July 2000JMlab Mini Utopia Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Sometimes audiophiles are a tough breed to understand. North American audiophiles, in particular, always like to think big. "Spend more, get something bigger," one dealer I know likes to say. However, to my mind, this logic doesnt always work very well in audio -- and particularly for loudspeakers. Thats because you must consider the room in which the speakers are going to be placed. If the room can't "support" a floorstanding speaker, you will get poor results when you buy something simply larger. So instead of doing this, why not look to improve speaker performance within room constraints? That is, stay small.
However, even the best fall victim to the size-matters phenomenon. Just go to audio shows and hear manufacturers attempt to demonstrate speakers that are far too large in rooms that are far too small. More often than not, its the smaller systems that impress the most under show conditions. My room is not all that large (about 12' by 16' by 8'), so I try to watch the size of the speakers I put into it. I imagine thats why Ive become the mini-monitor-man at SoundStage! I believe that matching speakers to fit the room is also why I get superior sonic results.
The Mini Utopia from Frances JMlab arrived on the heels of my review of Cliffhanger Audios $3699 Bulldog loudspeaker -- another stout and heavy stand-mounted speaker with floorstanding aspirations. In the same time frame as the Mini Utopia's arrival, the floorstanding $7150 Verity Audio Fidelio occupied review space (look for the Fidelio review in September 2000). These three loudspeakers represent an upscale-sector where manufacturers start to worry less about the cost of the product and more about the sonic quality of the parts they put into it. In terms of technology, component quality and construction standards, these small-but-massive speakers approach, and even exceed, the performance of larger loudspeakers, which in many cases cost even more. In the purist end of the audio market, more money doesnt necessarily get you something bigger, but it can get you something made better. The Bulldog is built very well, but understandably, given its price point (half that the Mini Utopia and Fidelio), it does not have quite the finesse in its appearance or the all-out design details that these other two speakers have. I'm not talking so much about the fit and finish, which are comparable in many ways, as I am about the angles and curves that the Mini Utopia and Fidelio have. The Fidelio and Mini Utopia not only represent a high sonic standard, they are both beautiful examples of superior visual design and outstanding craftsmanship.
In audiophile-speak, JMlabs Mini Utopia would be classified as a bookshelf or stand-mounted monitor. Some may even call it a minimonitor, but this wouldnt be all that accurate -- maximonitor is more like it. The Mini Utopia sits atop a stand, one specially designed for it, by the way; but it measures 24"T x 16"D x 10"W and weighs 59 pounds -- more than many multiple-driver floorstanders. Until recently, the $7000-per-pair Mini Utopia was the smallest in size and price in JMlabs Utopia line that peaks out at the $70,000 Grande Utopia. In a few months, the company will introduce the Micro Utopia, which resembles the Mini with a crew cut. It will retail for $5000 per pair.
The Mini Utopia is a two-way bass-reflex design that uses two 6.5" Focal woofers (JMlab is the maker of Focal drive units) in an MTM configuration around a 1" inverted dome Focal tioxid tweeter (incidentally, this is NOT the same tweeter as used in JMlab's Electra line). The front baffle has a concave shape the factory calls "Focus Time," presumably indicating the sound of the drivers converges at a listening distance. The speaker cabinet is built to ensure high rigidity. Each driver is enclosed with a separate internal compartment, and looking at the Mini face-on, you can see a small space between each of these. The crossover is a third-order network that hands off to the tweeter at 2.5kHz. Unlike the printed circuit board used in mass-produced loudspeakers, the crossover in the Mini Utopia is wired point-to-point. The woofer cones use a sandwich-type construction consisting of "fiberglass layers around a core of syntactic plastic foam." The drivers are representative of the very best that Focal produces.
The Mini Utopia is uniquely ported with two slots that fire out the front just above and below the tweeter area. The company rates the frequency response from 50Hz to 25kHz +/- 3dB. Efficiency is rated at 91.5dB (2.83V/1M), and the nominal impedance is said to be 8 ohms (not dipping below 4 ohms). JMlab's literature indicates that amplifiers from 25 to 150Wpc into 8 ohms are suitable for use with the Mini. My experience shows this speaker to be a snap to drive. A single set of high-quality WBT binding posts protrude out the Minis smoothly finished back. Bi-wiring is not an option.
The Minis cabinet construction and attention to detail are stunning. The heavy, thick MDF walls are finished in a beautiful black lacquer. Inside, lead panels are strategically placed to reduce resonance. The real-wood side panels are made of Anigré, a dark-blonde African hardwood that not only looks good but also serves to further strengthen the cabinet walls. Another exotic wood, Tauri, is used to make the solid-wood baffle for the tweeter. The stands, of course, are finished identically to the same standard -- I cant imagine anyone would use something else (other than the fact that they do cost $1200 extra, which is certainly not inexpensive).
While $7000 is a lot to pay for a stand-mounted monitor loudspeaker, this is surely a case where you seem to get what you pay for. The Mini Utopia is visually a splendor and has elegant touches throughout. Each speaker in the Utopia line has the year of production marked on the back, and everything about the Mini breathes vintage and quality. Even techies who value function over form will be seriously impressed when they eyeball this gorgeous loudspeaker.
System and sound
The Mini Utopias were used in my reference system consisting of the Blue Circle Audio BC2 mono amplifiers ($6300 per pair), BC3000 preamplifier ($6250) and Audio Aero Capitole CD player ($4200). I used two types of speaker cables and interconnects -- both with good but varying results. First in line were my reference Nirvana Audio S-L-series speaker cables ($1095 for a two-meter pair) and interconnects ($695 for a one-meter pair). Next up were the brand-new Nordost Red Dawn revision II speaker cables ($1200 for a two-meter pair) and Quattro Fil interconnects ($1600 for a one-meter pair).
The matching of these components with the speakers is ideal in my room. I wouldnt change a thing about the equipment with which I used the speakers. Once I had the speakers set up properly -- about seven feet apart, toed-in about 10 degrees, with about five feet of space behind them -- the system sang with spot-on tonal accuracy, along with a sense of natural ease that made music sound very real. Capping off all this were excellent detail and resolution. The Mini Utopias are not necessarily bass champs, but they were slamming home the low notes so well in my room that I never felt the low end really lacking. This is something Ill expand on more in a bit.
The speakers first impressed me with the rich and robust character they display through their entire frequency range. They may be called Mini, but they play big! The midrange, in particular, is very well fleshed out and has excellent tonality and proper weight. Male voice, which can sound chesty and bloated on some speakers, is rendered in a robust way that gives it dimensionality without sounding overblown or overly resonant. This critical midrange response is tight, detailed and exceedingly well controlled. Its similar to what I heard from Cliffhanger Audios Bulldog, another speaker with a "big" presentation for a stand-mounted speaker. The Mini Utopia doesnt quite reveal all the texture and detail in this area -- Ive heard speakers like Merlins VSM-SE and the Verity Audio Fidelio get a notch more out; however, it is still extremely good and head and shoulders above most speakers.
An excellent example of the quality of vocal reproduction that the Mini is capable of can be heard on David Johansens "Well, Ive Been to Memphis." This track comes from the Chesky Records release of David Johansen and the Harry Smiths [Chesky JD 196], but I listened to it on an excellent six-track demo disc from a company called Inakustik; I picked the disc up at the Frankfurt audio show in Germany. Through the Minis, the voice has warmth, texture, and outstanding detail superbly rendered in three-dimensional space -- it has reach-out-and-touch-it presence. When I played "Everest" from Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe Records RBR-013-D], I was so taken by the natural ease and outstanding clarity of the sound that I played the track five times in a row. Then I played it every day for a week! This track also showed off the speakers solidity of image placement. DiFranco's voice is placed distinctly off to the left, just shy of that speaker, but is rendered with cut-out-in-space realism through the Mini Utopias.
Track two from the same Inakustic demo disc, "Passion and Pride" by Friedemann, is a Latin-flavored tune that shows off the astonishing speed, transparency and dynamics of the Mini Utopia. The highs, like the midrange, are very fleshed out with outstanding clarity. Theyre prominent, lively and very extended, but they're never bright. The presentation is a little more immediate and forward in comparison to the more polite-sounding Fidelio; however, I dont believe this to be a good or bad thing -- just a difference.
Given the right source, the lively Minis soar with outstanding precision, speed and impact. The sound is very fast, vivid and incisive no matter the type of music you choose. Also, the speaker can play quite loud without strain or congestion. Some stand-mounted monitors, when pushed beyond 95dB or so, start to sound taxed and compressed. The Mini Utopia played far louder than what I would consider normal listening levels in my room and did so without a hint of strain. However, Im not saying this is necessarily a great speaker for a very large room; undoubtedly, it has limits. But for a small or medium-sized room it has much more than sufficient output capability.
While the highs sparkle with infinite extension and the midrange possesses excellent clarity and delineation, I should point out a concern about listening position. To get the best out of the Minis, you must have your ears level to the tweeter. While you dont have to keep your head in a vice like with some speakers -- there is reasonable leeway both left, right, up and down -- when you stand up you can hear a definite reduction in high-frequency extension. This indicates that the speaker is fairly directional. Its definitely a sit-down speaker for serious listening. If you walk into a demonstration room and find that the Minis sound a tad dull, check whether you ears and the tweeters are on the same plane. Also, a certain amount of toe-in is important. While the horizontal plane does not have the directionality to the degree the vertical plane does, it certainly does improve in performance when the "firing line" is adjusted properly. I tried listening directly on-axis, which is good, but found very slightly off-axis more pleasurable. This is likely due to the speakers more vivid and lively presentation, which subsides just a tad when listening a few degrees to the side.
Soundstaging is extremely good and easily on par with the very best Ive heard. Seated optimally, I find there is great width, stunning precision, and very good depth. Voices, in particular, float effortlessly and can appear almost holographic. With well-recorded orchestral works there is a breadth of stage that is wholly impressive. It also maintains these traits at all output levels and doesnt seem to compress or flatten the stage even when the music is loud.
Before I comment on the bass, you should be aware that there are a couple subwoofers that JMlab offers that can be paired up with this speaker to plumb the bass depths for real. I didnt use either, and frankly didnt really feel the need to. Undoubtedly there will be those who want more bass, but I was left more than impressed with the weight and slam that this speaker is capable of on its own. In my room I would estimate rock-solid extension to 50Hz or so, which in reality is quite a bit deeper than many listeners think (a lot of recorded music doesnt even go that low). I would guess that for the majority of listeners the Minis' bass depth should serve just fine.
While frequency extension is one thing, what impressed me most was the impact, slam and heft that the Minis could render. Detail and articulation in this area were the best Ive heard from any small speaker (within its limits, of course). The Verity Fidelio goes lower in terms of extension, quite a bit lower in fact, and is also rounder and more room-filling. However, the Mini Utopia hits the low end with more attack and immediacy. Its much closer in character to Cliffhanger Audios Bulldog, another speaker with outstanding bass extension and wallop. Mephisto & Co. [Reference Recordings RR-82] has a wonderful recording of "Danse Macabre." This full-scale orchestral piece has tremendous impact that the Minis rendered almost ideally. I could easily live with a pair of Mini Utopias and never want a subwoofer.
As for the Mini Utopia's shortcomings, theyre minor in comparison to the strengths. While I found it wholly suitable in my room, those wanting to place it in a very large room, or for those who want really low bass will likely have to invest in one of the JMlab subwoofers or perhaps look at a bigger Utopia speaker model. Also, if I had my preference, I would want the Mini Utopia to eek out the same level of resolution in the midrange as Veritys Fidelio, which to my ears is a revelation in that department. Finally, I can easily live with the somewhat directional nature of its design, but I wish I sometimes could stand up and hear it sound its best. I like to walk around and listen to music, but when something I really liked came on, I always found myself bolting for a chair with these speakers. I hope you realize, though, that Im nit-picking when I say all this. If the Mini Utopia could do it all, it would likely be the perfect stand-mounted loudspeaker -- something that hasnt been invented, yet, but this comes as close as Ive seen.
Overall, the Minis' strengths over many competitors include rock-solid focus and almost holographic dimensionality. As mentioned earlier, the speakers exhibit palpability and presence. I consider it a robust and fully fleshed-out-sounding speaker. Where it falls back a tad is in ultimate resolution of space and depth of image. In my room Verity Audios Fidelio comes out a champ with its astonishing transparency that produces a soundstage extending far back of the speakers' boundaries. The Mini cant quite muster the same trapezoid of sound. A good popular recording for determining depth is "Virtue" from Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up. On this track, the stage is well delineated with the Fidelios and shows percussion to extend farrrrr back. The Minis place it far back, but not quite to the same extent. Other speakers that get very close to the Fidelios' performance includes Waveforms MC, Merlins TSM-SE, and Mirages MRM-1 (all mini-monitors that are truly mini).
The Mini Utopia does plenty about which to be proud. On the plus side, it has a lively, up-front presentation that can swing effortlessly through every musical style from Bach to Beck, to Dylan and DiFranco (and even some Rob Zombie). The ability to play anything is vital in any reference-level loudspeaker, and this one has it. It must also be noted how easy the Mini Utopia is to drive. It sang to the stratosphere with my single-ended Blue Circle amplifiers, and I dont doubt that there will be any number of amplifiers, even lower-powered tube models, that will be an outstanding match with it. Whats more, it offers exquisite styling and awesome build quality. At its price point, you should expect more than good sound. The attention to detail and quality of workmanship inherent in the Mini Utopia are stunning and help to justify the price tag that it carries.
Ive always said its more important to match the speaker to the room, rather than the speaker to the height and number of drivers you can afford to purchase. Listening to the Mini Utopias in my modest-size room is like listening to a very large speaker in a large room. In short, the Mini Utopia is a nearly reference-class loudspeaker in a small package. Could I live with it? Happily!
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