand. Here, you can hear the rattle of the tied sticks as the player taps in time. No, I couldn’t hear the individual sticks! This recording also highlighted the Scala’s 28Hz bass extension, which was very defined, and also the superlative Berylium tweeter. Top and bottom were flawlessly blended with refulgent mids. The balance of the speaker is very fine.
I played what I consider Frank Sinatra’s greatest album, Only the Lonely. My two favourite tracks are Willow Weep for Me and Spring is Here, two heartbreaking ballads that show Frank’s art at its peak. The word painting, the emotion, the power, the breath control are unmatched. The CD, like the Mahler/Channel, is a standard CD, no digital remastering, no fancy edition. The Scala played the inner lines of this CD better than I have heard previously. In fact, I have always found this CD to be a little murky, especially in the depths and the back. The Scalas sounded almost monitor-like here. The delicacy was stunning and information from of the woodwinds was educational.
The musical picture was large and realistic on all kinds of CDs. The Scalas don’t ‘throw’ a soundstage; they don’t bring your attention to a specific image. They just sound like music as it flows, energizes, and inspires. Pure, unadulterated music. The orchestra is in front of you, with reflected sound exactly where it is supposed to be. The images are incredibly specific, but do not draw attention to themselves like many high end speakers. My previous example of the superb Hungarian piccolo was a perfect case. Overtones of the instruments, breath support, and the central sound of the instrument, but beautifully blended with the accompanying diaphanous strings.
This was the case on so many different styles of music. Klezmer bands, wind bands (I was researching an upcoming gig, and they were fantastic in this regard), iPod downloads (256 at least, please), German expressionistic opera (the sustained crescendos in Wozzeck by Alban Berg actually clipped the ARC VT110! A rare event), kiddie rock, Kanye West, etc. But it sounded best when the music, performance and recording were in complete harmony. Oh boy, did they sound glorious. Drool time. And so many times!
[We are proud to award this product an Audiophilia Star Component Award. Congratulations! - Ed]
The Focal - JM Lab Utopia III ‘Scala Utopia’ Loudspeaker
Manufactured by Focal/JMLab
Price: CDN$29, 500.00
Source of review sample: Canadian distributor