Sheepishly, I'm here to review a product from a company we've been ignoring for all the wrong reasons. Mentioning 'JM Lab' might trigger a response in those who remember the minutiae of show reports. They'll think 'French', 'speaker manufacturer'...'Focal drivers'. And it's that last bit which makes this so embarrassing. Not only is JM Lab the speaker manufacturing division of a company well-known for raw drivers (Wilson WATTs use Focal units, for example), it has had UK distribution for some time. So this long-overdue assessment of one of its products isn't mere appeasement of the French; it's wholly justifiable in UK middle-market terms.
Because JM Lab has taken advantage of the single-market concept, if not quite shoving speakers at us through the Chunnel, it has a range of imported speakers which doesn't suffer the price disadvantages normally attributed to foreign-made goods. The Micron Carat retails for only £390 per pair in basic form, and it offers performance and perceived value on a par with our home-grown speakers of like price. For the Francophobes among the speaker-builders in the UK, here's another reason to hate the French.
Stand-mounted, rear-ported, compact two-way speakers are not exactly in short supply in the UK, so the Micron Carat has to offer something substantially different to make it stand out among the myriad minis on offer. The £390 version is finished in black ash vinyl over chipboard while the £459 version uses an MDF cabinet veneered in auburn or lacquered in black satin. I would suspect that the cabinet changes are accompanied by some small sonic gains, too, but I've spent time only with the less-expensive model; I would hope that stockists will be able to A/B the two for you.
So far, so similar. The enclosure, measuring 300x194x202mm (HWD), has bevelled vertical edges to create a narrower baffle. Build quality matches British speakers at this price point; if the badge were removed I'd easily mistake these for small Tannoys or Mordaunt-Shorts. At the rear are multi-way terminals, the port is positioned top-and-centre and there's a sticker showing you how to wire them in single, bi-wired or bi-amped mode.
Remove the grille and that's where things become interesting – not least because the Micron Carat contains a version of the company's famous inverted dome tweeter which will allow the impoverished audio casualty to boast that his/her system shares a genetic link with the Wilson WATT. The tweeters aren't the same as those found in the WATT, of course – just the topology. The Micron Carat, however, uses a new version of the 25mm inverted dome, this time made from something called Tioxid. Despite sounding like a noxious medicine, Tioxid is actually titanium treated with a proprietary coating unique to Focal, said to absorb surface waves and thereby reduce distortion. Behind the dome is a 72mm diameter magnet.
Crossover at 3kHz is via an 18dB/octave circuit featuring 'two parallel voice coils'. The recipient of the lower frequency signals is a 136mm woofer consisting of a Neoflex cone, dual-voice coil and diecast chassis, backed with a 100mm diameter magnet. The entire system is specified as having a 4 ohm impedance, sensitivity of 88.5dB for 2.8V/1m and maximum SPL capability of 103.7dB. Hungrier than today's 90dB-plus efficiency experts, the 'Carat is happier with a bit more than the miserable 40W offered by sub-£200 integrateds...though that's what will most likely power them in the UK.
Even though the grille material itself is thin, reminiscent of the
cloth used by Sonus Faber, the frame itself is heavy and thick, enough
to interfere a bit with the dispersion. Purists will, therefore, prefer
the Micron Carat au naturel. As an added bonus, said purists will then
be spared the one aesthetic mistake made by JM Lab: the badge is
comic-book grotesque, more suitable for a computer games console than a
speaker. (I'll overlook the model name and the hilarious owner's manual
because English is, after all, a second language for these people. But
maybe next time they should have the literature proof-read by someone
who speaks it like a native. If only the French were as charitable about
our handling of their language...)
Even though power demands led me toward using the Acurus A250 and
Classé DR10 power amps, I was drawn continually to the little Unison
Research Simply Two valve amp, which just happened to complement the
Micron Carat so well. But I couldn't use it as my primary power source
because it compromised an area where the Micron Carat positively excels,
which also happens to be the quality about which the company boasts in
the literature. The catalogue reads: 'Your dream is a small-sized
loudspeaker which produces the sound of a "big" one!' And they hit the
nail on the head.
So large-sounding is the Micron Carat – remember, it's scarcely
larger than an LS3/5A – that you would forgive it any other sins if
scale is a priority. As large speaker systems become increasingly less
popular because of the tight-arsed, narrow-minded, soulless taste police
who influence wives – there, I've said it and I will not bow down to
feminist pressure because it's true that the wives put the damper on
most hi-fi purchases – the need for big-sounding small speakers
increases proportionately. And while there are plenty which 'disappear',
creating a large sonic stage in which to frolic, the 'Carat expands in
all directions, on all types of music, at all playback levels and with
only one proviso: that your amp produces enough juice to let the dynamic
attributes match the spatial.
Just sounding big isn't enough, even if the relative proportions are
maintained and the sense of three-dimensionality is preserved. If the
sound were to suffer at the frequency extremes, it would jeopardise the
notion of realism. It's like blowing up a 35mm transparency to poster
size, and doing the same with a 5x4 plate. The end result will be
identically-sized posters, but the latter will offer minimal granularity
and therefore a better image. So upscaling ain't everything. It's how
you do it. And upscaling with a mini-speaker means providing bass worthy
of the image size. Or should do.
Partly through the use of the rear port, partly due to the long
excursion of the woofer and the double voice-coil arrangement, the
Micron Carat provides more enough bass to preserve the notion that the
listener is in front of a much larger system. How large? Well, the
'Carat has an internal volume of 6.6litres. It was not embarrassed by
speakers in the 12-15litre range, sporting woofers some 30% larger.
Miraculously, the 'Carat matches the sheer quantity of bass with
reasonable control and extension, like a well-behaved Linn Tukan. All
that's missing to complete the illusion is that carpet-curling
thunderbass so beloved of Americans. Big deal. Whether listening to the
crunching artifice of current dance music (Virgin Record's Signed,
Sealed, Delivered no 2 sampler for 1.99 is full of the stuff) or the
monumental bass which seems to be the preserve of soundtracks, the
Micron Carat managed to behave in a most Wilson-like manner. It
delivered what was within its range, ignoring that which would cause it
to splat, belch or simply implode.
Even better is the way the Micron Carat handles the mid and upper
frequencies, glare-free, full of detail but utterly devoid of the
aggression often present in the Tukan, most metal-domed units and the
(now-deceased) WATT III. (Had I listened to the Micron Carat before
hearing the WATT V, I'd have been less surprised by the latter's
newfound politesse.) The treble is silkier than I expected, smooth and
grainless and supported by a rich midband. Although I preferred the
speaker with the added warmth of the Unison Research tube electronics,
the intrinsic balance of the Micron Carat is far from cool, overly
analytical or hygienic, so it would take a fairly fierce transistor amp
to do too much damage to the sound.
As the above should suggest, this is a terrific speaker for vocals,
placing them to the fore and leaving the much-needed life-giving details
– breathing, natural sibilants and chesty resonances – relatively
intact. But however much this sounds like an LS3/5A with extensions at
either end, I can't help but come back to the sense of scale this
miniature provides. And I don't mean just the height and width. I can
give no better advice than to suggest to the potential customer to sit
way off axis, to the left of the left speaker for example, to 'look
into' the stage, with depth recreation of a calibre I normally associate
with thoroughbred panel systems.
Is this the best speaker in the UK for under 400? I don't know, as
I've not tried them all. But it certainly is a welcomed contender.
Beyond that, though, it forces us to stop thinking of French speakers
just as goofy freakery with eyeball modules or weird finishes. This
little import is interfering with what seemed to be solely a British
preserve, however conservative and established is the world of two-way,
box-type speaker. But the Micron Carat is one to watch...because it has
19 larger siblings.