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Positive Feedback ISSUE 3
october/november 2002


jm labs

Electra 936 loudspeakers

as reviewed by Victor Chavira, Larry Cox, and Ed Morawski


936.jpg (27611 bytes)





Magneplanar 1.6 and B&W DM 302.

Magnum Dynalab 208 receiver.

NAD T541 CD/DVD player.

Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects, Blue Heaven speaker cables, and El Dorado power cords.

Monster Cables HTS 1000 AC center. Vibrapods, Lovan Trisolator, and Echo Busters.


one.jpg (6551 bytes)Of all the components that make up the audio chain, I’m the least tolerant of speakers. I can live with less-than-perfect CD players, amps, and cables, but nothing sends me to the off switch faster than a pair of foul-sounding speakers. The JMLab Electra 936s do not fit into that category. More about that in the paragraphs ahead, but first some background is in order. I am a long term Magnepan owner, by choice and by necessity. No other speakers provide me with more musical value–$1500 for my 1.6s. However, the 1.6s have a flaw. They absolutely do not deliver their true potential when paired with an amplifier of similar value. The 1.6s, when mated to a $1500 amplifier, sound downright mediocre. Only when connected to an amp of at least twice their value will the 1.6s spread their wings and embrace the listener in superb sound. My Magnum Dynalab 208 receiver fills the role admirably, although truth be told, another 100 watts or so would be of benefit. Maggies are gluttons for power.

This leads me to why I so thoroughly enjoyed the JMLabs 936s. They produced great amounts of involving, expressive music with minimal effort from my receiver. One of the things that most impressed me about them was their sensitivity. At 92dB, the 936s are more keen and responsive than my 84-dB Magnepans. This was dramatically demonstrated when I disconnected the 936s and reconnected the 1.6s between tracks on a CD. With the JMLabs, music sounded vibrant and alive. Bass was fully developed and tangible. Bursts of sound started and stopped with startling speed and accuracy. The rhythmic and dynamic force produced by the 936s was an exciting and satisfying experience. In contrast, connecting the 1.6s left me wondering where all the life went. The whole thing collapsed like a house of cards. Given the same level of volume, the JMLabs consistently made more music than my 1.6s.

The contrasts between soft and loud passages of music were more successfully rendered by the 936s than the 1.6s. More importantly, though, the Electras were able to adeptly discern the differences between soft and very soft. Because of their insensitivity, the Magnepans aren’t able to capture that last bit of air expelled from a singers mouth at the end of a melancholy song or the vibrations from a flamenco player’s final rasgueado. Another thing that contributed to my enjoyment of the JMLabs was their ability to launch sound into the room. Most of the music is produced from a single 6.5-inch driver operating from 200 Hz to 2.5 kHz about forty inches from the floor. The sound didn’t drastically change when I stood up to dance. In this regard, the 936s are similar to my 1.6s. Neither limit my musical enjoyment to the sitting position.

For all their strengths, the 936s were surpassed by my reference speakers in the area of driver integration. When Cachao ascends a scale on his upright bass, the entire harmonic episode of attack, duration, decay, and overtones is reproduced by a single panel element in the Maggies. The 936s modulate between midrange driver, twin bass drivers, and port. The effect, however, is minimal, and it never detracted from my enjoyment of these speakers. Unless your musical diet consists of only cello and baritone singers, I would not give this a second thought.

Even as a long-term panel user, I was so impressed by the JMLabs Electra 936s that I very seriously considered purchasing the review pair. Unfortunately, I am not able to do so at this time. The Electras incorporate many technical innovations developed exclusively by JMLabs. However, even though they are fairly efficient, they may not be suitable for very low-powered amps due to their triode-torturing 3.2-ohm minimum impedance. Surprisingly, the 936s did not draw too much attention to themselves for such large speakers. They looked rather handsome in their cherrywood finish and integrated well with my living room decor. Give them a serious listen. Victor Chavira






Majeel Labs Pristine S-10 amplifier and the E.A.R. 802 preamplifier.

Pioneer DV 525 DVD player.

Quattro Fil interconnects and speaker cables made from Belden 1219A wire.

API Power Pack and ACPEAM line conditioners. BDR cones.


two.jpg (6646 bytes)I prefer a laid back, mid-hall sound. At mid hall, you don’t get well-defined images, highs are less forward, and there is a warmth and rhythm that is fundamentally different from what you hear in a front-row seat. The sound at both mid hall and front row is by definition musical, but the prizes offered are different. British speakers tend to give mid-hall presentations, and I’ve owned two pairs: Spendor SP 7/1s and my present ATC SCM 20s. I could be happy continuing to own British speakers and never miss the front-row sound of Thiels, etc. Nowadays, I want to be massaged, elevated, and perhaps emotionally wooed by music.

The JMLabs Electra 936 loudspeakers, which represent Jacques Mahul’s latest thinking, are not warm, fuzzy, or forgiving. They are like electron microscopes. I’ve never heard speakers that were more detailed without the sound becoming like a buzz saw, or as tonally pathetic as the ProAc Tablettes of over a decade ago. With my ATCs, the maracas in Dead Can Dance’s "Yulunga" sound just like maracas. You get a sense of something moving around inside of a wooden shell. The 936s tell you that there are maracas being played, but it seems that if you listened carefully enough, you’d not only be able to tell how many things are shaking around inside, but the precise inner dimensions of the maracas.

The 936s are very forward, up front, and fast, with an ever-so-"white" tonal balance and an extended top end. Initially, I found them a bit too detailed and bracing. More detail isn’t inherently more realistic—in fact, it may be non-musical. As time wore on, however, the 936s sounded more desirable and interesting. Over time, I found ways to make the speakers work. They should not be out into the room, unlike most other speakers. Toe-in? You might get a haircut. Point them almost straight forward, and sit far away. With this configuration, I found the 936s’ detail, speed, and imaging attractive. If, however, you have a bright-sounding system, I expect the 936s would be quite unpleasant. My E.A.R. 864 preamp and Majeel Labs Pristine amplifier are both very refined and liquid. Something less refined or liquid might be too forward, harsh, or just ugly through the 936s.

The 936s are fairly big, around 40 inches tall and two and a half feet in depth. Although they are considerably larger than my ATCs, they disappeared at least as much, if not more. There probably aren’t going to be many speakers that are faster. Bass extension was slightly deeper than with my ATCs, going down to around 35Hz in my room, plus, given the much more efficient design of the 936s, I got 35Hz at a much lower volume level. As a reviewer, I tend to do things I don’t do as a listener, which is to say I pull out CDs that have bass, without regard for whether the CD contains music I like, so Primus’ Pork Soda and Yello’s Oh, Yeah! filled my room with bass aplenty. I felt like a goofy kid, listening to stuff my mother would think I was playing just to annoy her.

The bass was distinctly not over-damped nor overripe. It was very, very fast. In many ways, the 936s sounded as fast as electrostatics, while retaining the macro-dynamic capacity of cone speakers. Image specificity was quite striking. Images popped up like pages in a children’s book, neither cartoonishly large nor small. In comparison to my mini-monitors, the 936s throw a much bigger image. I think that image size and specificity is a silly thing to go after, but then, some people have foot fetishes. If you are into image size, God bless you, but please, talk amongst yourselves, I don’t get or care for it.

In closing, the $5495 JMLabs Electra 936s did not match up with my general preference for a mid-hall sound, but over time, and after working with them, I appreciated their strengths. I feel that they will be suited to listeners who want to hear all the detail in their record collections. Matched with smooth-sounding ancillary equipment, they could be winners. Match them with edgy or bright electronics, and they might be awful, but with them in your system you will figure out what is right or wrong with it, in a hurry. Larry Cox





Alon Capri.

Bryston 4B-ST amplifier and a Muse Model 3 preamplifier.

Muse Model 5 transport and 296 DAC.

Synergistic Research Kaleidoscope interconnects, AudioQuest Slate speaker cables, and DIY power cords.


three.jpg (8484 bytes)I usually have some say about what equipment I review, so when I saw JMLab speakers were available, I jumped on them fast. I had always wanted to hear something from the makers of the Focal drivers. I had never seen them in any dealer's showroom, and had never connected with them at CES, so I awaited their arrival with great anticipation. If that day comes for you, make sure you have help. These are big speakers! They are 45" tall, 12" wide, and 16" deep, weigh over 100 hundreds pounds each, and are not easy to move around, but they are impressive looking—very high tech, with solid wood sides and a full-length grill of gray fabric. They will never be mistaken for furniture.

The Electras were first placed in my home theater room. This room is 12 feet by 30 feet, but only the left most 12 feet is used for viewing movies, since the remainder opens into the rest of the house. There were two reasons for putting the 936s here. First, we were too tired to carry them upstairs to my music room, and second, JMLabs is marketing them as front-channel home theater speakers. Let me tell you, the Electra 936s dwarf my Alon Capris. They were placed about 3 feet from the back wall and 8 feet apart. I snapped off the grill to find four drivers in a ported enclosure: a tweeter, one midrange unit, mounted at the top in a cantilevered design meant to point it down toward the listener, and two bass drivers. The bi-wireable binding posts are big, solid, and sporting the most unique set of jumpers I have ever seen. You know how most jumpers tend to slip off while you're trying to tighten them? Not these babies, they actually slip into the hole where bare wire would normally go, and can't slip out. They are substantial as well, not thin, cheap, gold- plated sheet metal.

I connected them to a Harmon Kardon AVP-520, a high current receiver with 90 watts per channel. A Panasonic RP-91 DVD player served as source. Although I was not sure whether they were broken in yet, I couldn't resist a listen, so I tried a couple of multi-channel DTS discs. The Moody Blues’ "Nights of White Satin" went in, and I was under-whelmed. It sounded very thin, and there was almost no low end. The Eagles’ "Hotel California" sounded a bit better, but not much. I was puzzled, and disappointed, at the lack of coherent soundstage and dynamics. I checked all the connections thoroughly, but could find nothing amiss. I could hear signal out of all of the drivers, but it had no impact, especially in the bass. Deciding that perhaps more power would help, I brought in the big-gun Bryston 4B-ST and used the HK receiver as a preamp. I tried standard CDs like Madonna and Norah Jones, but still I was not impressed at all. The extra power helped, but my Alon Capris sounded much fuller and richer, at less then half the price.

Reasoning that they must not have been broken in, I left them on continuously for the next two weeks, listening every night after work. After awhile, I admit I became used to them, and they disappeared from my mind as I concentrated on whatever I was watching. It was only this past weekend that I finally realized what the speakers were lacking: color! These are totally neutral loudspeakers, and they are so laid back as to be almost invisible.

I then solicited help in moving the 936s upstairs to my dedicated two-channel music room. It was a task, even with two grown men. Placing them was trying. My listening room is only 10 X 11 feet, and we had a tough time finding the right spots. Close to the rear wall, close to the side, into the center. No positions seemed to bring up the soundstage, but placing them 2 feet from the rear, 2 feet from the side, and 6 feet apart solved the bass problem. Madonna's Ray of Light had plenty of low-end impact and the bass was now quite good. At this point, I removed the Muse equipment from my rack and substituted a Cary 306/200 that I had been auditioning, along with a new (but broken in) Plinius 8200 integrated with 175 watts per side. This again reinforced the bass, but the midrange seemed to recede even more, which was surprising, considering the Plinius has wonderful midrange reproduction. I tried several different sets of speaker cables, and even bi-wired the JMLabs, but nothing changed. In the mix at various times were Empirical Audio, Synergistic Research, Stealth Silver and Copper, even some DIY CAT 5.

I continued to play Ray of Light, but there was just no life in it. Even the highs now seemed harsh and shrill. Since it was Memorial Day weekend, visitors dropped by for barbecue, most of them non-audiophiles but avid music fans. Two were semi-professional musicians who perform mostly rock and reggae, so I pulled out some 70s and 80s compilation CDs, and we all tried to get into the sound. It just wasn't happening.

If you had asked me a month ago what kind of speakers I preferred, I would have said laid back and neutral. After listening to the 936s, I realize this is not truly my taste. My PMC FB-1s are certainly very British, but they are not laid back by comparison with the JMLabs. The PMCs are dynamic and involving, but I cannot say the same for the JMLabs. Many audiophiles will probably like the Electras, as they do not color the music, and are certainly attractive. I can see them in a large room with an all-tube system to impart some warmth, listening to some Classical vinyl. Ed Morawski




Electra 936 loudspeakers
Retail $5995

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