Test Report: Jamo S 35 HCS speaker system Page 2

Performance

I gave the Jamos my usual week of casual use to cover any break-in questions, and then settled back to listen in earnest. I usually begin with full-range stereo, but the S 35s quickly demonstrated that they cannot produce enough bass for even casual music listening, so I instead went straight to 2.1.

I immediately noted that the S 35s sound completely unlike conventional — that is to say, direct-radiating — loudspeakers. Their stereo presentation is dramatically more “open,” “airy,” or “diffuse,” due to their large proportion of output reflected from rear and side walls (and ceiling and floor), as well as from any other nearby surfaces. One of the starkest consequences of this is a big, deep, open soundstage from suitable recordings that really grabs the ear’s attention and makes stereo music sound almost surround-like. For instance, “Traffic Jam,” from James Taylor’s Live,produced a sense of stage depth and audience wraparound that really drew my ears into the music. Even in direct A/B comparison with fuller-range and far more costly speakers, this difference was instantly noticeable.

However, one corollary of this über-dispersion is that a room surface too close to one of the satellites will change its sound — a lot. If I rolled my equipment rack within a few feet behind the left S 35, that channel then sounded distinctly brighter and obviously “honkier.” (I presume it was because so much of the speaker’s rear- and sideward sound was reflected from the rack’s flank, focusing additional, reflection-delayed highs toward the listener — and emphasizing, but also roughening, upper-octaves response.)

Another consequence is that the Jamos, at least in 2.1 mode, cannot really form the kind of focused, hard-center, “float-in-space” solo voice or instrument we’re accustomed to hearing from most serious loudspeakers. There’s just too much reflected output. So on a classically dry studio record like Seeing Things from Jakob Dylan (conveniently alphabetized near James Taylor on my music server), the vocal on a track like “All Day and All Night” sounded much less “. . . like he was right there in the room with me! . . .” via the Jamos than it does on my everyday Snell Acoustics Type K 2-way monitors.

Accordingly, you might be tempted, as I was, to try on-wall installation of the S 35s in an effort to increase and possibly extend low-frequency response. My advice: don’t. I got more lows, all right, but there was also a humpty sound that I would characterize as “boom” if its range had been lower. The on-wall location also caused male vocals like Taylor’s to take on a heavily “chesty” character that sounded so obviously wrong that I quickly moved the poor S 35s back out 3 feet into the room.

From there, tonal accuracy was much, much better. Most vocals sounded quite natural and easy, even those of ol’ James, whom regular readers will know is my coal-mine canary for vocal-octaves smoothness. A vestige of chestiness remained, but less than what I’ve heard from many a similarly priced small conventional 2-way. And the Jamos’ unusually open and well-distributed sound has lots of pluses: I found there was a very broad and deep “sweet spot” for stereo listening, with a solid sense of both channels from nearly any seat in my room.

But the S 35’s limited response much below 200 Hz posed a challenge. The Jamo satellites simply don’t have enough low output to adequately mate with the SUB 800. With the sub level set to contribute some semblance of body to male voices and middle-bass instruments, any kind of stronger soundtrack bass or deeper musical bass would be overpowered by the dreaded “small-sub-thud.” And if I repressed the SUB 800 enough to tame the thud and produce tight, satisfying lows — and the Jamo does go surprisingly low for so diminutive a sub — the gap in the midbass made Sweet Baby James sound more like Boy George, and pop-music bass all but inaudible.

In all fairness, these ills have to some degree plagued every sub-miniature HTiB system I’ve auditioned — and I’ve always said so. To paraphrase Einstein, who famously suggested difficult concepts be made as simple as possible but no simpler: Satellite speakers should perhaps be designed as small as possible — but no smaller.

After some hours experimenting with woofer placement and level, crossover, and phase settings (and even cheating with some quick ’n’ dirty sweeps using the estimable Mac OSX app FuzzMeasure Pro), I eventually stumbled onto my best arrangement: preamp-processor crossover set to 200 Hz (the highest mine goes), sub Frequency control wide open (this bypasses the SUB 800’s filter), Phase control about one-quarter of the way up, Level to taste, and the Jamo subwoofer itself located one foot from the wall and nearly centered between the left/right S 35s. (Any greater lateral offset was all too audible as localization on deep male voices.)

Thus, finally, I got a well-integrated 9-octave range — the SUB 800 falls off rapidly below about 70 Hz — and quite satisfying sound. This proved itself on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (I’m still with the hairy-toed Hobbits, having succumbed to recent value pricing on the latest-edition Blu-ray set.) Despite the Jamo system’s diminution, on scenes like the great big battle of Helm’s Deep (Chapters 46-48) it produced a suitably huge, all-encompassing sonic canvas.

The system plays loud enough to fill modest-sized rooms, though the S 35s are substantially lower in sensitivity than most box speakers. And the SUB 800 goes low enough to at least suggest the full impact of such a big-budget extravaganza.

On paper, the C 35 center makes a very close match in frequency response to its flanking mates. In practice, the center unit sounds completely different: Increased output in the male-vocal region of 100 to 200 Hz, not to mention the speaker’s very different radiation pattern, makes switching between 2.1 stereo and 5.1 (or 3.1) listening completely and dramatically obvious.

A few chapters earlier in The Two Towers, there are sequences where midrange sounds — pounding horse hooves and Warg paws — are panned fully across the front stage. Here, the C 35 center imbued the sounds with an all too audible character-shift as they changed from a diffuse, hard-to-place left, to a tightly focused center, to a diffuse-sounding right. (The same thing could be heard, but to much more positive effect, on front-to-rear pans; we expect sounds behind us to be more diffuse.)Otherwise,the C 35 sounded marvelously consistent, showing very little change in vocal weight or colors from both on- and off-axis seats.

The S 35s performed superbly in the surrounds, keeping ambience ambient, and effects well-positioned but not excessively localized. If you’re going to use non-dipole/bipole surrounds, the S 35 seems almost ideal. (I actually would consider it ideal if it conveyed another octave of low-frequency sound.)

Bottom Line

I worked diligently to get the best from the setup of S 35s, C 35, and SUB-800, a task that the satellites’ limited bandwidth didn’t make easy. But my efforts were rewarded by the Jamo spheres’ uniquely wide ’n’ deep stereo reproduction, and by enough full-system tonal accuracy to let the speakers disappear into the music or movie at hand. But be forewarned, potential buyers: If you simply unbox, hook up, and forget, you will be doing both yourself and Jamo a real disservice. Careful, attentive, and creative setup is always key to finding the full potential in any multichannel system, and in this case, it’s absolutely crucial.

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