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Rational thinking had me go along with Mr. Yamazaki to be left little choice. It was either the JB4 or Micron. Secretly I made a contingency plan to go with the Loth-X or Klipsch if the 89dB contenders failed to impress. I stayed in the same room with the same Marantz SA8260. The Dared MP-2A3C has always been hooked up with JB4. I didn’t swap in the TRK-3488 immediately but played a few CDs first to refresh my memory.

I repositioned the JB4 properly on speaker stands with their backs 30" away from the front wall and toed-in by about 20°. It came as quite a shock that the JB4 fared well with almost every CD I threw at it. Single drivers are very much an acquired taste. Especially for 4" drivers like the JB4 a certain give and take is to be expected. I knew they couldn’t compare with my floorstanding Klipsch for bass but I wasn’t let down when the finest recordings from 2L and Naxos—yes Naxos— played through the Marantz.

For days I avoided turning on my favored Klipsch and listened only to the JB4. It was like low-salt low-fat cooking. I soon began to savor the natural taste. Although the Dared MP-2A3C has a more transparent voice which is relatively light compared to the KT88 amps, the JB4 complimented it amicably. I didn’t feel the lack of bass except for Benjamin Grosvenor’s Decca disc. What impressed me most was the JB4’s effortless detailing within a three-dimensional soundstage. I hooked up the TRK-3488 and the same revealing properties prevailed, only weighted with a fuller body and greater density that were definitely advantageous.

JohnBlue JB4.
I didn’t pretend that bass wasn’t insufficient. In the back of my mind I knew how a piano would really penetrate far deeper into the lower registers. A 12’ concert grand would go lower than a 6’ parlor grand, which would go deeper than an upright. Audio psychology is all about your state of mind and concomitant make believe. With the JB4 the ‘broad band’ in widebander I look for is in relative and not absolute terms. The two ends of the frequency spectrum did sound balanced relative to each other. It’s relative contrast, not absolute 100% brightness versus 100% darkness. With superb recordings from 2L I had no reason to slight the bass energy of the JB4.

It would take only two examples to make my point. Sommernatt [2L-062-SACD] I mentioned earlier: The JB4 pampered the soprano with passion and transparency yet still forged out a solid image of the full-size model D Steinway. (Linda Øvrebø’s singing is so velvety that I should have said that the soprano pampered the JB4.)

Two, Sigmund Groven and Ivor Kleive HarmOrgan [2L-077-SABD], an astounding combination of mouth harmonica and pipe organ. The JB4 painted the mammoth sonic landscape in reference quality and saturated colors that convincingly conveyed the entire audible range from the highest harmonica shrills to the lowest organ pedal points.

Upon hearing that I was encouraged to move the JB4 further apart to 10’, axis to axis. The soundstage remained well engineered with every component meticulously choreographed. The musical instruments were completely liberated from the physical confinement of the loudspeakers to present a real musical entity. The incredible recording of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Millennium Fantasy [Naxos 8.559656] illustrated this perfectly. The sonic vista was as fascinating as the Grand Canyon interspersed with intriguing dialogues between rhapsodic piano and orchestral bravura. The musical image was effectively spiced up with jazz and pop elements, occasionally accentuated by high hat and pedal drum. Transient speed was faultless.

JMlab Micron. When I connected the TRK-3488 to the JMlab Micron, my final speaker choice became clear. The Micron demonstrated the fuller midrange, which masqueraded the lower bass as seeming deeper but in fact was somewhat muddier. There was more atmospheric ambience at the expense of well-defined imaging and layering. Strings became more flautando and less textured. Choral music was presented more as a synthesized body than analyzed as individual voices. Transient speed was slightly down such that in the Zwilich disc the high-hat put a soft filter on its shimmer and the pedal drum put an oil damper under the clutch. Some people would say that the Micron was the more musical but for my cap rolling exercise I’d rather start with a more detail-minded monitor I thought. So the JohnBlue JB4 it was.

EL34 or KT88? And which 12AX7?
I don’t want to delve into every detail about  how I came to this decision. After comparing three EL34 against two KT88 I decided to go with a KT88. Both the Tri/Shuguang and Tungsol EL34B were livelier and had more textural details than the Mullard EL34 which excelled in valve bloom. I chose the Genalex KT88 over the Svetlana KT88 for its fuller body and richer mid to low range without compromise of detail and speed.

With the 12AX7 I limited my choice to three. With the Psvane versus Tri/Shuguang, the former was warmer, more dynamic and appeared to have higher output. With the Psvane versus Mullard, the former offered more articulation and a better layered soundstage. I have to admit that the choice between Psvane and Mullard 12AX7 was tough. Mullard’s killer valve bloom made the tiny JB4 sound like large floorstanding speakers with sumptuous atmospheric air. The mid to low range was as rich as the Klipsch F2. The biggest penalty was  less well-defined instrumental placement for large orchestral works (here the Mullard 12AX7 actually worked better with the Tungsol EL34B.) At this stage I could only note that the  Psvane 12AX7 impressed me most with its meticulous balance between definition and musicality. The sensible thing to do was to reserve the input/driver tubes as a control factor and see which one would suit which capacitor better.

Vitamin-Q caps.
Let me recap my startup system - TRK-3488 fitted with Mullard 12AX7 and Genalex KT88 driven from a Marantz SA8260 through Deltec Black Slink interconnect driving JohnBlue JB4 speakers through JohnBlue S2 speaker cables. I listened to a few CDs and took notes before unsoldering the Real Caps. Changing to the Vitamin-Q caps was a 5-minute job. As I turned the system back on and played through the same CDs, I immediately noted down that "for those who think the Mullard 12AX7 too buttery and syrupy, Vitamin-Q offers the perfect balance. These caps have the warmth and atmospheric air without the sugar coating." But I had to be patient with the burn-in of the new caps. I gave them more than 50 hours over the course of two weeks. After that I switched back to the Tri/Shuguang 12AX7.

Vitamin-Q + Tri/Shuguang 12AX7.
The intrinsic character of the Vitamin-Q caps became more prominent after burn-in. They exuded a subtle aura of musical warmth without soliciting excessive valve bloom. They worked particularly well with the fortepiano and cello in Beethoven’s Sonata Op.5 No.2 [2L-079-SACD]. Their sonorous timbres were varnished with non-glare glaze that brought out more saturated colors and more subtle layers of shades without reflective blurry shine.

That seemed to work well with any kind of music or instrument. Zwilich’s Millennium Fantasy projected a spacious soundstage more so than with the Real Caps. Although instrumental placements were not as clearly defined, they were never muddled. Three-dimensionality was not as clean cut or with as definite a vanishing point but the sense of perspective was reasonable. I would say that the Vitamin-Q maintained a better balance than the Real Caps between analytical fidelity and lifelike presence. The best part of this deal was that I didn’t feel any lack of bass with the JB4.

Vitamin-Q + Psvane 12AX7.
I couldn’t help thinking that the name Psvane was an unintentional typo of Pavane and intentionally endured for registration purposes. What concerns us is whether the tubes carrying this name register a signature sound. Compared to the $20/pair Shuguang 12AX7, the $90/pair Psvane 12AX7 did convince me that they had a few noteworthy advantages. First the frequency response was more extended – bass was pushed further down and the upper limit was lifted as demonstrated by the amazing collaboration of mouth harmonica and pipe organ in tracks 7 and 11 of harmOrgan. They also had more vitality. Macrodynamics became unrestrained and micro articulations were more effortless. Three-dimensionality was crafted with more attention to relief and detail - buffed and polished but not sharpened. The two piano discs that gave me problems earlier played decently well. The sharp edges in Brahms’ Paganini Variations mellowed out with valve bloom and rich harmonics. The brash tone in Grosvenor’s Chopin/Liszt/Ravel album was coaxed to sing with more elasticity and subtle shading, noticeably in "Scarbo" from Gaspard de la Nuit. The biggest gain for small loudspeakers had to be the expansion of soundstage. The sonic vista of the JB4 already great on depth opened up with an even  wider scope that extended outside their edges.

Vitamin-Q + Mullard 12AX7. 
As I said earlier the Mullard 12AX7 somehow had that bewitching power to turn the JB4 into floorstanders. Partnered with Vitamin-Q caps, they made the JB4 sound even more imposing. The violin was silky and the piano rich in harmonics in the Brahms’ Violin Concerto & Hungarian Dances [Orfeo 829112] which sound a bit too bright and overly excited on my Symphonic Line + Mark & Daniel system. Now the frequency range was fuller but smoother throughout, with well-proportioned density and good thrusts during orchestral climaxes. This was not for pinpoint imaging and textural detail though. The C.P.E. Bach Cello Concertos [Virgin Classics 50999 6944920 8] had sounded quite holographic on my other systems. Here the orchestra and Truls Mørk’s cello were more fused as an ensemble, closer to what one hears in a live concert - musically involving but not quite high-fidelity layering.

That’s when the NFB switch came into play. For more audiophile discipline, switch that on. I did just that with Mahler’s Third Symphony. Clarity and definition were reasonably reinstated onto the grandioso soundstage although I still had hoped for better depth and distance. The timpani strike that kick-starts the emotional outburst (at 9:14) in the first movement was reasonably swift and firm although in the back of my mind I knew I could get deeper bass from floorstanders. Yet I didn’t regret my choice. I had sufficiently convincing power with the volume at 12:00 noon.

The emotional outcry cooled down with the double-bass passage at 10:08, then modulated into the triumphant procession around 13:20 which drifted back into the prophetically tragic outpour at 15:30. Here was the perfect example of emotional ramification intertwining with orchestral complexity which usually requires huge speakers and monster amps to do justice. Surprisingly I was completely engaged by 4" widebanders driven from a 7wpc amp.