Review: JM Labs Cobalt 806 Monitor

Category: Speakers

While readers may glean some incidental benefit, user reviews of audio products are essentially a wank--a forum for the obsessive and/or bored among us to drone on about some thing which ultimately has import only to its owner. Since I clearly fit that profile, I thought I'd take a break from my particularly meaningless workday to rave about my latest toy.

Not that I really need more gear, but I've been looking to upgrade the monitors for a modest 2 channel office system in an approx. 8' x 12' room. My price range was $600-$1000; my particular constraint was that because of the room/desk configuration, the monitors must be placed in corners at ear level less than a foot from the walls.

I own and admire, or have owned and admired (to varying degrees) Von Schweikert VR1s, Totem Dreamcatcher, Energy Veritas and C-3, and various Canton, Polk, Mordaunt Short, NEAR, Tannoy, Phase Tech PC and PSB bookshelf models, among others; I had hoped to try something new. I solicited alot of input from dealers, Agon forums, etc.

Proceeding to audition alot of speakers, I was suprised to see a lot of my preconceptions dashed--many highly touted models fell flat to my ears; while other less revered ones excelled. In general, MSRP was a very imperfect indicator of quality.

Here's some of what I auditioned and my wholly subjective take. Typically the speakers were auditioned with good midlevel integrateds (Classe, NAD M series) and cdps; source material was the typical crap that dealers have on hand for listening (Patricia Barber, Dire Straits, Eagles Live):

Sonus Faber Concertino and Toy--very well-constructed and pretty, nice treble extension and clear, but unengaging midrange; slow and wobbly bass (esp. with the Concertinos); certainly pricey for what you get.

KEF xq20 and xq10--also very attractive and well-built; liquid midrange but slightly tinny, mettallic high end and not much low end grunt; narrow soundstage. because of the rear-ported design, didn't work well in close-wall placement. My dealer discounts these by as much as 50 % of their original MSRP, which still did not register as good value.

PSB Imagine and Synch B--optimally placed, these are both outstanding speakers, esp. the Synch, which has greater low end extension. Very well balanced throughout the frequency spectrum, perfect driver intergation, wide soundstage, very detailed without being overanalytical. Unfortunately, they don't work near the wall because of the rear ports (bass control completely breaks down); my dealer (who was working hard) tried plugging the ports, which does control the bass rumble but unfortunately eliminates most of the low frequencies.

Dynaudio Xcite--surpringly uninvolving; treble is veiled (some would say "warm") and lacks detail, very reserved, lacking in sizzle and dynamism.

Quad 11L and 12L--accurate, but somewhat laid back and dry--sorta the polite British thing; not a good rocknroll speaker.

Proac Response 1SC--surpringly big-sounding and dynamic for its size; very broad soundstage, open and engaging--a great rawk speaker. Unfortunately for me, these need a lot of room to breathe and seem quite equipment sensitive.

Paradigm Signature s1--on absolute terms, probably the best speaker I heard--beautifully finished, great imaging and detail, very well balanced throughout the spectrum and practically full range. these worked nearly as well close the wall as more optimally placed six feet away; a little beyond my budget, but good value nontheless.

Rega rs-1--the sleeper of the bunch. Because they're very lightweight, inexpensive and ordinary looking, with unimpressive-looking paper tweeters, and because Rega speakers get very little buzz in the states, I was prepared to disregard these. however, my very knowledgeable sales guy pushed me to listen, and they actually sound great--delicate, detailed (but not overly analytical) highs, smooth midrange and tight, very fast, tho not particularly deep bass. What's exceptional about them is their broad soundstage and seeming indifference to position--they sound equally good against the wall. not fussy about electronics; great value at $700. Not as full sounding as the psbs or paradigms, but they're certainly 90% as good for less than half the price. I'm gonna sell something else to buy these at some point.

Focal Chorus 807--because their tweeters are so revealing, Focals seem to be a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I love it; however this model has some issue with driver integration--there's a definite midbass hump and audible disconnect between low end and highend--not as seamless a presentation as the psbs,paradigms, regas, etc. They do sound admirably big and are exceptionally detailed; however i can see where they'd be somewhat fatiguing--not the kind of speaker that disappears.

Also rans included the Epos el3 (not in the same league as the sorta similar quads, regas, proacs) and Era minimonitors (very boxy and congested-sounding).

Which brings me to the Cobalt 806s, which are ostensibly the subject of this rant. As i was poised to buy the regas, I chanced upon a used pair of these for a couple of hundred bucks. Somewhere in my synapses I recalled hearing their floorstanding brother, the 826s, at a Tweeter going-out-of-business sale. Paired with an ordinary Yamaha avr they sounded surprisingly great--some of the most detailed high end i've heard outside of ribbons/magnepans. i remeber a/bing the 826s with polk lsi, vienna and perhaps martin logan and they were tons the best, all the more exceptional because Tweeter was blowing them out for $900 or so.

So the 806s arrive--they're very solid,heavy and well-built, with metal tops/bottoms and nice (though not furniture-quality) laminate sides. the metal grills look cool, but aren't especially transparent acoustically--the speakers sound significantly more open with the grills removed.

I set the 806s up in the verboten nearly-on-wall position using a single wire configuration (although they're biwireable); I'm using a 65w arcam integrated amp and older marantz cdp as front ends. The odd placement doesn't seem to rattle the speakers--they're front ported, nor do they seem to need a lot of power--they;re efficient and play very loudly even at low gain.

As expected, the high end is exceptional--I keep hearing a level of detail i've never heard before. Drums and other quick transients are reproduced extremely well. midrange is liquid; low end does not extend very deep but is extremely accurate, quick and tight; I might need a sub for heavier stuff, but unaugmented they do an excellent job with jazz and acoustic music. unlike the Focal 807s, the driver integration is seamless; perhaps because they don't purport to be fuller range speaker, they're more accurate, albeit within a narrower dynamic range.

Soundstage is quite large--though not as big as the proacs or paradigms. they do have a sweet spot--once you get off-axis they sound a little more directional and boxy. from my listening position (ear level and perhaps 4' away) they're very encompassing. Imaging is first rate and they're extremely revealing--they sound great with dense, well recorded stuff like radiohead or later miles davis, while mp3s and other cruddy or compressed recordings sound cruddy or compressed.

These Focals lack the sheer physicality of von schweikerts or proacs, probably because of limited low end extension, but their presentation is nonetheless very energetic and alive--there's nothing flat or laid back about them.

Ergo, I like these a lot--for my quirky positioning requirements they work very well and they're ultimately more transparent than any comparably-priced speaker I've heard. They have their limitations in soundstage width and bass extension, and, pride of ownership aside, I still might recommend von schweikert, proac or paradigm signature to sheer rockheads who can pay more. However, these are a good call for jazz/classical folk a great buy at their current bluebook value.

If you've read this far, many thanks.

Associated gear
arcam a65 integrated amp
marantz cd63se cdp
entech dac
Very interesting article. I appreciate your analysis. Thank you very much.
I recently took my father-in-law speaker shopping and listened to $800 max speakers. We listened to PSB, B&W, Paradigm and a few other brands. They all sounded great, but the Paradigm stood out for me as something I'd like to own, but both of us agreed that the Focal 705v was a clear favorite. Our listening wasn't as detailed or critical as yours, but the 705v was the speaker that ended the search for my father-in-law. After that everything went back to a comment about how much he like the 705v. I did eventually talk him into getting a set of 706v speakers that I had heard, but were not available anywhere we went. He was extremely happy when I delivered them to his house.

I can imagine that your Cobalt 806 speakers sound great!