I have theory about JohnBlue’s JB3 loudspeakers: many audiophiles like the IDEA of them more than they can live with them long-term. Sooner or later the novelty of an immaculately conceived, three inch full-ranger wears thin: they struggle to fill anything more than small rooms and they suffer cone break-up when played “loud”. That is to say, they fall between two stools: too much of a luxury item for a computer desktop but not commanding enough for main systems. Added to the recipe of dissatisfaction is that we audio folk are a restless bunch. So, out the door the JB3s go and the cycles begins again with someone else. I know, I’ve been through two pairs of JB3s in twelve months. On each occasion I moved onto the Dayens Tizo – power-hungry little suckers which met with an eBay demise – and a pair of Travagans three inch full-rangers that offered superior imaging for fewer dollars.
The man with the biggest chair at JonhBlue Audio – Tommy Wu – is rightly proud of his proprietary single driver designs and despite my aforementioned theory on JB3 ownership, I have rarely encountered someone who didn’t like their coherence, their imaging, their performance-to-cost quotient, their cuteness…let alone their lush piano-lacquered finish. Moreover, the JohnBlue JB3 – more so than the JB4 – has gone a long way to mainstreaming the idea full-rangers, wide-banders, single driver loudspeakers amongst the great unwashed hifi masses of Australia, of which I am one.
Let’s recap on my loudspeaker journey these past twelve months. After a period of thinking they sounded a little strange, sometimes dry, I’m now a fully-fledged (if recent) convert to the single driver fanclub. But it wasn’t always like this. I was first seduced by the parched-but-swift miniature horses that pulled Linn Kans, which caused me to swiftly re-prioritsed my wants and needs from a loudspeaker: OUT went bass slam and treble extension, IN came midrange openness, speed and imaging. Then came a brief detour into the upper-mid-led taught emotions of Naim IBLs and (later) n-Sats; the latter wrought every last drop of dread and despair from a House Of Love compilation that I swore I’d possibly hear nothing like it again.
In 1980s Britain, “Made in Taiwan” was the ultimate stamp of poor quality – there was no single worse insult to betroth upon a product. A slab of electronics of Taiwanese providence was often dismissed as worthless rubbish. How times have changed: now conventional wisdom has us believing (and seeing!) that Taiwanese products are superior to those of Chinese origin. Urban myths perhaps, but there’s no denying the sheer luxurious build quality of JohnBlue’s loudspeakers. I’m gonna come right and and say it: the JB4 is one helluva handsome loudspeaker. Each box is fashioned from MDF and finished with solid cherry wood veneer. The four inch single driver sits dead centre on the front baffle and directly above the unusual, mailbox-slit port. The fit and finish of the JB4 is nothing short of stunning.
Only avid South Park watchers will take to this analogy: the JB4 is Kyle Broflowski to the JB3′s Ike. “Kick the baby!”. For the rest of us, the JB4 is an average sized standmount that should sit well on most stands (whereas the JB3 was more of a computer desktop or bookshelf affair). I used Atacama Aurora 6 for my listening sessions upon which they sounded great and looked striking – I continually gushed over the JB4′s aesthetic majesty as they were moved from system to system, room to room. The JB4 ooze a confident visual (and sonic) austerity that means they share few of the traits displayed by (other) mass-produced loudspeakers at this price point. Only the Quad 11L2 saw me effuse quite as much.
Upgrading from three inches to four means the large print giveth and the small print taketh away: the JB4′s top-end is slightly rolled off, there isn’t the dramatic valley-deep mountain-high macro dynamics of similarly-priced two-ways and despite the JB4′s ability to mine deeper bass than the JB3, overall sonic weight is thin on the ground (except when the SPLs are pushed). In my world, this makes them ideal for smaller rooms. In fact, I began my audition of the JB4s in the smallest of my listening spaces with an 8wpc SET (Trafomatic Experience Two). If this sound to you like a curate’s egg of a loudspeaker, you’d be only half right:
Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”
Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”
What you do get for AU$920 is unsurpassed midrange clarity and depth as well as imaging that seems untethered by the RRP (or the boxes themselves). Most obvious of the sonic characteristics are pronounced upper-mids. This makes for a thrilling, emotionally tense, low-flying helicopter ride over the undulating lunar landscape painted by Shackleton’s Fabric 55 mix. The multifarious percussion and repetitive vocal samples play beautifully into the JB4′s hands – even at low volumes the presentation is taut and engaging. Microdynamics and inner detail retrieval are both first-class and mark the JB4 out as an laudable loudspeaker for late night listening and night owls. Julian Cope’s extended Krautrock wig-outs on 1992′s Jehovahkill play as well as the more intimate guitar-and-vocal cuts, but don’t expect the JB4 to do complete justice to the Ramones or Television – they’ll make a spirited attempt, but they’re just not a punk-post-punk-new-wave kind of speaker. Yet, neither are they solely the preserve of simple acoustic songs. Their speed makes them ideal for nervy, twitchy IDM.
Where the JB3 had tripped and fallen before them, the JB4 cut the mustard when moved to a larger room. Improved presence and punchiness were then achieved with both the Virtue Sensation M901 and the LFP-V updated Red Wine Audio 30.2 integrated. The latter offering a ‘wetter’ sound than with the SET. As with many standmount speakers placed in larger space, it’s tough to shake the conclusion that the more power they are fed, the more enjoyable the resulting sound. At 89db, the JB4s are no high efficiency dream boat – if you must use a low-powered SET, make sure it’s a muscular one. Still, it’s impressive that two very different Tripath amplifiers both pair well with JohnBlue’s single-driver vision; a boon for those looking to put a system together around the JB4 without busting the budget wide open.
Comparing the JB4s to the far costlier Omega Super 6 XRS is perhaps unfair, but still informative: the JB4 is clearly the more earthy loudspeaker (drier, tauter). The Omegas possess the better extended top-end, with the JB4s treble extension improving appreciably with each successive source component upgrade: from Squeezebox Touch to Heed Dactilus to Tranquility Signature Edition. Getting his four inch driver to do everything as well as the Omega six inch hemp cone was probably never going to happen, but Tommy Wu should be applauded for creating a loudspeaker that gets as close as it does. The JB4s certainly image as well as the bigger boys. Soundstage arrangement and midrange coherence of this calibre would be nigh on impossible to find from a comparatively priced mainstream hifi speaker – yes, I’m even looking at you ATC SCM 7. Turn up the gas on the JB4s and it’s easier to ignore the dynamic chasm between Taiwan and the UK. The ATC SCM 7 is a weightier, more “hifi” sounding loudspeaker that begins to feel increasingly carbohydrate-heavy having undertaken the JB4 diet of roughage, ground coffee and fresh fruit.
Despite sounding wholly different to the JB3, the JB4 still advances JohnBlue’s mainstreaming of single driver loudspeakers: they can fill a larger room with music, they can be pushed relatively hard and they play well with a range of amplifiers. Buy a pair and you won’t find yourself fussing over which SET or CAT-5 speaker cables – surely an achievement over and above Fostex and Lowther-centric DIY efforts. You get the stunning imaging and midrange with no mess and no fuss. Moreover, you get a loudspeaker whose aesthetics are unsurpassed at this price point. No loudspeaker is perfect and you’re not going to get it all for a grand, but JohnBlue’s JB4 represents an off-ramp on the busy freeway of budget two-way designs and as such they are well worth investigating.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Heed Dactilus
- Red Wine Audio Isabellina
- Tranquility Signature Edition
- Red Wine Audio 30.2 LFP-V edition
- Trafomatic Experience Two
- Virtue Sensation M901
- Julian Cope – Jehovahkill (1992)
- Shackleton – Fabric 55 (2010)
- Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
- Pet Shops Boys – Ultimate (2010)
[JohnBlue Audio Art is distributed in Australia by Music Gateway]