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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Financial Interests: click here
Digital Source: Esoteric X03SE, Musical Fidelity A5, NuForce Icon DAC
Analog source: Acoustic Solid Classic Wood with RB300, Denon DL103 or Grado cartridge, Clearaudio Nano
Amplifier: McIntosh MA2275, Genesis GR360 & MDHR, Adcom GFP750 pre-amp, Sphinx Project 10, NuForce Icon, Onix SP3, Musical Fidelity A5 integrated
Speakers: Nomad Audio RPDs, FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a
Headphone system: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec, Cobalt Ultimate
Power Cords: Zu Mother
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' x 9' opening to 3 other rooms, short wall setup, suspended wood floor, sheetrock walls and ceiling.
Review component retail: $1030/pr

Although JohnBlue Audio Art only recently appeared in the Western world, this brand should not be a complete stranger for 6moons readers since David Kan and Srajan have already covered the JB3 and JB8 respectively. If you have not read those two pieces, I would recommend you do as they provide a lot of background information on the company, its owner and the products such that I won't reproduce it in the spirit of keeping this write-up to the point.

When Tommy Wu introduced his JB4 speakers based on a 4-inch widebander, he made the very bold statement of it easily rivaling the famed Rogers LS 3/5a. Owning a pair of LS 3/5a, I have witnessed my fair share of speakers come and go that claimed to summarily replace the 40-year old reference but fail to make it past their first decade let alone the first few years. In all cases, that failure was more often than not due to a lack of understanding what the Rogers do so well - a rich and intense midrange that treats male and female voices with love and care. That's it, nothing more, nothing less. To a Rogers owner, the grainy treble, upper bass bump and limited SPLs are just willingly accepted sacrifices on the altar of vocal sensuality and the disappearing act is a nice side benefit but certainly not key attribute.

In this light, a design that aims at 'fixing' the shortcomings of the Rogers while losing the magic will simply be ignored. It may be fine and dandy for other people but not for a Rogers fan. A few modern designs by Sterling and Harbeth have managed the reconciliation of the legacy voicing inherited from the BBC with modern qualities but I don't need more than two or three fingers to count the successes. And the failures are far more numerous. All this to say that I admittedly entered this review completely biased but with a kind sympathy for yet another design that desired to challenge the LS 3/5a and would likely fall flat on its face. Still, I expected it would succeed on its own merits considering how positive Srajan's and David's reviews of the JB3 and JB8 have been.

Unfortunately I was both right and wrong. The JB4 is so completely different from the Rogers that pretending one rivals the other is not merely wrong but plain nonsense from both a sonic and marketing standpoint. Both speakers could not be more different. Pretending one is an improved version of the other opens the door to major disappointments. Worse, it also negates the few things the JB4 does well and diminishes the opportunity for people who could like to give the JB4 a chance.

Yet I have to be honest. I found the JB4's implementation a real nightmare and don't think I ever got to a point where I was truly happy with their musical performance. Had it been just a matter of taste, I should have been able to overcome it and find a positive recommendation as I have done in other circumstances. Not so much here although if you read through, you will learn that the JB4 can be extremely pleasant with some specific uses and setups but too restrictive to get more than a very qualified and narrow recommendation.

The JB4 sits in the middle of JohnBlue's bookshelf line between the diminutive JB3 and the far larger JB8B. As all JB speakers, it relies on a single, crossover-less, proprietary driver similar to the one present in the JB3 but one inch larger (the JB8B uses the same 8-inch double whizzer driver as the floorstanding JB8 and is an even more substantial speaker in size and weight). In addition to its unique (in both senses of the word) driver, the JB4 differentiates itself from the competition by its honeycomb interior assembly, allowing JohnBlue to forego any damping material.

I am not going to dance around it. The JB4 does a few things very very well, exemplifying all the qualities that come from no crossover. The spatial coherence of the JB4's imaging is second to none and even the Rogers must bow to this speaker's ability to create a deep and wide soundstage where each musician sits precisely but with a coherence and physicality I had not run into so far. Never before had I looked at a musical stage and felt it being so right, tidy and organized yet substantial and real. Another quality of the JB4 is its microdynamic ability. 89dB may not seem huge on paper but 89dB and a lightweight single driver without crossover and a flat 6-ohm impedance are more than adequate to reproduce all the low-level flutters of the music.

Finally, the strongest quality of the JB4 is without doubt the purity of its lower treble and upper midrange. This speaker adores female voices and violins. It makes the Rogers somewhat grainy and confused by comparison. Treble certainly is not very extended and cymbals lack shimmer and sparkle but instruments and voices that fall within this narrow band sound remarkably lifelike.

It would seem that this rather favorable start is not at all aligned with my introduction. Here it goes then. My issue with the JB4 is that it does not like anything but violins and women's voices and it certainly does not like anything played at any sustained sound level. I have tried every amplifier I own from the 12-watt class-D Icon to the 75-watt McIntosh MA2275 and the 37-watt Onix SP3, even the Sphinx Project 10 which is such a great match for the Rogers. The conclusions were identical.

As soon as I pushed sound levels to anything higher than casual background listening, I ran into first compression, then distortion. The Rogers are famous for having a similar issue typically at above 92dB output but in practice, I rarely run into this which speaks to the fact that I typically do not listen at head-banging levels. With the JB4, I could not reach the levels at which I usually listen without issues no matter what amplifier. I eventually ran the McIntosh with a 9dB cut at 12kHz and 40Hz which somewhat improved things, leading me to believe that an old-fashioned SET amp weak in the knees could be a better mate for the JB4s than my push-pull amplifiers. But I can't recommend a speaker on the chance that it may work well if fed signals only between 80Hz and 10kHz.

That said, this is not the extent of my issues with the JB4. I said this speaker loves female voices and that is true. It is just superlatively good with female voices. But as much as it loves women, it just won't do male voices any justice. The speaker is voiced with a very strong presence in the upper midrange and lower treble but also has a severe lack of energy in the upper bass and lower midrange (an exaggerated yet inverted version of the BBC voicing - hence my initial comment on how dissimilar those two speakers sound). This clear and rising sound without foundation translates to male voices being chesty and nasal. Forget enjoying your favorite tenor on the JB4s unless you like your opera sung with a severe case of sinusitis. Where the Rogers treat all genders with a generous helping of lush sonorities, the JB4 is clearly gender specific. Male voices may not apply.

No bass to speak of, an inability to play loud... you can imagine that the JB4 is no champ at playing large orchestral pieces. And any kind of Rock completely escapes them. The Rogers are no kings of Rock'n'Roll either but they can throw a reasonable pretense. The JB4 won't even go to the dance. Don't dare mention Punk Rock. I thought my wife was going to curse me. Punk Rock at 70dB with no bass can't really pass for Punk no matter what rationalization you try - and try I did. Piano does fare a little better if you like only the right hand. Otherwise you should forget that pianists (except for a few pieces) are expected to use both of their hands as only one will be audible.

I eventually found a way to make the JB4 work on chamber music and lighter orchestral works. Blasphemy of all audiophile blasphemies, I had to put them on the floor to get massive upper bass reinforcement (bass still wasn't detailed or lively but had more weight) and run Foobar through the NuForce Icon's DAC with a tailored response curve shutting off any signal below 80Hz and above 12kHz with a good dose of boost (+3 to +6dB) in the lower midrange. I can't say that I would live with this setup happily ever after but I was able to use it for a few weeks without screaming for my FJ OMs and their gorgeous tonal richness and overall balance. The JB4s trumped the FJs on imaging and microdynamics without problems yet the FJs, like the Rogers, have a lushness throughout the midrange that completely escapes the JohnBlue speakers.

If you read David and Srajan's reviews, you already know two things. The first one is that a 4-inch widebander will always sound more airy than an 8-incher and there is no question that the JB4 inherits part of its character from this simple fact of physics. Yet the absence of a horn prevents the development of any semblance of bass. To the credit of the JB4s, they manage to avoid some of the cupped hands syndrome of horn speakers but they can't eradicate it completely. This partly results in this strange nasal hollowness on male voices.

The second thing you know as well is that Tommy Wu favors light orchestral or vocal works, chamber music and small Jazz ensembles in a very intellectualized and lean presentation. The JB4 is fully the equal of his tastes and therefore might suit the needs of like-minded audiophiles. But I firmly believe that most people will be better served by the cheaper, far more versatile and overachieving Era D5 or Mark & Daniel Mini than the JB4. This does not invalidate David's findings on the JB3 in any way. The stick by which a $350 miniature speaker is to be measured cannot be the same as for a $1000 bookshelf where competition is intense. What I will accept of a small speaker resting on a desk and costing a few hundred dollars won't do for a speaker aspiring to reference monitor status. To gain this title, it would have to be at ease with far more than a handful of discs or musical styles and offer a real semblance of bass foundation.

I won't be offended if you dismiss this review on account of my not getting what widebanders do so well. Yet the crossoverless magic works for me each time. The coherence and imaging, the respect of timing and phase, the lightning fast transients without being edgy and the nuances are all captivating traits I enjoyed in the JB4. What I did not get was the strong deviation from neutrality, the uncertain tonality and the disrespect for instrumental timbres. What I do not get is a speaker with no bass output to speak of, resulting in a presentation that is all air and no earth.

What I value above anything in a speaker is balance. When a designer heavily favors one aspect of musical reproduction at the utter expense of others, I always fail to be impressed. True, the LS 3/5a has many weaknesses but it is overall a far more balanced and versatile speaker than the JB4. And that's saying a lot about the limitations of the JohnBlue speaker. So unless you listen at very subdued levels (at which the JB4 truly excels) on a steady diet of chamber and vocal music and delight in a very intellectualized and dispassionate presentation, you would be better exploring other options. [JohnBlue Audio Art comments on the review here.] David Kan on staff took this speaker for more spins through his own system and those of friends here to shed further light.

Quality of packing: Adequate.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Website comments: Minimal.
Human interactions: Always courteous.
Pricing: Competitive for this level build quality.
Application conditions: Unless you listen at very subdued levels (at which the JB4 truly excels) and on a diet of chamber and vocal music and delight in a very intellectualized and dispassionate presentation, you would be better off exploring other options.
Final comments & suggestions: The JB4's limitations would probably be less of an issue if driven by an old-fashioned euphonic SET amplifier. Boundary reinforcement is very welcome to avoid threadbare sonics.
JohnBlue Audio Art website