Issue 78


Old School:

Recapping the HH Scott 357

By Erik Owen


A Mini Miracle From Totem Audio

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

Wharfedale Diamond 250  Loudspeakers

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Quad PA-One Headphone Amplifier and Audioengine HD6 Speakers

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Bald Eagle Skull Shaver

Eunique Jean’ster and Ride’ster Jeans

DJ Pillows

Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine

Muss Cobblestone

StarTrek Communicator Net Phone


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: Florian Weber Trio, Julian Lage, Avishal Cohen and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Gear Previews

Audio Research PH-9 Phono, DAC 9 and LS 28


Audio Classics 9b Amplifier
By Richard H. Mak

System Audio Pandion 30 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson CA 150SE
By Jeff Zaret

Torus AVR 15 Plus Isolation Transformer
By Rob Johnson

Pass Labs XA30.8 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

Ryan R-610 Loudspeakers

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob JohnsonRyan Speakers may be a new name to many; however, brothers Trevor and Todd started building speakers in the 1980s under the moniker Ryan Acoustics. Their designs, and the tools to optimize and improve them, have advanced in the new century, but the goal of the company remains the same: to make exceptional speakers at a down-to-earth price – and do it all in the United States from their factory in Riverside, California. They have succeeded brilliantly.

There are three different R-Series speakers with common driver designs optimized for each enclosure. The R610 reviewed here is priced at $2,000 and is a two-way bookshelf model. The R620 and R630 are 2.5- and 3-way floorstanding models, priced at $3,500 and $5,000. Multiple veneer choices are available, including walnut, oak and the clear cherry you see here, as well as custom staining options to fit a wider range of décor. I’d expect this flexibility with a much more bespoke (and expensive) product, so kudos to Ryan for being interior friendly.

These speakers instantly impress with their portrayal of Poe’s voice on “Fly Away” easily rendering reverberation heard in the recording, and simultaneously reveals the highly engaging and delicate quality to her voice. As a minimalist song, an accompanying flute remains layered in the distance behind the singer, and a piano locks in position to one side of the stage. The Ryans place all the elements of the performance slightly behind the plane of the speakers, and together this places the performers several rows down from my imaginary concert seat. Focusing on the forest rather than each individual tree, the overall musical picture is a wonderful one. Through the Ryans, a seat in row “J” is just fine with me.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The team at Ryan believes strongly in the structural rigidity that comes with the traditional box shape, reinforced with internal bracing, damping as they see fit. The cabinets are straightforward and understated (helping to keep the cost down), with the goodies on the inside – reminiscent of another highly successful West Coast speaker manufacturer. Even the felt ring around the tweeter is chosen with care, an attitude permeating this speaker’s design ethos.

Described in the product literature as a “bookshelf” design, the R610 leans towards the larger side of that moniker, measuring 16.73 inches (425mm) in height, 8.86 inches (225mm) in width, and with a depth of 12 inches (305mm) including the grille. They are mighty hefty, too, at 33 pounds (15kg) each. Inside is a 6.5 inch (165mm) Nomex cone woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) cloth dome tweeter. These tweeters are placed to the inside of the enclosure and are intended to be used that way as a mirrored pair. Placing the tweeters to the outside of the stereo pair will diffuse the soundstaging, so be sure to observe the manufacturer’s suggestion when placing the R610s. And plan on investing in a good pair of speaker stands to get the most out of the R610, as this is crucial to getting maximum bass extension. According to the team at Ryan, all their drivers are designed in-house at the facility in Riverside, California.

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob Johnson

Up and running

The R610s are easy to set up; however the best integration in my room is with 26-inch speaker stands, keeping the tweeters close to ear level, so keep that in mind in relation to the height of your listening chair or couch. The manual included with the R610s provides excellent insight to new or experienced audio enthusiasts, so it is worth perusing as you are putting yours into service. They suggest placing the speakers 6–10 feet (1.8–3.0m) apart, at least 1.6 feet (0.5m) from the rear wall, and at least 2.0 feet (0.6m) from the side walls. This proved an excellent starting point, as did the ten degrees of toe-in, though I ultimately found nirvana with slightly more in my room. Again, this will depend on the exact tonal balance you prefer.

While the R610s serve up bass that is tight and tuneful, extreme low bass is lacking. In my larger listening room, roll-off becomes noticeable at about 80Hz. With test tones descending below that frequency, the drop-off becomes even more pronounced. Those who crave deeper, thunderous bass should consider supplementing the R610s with a high quality subwoofer. Or better yet – if budget allows – try one of the larger Ryan speakers which is designed to integrate all the audible frequencies optimally.

Other than inability to create deep bass, the frequency spectrum doesn’t overemphasize any region that creates an obvious imbalance. With a very neutral profile, these speakers work very well with every genre we throw at them. Experimenting with rock, electronica, classical, jazz, blues, and vocal-centric music, all prove enjoyable. It’s easy to get engrossed in the music rather than analyzing it.

Left to right imaging exceeds the speaker boundaries creating a huge soundstage, never drawing attention to the sound broadcast point, but to the music around them. The Afro Cuban All-Stars “A Toda Cuba le Gusta” illustrates this perfectly, defining and separating the musical elements contained with only a slight dithering of the big picture.

Epitomizing high performance for the price

The Ryan R610s peg the price-o-meter. $2,000 is still an investment for most seeking great sound, but well within the reach of those making a great music system a priority. Their modest form factor makes them easy to integrate into any environment and underlines Ryan’s commitment to research and development. Living with the Ryans for some time, they continue to impress. For all they offer at their modest price point, the R610 speakers certainly earn a 2015 TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award.  –Rob Johnson

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob Johnson

Additional listening

There’s something awesome about a well-executed pair of 2-way speakers. Much like a first generation Miata on a curvy road, you don’t always need 500 horsepower to have a great time. Going straight to my small (10 x 13 foot) listening room after photos, the R610s are perfection: powered by the Nagra 300i tube amplifier with 20 watts per channel of 300B power, the Ryan speakers are well-served by the delicacy of the Nagra.

Even with something as cloudy and compressed as Todd Rundgren’s classic, Something/Anything, the R610s do an excellent job unraveling the music presented on a large canvas, beautifully disappearing in the room. Yet with an excellent recording, they take the presentation further, throwing a stereo image that extends way beyond the speaker boundaries, with a tonal purity that rivals much more expensive speakers.

Where the KEF LS-50 is more precise in terms of imaging performance, the R610 is more homogenous with additional weight in the lower register. Taking advantage of room gain in my small listening room was a bonus, and I wouldn’t suggest using these speakers in a room much bigger than 11 x 14 feet if you want solid bass response. I must confess a bias towards a well-executed soft dome tweeter, so if you share this preference, the R610 will thrill you. Should you be more in the ribbon or metal tweeter camp, you may find these speakers a little dull. Choices, choices.

Again, these speakers strike a natural chord, and the only thing they lack that the big bucks speakers have more of is ultimate resolution of minute musical details. Unless you are playing them side by side next to a great pair of $30,000 speakers at high volume, you won’t really notice. While most of my listening was done with the 20 watt per channel Nagra amplifier, substituting higher powered amplifiers of the tube and solid state variety worked well – bottom line, the better your components, the more music the Ryans will reveal.

For all of our readers that freak out when we review mega components, the Ryan Audio R610 speakers are as real as it gets. Buy a pair. I’m going to. – Jeff Dorgay

Ryan R610 Loudspeakers

MSRP: $1,999


Analog Source SME Model 10 with Model 10 tonearm    Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Digital Sources Mac Mini with jRiver and Roon playback    dCS Debussy
Amplification Burmester 911 mk3
Preamplification Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley, and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks    Coffman Labs Equipment Footers    AudioQuest Jitterbug

EgglestonWorks Emma Loudspeakers

Great things come from Memphis. It’s the BBQ capitol of the world. Elvis is from Memphis. My wife is from Memphis. And the Eggleston Emmas are from Memphis. Though the price of gasoline and big screen TVs keeps going down, speakers seem to be getting more expensive all the time, so it’s refreshing to hear a pair of speakers that cover all the bases for $3,995.

Of course, my priorities are warped, and I’m sure we’ll get plenty of sniping about “considering a $4,000 pair of speakers affordable,” but I do. In a world of six-figure speakers, four grand for a pair that accomplish this much is a major bargain. Infected Mushroom’s latest release, Friends on Mushrooms, proves that these little southern belles can rock the house, even with a modest amplifier—in this case, a 35-watt-per-channel PrimaLuna ProLogue Four sporting a set of EL34 output tubes. Wow, wow, wow! Wu-Tang’s “Ruckus in B Minor” has plenty of boom (the record, not the speaker) and though the mix is somewhat compressed and harsh, the Emmas can cope, even at high volume, keeping the mix intact; it never sounds pushed or polite, with the speakers reproducing only what’s on the recording.

Slowing it down a bit with She & Him’s “This Girl’s in Love with You” reveals the delicate side of the Emmas, which do a smashing job of exposing inner detail and female vocal texture. Even a really shitty-sounding record like the Aquadolls’ Stoked on You proves palatable with the Emmas as a conduit; they wring every bit of information out of this playful yet dreadfully compressed exercise in slightly surf punk.

If the Shoes Fit, Find a Dress to Match

As I’ve said time and again, all you need to enjoy music is a Tidal subscription, your smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Sure, a few hundred well-spent bucks will get you an old receiver and a great pair of vintage speakers—but if you really want to unravel what’s lurking deep in your recordings (and get a glimpse at what the folks with mega systems are hearing), you’re going to have to shell out some money.

I won’t call $10K a point of diminishing returns; it’s more like the point where the excitement begins in earnest. Yes, that is serious money, but it’s no more than what a six-year-old Harley Davidson or a 10-year-old Miata would set you back. And unless you live in a really sunny area, you’ll probably spend a lot more time listening to your audio system than you’ll spend riding a Harley or driving a Miata with the top down.

Though I feel every part of a system is equally important, I’ve always been a firm believer in making the speakers the first major component purchase, because they interact with your environment more than anything else. There’s no point in blowing a fortune on source components and amplification if you can’t buy speakers that keep up with the rest of the system. In a perfect world, I’d suggest finding the speakers you love first, spending as much as you can, and then building the rest of the system around them.

Also in a perfect world, a manufacturer’s time and money spent on researching ultra-high-performance machines trickle down to the hardware the rest of us can afford. EgglestonWorks builds some major speakers—like its Andra IIIs, which are used in recording and mastering studios around the world and as reference speakers at hi-fi shows.

Having heard the Andras numerous times (and being a big fan), I was shocked when I heard the Emmas last summer at the Newport Beach hi-fi show. When EgglestonWorks’ principle Jim Thompson demoed the speakers, I was expecting a $10K-to-$12k price tag and couldn’t believe that they were only $3,995. I don’t usually get fooled to this extent, but the more time I spend listening to the Emmas, the more I’m convinced that they are one of those rare components that perform well beyond what is normally offered at a given price.

Simple Setup

With a footprint of only 7.5 by 14 inches—less than the majority of stand-mounted monitors—the Emmas occupy little floor space, and at about 3.4 feet tall, they place the tweeter at ear height for most listeners when seated. Thanks to a 4-ohm nominal impedance and 91-dB sensitivity, the Emmas don’t require much power to sing. The 20 wpc from either my Nagra 300B push-pull amplifier or 845 SET does the job nicely. EgglestonWorks does not provide a “maximum power” spec for these speakers, which are able to play incredibly loud without distortion—a hallmark of the company’s monitor speakers. I can’t imagine needing more than 100 wpc of clean power to achieve high sound-pressure levels with these speakers.

Thanks to considerable vertical and horizontal dispersion, the Emmas are not terribly room dependent, nor are they tough to get sounding good quickly, even if you have an environment that doesn’t allow optimum placement. I’m able to achieve excellent results in both my small (11-by-14-foot) and large (16-by-24-foot) rooms, though for obvious reasons it’s a little bit trickier to achieve a balance of bass extension and imaging in the small room. That being said, I would still not shy away from using the Emmas in a small room, and with their efficiency, you certainly won’t need much amplifier power.

As with every speaker we audition, achieving bass balance in the room is paramount, with everything else usually falling into place once the speaker is locked in. In the large room, the Emmas end up about 8 feet apart and slightly toed-in, while in the small room, they are only about 6 feet apart with no toe-in and GIK 242 panels at the first reflection points. After about an hour of jiggling the speakers back and forth, I install the machined spikes for the final bit of room synergy.

The speakers’ two 6-inch woofers move a lot of air, with a lot of speed. Thomas Dolby’s “My Brain Is Like a Sieve” proves instrumental in finding the perfect sweet spot of maximum bass output without sacrificing soundstage width and depth. Once optimized, the Emmas disappear into the room as easily as our little KEF LS50s, but with a lot more full-range heft.

The current Aphex Twin album, Syro, doesn’t have a single sound that could be considered accurate, but its electronic wonder (if you’re an Aphex Twin fan, that is) is a massive ball of electronic effects, showing off the spatial abilities of the Emmas to full effect. Yes, violins sound great played through the Emmas too, but they also can create a huge musical landscape—especially in a moderate-sized room, again fooling you into thinking that these are much more expensive speakers.

The Emmas’ fit and finish is at the top of the class. While these don’t have the Aston Martin–like finish of a pair of Wilson speakers, they still have a smoother paint job than my neighbors new C-Class Mercedes. The Emmas we have in for review come in a gorgeous olive-brown color that has everyone arguing whether it is actually green or brown. Of course, white, black and silver are also available.

Relax and Enjoy

To recap, with the Emmas for four grand, you won’t get the same performance as with EgglestonWorks’ flasghip Audra IIIs, which offer a level of resolution that you’ll have to spend the big bucks to get; there’s no free lunch in the world of high-end audio. However, what they have done at EgglestonWorks with the Emmas is make some very intelligent choices. If you don’t need the massive dynamic swing that the Emmas’ larger siblings provide, and can live with a bit less bass extension and high-frequency dreaminess, you’ll be amazed at how close the Emmas come in a modest-sized room at moderate to less than ear-splitting levels.

The Emmas are so easy to set up, drive and pair with ancillary components that they will be the last part of your system you’ll ever feel the need to upgrade. And if you never feel the need to spend $50K on a hi-fi system, they could easily be the last pair of speakers you’ll ever need.

I’m keeping the review pair for my home system, and I believe that’s the highest compliment I can pay them. And we are awarding the Emmas one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for the year, too. These are great speakers.

EgglestonWorks Emma Loudspeakers

$3,995 per pair

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers

As the sound-level meter bounces above 105 dB during playback of the title track from Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast (and I see nods of approval from the non-audiophile buddies present to take this all in), I’m reminded that you need big speakers that can move a substantial amount of air to really enjoy this kind of music. The same can be said for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 or Deadmau5, if Maiden is not your favorite faire. Dynamic swing and contrast is a big part of recreating the illusion of live music in your listening space, and a large pair of speakers with the appropriate amount of power gets the job done.

In the day where $200,000 speakers are becoming more and more common, Dynaudio’s top speaker tips the scale at only $85,000 per pair. Yes, yes, the word only is going to offend a lot of people, but if you happen to be in the market for a six-figure pair of speakers, this level of greatness for $85K is a bargain—it’s all relative. After living with the Evidence Platinums for some time now, I see no need to drop $200K on a pair of Wilson XLFs. And that’s enough money left over to put a new Porsche GT3 in your garage. I know what I’d rather buy.

A number of things make the Evidence Platinum speakers unique. Though they are over 6 feet tall, they carve a very small footprint in your listening room, and thanks to a wide range of wood finishes, along with piano black, they should blend in with any décor. While minimalist yet tasteful grilles are included, the precision craftsmanship of the front sculpted baffles beg them to be left uncovered. Those without large pets or small children will have an easier time leaving the grilles off.

No Limitations

Much like a high-performance supercar, the Evidence Platinums have few limitations. And just as an Aston Martin feels different from a Porsche or a Ferrari, all three cars still provide stellar performance way beyond that of normal transportation. Sticking with the automotive metaphor, the Evidence Platinums remind me of the Audi R8: a new concept that offers similar if not better performance than its contemporaries—and with a bit more style. The Dynaudios are definitely one of the most svelte large speakers around.

Having lived with Dynaudio’s much smaller Confidence C1 Signatures for a few years, I notice a striking parallel between the two speakers. The comparatively diminutive C1s, with their highly optimized front baffle, present a musical picture almost like a point source, while the massive Evidence Platinums simply disappear. In a small room at low volume, with equally high-quality electronics driving the speakers, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, other than on the deepest low-frequency excursions.

However, in a larger room, when the sound level comes up and dynamic expectation increases exponentially, the Evidence Platinums justify their price tag. Queuing up the Stereophile test CD reveals solid bass performance at 25 Hz, which is lower than what you’ll need for most program material. Playing Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” at high volume confirms the measurement; these speakers can punch you in the chest—hard. The four 7-inch woofers move more air than a single 12-inch unit; yet, because of their small size, they are faster, providing mega bass with maximum tone and definition.

The Evidence Platinums make it a breeze to discern between bass players and their respective styles: The difference between a Hartke bass-guitar amp with aluminum cone drivers and a vintage Ampeg amp with paper cones is now easily apparent. This is what adds so much to the musical experience, making your music so much more immersive. And that’s what you should get when you write the big check.

Top-of-the-Line Technology

Dynaudio has left no stone unturned with the Evidence Platinums, taking advantage of the company’s top technological advancements. Relying on silk dome tweeters since the beginning, Dynaudio’s design requires a very labor-intensive process that involves shaping the fine-fabric dome and treating it with a specially formulated coating. The “Precision Coating” used throughout the Platinum range is Dynaudio’s latest refinement to that process. The higher uniformity of the dome’s shape results in a smoother high-frequency response and even more dispersion of mid and high frequencies.

This is clearly evident when comparing female vocals through the Confidence C1s and the Evidence Platinums. A quick spin of Ella and Louis Again uncloaks the difference in the timbre of Ella’s voice, which is already silky smooth and convincing when played through the C1s. By comparison, the Evidence Platinums dematerialize completely, even though they are so much bigger physically. This is truly the magic of these speakers: They vanish like a mini monitor and are transparent like an ESL, yet they have the drive of an enormous cone speaker.

The Evidence Platinums throw a soundstage that is staggeringly wide and deep, but they also get the height aspect right—probably due in part to their physical height. While playing the MoFi copy of Frank Sinatra’s Nice And Easy, I feel as if Sinatra is standing right in front of the speakers, with his voice coming from where his mouth would be.

Custom drivers, check. Precision optimized crossover network, check. Premium electrical and mechanical parts throughout, check. The combination of all these technologies is certainly present in most flagship loudspeakers, but Dynaudio’s DDC (Dynaudio Directivity Control) system is the heart of what makes these speakers perform the way they do.

The combination of the finely shaped front baffle, driver placement and matching the phase response of the individual drivers makes for a more focused dispersion pattern that does not require nearly as much room treatment to sound their best as do many large speaker systems. This is all trickle-down technology from Dynaudio’s professional division, taking advantage of what the company has learned building studio monitors.

Another benefit of this optimization is the ease of setting up the Evidence Platinums. We’ve spent hours (sometimes a day or more) to get reference-caliber speakers to sound their best. The Evidence Platinums sound great right out of their crates before much attention is paid to positioning. About an hour’s worth of fine-tuning brings the speakers to the point where, when Dynaudio USA’s Michael Manousselis stops by to check my work, he merely makes a few fine adjustments and then I’m on my way. These are not finicky speakers by any stretch of the imagination. Even the machined plinth offers a choice of footers for hard and soft surfaces. Once unpackaged, the Evidence Platinums only take a few days of 24/7 play at modest volume to open up and sound their best.

Still Solid, Months Later

After listening to these speakers day in and day out for months, I am still amazed and impressed. It’s easy to get carried away with premium speakers after first listen, especially after running through a number of well-recorded audiophile classics.

This is not the case with the Evidence Platinums. I go out of my way to dredge up even the worst-sounding selections in my music collection, and these speakers do a fantastic job with any program material. There is nothing I can throw at them that trips them up. Regardless of the program material and volume level, we simply cannot drive the Evidence Platinums hard enough to invoke listener fatigue.

With a sensitivity rating of 89 dB and a crossover network of 6 dB per octave, the Evidence Platinums are very easy to drive with either tube or solid-state amplification. Even in my 16-by-25-foot listening room, more than adequate volume levels are achieved with the 20-watt-per-channel Nagra 300i integrated amplifier. I would suggest about 100 watts per channel or more for best results, especially if you like to hear your favorite music reproduced loudly.

While these speakers can reproduce some great dynamic swings, they are highly linear, with their massive stereo image still intact, even at very soft volume levels—again, not unlike a great mini monitor. Chrissie Hynde’s signature vibrato comes through clearly on the original Pretenders album. The delicacy present in “Private Life” puts Hynde in the room, right near the center of the listening position.

Coupled to the amazing Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks, with nearly boundless power on tap, the Dynaudios really come to life. As I blast Lou Reed’s The Creation of the Universe, there isn’t a point at which the wide, vivid stereo image ever collapses—no matter how high the volume. Much like the Focal Maestro Utopia speakers that we just got done auditioning, the Evidence Platinums excel at reproducing large-scale music, especially drums and percussion—and they do so without fatigue.

You Need a Pair

If you are looking for a statement loudspeaker, look no further than the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum. After six months of constant listening (and punishing) on an incredibly wide range of musical program material, I can tell you that there is nothing that the Evidence Platinums can’t handle, if you have enough amplifier power on tap.

Along with their musical performance, the Evidence Platinums offer a level of fit and finish that is in keeping with a speaker of this level. They exude luxury and will be an excellent fit for the world’s finest listening rooms, a fact that can’t be overlooked when spending this kind of money. Lastly, Dynaudio is a major player in the speaker industry, so this is a purchase that can be made with confidence, knowing the company will be around to support these speakers.

With so much capability, the Dynaudio Evidence Platinums should be your last speaker purchase.

Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers

MSRP: $85,000 per pair

Vandersteen 1Ci Loudspeakers

Listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” I’m thinking that you also need a great hi-fi system. (And a cool car, but I digress.) Fortunately, a pair of Vandersteen 1Ci speakers and some decent electronics can be had for a reasonable cost, putting a great system in reach of just about anyone: $1,149 for a pair of full-range floorstanding speakers is a steal in today’s hi-fi world, where you could pay 10 times that for a pair of interconnects.

Vandersteen’s higher-priced Model 2 speaker is quite possibly high-end audio’s all-time most popular speaker, with almost 100,000 pairs sold. That’s a major achievement in the context of some of today’s speaker manufacturers, many of which haven’t even sold 1,000 pairs. And if the Model 2 isn’t the most popular, it certainly has the most longevity, having been produced since the late 1970s – now at 2CE Signature II status.

While the 2 has gotten much of the spotlight, I submit that the Model 1—now the 1Ci—is the way to roll for so many reasons, the main one being its 90-dB sensitivity. Sure, the 2’s three-way design delivers deeper bass, but the simplicity of a two-way speaker has always been highly appealing to me. And that extra 3 dB of efficiency makes a much wider range of amplification choices possible. Unlike another great American speaker, the Magnepan, the Vandersteen 1Ci comes alive with 25 to 35 watts of clean power, making it the perfect choice for the music lover on a modest budget.

What the 1Ci offers perhaps better than any other speaker at its price point is balance. Everyone at TONEAudio is convinced of the brilliance of the KEF LS50, and while that speaker delivers more holographic imaging and ultimately more resolution than the 1Ci can muster, it lacks on the bottom-end, and requires a fairly powerful amplifier to deliver its best performance. For someone listening in a smaller room, or a closer field situation, the diminutive Brit speaker is still the one to beat on a tight budget, but if you have a larger room or prefer a fuller-spectrum frequency response, the 1Ci is the ticket.

Best of all, the 1Ci is resolving enough to make it easy to discern amplifier differences, so if you fall in love with a pair early in your system’s history, they will probably be the last component you upgrade. I know more than one audiophile who has progressed from the Model 1 all the way up to Model 5, as well as a few using 1C’s with some fairly expensive electronics.

Cliché but True

If there was ever a speaker that fit the definition of “greater than the sum of its parts,” the Vandersteen 1Ci is it. Richard Vandersteen has always believed in putting the money into high-quality drivers and crossover components rather than the cabinetry. Back in the late ’70s when Vandersteen hit the scene, his approach was revolutionary. Where so many of the major manufacturers were putting so much money into speaker cabinets, Vandersteen took a performance-first approach with the Model 1 and 2, concentrating on the internals, with a first-order crossover, minimum front baffle, and time-aligned design.

The results are stunning, and while other speakers have come in and out of fashion, Vandersteen audio keeps making solid, musically accurate speakers that don’t break the bank. The 1Ci features improvements to the dome tweeter and crossover network, along with eliminating the banana jacks on the rear panel, now using the same screw terminals as those featured on the Model 2. Interestingly, these terminals connect directly to the crossover network, eliminating the need to use premium wire—again, simplicity rules the day. While a tweeter contour (level) control is provided, the speakers perform best in the middle position in all three of my listening rooms. Should you need to slightly modify the tweeter output level, the control offers a 2-dB boost or cut, which is highly effective.

The Rake is the Key

To the company’s credit, Vandersteen provides one of the best instruction manuals in the industry. It takes even a complete novice through the finer points of speaker setup. Starting with the “thirds” method that has always served me well with Vandersteens over the years, I have the 1Ci speakers singing in my 11-by-13-foot room in no time at all, with just a few fine adjustments.

Vandersteen speakers have occasionally received a bad rap on various Internet forums for being “slow and dark” sounding. If this has been your experience with any Vandersteen speakers, it’s because they were improperly set up. Because of the speakers’ time alignment, getting the proper rake angle is critical. Every pair of MartinLogan speakers I’ve owned requires the same care. Get it right, and the speakers disappear in the room. Get it wrong and everything sounds a bit muffled—much like when you finally nail proper VTA with your phono cartridge.

Again, the manual gives you the perfect method to optimize this, and Vandersteen has done the work for you. Follow the guidelines in the manual, starting with its suggestions, and then alter the rake ever so slightly to fine tune. (and I’m talking less than an inch here) Having a friend help you will make the process go much quicker, and it is critical that you match the angle as closely as you can on each speaker. Five extra minutes spent here will reward you with a larger stereo image and an airier, more extended treble.

Richard Vandersteen is quick to point out that with some other speakers, adjusting the rake angle will tame a hot tweeter, but it is critical with his speakers to follow the setup parameters as the listening height and distance from speaker to listener coalesce for flat frequency response, at the specified point.

How Do You Want to Play?

These speakers totally rock, providing a high level of musical involvement. Regardless of the amplifier you choose, the 1Ci speakers throw a big and well-defined soundstage into the listening room. Thanks to the speakers’ natural character, your choice of amplification will let you easily tailor the sound to your liking.

I use four different amplification setups during of this review: A new old-stock Sansui 771 vintage solid-state receiver ($299); the Rega Brio-R solid-state integrated amplifier ($995, our 2010 Product of the Year); a factory-refurbished Conrad-Johnson MV50 vacuum tube power amplifier and matching PV-12 vacuum tube preamplifer (about $2,500 the pair); and the Devialet 110 DAC/streamer/integrated ($6,400).

The 1Ci speakers not only work flawlessly with each combination, they also easily resolve the nuances between each amplification type. If you prefer things more on the warm and romantic side, the easy load that these speakers present is a perfect match for your favorite tube amplifier. Even my 25-watt 845 SET monoblocks drive the Vandersteens with ease, offering an enveloping sound that, while the least accurate of anything else in my arsenal, proves highly seductive.

Spinning some vintage and remastered Blue Note selections is pure heaven. Drums explode from the 1Ci speakers, with a soundstage that not only feels beyond the speaker boundaries, but also beyond the boundaries of my modest listening room. Listening to acoustic instruments and, of course, solo vocals through vacuum-tube electronics and the 1Ci speakers easily convinces non-audiophile and audiophile alike that these speakers are indeed something special.

With 110 watts per channel of hybrid power, the Devialet 110 offers presentation that is 180-degrees different from those of the SET monoblocks. While the Devialet renders a more accurate presentation, the sheer grip of its Class-A/Class-D hybrid design provides a major low-frequency extension and control that the vacuum tubes cannot. Mickey Hart’s “The Eliminators” is full and deep, with forceful bass notes that punch you in the stomach—and the 1Ci speakers capture this wonderfully with the Devialet. Kraftwerk’s classic “Autobahn” also brings a big thumbs up from an informal listening panel, who are all amazed what could be accomplished with such a modestly priced yet well-executed speaker system.

No Wrong Moves

Stereophile once said about the Model 2 that “the only sins this speaker commits are ones of omission,” and 20-plus years later, the same description applies to the 1Ci. It offers a highly neutral tonal balance, wide dynamic range and a full frequency response—for $1,200 a pair! They nail the musical fundamentals better than some speakers I’ve heard that cost 20 times as much.

After living with the 1Ci speakers for a couple of months, I’m buying them—they are a fantastic reference for what can be accomplished on a tight budget. And they’re great speakers to use as a building block when auditioning ancillary components in the $1,000-to-$3,000 range.

We are very pleased to award the Vandersteen 1Ci one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014. These speakers are so enjoyable that, if your high-end journey stopped right here, you’d be a pretty happy human being. Even if you are a highly experienced audiophile and you haven’t heard these, you owe it to yourself to check them out. I guarantee you’ll be very surprised for the better. They redefine what is possible for a modest price.

The Vandersteen 1Ci speaker



Digital source Meridian MS200    AURALiC Vega DAC
Analog source AVID Ingenium TT    SME 309 arm    Lyra Delos cartridge
Phono stage ARC PH8
Cable Cardas Clear

Focal Maestro Utopia Loudspeakers

The second I queue up the Afghan Whigs’ album Gentlemen, I know these speakers are special. The reproduced soundstage on this record is massive, with the wind in the background of the opening track, “If I Were Going,” sounding much more expansive than I’ve ever heard it, save perhaps what I experienced at the Boulder factory last year via the Grande Utopia EM speakers and the prodigious Boulder 3050 monoblocks—the most compelling audio system I’ve yet experienced.

Yet slumming it back at my place, with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and the Maestro Utopias, a bargain at $60,000 per pair, I’m getting in the ballpark. As soon as the drumbeats hit hard on the title track, we are indeed getting serious slam. These speakers move major air without fatigue, distortion or coloration. They are marvelous. Sure, the Grandes are even more amazing, but you need the room to let them breathe and the rest of the system has to be equally astounding to really allow the speakers to reach their full potential.

I won’t apologize for telling you to get a pair of $60k speakers, and I don’t want to hear all the tired arguments about how you can build a pair of these yourself for a lot less money. You can’t. Sure you could buy a nicely appointed 5-series BMW for the price of the Maestro Utopias, but the hi-fi system inside is rubbish. The arguments about diminishing returns are also moot—you won’t get this level of musical involvement for $10k, $20k or even $30k. You’ll have to pay if you want to play, but the good news is that the Maestros will reward you in a way that few speakers can.

What makes the Maestros so compelling is that you can build an amazing system around them for little more than the cost of a pair of Grande Utopias. And while a $150k-to-$250k stereo system is somewhat obsessive, the $500k-plus that it’s going to take to make the Grande’s sing is a completely different realm, hence these speakers will appeal to a completely different buyer. So, if you’ve drooled over the sound of the Focal Grande Utopias, and either don’t quite have the budget or the room to take advantage of them (or maybe you’re just a bit more frugal), the Maestros do not disappoint.

Spinning AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” I’m again reminded of how well the Maestros can create the sheer sound pressure of a live rock concert without compression or fatigue. Even at brain-damage levels, the meters on the Xs 300s are barely moving from the center position, indicating that they are working in full class-A mode throughout my listening session.

And installing the Maestros is a breeze. Though just more than 250 pounds each, the Maestros are easy to remove from their shipping cartons. Thanks to the wheels on the cartons, you can move them to your listening area by yourself, though you will probably need a friend to help you to remove the speakers, which also have wheels, and get them into a rough position.

Focal’s manual is thorough in describing setup and, depending on your room, you should be able to get the Maestros fairly close to fine-tuned while still on their wheels. Once satisfied that you’ve optimized the bass response for smoothness and weight, remove the wheels and experiment with the spikes to adjust the speaker rake angle to perfection.

The jumpers at the speaker’s base provide ultra-fine-tuning, allowing a modest adjustment of bass, midrange and treble energy. Fortunately in my listening room, I do not have to deviate from the factory settings, and trying them does show their effectiveness. The additional bass boost works well with the Pass First Watt amplifier and an 845-based SET amplifier, both of which are a little shy in the low-frequency department.

Sensitivity Makes All the Difference

Thanks to a 93-dB sensitivity rating, the Maestros work well with a 60-watt-per-channel tube amplifier, and we achieve amazing synergy with the 60-watt PrimaLuna DiaLogue monoblocks in for review (you can read the review here), but this gives the Maestros a different character. They lack some of the pulverizing dynamics that they do with a big solid-state amplifier, yet even hardcore hip-hop tracks, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Your Neck,” still hit with plenty of clarity at all but club levels.

The Maestros, like the Stella and Diablo Utopias that we’ve spent plenty of time with, are equally tube friendly, so don’t shy away from these speakers if you’re a tube user. The Audio Research REF 250 monoblocks, Octave’s Jubilee monoblocks and even the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium monoblocks all work brilliantly with these speakers, thanks to their exceedingly tube-friendly crossover network.

As phenomenal as the Maestros are with big solid-state amps, I must confess my own personal bias and admit how smitten I am with these speakers when pairing them with vacuum-tube amplification. For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I prefer my personal system to be a few molecules on the warm, romantic side of neutral, yet not lacking in cloudiness, detail or resolution—a tall order indeed.

Tubey Goodness

Yet this is exactly what the Maestros provide when paired with a great tube amplifier. The beryllium tweeter is as fast and transparent as any electrostatic speaker I’ve owned (and I’ve owned almost all of ’em), and a little bit of tube warmth makes them feel like a pair of giant Sound Labs ESLs but with major dynamics and punch. Put a fork in me, I’m done!

Sonny Rollins’ classic album Tenor Madness just leaps out of the speakers, with the Maestros painting a vivid picture of this quartet in my listening room. Bass is solidly anchored, with everything lovers of pace and timing will ever need to be ecstatic. No matter how complicated the program material, the Maestros never fail to keep up with the music, regardless of listening level.

The piano is reproduced with all the necessary timbre and attack to sound great, but what pushes it over the top is the scale. In a good-sized room with plenty of amplifier power (solid state or tubes), the Maestros reproduce scale in a way few other speakers can. This is what separates great speakers from truly exceptional ones for this reviewer, and you can put the Maestros solidly in that rare latter category.

These speakers have an uncanny ability to expand and contract with the music, no matter what the material. Where the large Magnepans reproduce everything with an expansive sound field, which is somewhat unnatural but pleasing nonetheless, a solitary guitarist playing in a church is rendered thusly through the Maestros. A group of jazz musicians playing acoustic instruments in close quarters feels as if they are right in my listening room. And Nine Inch Nails sounds like a giant wall of sound slapping me down with maximum force, as it should, but it does so without fatigue—another highly important aspect of mega-loudspeaker design.

Should you have major amplification, you will need to be watchful with the Maestros, as they can achieve such high sound-pressure levels without distortion that you could easily exceed safe levels. They pressurize the room so well and play without a hint of fatigue, that it’s always tempting to turn them up beyond a level that is prudent. Honestly, this is a ton of fun, especially with my favorite rock recordings.

Playing in the Sand

Going through the gamut of high-powered solid-state amplifiers is equally rewarding and revealing. Switching back to solid state provides a fascinating but different experience. The Maestros are such efficient conduits of relaying music, never sounding harsh, forward or over detailed. All of the amplifiers in my collection turn in stunning performances with the Maestros. The speakers’ high degree of resolution easily identifies the differences in tonal qualities between my references, the Burmester 911 MK3 and the Pass Xs 300s, when compared to the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier and the Simaudio Moon 880Ms, which have recently passed through for review.

However, one of the more interesting performances turned in by the Maestros is not with a high-powered amplifier, but with the 10-watt-per-channel First Watt SIT-2 amplifier—a single-ended, class-A design featuring a single gain stage. This amplifier has always combined the virtues of a great 300B SET vacuum-tube amplifier with the low noise and control of the best solid-state amplifiers. But it still only produces 10 watts per channel. Lacking a bit of the ultimate bass slam that the big amplifiers possess, this amp lays bare the inner detail from only a single transistor in the gain path, which proves to be a revelation at modest volume levels.

Special Indeed

The guitar and banjo work on Neil Young’s Harvest demonstrates the potency of these speakers. The sheer speed of the Maestros expresses acoustic instruments in a very lifelike manner, without coloration. At the same time, the decay present in a great analog recording seems to carry on forever, with a fine gradation that doesn’t exist with a lesser speaker.

After countless hours with the Maestros, swapping amplifiers and other speakers for comparison, we come back to the initial question: $60k for a pair of speakers? And the answer is still a resplendent yes, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the level of music that the Maestros reveal is considerably beyond that of the lesser speakers we’ve reviewed.

In terms of construction, Focal put innumerable hours of research, design, testing and prototyping into the Maestros, which goes hand in hand with the bespoke nature of all the company’s speakers. This level of passion is comparable to what goes into a Formula 1 car—every aspect, regardless of how minute, is scrutinized mercilessly by the Focal team. There is truly an integration of art and science taking place here. This is not another audio company installing drivers in a box. Nothing in the Focal Maestro is off the shelf, and none of the drivers, except the beryllium tweeter, is shared with the rest of the range.

The 3.5-way system uses two 11-inch woofers, one as a woofer and one as a subwoofer. The lower woofer vents through a downward-firing laminar port that eliminates any port noise or dynamic compression effects, and features a 2-inch voice coil, where the upper woofer has a 1.5-inch coil. The 6-inch midrange driver, though looking similar to the other 6-inch drivers in the rest of the Utopia lineup, is designed and optimized specifically for the Maestro. Both the midrange and woofers utilize the third-generation of Focal’s “W” composite-sandwich-cone technology, providing exceptional strength while minimizing weight. It’s safe to say that this is a major factor in achieving the low coloration that the Utopia range exhibits.

Lastly, the fit and finish: The mechanical construction of these speakers is sheer perfection. The gently curved cabinets have a timeless design aesthetic, and while available in a number of standard colors (black, white and red), custom colors can be ordered at a slightly additional cost. The finish applied is on the same level as the world’s finest luxury cars, and the enclosures are flawless. While these are speakers worthy of the price asked based on performance, they also exude build quality that will satisfy the most sophisticated owner, and will meld into any environment with ease.

And this is what you write the big check for—which is precisely why the Focal Maestro Utopia is our choice for Product of the Year in the speaker category.

Maestro Utopia

MSRP: $60,000 per pair (factory) (North American distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack     Aurender S10 server    Meridian C15
Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Cables Nordost Norse 2

KEF Blade Loudspeakers

Time flies when you’re having fun. And the fun hasn’t stopped since the bright orange KEF Blades arrived in our studio almost a year ago. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? For those of you who skip straight to the conclusion anyway, we’ll save you the bother. We’re giving the KEF Blades one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013, and they are one of our most enthusiastic choices.

Giving a $30,000 pair of speakers an award for exceptional value? You heard right. Often, newcomers to the scene can build a “giant killer” product because, during the infancy of such products, manufacturers can cut corners on things like casework, support, inventory, etc., and actually build a $5,000 box for $2,000. Everyone freaks out, thinking they are getting something for nothing, but should said company make it past the first round, the price goes up, often dramatically.

Has the luster fallen from this product? Hardly. But business is business and parts are parts. There really is no way to cheat death, taxes or cost accounting. However, there is another way to build exceptional value into a product, and that requires a company with depth. This is precisely the approach taken at KEF with the Blades.

Having been in the speaker business since dinosaurs roamed the streets of London, KEF is a real speaker company with decades of engineering and manufacturing expertise. (For a complete history, I highly suggest TONE contributor Ken Kessler’s excellent book, KEF – 50 Years of Innovation in Sound.) KEF also produces speakers in large enough quantities to enjoy an economy of scale that smaller manufacturers cannot. If the company produced 10 pairs a year and asked $100k for them, I’m positive they would sell. However, being able to amortize the raw research and development of the Uni-Q driver across a wide range of models makes the $30k price of the Blades feasible.

Granted, 30 grand is still a lot of money for a pair of speakers. (Those thinking this is sheer insanity are also free to tune out now.) But if you’re the kind of audiophile and music lover who would enjoy six-figure speaker performance for 30 grand, I enthusiastically submit the Blades. If you’ve had the chance to experience the small but amazing KEF LS-50 speakers, you know KEF can work miracles for $1,500. And I’ve listened to my share of six-figure speakers over the years, so I’ll stand by this decision.

Major Drive

The meter needles bounce fervently on the Pass Xs 300 power amplifiers as I crank Steel Panthers’ “Death to All But Metal,” and my listening room is all smiles—the Blades can move serious air when asked. Having the opportunity to use the Blades with about 30 different power amplifiers, ranging from low-powered SET’s to massive monoblocks, I have found that the key to successfully interfacing with the Blades is twofold: first is current drive; and second, yet equally important, is amplifier quality. The Uni-Q driver is not ruthless, but it is highly revealing of the signal path, so a substandard amplifier or source component will be revealed. This accounts for some of the comments I’ve heard on the Blades (e.g. “they don’t have enough bass” or “they sound kind of bright”), yet I submit that this is the character of the electronics connected to them.

The deep notes on the album 11i, from the Supreme Beings Of Leisure, confirms what the Stereophile Test Disc reveals: With a bit of room gain on my side, I’m getting solid low-frequency response all the way down to 25 Hz. Again, some kudos go to the Pass Xs 300s, which have been bass monsters with every speaker I’ve mated them to, so it’s like stacking the deck. However, even with the 20-watt-per-channel Nagra 300p, the Blades produce prodigious bass, though they can’t play as loud as they do with 300 plus watts per channel at their disposal.

Tracking through White Zombie’s Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds leaves no doubt that the Blades move major air, and do so in a chest-pounding kind of way. KEF marketing director Johan Coorg and I are convinced that we need two more speakers for a quad setup—and I’ve got the quad open-reel deck at the ready.

In a Word, Coherent

For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I’ll reiterate that my personal bias has always been towards electrostatic speakers, full-range ESLs in particular. I’ve always been able to forgo that last bit of extension at both ends of the frequency range to get that luscious, reach-out-and-touch-it midrange, which a great ESL does more convincingly than anything.

Compared to my Quad ESL 57s, the Blades give up precious little in terms of overall coherence, bass response and their ability to play loud, damn loud. At a point where the 57s would liquefy and my Acoustat 2+2’s would lose any sense of soundstage depth, the Blades are solidly hitting their stride. Even at incredibly high volume, these speakers hold their poise like few others I’ve experienced.

This gives the bright orange Blades you see in the photos the ability to disappear in the room in a way few speakers at any price can. Too many large, multi-driver speakers I’ve experienced sound exactly that way—sitting in the listening chair, it’s as if you can distinctly hear the woofer, midrange and tweeter.

Just as you might with an ESL, you’ll fall in love with the Blades after listening to your favorite vocalist. Listen carefully to David Lee Roth’s closely miked vocal in the classic Van Halen tune, “Ice Cream Man.” His voice is rich with echo and larger than life, going way beyond the speaker boundaries, while Eddie Van Halen gently strums along on acoustic guitar off to the left of center, perfectly capturing the intimacy of this performance.

In addition to the high coherence that these speakers provide, they also have a very low level of distortion and thus fatigue. This is a speaker that reveals the finest nuance, allowing me to evaluate different components with ease, yet is also a speaker with which I love to just sit and listen to music for pleasure, even after a 12-hour day of component reviews. This is the highest compliment I can pay the Blades—they have promoted many late-night listening sessions after the work at TONE was done.

Setup and Placement

Auditioning long- and short-wall placement with the Blades in my 15-foot-by-25-foot listening room reveals the long-wall placement to be the winner, offering up the biggest, widest soundstage—highly reminiscent of the MartinLogan CLX speakers that I enjoyed as a reference for many years.

It didn’t take much time to figure out that placing the speakers roughly 10 feet apart (from center to center of each Uni-Q driver) and about 4 feet from the wall was the optimum spot; the Blades are incredibly easy to set up. Thanks to the extra-wide dispersion, something you don’t get with an ESL, the Blades offer a fantastic presentation on and off of the listening-room couch. Even sitting down on the floor, well off center, you can still enjoy the music.

The short wall proved trickier to optimize in my room, requiring the Blades to be further out into the room to avoid bass bumps. Following Coorg’s suggestion, I didn’t toe-in the speakers when they were on the short wall and that worked well. Long-wall placement worked best with a few degrees of toe-in and delivered a wider, deeper soundstage than short wall placement in my listening space. As with any speaker, I suggest optimizing for low-frequency coupling first and letting the stereo image fall where it will.

Lurking Behind Those Orange Cabinets

Though the Blades curvy shape is purpose built to minimize resonances, it has probably been the biggest hit with my non-audiophile friends. The speakers are almost unanimously appealing to both men and women, with most women gravitating to the orange and other brighter colors and most men preferring white or black. But hey, if you’re going to get funky speakers, I say paint them a funky color.

More technologically speaking, the Blades four 9-inch woofers are symmetrically placed in the vertical and horizontal planes so that the center of their output radiates from the center of the Uni-Q driver, further reinforcing the “point source” concept. The crossovers feature mild order slopes and, from our hands-on experience, we can confirm that they are indeed incredibly easy to drive with nearly any amplifier producing about 15 watts per channel or more. Those wanting further, more in-detail commentary can click here. There is more tech talk and a few video clips of Blade designer Jack Oclee-Brown outlining the bass cabinets and the KEF concept of “single apparent source,” which is the underlining principle of the speaker system.

A welcome favorite feature of the Blades is their lack of jumpers between the Uni-Q and the woofers. It always seems shortsighted to build a $30k pair of speakers with cheesy jumper wires or strips that you have to replace later anyway. All that is required with the Blades is merely tightening two jumpers on the rear face of the speakers and getting on with the show. Bravo, KEF; no jumpers to lose or upgrade later.

A Great Long-Term Choice

Winding up this review with Wang Chung’s To Live and Die in L.A. soundtrack, I realize that these speakers work well with everything in my music collection, no matter how inspiring or cheesy. The KEF Blades are not fussy audiophile speakers that are limited to a short list of audiophile favorites in order for them to give their all.

Having the privilege of listening to them for the better part of the year worked well on many levels: Not only have I purchased the Blades to be my new reference speakers, but having them on hand also gives me the opportunity to put them through their paces with so many different combinations of amplification, making it that much easier to get a solid handle on their performance.

The Blades are easy to set up and work incredibly well with almost all amplifiers, making them a great choice for a system anchor from which you can build and improve as your time and budget allow. After a year of living with these speakers, I just don’t see the need to spend more money on a speaker—ever. And, to us at TONE, that level of value deserves an award.

KEF Blade loudspeakers

MSRP: $30,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge via Indigo Qualia phonostage
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos C15    Aurender S10     Light Harmonic DaVinci
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300s    Burmester 911    Nagra 300p    Octave Jubilee monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear     Nordost Frey
Power Running Springs Dmitri    IsoTek Super Titan
Accessories Furutech DeMag,    GIK acoustic treatments     Audio Desk Systeme RCM

PMC DB1i Loudspeakers

Having listened to large electrostatic speakers for the past 20 years (Acoustat 2+2’s and now MartinLogan Summits), it was a new challenge to evaluate a pair of mini monitors; I had to recalibrate my thinking.  Unpacking the PMC DBi’s, my heart sank a bit when I saw these pint-sized speakers.  They are the smallest speakers in the PMC line and carry an MSRP of $1,995.

Somewhat atypical for an audio engineer, I use my home reference system (with MartinLogan Summits) for final mixing and mastering my recordings.  The full-range capability of the Summits really comes in handy, yet they are still enjoyable speakers to use for personal listening.  With my current list of projects out of the way, I installed these tiny speakers and prepared for some extended listening sessions, putting my biases to the side.


The DB1i’s have substantial binding posts, so the jumpers on my current speaker cable had to be spread slightly with pliers to fit properly.  Unfortunately, these larger binding posts are spaced closely together, so it took a bit of fiddling to tighten them down adequately.  I did not use the PMC Tube 104 stands, which have a height of 41 inches, but the stands I had at my disposal were barely an inch taller, so the DB1i’s stayed close to the factory-suggested height.

PMC’s well-written instruction manual got me up and running quickly, along with a bit of the company’s history and a short list of some of the albums produced with their speakers. They suggest at least 15 hours of break-in time so that the speaker surrounds can “reach their optimum compliance,” and I found this to be accurate.  During the first few days of casual listening, I experienced the stereo image getting wider and deeper as the hours piled up.

Background and construction

Before we talk about the results of listening, let’s look at the speakers themselves.  PMC is a well-established brand offering a full line of speakers for both recording-studio monitoring and audiophile listening.  Their list of users is like a who’s who of performers, professionals and studios.  Just a few examples are Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Tony Bennett, the BBC, Sony, the NFL and EMI.

The line encompasses active and passive designs, sizes range from six-foot tall floor-standing models to smaller bookshelf models, center and surround speakers, and subwoofers.  Models generally use soft domes for high and mid frequencies and cones, pistons or “Radial™” drivers for low frequencies.  To enhance bass response, most of the full-range speakers include PMC’s ATL (Advance Transmission Line) technology.

The woofer is at one end of a “tunnel” that wraps up and down within the cabinet. It is heavily damped to absorb high and mid frequencies, while leaving the lowest bass frequencies in phase able to exit the cabinet through a large vent, acting as a second low-frequency driver.  In my early days as an audiophile, I used a pair of ESS AMT-1 monitor speakers that utilized a similar transmission-line concept.

The DB1i is no exception.  This transmission-line box has a 140 mm (5.5 inch) doped cone with a cast-magnesium chassis low-frequency driver and a 27 mm (one-inch) Sonolex™ domed fabric soft-dome tweeter and is ferro-fluid cooled.  The ATL is four sections (effective length of five feet) and exits on the upper rear of the cabinet.  Frequency response is 50Hz to 25KHz (with no + or – limits specified.)  The crossover is at 2KHz.  The speakers weigh a hair under 10 pounds each and are 11.4 inches high, 6.1 inches wide and 9.2 inches deep, plus grille.  Impedance is 8 ohms and sensitivity is 87dB, one watt at one meter.

The cabinets have four wood-veneer finishes available:  oak, walnut, black ash or cherry.  Grilles are black fabric and removable.  The speakers also offer four bolts on the back to which optional mounting brackets may be attached.

Listening results

I immersed myself in the DB1i’s for about 10 days.  They became my only source of playback and I came away highly impressed.  It was easy to forget about their diminutive size when I closed my eyes and listened.  With eyes opened, my mind kept trying to convince me that there were bigger woofers hidden somewhere in the room.

The first thing I noticed was that the rhythm section in any recording was just so clear and clean.  The small woofers combined with the transmission line design really made the electric bass pop, too.  The bass had a very rich quality, and in most instances, I didn’t miss the extra bottom octave or so that my Summits are capable of reproducing.  The bass drums were crisp and quick, yet all retained their characteristic sounds.  Snare drum and cymbals were extremely fast, but not harsh or edgy.

Most importantly, these speakers sound good at low levels, they really sing at mid volume, yet they can play LOUD when called upon to do so.  There was no listener fatigue when I pushed the DB1i’s to the extreme. If you are a drummer, bass player or just love the sound of a good, tight backbone in your listening and don’t have room for big speakers or a lot of cash, the DB1i’s could definitely satisfy you.

In general, I noticed that vocals were solid and centered, and the DB1i’s had a neutral character of a great studio monitor, never edgy or clinical.  The stereo image was wide and deep; I loved hearing the ambience and reverb on a wide variety of program material and often heard instruments three-to-four feet outside the speaker boundaries.  Trumpets and brass in general felt as if they were in the room with me.

All the strengths of a great monitor

One of my favorite John Mayer tracks, “Neon” from his Room for Squares album, adds guitar layers to each verse.  This effect was easily heard, with the side-panned tracks staying in place, while Mayer’s lead vocal was solidly center stage.  Again, the tiny PMC’s sounded much bigger than I expected.

Elvis Costello is always a “go to” when I want to hear how a male vocal sounds.  This was a perfect opportunity to listen to the new MoFi release of Armed Forces.  Track after track, the vocals were incredibly detailed, very focused but not edgy.  Listening to the Painted from Memory CD by Elvis and Burt Bacharach, the dryer vocal was haunting, very up front but lacking any of the harshness that I have heard on some other speakers.  The drums were recorded dry but again, they just jumped out on these little speakers.  Brass was sweet and high strings were smooth, with low strings being very revealing in tone and texture.

One of my new favorites, Jamie Cullum’s The Pursuit, has an almost endless pallet of cool sounds, including Jamie playing every part of the piano in every possible way and a slew of different spaces and ambiences.  On “We Run Things,” the loops and synth programming offered a very wide, three-dimensional image. But I did miss the low synth bass on this one.  I wouldn’t have known it, though, if I hadn’t heard it a bunch of times on the Summits.

The snapping sounds of the electronic percussion had incredible transient response that was almost startling.  Tom fills were “in your face” as I believe they were intended.  On “Not While I’m Around,” the bass drum and associated ambience were clear and tight.  I rarely missed the absent deep bass unless things went subsonic, but the quality of what was present was always top notch.

Continuing my musical journey with the DB1i’s, I spun some Alison Krauss and even revisited the Beach Boy’s classic, Pet Sounds. PMC’s emphasis on their monitors accurately reproducing vocals was always apparent; no matter what type of music I listened to, the vocals were very natural – one of my hot buttons as an engineer.

Taking the opposite ends of the musical spectrum, going all the way from Van Halen’s first album to some of my favorite classical pieces, I remained impressed with the dynamic abilities of these speakers.  Whenever I stopped listening critically, I kept forgetting just how big the soundfield was from these small speakers.

Small but powerful

After a wide range of test tracks, my conclusion is that the PMC DB1i’s are diminutive power houses that work well with any type of program material.  They are equally at home as part of a high-quality two-channel system as they are sitting on top of the monitoring console. Should you want to make these part of a compact multichannel surround system (PMC’s are very popular in the movie soundtrack studios as well), PMC also makes a horizontally oriented DB1i center channel speaker with magnetic shielding.  And of course, PMC makes a full range of subwoofers, from small to large.

If you enjoy a wide range of musical tastes, and don’t want to give up dynamic ability in a modestly priced system, the PMC DB1i is a major contender.  While this is the point in the review where the reviewer often comments on buying the speakers, I did exactly that, but for my recording studio!

The PMC DB1i speakers

MSRP:  $1,995 per pair

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

For those of you unfamiliar with Opera Loudspeakers, let us enlighten you.  Opera is the “other guy” making high-quality speakers in Italy.  The Seconda is the middle model in the company’s Classica line of reasonably priced speakers.  Compared to $4,995 for Opera’s Callas speakers and $9,995 for its Grand Callas—and considering the quality of the Seconda speakers—$3,995 is indeed a reasonable price to pay for this level of quality.

The Classica line features a leatherette covering rather than the real thing to help shave a few bucks off the price point.  Opera, like a number of luxury carmakers, is able to pull this off so tastefully that the fit and finish will fool all but the fussiest connoisseur.  Our review pair of Secondas arrived finished in a striking high-gloss white lacquer, which is becoming increasingly popular in Europe and making a comeback here in the U.S. The sides are made from real wood, with the front and rear baffles, MDF.

These speakers are no lightweights:  They tip the scales at an even 100 pounds apiece.  They offer nicely finished binding posts that allow for easy bi-wiring, and the company provides spikes for the bottom front of the speaker, as well as a spiked outrigger arrangement at the bottom rear to add stability and make it easier to set the rake angle.

An Unconventional Approach

Two 7-inch aluminum cone woofers and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter sourced from Scan-Speak lurk behind the black grilles, which are easily removed.  If you have no prying paws around, I suggest enjoying the beauty of the Secondas sans grille.  While most competing products opt for a ported design, the Seconda has a sealed enclosure, which makes for a gentler impedance curve—a definite plus when used in conjunction with a tube amplifier.  (Opera’s sister company, Unison Research, just so happens to excel at producing tube amplifiers.)

The crossover point of the Seconda is a commendably low 2,200 Hz, with a second-order slope.  It also maintains good off-axis performance and high overall levels of coherence.  Eschewing the ubiquitous curved side panel for a baffle that is curved and angled, the Seconda minimizes unwanted cabinet reflections, which helps lessen interference with the front baffle.

Wait For It

Slightly tight and bright out of the box, the Seconda reveals its charms after about 200 hours—and the effort is well worth the wait.  I would suggest letting them play every day when you go to work and, after a week, you will be rewarded with a pleasant surprise.  Once broken in, the Seconda exhibits a clear, open and lively character in the midrange, with a high-frequency range that is extended and smooth at the same time.  Those familiar with traditional Italian speakers might expect a kind of laid-back and mellow presentation, but this is not the case with the Seconda.

The sealed-box design yields a very even, gradual and protracted bass response, free from the usual impedance hiccup that can plague the tuning frequency of a standard vented enclosure.  This proves to be a wonderful counterbalance to the high-frequency extension of the tweeter.  The dual aluminum midrange drivers offer quick responses, which helps eliminate any inclination of a slow or bloated low end.

Everything about this speaker’s design bodes well for the music lover.  It possesses a sensitivity of 89 dB and a 4-ohm nominal impedance, which means you only really need 35 to 50 watts of juice to adequately drive each channel.  Pairing the Secondas with the Unison Research S6 integrated amp borrowed from our publisher for this review made for an excellent combination that was the definition of musicality.  I equally enjoyed the speakers when driving them with 100 watts per channel of solid-state power from my Class A Coda amplifier.

At Ease with Any Material

Dynamic classic-rock titles like Led Zeppelin II, Taste’s recently remastered On the Boards and Jefferson Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head all favored the big solid-state sound, especially at high volumes.  The speaker’s sealed cabinets yield a visceral presentation:  Drums come alive and the electric bass has a convincing wallop, with no loss of texture.

But the Seconda isn’t only about getting down with classic rock.  Teeing up some great CD recordings from the recent past tells a lot about this speaker’s ability to accurately portray large classical ensembles and intimate jazz groups in realistic scale.

During a listening session of drummer Peter Erskine’s jazz trio on Live At Rocco, the Seconda captures the wide-open ambiance of the venue.  You can easily discern all of the audience noises, such as clinking glasses and soft whispers.  Soft brush strokes on cymbals have the appropriate shimmer and decay, while the upright bass’s sinewy plucked strings resonate with strength.  Another great live recording, Tonic from Medeski, Martin & Wood, treats the listener to that same wide-open room sound.  On the track “Buster Rides Again” Billy Martin hammers away vigorously with his funky timekeeping, which the Secondas put right in the middle of the soundstage.

As for the bass prowess of these speakers, Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack to the film Todo Sobre Mi Madre—a beautiful score, full of deep-bass lines—accentuates the Secondas’ ability to handle the lowest notes with ease.  The score’s short track “Le Faltaba la Mitad,” a mix of massed strings and haunting bass, feels as if it migrated from a Dead Can Dance album.  Here, the Secondas easily keep the pace solid, even at high levels, without distortion or soundtrack collapse.  At the same time, the sparse percussion gently dances throughout the soundfield unaffected—a very impressive feat for speakers at this price point.

Reference Recordings’ Mephisto & Co. showcases the Minnesota Orchestra in full song.  On this recording, the classic Mussorgsky piece “Night on Bald Mountain” perfectly illustrates the ability of these speakers to go instantly from loud to soft.  Playing perhaps louder than is prudent, with my Coda amp delivering the goods, the piece builds to crescendo, all the while maintaining the orchestra’s three-dimensional space.  The Seconda portrays the big stuff faithfully and then backs off beautifully to capture the softer passages featuring flute and piccolo.  Reference Recordings’ Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff reveals the speaker’s ability to render size and scale, at the same time casting a spotlight on how well the dual 7-inch woofers are able to start and stop without any overhang or fatigue.

Just as I was ready to wind up the review and begin packing the Secondas to send to their next appointment, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits from Audio Fidelity arrived.  Again, I was reminded of the wonderful midrange that these speakers offer.  Dylan’s voice is eerily realistic and squarely in the room on “Blowin’ in The Wind,” on which I found the decay of both his voice and harp utterly captivating.  The speakers also handle male and female vocals with equal ease, so those partaking more of the latter will be equally smitten.  A quick spin of Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ (courtesy of the Acoustic Sounds’ remaster) is incredibly vibrant and realistic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the Opera Secondas.  While these may not be the first name on the tip of your tongue when searching for your next pair of speakers, they are worth seeking out and even more worthy of an extended audition.  They bring a number of design elements together: a large sealed enclosure, quality drivers, elegant cosmetics and outstanding in-room performance.  And, at a relatively affordable $3,995 a pair, they offer incredible value, ranking highly on the wife-acceptance factor and also delivering great performance for the price.  If you’re looking for something other than the usual fare, and in the mood for something different, these Italian wonders are certainly worth a listen.

Opera Seconda Loudspeakers

MSRP: $3,995

Available in the U.S. through Colleen Cardas Imports:

Elac’s FS249 Black Edition Loudspeakers

As I unbox the Black Edition versions of ELAC’s FS 249s, I become enthralled with their simplistic, rectangular tower design and sheen black finish.

Once getting the speakers standing tall (3 feet 8.5 inches tall, to be exact) with their cloth grilles removed, I am intrigued by the sight of the geometric patterns forming their black driver cones and the small, horizontal lines displaying their golden ribbon tweeters. And these ELACs are even more appealing sonically than they are aesthetically.

In fact, after several weeks of listening, I have to double-check the speakers’ price to make sure that Robb Niemann of Rutherford Audio, ELAC’s North American importer, hadn’t forgotten a zero. The FS 249 BEs are priced at $8,000 per pair. Having demoed my fair share of speakers 10 times that value, I am shocked to find that this level of quality can be had for a relatively inexpensive eight grand.

(NOTE: You can skip ahead to “On with the Show” toward the end of this article to read the listening notes, if you’re not interested in company background information and technical nuts and bolts.)

Up to Snuff

I must confess that I conduct the entirety of my review of these speakers with a front end sooner found mated to a pair of much costlier speakers. The Burmester 089 CD player/preamp and 911 stereo power amplifier, priced at about $30,000 each, deliver the goods in my system and push the ELACs to the peak of their performance envelope. The 911’s 350 watts per channel of juice is way more than enough to power these speakers, which have a sensitivity of 90 dB and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Users so inclined can bi-amp these speakers.

Having heard this Burmester duo with several five- and six-figure speaker pairs, I will say that the FS 249 BEs are not out of place here. I would have to conduct a careful side-by-side comparison to discern a separation in sound quality that would justify the leap in price to the much costlier speaker I’ve demoed. The ELACs offer a very high value proposition indeed.

Much of this bang-for-your-buck performance can be attributed to the fact that ELAC designs and builds the majority of its speaker components in house. Founded in Kiel, Germany, in 1926, the company—then called Electroacustic GmbH—has a long history of technical innovation to rival that of today’s most highly regarded German manufacturers. The company originally focused on sonar and acoustic signal technologies and, following World War II, shifted its attention to producing a variety of consumer goods, from sewing machine to car parts.

It soon entered the audio realm, first with radios and then with turntables and phono cartridges. The company changed hands a number of times over the years and began designing and building speakers in the 1980s, releasing its first true innovation in 1985, with the omnidirectional 4Pi tweeter, which put the company on the loudspeaker map. Then, in 1993, ELAC purchased a patent for a version of the Air Motion Transformer (AMT), a folded-diaphragm tweeter designed by German electrical engineer Dr. Oskar Heil in 1972 that had gained popularity as an alternative to traditional tweeter designs.  And this is where my sonic adoration of the FS 249 BEs begins.

Guts and Glory

ELAC calls its version of the AMT tweeter the JET (for Jet Emission Tweeter), and the FS 249 BE speakers use the third iteration of this design. The company supplies its JET tweeters to a number of manufacturers and, although those companies remain undisclosed, the JET design is easily recognizable. (It should also be noted that a number of manufacturers have copied this design, but few attain the level of sonic success of the JET.)

This tweeter comprises a folded foil membrane driven by a series of neodymium-magnet rods, forgoing the traditional voice-coil assembly. The materials used for the tweeters, according to ELAC, can withstand operating temperatures of 180 degrees Celsius, whereas others break down at 60 degrees. The result is a reduced loss of electrical-current energy, which is also partly due to the tweeter’s large membrane—which, because of its folded design, has approximately the same surface area as a cone driver with an 8-inch diameter—and its lighting-quick speed. The foil membrane’s low mass requires considerably less movement to generate the same audio response as a dome tweeter. According to ELAC, the JET tweeter is accurate to within 1/100th of a millimeter (which is 10 times thinner than a human hair).

The so-called “crystal cone” diaphragms of the speakers’ driver units are also notable in their design. The FS 249 BEs feature three of these drivers: one 5.5-inch midrange driver below the tweeter, and two 7-inch bass drivers stacked below the midrange. The diaphragm cones of these drivers, which can be found throughout much of the ELAC range, are extremely lightweight and rigid.

The driver cones are constructed from an aluminum-paper composite foil that has been stamped with dozens of little triangles. This design follows the same principal of structural dynamics as Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic spheres—which most people will recognize from the giant Spaceship Earth globe at Walt Disney World’s Epcot center in Orlando, Fla. This design makes the diaphragms extraordinarily rigid, with high “tensional integrity,” as Fuller liked to say, so that they are virtually free from resonance and sonic coloration. The diaphragms are affixed to the driver’s voice coil at both the neck and the base, helping to extend their frequency response by nearly an octave, according to ELAC.

In the Black Edition version of the speakers, the cones are (you guessed it) black instead of the silver used for the standard 240-series speakers. The BE speakers also feature a number of non-aesthetic upgrades, including bigger and better voice coils, refined crossovers and capacitors, and high-grade internal wiring from the signal-transmission wizards at the Dutch firm Van den Hul, which specializes in cabling, phono cartridges and phono preamplifiers.

ELAC is so confident in the construction of its speakers that they come with a full 10-year factory warranty. Knowing all of the technological expertise and high-quality componentry that goes into the FS 249 BEs, I am chomping at the bit to get them set up and singing.

Getting Situated

After several days of positioning the speakers—countless OCD adjustments extend the duration of tweaking into weeks—I find that the speakers perform best in my listening room when they are a little more than 2 feet from the back wall, with the speakers just over 7 feet apart and the listening position about 8 feet from the speakers. Much experimentation results in a 15-degree tow-in providing the optimum imaging in my listening space, which is 12 feet deep and about 16 feet wide, with the right side open to the dining area.

I am quick to admit that my listening space is not ideal—but whose is? Luckily, the FS 249 BEs ship with a pair of rubber plugs to quell the air released from the rear-firing bass ports in the upper portion of the speaker cabinets. (The speakers also have a larger down-firing port in the underside of the cabinets.) I find these plugs useful when listening to music with louder-than-usual bass responses—the low frequencies of some hip-hop, techno, and booming classical recordings can be a little overwhelming in my room. The speakers also come with two little foam disks that can be placed around the tweeters to help control the high-frequency dispersion in smaller rooms. For most music, I prefer the sound without the foam disks, but the tightened dispersion is immediately noticeable when the disks are applied.

On with the Show

The speed and pinpoint imaging of the JET tweeters make complex and detailed music a lot of fun to listen to. And so I turn to Sufjan Stevens’ Come on Feel the Illinoise (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005), which is a meticulously made album, with loads of ambient musical details filling up the periphery of the soundstage. The title track begins with a rhythmic piano in the right channel that the full band matches after two bars. The 5/4 time signature in the first part of the song, paired with a smorgasbord of sounds that includes a xylophone panning across the soundstage, make this a difficult song to track, but the ELACs keep up with great success—these tweeters are indeed speedy. And all instruments are given the proper weight, with the imagining of the tweeters accurately placing them across a spacious three-dimensional soundstage that displays ample depth and height. The trumpets enter the mix front and center during the chorus and then, without overpowering Stevens’ airy vocals, the brassy cry begins to rise above the mix, showcasing the vertical capabilities of the JET tweeters.

These tweeters also bring to light the delightful idiosyncrasies of subtler music. At first listen, Alexi Murdoch’s Time without Consequence (Zero Summer Records, 2006) is a very delicate album, with Murdoch’s baritone voice layered softly atop the minimalistic mix. But, at elevated volumes, the depth of the music emerges. On “Beathe,” Murdoch’s palm mutes on his acoustic guitar have substantial precision and weight, while the JET tweeters illuminate the mix’s various background minutia: distant cymbal crashes, slow pulls of a cello, and even what sounds like rhythmic amplified breathing at the right side of the soundstage. This is a seemingly simply mix, but the ELAC speakers reveal the magic lingering beneath the surface.

Similarly, these tweeters provide an abundance of headroom—up to 50 kHz, according to ELAC—which is especially noticeable when reproducing the female vocalists whose albums are common audiophile references. These listeners, however, may find themselves wanting a bit more midrange fullness from such eerily clear recordings. But I find that the speakers deliver vocals from Ella Fitzgerald, Carole King and Adele with all the breadth and gusto I would ever want. My go-to jazz albums from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock also sound as good as they ever have: Dueling solos remain separate but equal, with brass and keys having ample brightness without being overbearing, while strings and drums keep their precision and tightness as they climb down the frequency spectrum.

With most music, I do not find myself wanting for additional bass grunt—the FS 249 BEs dip down as low as 28 Hz, according to ELAC. String- and percussion-heavy classical recordings from Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók have the appropriate amount of room-filling boom, giving the illusion of sitting in the middle of a grand concert hall with a 50-foot ceiling.

On “Stinkfist,” the first track on Tool’s Ænema (Zoo Entertainment, 1996), the bass is plenty heavy through the ELACs—even too heavy. This is a key example of when inserting the bass-port plugs is a major plus. Doing so subdues the bass enough to allow the rest of the mix to come through in its full and terrifying glory.

On rap and hip-hop recordings—including examples from Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and the Roots—the beats are full and punchy when listening at moderate levels. But when cranking the volume to club levels, some listeners may find themselves a bit disappointed that the ELACs don’t rattle their rib cages out of their chests. The same goes for dance and electronica music. But if bone-rattling bass is what you seek, then I imagine you’re more in the market for speakers with a couple 10-plus-inch woofers. For those of you not throwing dance parties at your home, these speakers will more than satiate your need for bass bump and general musicality.

Hooked on Teutonic

This all-German system is indeed a harmonious package. The Burmester front end enables the FS 249 BE speakers to perform at their absolute peak—and, as I mentioned earlier, these speakers are a bargain at just $8,000 per pair.

Their highs, courtesy of the remarkable JET tweeters, go above and beyond expectations, with clarity, precision and a three-dimensional soundstage on par with those of speakers costing two or three times this price. For 98 percent of listeners, the midrange and bass responses—thanks to well-conceived and well-built driver units with superior designs and electronics supporting them—will prove full and sharp, and will meet all of their musical needs.

ELAC FS 249 Black Edition loudspeakers

MSRP: $8,000 per pair



Estelon XA Speakers Loudspeakers

For a number of reasons, it’s always tough to get a full read on any speakers’ performance at a show, although the Estelon XA was the most interesting new speaker I heard this fall at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.  The seductive, curvy shape immediately caught my eye, and I paused on seeing the ceramic drivers.  No sooner had my mind passed judgment that these were just another set of ceramic driver speakers that wouldn’t rock, I heard some fairly dynamic music and drew a different conclusion.

Estelon designer and founder of the company Alfred & Partners, Alfred Vassilkov has been creating speakers and crossover networks for other companies for the past 25 years, and he is finally bringing a product to market under his own name that is 100 percent his vision.  When the concept for these speakers was born in 2006, Vassilkov faced a dilemma: there was no enclosure material available that would suffice for his ultimate design.  Now, with a new marble-based composite material that Vassilkov has patented, his concept has been born.

This exotic, computer-modeled shape is cast as one solid piece, much like the monocoque tub for a Formula 1 car, and then coated with multiple coats of an automotive finish.  The Estelon speakers are available in gloss or matte black. Our review pair arrived in the matte finish, which looks similar to the matte finish on the newest models from Lamborghini and Range Rover.  While robots were initially employed to apply the finish, they could not produce cabinets that were up to Vassilkov’s high standards, so the robots were abandoned in favor of some highly skilled humans.  The photos truly do not do these cabinets justice; the matte finish is seductive in person.

The Estelon XA is a three-way design, using all-ceramic Accutron drivers, a 1.2-inch tweeter, a 7-inch midrange and the latest 11-inch woofer.  They have a single set of binding posts and weigh about 190 pounds each.  MSRP is $43,900 per pair, which  includes delivery, setup and a pair of custom-made flight cases that are laser cut on the inside to fit the speakers snugly.

Simple Setup

Though the XA’s are a little tougher to move than a traditional wood speaker because of their curvy shape and slippery finish, they shouldn’t take long to place in your room.  My listening room is 16 feet deep and 24 feet wide, and while I began my listening where my GamuT S-9’s normally reside, the final placement ended up just slightly further apart, with the Estelons just over 10 feet from each other (tweeter center to tweeter center) and the front of the tweeters about 40 inches from the rear wall. Vassilkov and his European representative, William McIntosh, were kind enough to visit my studio and double check my setup.  After about an hour or so of their attention to detail, we were all convinced that the speakers were performing to the best of their ability in my room.

Their large base made them easy to slide around on my carpeted floor, and once the optimum spot was found, fitting the spikes gave the anticipated last bit of bass performance.  Minor movements of an inch here and there during the next few days after Alfred’s visit only confirmed that we had the speakers in the right spot in the first place!

The XA’s have a sensitivity of 89db/1watt, 4-ohm impedance and a suggested range of amplifier power from 20 to 200 watts.  They are indeed very easy to drive and I had no problem getting great sound with my freshly restored C-J MV50 tube power amplifier that only produces 45 watts per channel.  Again, thanks to the chameleon-like characteristic of these speakers, you will be able to enjoy whatever kind of amplification you have, so you won’t have to go amplifier shopping to accommodate your new speakers.

While about eight different amplifiers were used in the evaluation, the majority of my listening was done with the solid-state Burmester 911 mk.3 (and later a pair of 911’s) and the all-vacuum-tube Octave ME 130 monoblocks.  I found these amplifiers to be extremely tube friendly and easy to fine tune with different cable.  I tried the latest from Kubala Sosna (which is also used for internal wiring), Cardas Clear, AudioQuest Sky and my reference Shunyata Aurora cable, all with excellent luck.  Each cable set exhibited its own characteristics, and each seemed to suit a particular amplification choice slightly better than the other, making the XA’s easy to fine tune to perfection.

The Sound

I found their lack of coloration, while maintaining a high level of coherence, the XA’s strongest suit.  As a panel-speaker enthusiast, coherence is one of my biggest hot buttons,  and the XA’s delivered this in spades.  Precious few cone speakers that I’ve heard at any price can truly pull this off, so I came away highly impressed with this aspect of these speakers’ performance.

In the past, other speakers I’ve heard with the Accuton drivers have never floated my boat, for lack of a terribly technical description.  They either have sounded too forward or somewhat restrained; great with classical music at moderate level but not a speaker that could really rock out with conviction.  The Estelon’s shattered this belief; they always maintained a balance between being resolving yet natural with the ability to play any music as loud as I wanted to.

As someone who typically listens to music in 8-12 hour shifts, a fatiguing speaker will reveal itself quickly, and the XA’s passed this test with flying colors.  This is a wonderfully open speaker that you can listen to for days on end.  I was reminded of the MartinLogan CLX’s time and time again because of the XA’s transparency and ease of delivery.

The Bottom

One of the first test tracks queued up was Tom Jones’ “What Good Am I,” from his current album, Praise and Blame. Jones’ voice is closely miked and this is one of those recordings in which you can hear him breathing in the room, full of emotion.  It’s a sparse arrangement, with Jones accompanied by acoustic guitar and a pounding kettle drum that will rattle your ribs if your system is up to the task.  The XA’s excelled, reproducing this drum with the necessary texture to avoid the “one-note bass” effect, capturing the attack and decay with ease.

Before investigating a few more of my favorite bass-laden tracks, one more Tom Jones cut was in order, “Style and Rhythm” from his last album, 24 Hours. Though not as exquisitely recorded as his current record, this is a great track to crank up loud and dole out some speaker punishment.  With a pair of Burmester 911 mk. 3’s in monoblock mode and about 800 watts per channel on tap, it was no problem even at ear splitting levels.

After running through the usual bass test/torture tracks, including everything from the Telarc 1812 overture LP to my favorite electronica tracks, the Estelon XA’s remained unrattled.  There was nothing I could throw at these speakers that caused them to stumble.

The Top

Because the ceramic tweeter is very revealing, you may find that less-than-exceptional electronics are not up to the task.  I assure you that after living with these speakers for some time and auditioning everything from a vintage Pioneer receiver all the way up to the Burmester 911 monoblocks, I could hear exactly what my gear is capable of producing, especially in the upper registers.

I would categorize the upper-frequency tonality as revealing and perhaps ever so slightly forward, yet without grain. A little too much zip in the cable or amplifier realm might be too much of a good thing with the XA’s, but warm and gooey isn’t the answer either; this only makes the speakers sound slow and muddled.

Again, the ESL-like speed of the XA’s gave cymbals the correct amount of tone and decay without sounding harsh or overly brilliant. Art Blakey’s drumming on Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat was sublime through these speakers. I was grinning ear to ear after listening to a large selection of my favorite Blue Note remasters; these speakers definitely reveal the truth.

The Middle

Every audiophile has their hot button. Some want pinpoint imaging, others want subterranean bass and 10 others want something entirely different. But for me, a speaker lives and dies with correct midrange.  Of course, all of the other aspects of HiFi reproduction are great fun; I just can’t live with a speaker long term if it can’t get the midrange as close to perfect as possible.

Without a boring you with the minutiae of a long punch list of favorites, suffice to say that these speakers nail the midband, another testament to a perfect integration of cabinet, crossover design and careful choice of drivers.  Upon listening to “Lay Your Hands on Me” from the 45 rpm, 200-gram Clarity Vinyl pressing of Peter Gabriel’s Security, Macintosh remarked, “I”ve never heard that track sound this good.”  This is the level of tonal accuracy that justifies the five-figure price tag.

Low and high level dynamics

The Estelon XA’s provide engaging performance at any volume level, another aspect that can be attributed to the world’s finest speakers.  Even when listening to music that you could easily speak over, the stereo image does not collapse and there isn’t a volume level that the speakers suddenly “come alive.”  While there is a definite level at extremely high level that the speaker finally starts to compress, it is much higher than is reasonable and prudent for 99 percent of us.  The one thing that could lead to trouble with these speakers is that they are so clean right up to the point where the stereo image starts to flatten; they might be damaged by an amplifier that does not have a lot of clean power in reserve.  If you really like to rock, pay careful attention to your choice of amplifier and err on the side of too much rather than too little power.  Come to think of it, when rocking out, can you really have too much power?

The outstanding MoFi pressing of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” will tell you everything you need to know about the low-level dynamics of these speakers.  At the beginning of the track as Gaye is starting his intro rap, you can hear a number of other people in the background, all on different layers, and when he starts to sing, the myriad vocal layers are easily distinguishable.  Again, this is in full effect from low to high volume.

The lack of grain and overhang that the combination of drivers, crossover and cabinet contribute (or perhaps distract from) the presentation is instantly apparent while listening to violin and piano.  One of my favorite test records of recent months is The Jung Trio: Dvorak Trio In F Minor Op.65, available on SACD or 45 rpm LP from Groove Note Records.  The speed and tonal purity required to reproduce the violin and piano are one of the greatest challenges to a speaker system, provided the electronics are up to the task.  The XA’s played this recording flawlessly and was one of a very short list of speakers that almost fooled me into thinking these ladies were performing in my room.

Depending on whether your taste in music takes you to a heavy-rock band or a full-scale orchestra, you will not be disappointed in the XA’s with either type of program material.  I had just as much fun listening to Mahler as I did Van Halen, and I never felt that the speakers were running out of juice.

A very special addition to the high-end loudspeaker world

Though Alfred & Partners is a new company, it comes built on years of experience in the field.  The fanatical attention to detail shows what can be accomplished when a great driver set is combined with cutting-edge materials and design.  We give these speakers our highest recommendation and look forward to listening to some more of Estelon’s creations in the months to follow.  This is a pair of speakers that I could not fault in any way, no matter what music I listened to.

And if you’d like to get a substantial helping of what I heard during my evaluation, stop by Estelon’s room in Las Vegas at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where the speakers will be showed with the same Burmester 089 preamplifier and 911 mk. 3 power amplifiers that were used for this review.

The Estelon XA Speakers

MSRP:  $43,900  per pair (US)

€ 29.900 per pair (Europe)

Alfred & Partners, Estonia


Analog sources Oracle Delphi V w/SME iV.VI and Koetsu Urishi Blue    Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar and Grado Statement 1
Digital sources dCS Paganini Stack    Sooloos Music Server    Naim HDX
Preamplifier Burmester 089    Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Phono Preamplifier Audio Research REF 2 phono    AVID Pulsare
Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk. 3 (pair)    Octave ME130 monoblocks    McIntosh MC 1.2kw monoblocks    McIntosh MC275    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    First Watt M2
Cable Various from Shunyata Aurora    Kubala Sosna Emotion    AudioQuest Sky    Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri, Maxim and Duke power conditioners    RSA and Shunyata Power Cords    Shunyata SR-Z1 Outlets

Sonus faber Venere 3.0 Loudspeakers

I always look forward to the arrival of houseguests.  And, as far as visitors go, the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers make a great first impression—even before the music begins.

With these speakers, priced at $3,498 per pair, Sonus faber made some compromises, but did so without losing brand cred.  To achieve the speakers’ reasonable price, Sonus faber moved production offshore to China, in a factory closely resembling its Italian facility.  The 3.0s are the flagship of the Venere series, which abandons the classic Sonus faber look, borrowing instead the lyre-shaped cabinet of the company’s top-of-the-line Aida speakers.  The 3.0s are available with a glossy finish, in either black or white, as well as with a walnut-wood finish for an extra $500 per pair.

After escorting the speakers up to my listening room and unboxing them, I feel under-dressed in my T-shirt.  My review speakers feature white side panels, complemented by a black top and front.  I’m tempted to ask the speakers if they prefer their martinis shaken or stirred—the cocktail party music would soon follow.

You Look Maaaaarvelous!

Sonus faber describes the speaker as having a “lyre shape.”  I describe it as being shaped a bit like a pear when looking at it from above, with the narrow part at the back raised slightly.  The speakers are squared off at the front to create a flat plane for the drivers.  Ultimately, this combination of angles, curves and lines gives them a sculptural aesthetic—or perhaps a look similar to those of the robots in Bjork’s “All is Full of Love” video.  But let’s stick with the former descriptor.

The Veneres are sizeable floorstanders: about 4 feet tall, with enough room to house a silk dome tweeter, a 5-inch midrange driver and two 6-inch bass drivers, plus a rectangular port at the bottom.  The base is made of strong glass with aluminum connectors at the edges, where you affix the tapered, spiked cone feet.  This combination provides a solid anchor for the Veneres, but take note that the spikes are quite sharp at the business end; they will easily pierce carpet or leave noticeable scratches on your wooden floor—or your foot.  Consider yourself warned.

Two sets of binding posts facilitate bi-wiring or bi-amping, and the included jumpers make it easy for those of us with only one set of speaker cables.

Strike a Pose

Eager to see if the speakers’ sonic capabilities match their good looks, I begin the setup process.  The Veneres are fairly easy for one person to move.  I appreciate their 47-pound weight (as does my back) after having lugged my reference Piega P10 speakers out of their usual position, which is where the Veneres’ placement process begins.  After trying to fine-tune their placement in my 17-foot-by-20-foot listening space, I find that the starting point ultimately offers the best acoustics—about 4 feet from the back wall, 2 feet from the side wall, and about 8 feet apart.

After some toe-in experimentation, I determine that the Veneres require only a small amount for best imaging.  Like two polite and conversational party guests, the speakers are not too finicky about where they stand, and their oration inspires active listening.

The Best Of Chesky Classics & Jazz & Audiophile Test Disc offers some helpful tracks for speaker setup, demonstrating the ways in which surround sound can be simulated using a pair of speakers.  In one example, David Chesky walks around an omni-directional microphone tapping on a tom-tom drum.  In another example, the experiment is simulated using digital-processing technology.  When placed well, good speakers can make Chesky and his drum appear to travel a circular path around the listening room.  Very good speakers placed optimally can make it seem as if Mr. Chesky is walking behind the listening position, which is especially noticeable with the digitally processed track.  The Veneres prove very capable of this auditory illusion.

Start the Show!

Once optimized, I’m exciting to fire up the speakers—and am quickly impressed.  It’s clear that Sonus faber put its biggest investment into the Venere 3.0 where the money belongs: the sonics.

First of all, these speakers do a shockingly good job of extending the perceived width of the stage on which the musicians are playing.  Aimee Mann’s “One,” from the soundtrack to P.T. Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, starts very simply, with her voice front and center, which the Veneres render very well.  Later, with the onset of additional instruments, the song explodes out to each side of the soundstage.  The speakers manage to bring those bits of music around the edges of the room into the listening area.  The same is true with larger orchestral pieces, like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos.  These speakers incorporate that broader stereo image seamlessly into my listening space, with sound floating beautifully around the room.

I will say that the front-to-back depth of the speakers’ perceived stage is limited, as one might expect from any speaker in this range.  Live at Luther College, from Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, is a great test for this, as individual audience members shout various requests and comments toward the musicians.  Elements in the distant of the recorded space seem pushed forward toward the plane provided by the Veneres.

While tight and tuneful in the bass registers, the Veneres do not dip below 38 Hz, according to Sonus faber’s specs, which is confirmed by my own test tracks.  Madonna’s “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” offers some very low notes, which are barely audible through the Veneres.  But for most people, especially those living in small spaces or condos, limited low frequency be a desirable characteristic to reduce late-night complaints from sleeping neighbors.  Those seeking very low, foundation-rattling bass punch may find the Veneres a bit light for their tastes.  For most types of music, the bass of the Veneres balances well with the overall mix.

I enjoy Portishead’s “Cowboys,” but the vocal effects in this recording can make Beth Gibbons’ voice quite fatiguing on an overly revealing system.  The song illustrates the Veneres’ extended but forgiving highs.  The speakers let the overall musical experience shine through, as opposed to drawing the listener’s attention to a single, hard vocal edge.

While some more expensive speakers reproduce more nuances, the Veneres tend to take the high road, as if you are sitting further back in the auditorium, where each onstage pick of the guitar, draw of the bow across the cello strings or squeak of the saxophone diminishes sonically over a distance.  For example, Beck’s “Lonesome Tears” features a single triangle strike with an extended ring; some of the immediacy, sparkle and ambient decay is lost with the Veneres’ reproduction, but they still do a mighty good job of it.

Here Come the Papparazzi

It’s obviously nor fair or helpful for you, the reader, to compare the Veneres to my Piega P10s, which start at $9,500.  In absolute terms, the Veneres give up some transparency, realism and detail compared to higher-end speakers.  But for $3,498, the level of balance these speakers offer is stunning.

Sonus faber’s voicing choices for this speaker are well thought out, being more musical than analytical.  The Veneres are well balanced for many types of music, including rock, classical and jazz, as opposed to exceling only at one genre.  They reproduce vocals wonderfully, bringing them to the front instead of recessing them into the mix.  The bottom line is that the price is right and the speakers provide countless hours of listening pleasure.

It’s very exciting to experience wonderful products like these, which can fit realistically into many audiophiles’ budgets.  It’s hard not to give the Venere 3.0 speakers an enthusiastic recommendation.  A few compromises aside, they offer very impressive audio performance.  Combining this with their attractive, modern look and bargain $3,498 price tag makes these a stellar value and very much worth your audition.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

After spending some quality time with Sonus fabers flagship Aida, I found it very intriguing to see just how much of this lineage could be achieved in such a reasonably priced speaker.  All of the style cues suggest that this new speaker has come from the same brain in terms of style.  For those not intimately familiar with the top of the Sonus faber range, you’d be hard pressed to tell the Venere 3.0s were made in a Chinese factory—they are that good.

Instead of trying to make the speaker cover a wider range while sacrificing quality, Sonus faber settled for a bit less ultimate bass weight to help keep the range in top shape.  Unless you are playing Deadmau5 at club levels in a big room, I doubt you will find these speakers lacking.

The Venere not only has a heavy dose of Sonus faber heritage, it is also a nice balance between the warmer, more forgiving SF of old and the resolution that the Aida brings to the table.  The Venere’s 90-dB sensitivity rating makes the speaker an excellent match for just about any amplifier, tube or transistor with more than 25 watts per channel on tap.  Whether I mated the Veneres to the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium power amplifier recently in for review, (35wpc/EL34 tubes) or my vintage Pass Labs Aleph 3 (30wpc/solid-state Class A), I couldn’t find myself ever requiring more power than this within the 13-foot-by-16-foot confines of room two.

This combination of beautiful sound, timeless visual style and high build quality wins the Sonus faber Venere 3.0 speakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  These are top performers in their price range.  Those wishing for a wood cabinet can step up to a walnut wood finish for $3,998 per pair.

The Sonus Faber Venere 3.0

MSRP:  $3,498/pair  (gloss white or black)

$3,998/pair (walnut wood) (Factory) (U.S. distributor)


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 with Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Penaudio Sinfonietta Loudspeakers

Growing up with a Finnish grandma, the word “sisu” became part of my vocabulary at an early age. According to her, there isn’t a perfect translation into English since the word represents a guiding philosophy — a mindset — rather than one specific thing. Loosely translated, the term embodies qualities of perseverance, determination and resilience.

The Finnish speaker manufacturer Penaudio embraces sisu in their constant efforts to evolve great products into even better ones. New for 2013, Penaudio’s Sinfonietta loudspeaker makes its debut. As you might guess from its name, it’s a direct descendent of their flagship Sinfonia and looks like, well, the bottom half of one.

TONEAudio reviewed several Penaudio speakers over the years and are a perennial staff favorite, yet the Sinfonietta takes the lineage to the next level.

More than a pretty face

Listening to the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ Sinatra at the Sands on vinyl it’s hard not to chuckle at Sinatra’s banter between songs. As he jokingly describes his own childhood appearance to the audience, “I was born a very skinny kid…So skinny my eyes were single file. Between those two and my belly button my old man thought I was a clarinet.”

That album rendered through the Sinfoniettas brought an unexpected moment of irony as I looked at the speakers’ narrow, seven inch front baffle. Below the fluid cooled dome tweeter are two vertically stacked, five inch drivers separated by a few inches. As the Sinfonietta’s single-file “eyes” centered by copper-colored pupils stare back at the listener, the small port on the front is vaguely reminiscent of the navel Sinatra joked about.

A slender “clarinet”, however, the Sinfonietta is not. Looking head-on the speakers disguise the muscle behind their narrow face with a 21-inch cabinet depth. Each speaker sports a 10 inch, paper-coned, side-firing woofer on one side near the bottom. With a depth three times its width each Sinfonietta has a wide base which creates additional stability and facilitates insertion of spikes.

Available in several equally attractive wood finishes, our sample pair showcase the Rowan wood option. Regardless of the finish Penaudio creates a unique look to their speakers as if they were made entirely of many parallel, thin wood sheets. The subtle gradients of the natural wood color provide a beautiful, organic quality to the speaker which is understated, but hard not to admire. The fit and finish on this speaker is well executed and with so many veneer options the Sinfonietta complements a room’s décor rather than dominating it. Beautiful sound may be the primary goal of any speaker design, but equally beautiful looks never hurt!

Dancing with Sinfoniettas

My usual speakers moved aside to accommodate my temporary Rowan wood-veneered roommates, and to provide a starting point for optimal Sinfonietta placement in my 17’D x 20’W x 10.5’H listening area.  After a full hour of scooting the 110-pound Sinfoniettas around the room in an effort to eek every last drop of sonic benefit from them, it’s clear they are not simple to place. I’m also fairly certain the neighbors below my condo will have concern about my mental state given all my apparent pacing back and forth between the speakers and my listening position.

Subtle movements of these speakers prove meaningful sonically and so the investment of time for proper placement is critical for getting the most musical enjoyment from your audio investment. For example, at some locations the bass overpowers my room, but small adjustments of speaker placement bring it back into check.

Ultimately the Sinfoniettas sweet spot is 3.5 feet from the ASC Tube Trapped back wall and about 8 feet apart. This combination offers the reward of an exceptionally wide soundstage – one which extends well beyond the speakers themselves – as well as great bass extension and depth.

Trying many different angles of toe-in requires experimentation too. Starting with the speakers toed at a fairly aggressive angle, crossing in front of the listening position, moving them outward a few degrees at a time helps identify the optimal placement angle. In my case the Sinfoniettas offer the greatest combination of resolution and depth of soundstage with small amount of toe in and their theoretical target well behind my listening seat.

What’s Shakin’?

Penaudio suggests minimum power for the Sinfoniettas to be 50 watts into 8 ohms. Fed 250 watts though, you might be advised to add a seatbelt to your listening chair. The powerful voice of these speakers emerges as a single, cohesive experience despite the many drivers and crossover points which comprise the Sinfonietta’s design.

Other than transparency what first stands out when listening is the Sinfonietta’s bass presence. During songs like Massive Attack’s “Angel” or Bill Laswell & Jah Wobble’s “Subcode” very low bass notes produce a resonant ratting of the glassware in my kitchen cabinets! The Sinfoneittas are easily capable of filling a much larger room than mine with sound. Based on the vibration in my sofa (and my kidneys) while listening, a smaller room might find itself overly-consumed in bass.

Smooth Operator

String instruments like those presented in “Sleep Will Come” by Bliss and the upright bass rendered in Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” are portrayed with deep and woody delicacy.

Sia’s emotive voice on “I Go To Sleep” proves captivating each time I hear it. However, the recording’s vocal crescendos can be a bit overpowering on some equipment where highs go beyond “extended” and into the realm of stridency. Mated with complementary electronics upstream, the Penaudios strike a well-voiced balance by providing non-fatiguing, natural-sounding highs without the often-accompanying side effects.

With the Sinfoniettas, the width of the virtual soundstage and the specific placement of the various instruments and vocals within it are revelatory. Air’s “Venus” and Ray Lamontagne’s “Be Here Now” provide stellar examples of the Sinfonietta’s sound-staging prowess as notes and voices wrap around the listening room.  Lyle Lovett’s “Church” is a challenging image portrayal, given multiple instruments and a choir behind the singer. The Penaudios handle the layering with finesse.

In larger group performances, like Pink Martini’s “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”, the physical speakers blend seamlessly into the virtual width and depth of the performance in such a way that, with eyes closed, it’s difficult to point out the speakers. Sound seems to emerge from all around the Sinfoniettas including the trumpet nestled in the rear stage behind them.

Other strong suits for the Sinfoniettas include detail and nuance. The gravel in Leonard Cohen’s voice on “Be For Real” is not just audible, but tangible. Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rendition of “Little Wing”, the guitar’s strength and delicacy both emerge with aplomb. The speakers also portray fast, realistic sounding percussive strikes followed by gentle decay, regardless of who’s on the drum kit.

Rock On!

One of the Sinfonietta’s greatest strengths reveals itself as ability to rock when compelled to do so. Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” pack ample, visceral punch. Electronica like “Juanita/Kiteless” from Underworld’s Everything, Everything Live proves equally invigorating. At medium-to-higher volumes, the Sinfonietta’s drivers demonstrate their ability to move air – sometimes quickly and forcefully enough to generate a noticeable pop in my ear, even from a distance of 11 feet. I’ve had this experience plenty of times before, but usually only in the presence of live drums.

In my listening space, the Sinfoniettas had the potential to produce the same physical impact with many types of music when played at a moderate volume. Listeners craving this level of tangibility, will find it in spades with the Penaudios. Those preferring a more relaxed, warm, musically-emotive presentation from their loudspeaker could find the Sinfoniettas a bit intense in some systems. As such, room size and upstream equipment synergy are important considerations for the full enjoyment of these speakers. There is no right or wrong answer here. Some people like bourbon, some prefer wine. Both can be excellent.


With the Sinfoniettas, Penaudio creates a speaker which commands, and even demands, active listening. Those seeking an energetic, detailed, and accurate portrayal of music will certainly embrace it through the Sinfoniettas. If my grandma were still alive I think she would agree they bring the sisu of their Finnish heritage to the listening room.

For those in the market for a speaker in the $20,000 range, the beautifully designed Penaudio Sinfoniettas prove worthy of your consideration.

The Penaudio Sinfonietta

MSRP:  $20,000/pair


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 with Clearaudio Virtuoso Cartridge
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Totem Acoustic Forest Loudspeakers

One of the most exciting aspects of high-end audio is finding an unassuming product that delivers big results. Totem Acoustics has a well-deserved reputation for producing small speakers with a big sound. If you’ve experienced a Totem demo at a hi-fi shows, you know the company demonstrates a habit of playing its entry-level speakers more often than the flagship models, as if to reinforce this message.

My personal fun with the Totem Forest speakers began with the first track I played, Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The review pair arrived courtesy of an East Coast Totem dealer rather than directly from the Montreal factory, so some of the break in was already complete. A solid week spent listening to classic rock, served up via the McIntosh MS750 music server, handily finished the break-in period.

Not that I minded looking at the speakers in the meantime. My Forests were finished in Ice, a high-gloss finish that has the slightest tinge of gray, and part of the family of four “design” high-gloss paint finishes that include Dusk, Sky, and Fire. (Black, Blue and Red). They are also available in white satin and three wood finishes: black ash, mahogany and cherry. Finish quality on the review pair was as smooth as anything coming from the Wilson factory, a highly impressive feat for a $3,500 pair of speakers.

Unique Approaches

Totem’s preference to call its speakers “columns” underlines the distinctive aspects that make up the Forest. The color gives the Forests the appearance of being larger than the 7.7 x 34.3 x 10.6″ (195 x 870 x 270 mm) measurements suggest. The rounded front edges are different than many of Totem’s other models. And instead of utilizing conventional spikes to mechanically couple the speakers to the floor, designer Vince Bruzzese took a novel approach. A trio of aluminum “Claws,” with balls arrayed in a triangle pattern, comprises a very solid base. Functionally, the balls act like spikes and decouple the speaker from the floor.

The Forest is a two-way design, featuring a 6.5-inch (165mm) woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) chambered aluminum dome tweeter, with a second-order crossover at 2.5 kHz. Drivers are neatly flush mounted, and according to the well-written manual, should be listened to without grilles. Totem is firm in its belief that grilles are optional. Unless you have small children or shed-prone pets, they will probably be unnecessary.

Peeking inside the cabinet reveals the same level of attention to the finer details. The interior is sprayed with borosilicate damping material instead of stuffing foam. Similarly, the crossover network is also robustly built with top-quality components and heavy wiring.

Straight-Ahead Setup

The Forests spent the most time in my 13 x 19 foot family room, which has an 8-foot ceiling. During the initial weeklong break-in period, the speakers were randomly placed but still threw a very convincing three-dimensional soundfield. These are not finicky speakers.

Listeners that spend a few hours on placement will reap tremendous rewards, as careful setup techniques yielded even better sound. In my room, the Forests ended up three feet from the rear and side walls, with my listening position about 8 feet back. Wide dispersion is a Totem hallmark, and the Forests were one of the few speakers I’ve experienced that did not require toe-in alignment. (Not that they sounded overly harsh with the toe-in array.) The wide dispersion also helps when listening casually from another room. Guests were always impressed at how good the Forests sounded, even when used as background entertainment.

Important note: The Forests’ imaging performance suffers if you have to place them too close to the rear or side walls. If possible, give the speakers at least 18–24 inches from any wall. Their rated power handling is 50–200 watts, with a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, making the Forests easy to drive with solid-state or vacuum tube electronics. I got great results with the AudioEngine N22 amplifier and vintage Marantz 2230B (22–30 watts per channel), so if you currently don’t have the budget for speakers and speakers, the Forests provide a great foundation on which you can build.

Taking Care of Business

Thanks to the surfeit of power supplied by the i-7 amplifier, it was easy to put the Forests to task. In most instances, your ears will give out before the speakers do. When listening to the Pixies’ “Allison” from Mobile Fidelity’s remaster of Bossanova at high volumes, the Forests still maintained the placement of the individual guitar tracks without experiencing any soundstage collapse.

If required, the Forests produce serious bass, but you will need to spend time fine-tuning them to your liking. A mass-loading compartment is located in the bottom of each speaker, and I found the perfect balance by placing about eight pounds of sand in each one. The upshot of utilizing the loading option instantly materialized on the music sources. Don Williams’ deep, gravely voice became tighter and better defined with the sand in place. And the thunderclaps in “Gaia,” from James Taylor’s Hourglass, carried a lot more weight than expected.

Instrumental pieces posed few challenges. John Berry’s sweeping, percussion- and horn-driven soundtrack to Dances With Wolves requires speakers with a wide soundstage in order to pull off the connection to the wide-open Dakota prairie. The French horns in “Journey to Fort Sedgewick” arrived with sublime tonality. And while the Forests admirably handled the percussion and detailed bass line in “Pawnee Attack,” the track illustrated the speakers’ understandable limitations. A small speaker can only move so much air, and the cut forced me to scale back the volume.

Dialing down the volume and switching the program material to Wilco’s 2009 self-titled album, I found the harmonies on “You and I” taking on a magical character. Whether you prefer Johnny or Rosanne Cash, listeners that favor male or female vocalists will enjoy the midrange body the Forests offer.

While the Forests proved an excellent match with vacuum-tube electronics, just like the Mites and Rainmakers that I have used extensively, they were a much better match with my modded PS Audio Trio C100 integrated amplifier than the aforementioned two examples proved to be. Your amplification choice shouldn’t be a limiting factor.

Final Call

Equally pleasant at low and high volume levels, Totem Acoustic Forests offer a highly musical experience for a modest price. They play well with the three major amplification types: solid-state, vacuum tubes, and Class D.  Factor in the ease of setup and a gorgeous pair of cabinets that come in a wide range of finishes, and you end up with a perfect recipe for a fatigue-free speaker that’s enjoyable to look at as it is to hear.

Additional Listening:

With so much attention placed on the stratosphere of hi-fi components, it’s always thrilling to hear something as engaging as the Forests at a price that most audiophiles can afford. Per Totem’s instruction, I used no toe-in on the speakers and put them about six feet apart (tweeter center to tweeter center) in my main listening room, which measures 24 feet wide and 16 feet deep. Placing them about four feet from the rear walls minimized sidewall interference. The Forests had a perfect balance of midrange clarity and sacrificed nothing in the bass department.

Even though these speakers are slightly on the lower side of the sensitivity scale, at 87db, the 45-watt-per-channel Conrad Johnson MV-50 C1 and 25-watt-per-channel Pass Labs M2 had a much easier time driving the Forests than they did my Magnepan 1.6 or Vandersteen 2CE speakers, which have similar sensitivity specifications. Since 25-40 watts will only get you so far, a quick swap for the new Simaudio Moon i700, with 175 watts per channel, offered me the ability to play my favorite metal and large-scale classical tracks without strain—at least until things got very loud.

The key term with these speakers? Balance. The Forests’ top-to-bottom coherence caught me off guard in the initial listening sessions. I wasn’t missing my panels, yet the Forests moved a serious amount of air when I wanted to get wacky with the volume control. By comparison, the Magnepans can be very beguiling when listening to solo vocals, but don’t rock with authority. The Forests ably captured vocal nuances and spatial cues, but also had the speed and weight necessary to thoroughly enjoy records like Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone.

Indeed, the Forests’ strong suit relates to how they offer a healthy dose of resolution without crossing over to the dark side of harshness. However, the speakers will reveal shortcomings in your gear if it is not up to par. Connect the Forests to a budget solid-state integrated and you will probably be disappointed. But don’t point your finger at the Forests. Spend a few extra bucks on some worthy components (I suggest a nice tube amp), some decent cable, and I suspect you will share my amazement in hearing that $3,500 speakers can sound this good. TONE is proud to award Totem one of our first Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Totem Forest

$3,495 per pair


Analog Source Rega RP1 w/Ortofon Super OM40    Simaudio 5.3
Digital Source McIntosh MS300 Music Server    Simaudio D300 DAC
Amplifiers Simaudio Moon i7    Vista Audio i34
Misc Shuynyata Venom 3 power cords

Magnepan MMG Loudspeakers

While we shy away from audiophile clichés, the Magnepan MMGs are truly one of the best values in hi-fi. These days, $600 dollars will buy you a pair of speakers that are more than likely built in China and resemble toys that belong in a Happy Meal rather than your living room. Not so the MMGs.

In the past, Magnepan’s entry-level speaker was only available direct from the factory, keeping costs to the bone and dealer markup out of the picture, but now they will be on your dealers showroom floor. Equally generous, Magnepan allows for a very liberal trade-in during the first year (full purchase price in most cases) should you move up the ladder to one of its larger speakers. Product manager Wendell Diller points out, “We actually don’t get many pairs back. They usually end up in a second system or passed on to a family member.”

What the MMGs offer—quite possibly better than any product (save the new Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier) we’ve reviewed with a budget price tag—is a serious helping of genuine high-end sound. Properly installed, and matched to room and amplifier with care, the MMGs give you the best swig of champagne on a beer budget that you’re likely to encounter in high-end audio.

Setup and Amplifier Matching

I initially used the MMGs in my small living room (11 x 17 feet, 8 foot ceiling) with excellent results. Their light weight and small size makes them easy to experiment with different listening positions. At only 1.25 inches thick, the 14.5 x 48-inch panels weigh about 15 pounds each, so you can move them back up against the walls when not doing critical listening and bring them back out to proper position for serious sessions. Yes, imaging will suffers somewhat, but even against the walls, the MMGs can still be used for background music. They are available in off-white, grey, or black with natural, black, or oak trim. Back in black is the way I’d go.

Once the MMGs had about 200 hours of play, I broke up listening sessions into three distinct categories. The first utilized speakers with budget receivers that can be purchased used for under $100. The Pioneer SX-626, Marantz 2235, and a few other vintage 70s receivers I had on hand would not drive these speakers to any kind of realistic volume level without issue. At best, I kept going to Radio Shack for fuses; in one instance, I looked for my fire extinguisher. The Nakamichi TA-2A, featuring an amplifier section designed by Nelson Pass, proved the exception.

The next group featured the recently reviewed Croft Micro 35 preamplifier and a vintage Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier. The latter is a solid-state design, again with Nelson Pass’ STASIS topology, and can be procured for about $700 on the used market.  A number of other great power amplifiers that can be had for under $1,000 will also mate well with the MMGs, which respond as well to quality as quantity of watts. While only 50 watts per channel, the robustly constructed Rega Brio-R integrated did a splendid job driving these speakers. I did not have such luck with any of my lower-powered tube amps. This has always been my experience with Magnepans. Tubes yes; low power, no.

Finally, to probe what the MMGs were capable of delivering, I tried the Simaudio 600i and 750D CD player/DAC. The combination is 20 times the cost of the MMGs yet truly showed what the little speakers could do given superior source components. If you have electronics at this level and always wanted to sample the Magnepan sound, the MMGs will make for a good show; they certainly have enough resolution.

In my smaller room, the speakers ended up about six feet apart with very slight toe-in, and located about three feet from the rear wall for the best sound. If you are working with a room this size and can accommodate them, add a pair of 2 x 4 foot GIK 242 panels about 2 feet in front of the speakers. They absorb the first reflection from the sidewall and help expand the left-to-right stereo image beyond the speaker boundaries.

Room gain was my friend, offering slightly more bass in the smaller room. Still, I preferred the MMGs in my main listening room (16 x 24 feet) on the long wall. This kept the speakers well away from sidewall boundaries. The small amount of lower bass I lost in transition was well worth the expanded stereo image.

Prepare to Settle In

Foghat’s “Take It or Leave It,” from Mobile Fidelity’s edition of Fool for the City, painted a wide aural canvas. The rock classic spread out well beyond the speaker boundaries and revealed solid echo traits. Because they have enough mid-bass energy, the MMGs do a surprisingly good job with this type of music—provided there is enough power and you keep the volume reasonable. Another great example of the wide-stereo effect came courtesy of Chicago’s “Prelude to Aire” from Chicago VIII. Most percussive elements were again floating well beyond the speaker boundaries and possessed substantial depth. I also highly recommend Explosions in the Sky’s recent Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Its ethereal soundscapes are full of minute details and reverb-drenched guitars that will bounce all over your listening room.

The MMGs really shine on music that has a slightly limited dynamic scale. Queue up your favorite minimally accompanied vocalist and hear the MMGs strut their stuff.  The Bad Plus’ “Nirvana” (from For All I Care) had an ideal balance of airy vocals and instrumental richness, with a slight touch of compression—a good thing in this case since it didn’t push the speakers beyond their capabilities. “Long Distance Runaround” from said album proved equally enjoyable, with great plucky acoustic bass riffs that played to the major strength of all Magnepan speakers: the ability to resolve mid-bass texture.   Vocalist Wendy Lewis’ voice hung between the speakers as the piano remained off to the right, with excellent decay. By not asking the MMGs to go terribly deep or play incredibly loud, I fooled a number of non-audiophile listeners that thought we were auditioning more expensive speakers. Of course, music lovers locked into traditional audiophile female vocal fare will not believe their ears, either. The MMGs amaze in the manner in which they disappear.

Switching to Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down on Broadway quickly revealed the shortcomings of the MMGs. When the first big synth bass riff kicks in on the title track, it simply wasn’t there. Whether you are listening to Pink Floyd or Eminem, you aren’t going to get deep bass. But the bass that you do get is very high quality. And that’s what makes the MMGs the most musically involving speakers I’ve heard for the money. To wit: Their performance with the Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, on which they magnified many cool tidbits buried in the mix.

All types of panel speakers have been justifiably accused of providing a “one person” sweet spot. The MMGs are guilty as charged. However, the real limitation is that the sweet spot is more restricted in the vertical axis than in the horizontal. Much of this is due to the fact that the MMGs don’t have the sheer panel area of larger Magnepan models. I’ve experienced the same effect with smaller speakers from MartinLogan, so this is not endemic to Magnepan. But again, keeping the MMGs within their comfort zone provides stellar results.

Yes, your favorite box speaker may offer better off-axis performance, but it will not give you the gigantic soundstage and natural midrange offered by the MMG when you sit up straight in your listening chair. It’s a trade-off, but one I’d happily make for this level of resolution—and certainly, price. And the MMGs’ resolution impressed me the most. While it’s unlikely they would ever be used in this category, the speakers easily resolved differences between the $6,000 Simaudio i-7, $8,000 600i, $12,000 700i integrated amplifiers during last issue’s comparison test—an impressive feat for any speakers, much less a $600 pair.

An Auspicious Start to Any High-End Audio Journey

If you crave a high-quality music system on a tight budget, the anchor is no further away than Magnepan’s Web site. Played within their limits, the MMGs provide a rich musical experience that will hook you in your quest for better sound—just as the company’s products have done for many other audio enthusiasts.

With only minor limitations, the MMGs communicate musical fundamentals like nothing else in their price category. The only downside? They require careful attention during setup to sound their best, and their high resolution will reveal shortcomings in the rest of your system. However, on many levels, that’s what high-end sound is about. And the rewards far outweigh the minimal effort required to get the MMGs sounding their best. To put it another way: The MMGs deliver the goods better than any other speaker I’ve experienced at this price.

Magnepan MMGs

MSRP:  $599


Analog Source Rega P9    Denon DL-103R   Avid Pulsare phonostage
Digital Source Simaudio Moon 750D
Amplification Simaudio Moon 600i
Cable Audioquest Columbia

Klipsch Heresy III Loudspeaker

While the original design of the Magnepan MMG harkens back to 1969, Klipsch goes back even further, to 1946, when it took a unique path for high-performance speaker design: the loaded horn. Beginning with the legendary Klipschorn—inspired by large horn speakers used in theaters—Klipsch utilized horn-loaded compression drivers for the midrange and tweeters, along with a folded horn for the woofer.

Originally introduced in 1957 to be used as a third channel for the era’s three-channel recordings, the speaker was initially deemed “heresy” by critics that viewed it as a violation of designer Paul Klipsh’s fully horn-loaded design. Legend has it that such reactions led to the speaker’s name. Unlike the gigantic Klipschorn, the Heresy III uses a more traditional direct-radiating 12-inch woofer and a much more compact box. At only 24 inches tall, 15 inches wide, and 13 inches deep, the Heresy III packs a wallop. It’s intended to be placed close to the rear wall, as to not intrude on your listening space.

Note: When I began this review, the Heresy IIIs were $749 each, just falling within the cost parameters of our all-budget issue. But now that every speaker is custom produced to order in Cherry, Walnut, or Black Ash veneer (all requiring a 3-4 week waiting period), the price has risen to $799 each. So, yes, we are making a slight exception. But where else can you get a custom-produced, hand-built, US-made pair of speakers for such dough? By such criteria alone, the Heresy III qualifies as one of the best values in speakers today.

Rocking in Five Minutes

The Heresy IIIs are ready to roll the minute you unpack them. After investigating numerous placement options, I advise sticking with the factory’s suggestion of placing the speakers close to the rear wall (a foot or less is great). However, I felt that corner loading was a bit much, as it made for whumpy bass. The spec sheet claims a frequency response of +/-3db from 58Hz-20kHz, yet a cursory listen to test tones revealed solid bass output between 45 and 50Hz. Thanks to a 99db sensitivity rating, you can use the Heresys with any amplifier.

Just like I did with all of the other speakers reviewed in this budget issue, I started my listening with a stack of 70s receivers. The Heresy IIIs proved an amazing match with them all, offering much better sound than you would expect from such minimal investment. The best pairing came with a mint NAD 3020A that just received a full refurbishment at NAD. How apt: Many an audiophile started their journey with the 3020A. Its high-current design offered a level of resolution that the other receivers couldn’t match, and yet it can be obtained for under $200.

Audiophiles might not expect a pair of box speakers placed low and close to the wall to offer up any kind of substantial imaging, but the Heresy IIIs defy convention. The soundstage extended well beyond the speaker boundaries, while a generous helping of vertical dispersion added to the experience.


While the Heresy IIIs use a horn midrange and tweeter, they don’t have the “honk” that accompanies most horn-loaded speakers. The mids and high ends are smooth, with drivers blending in a seamless, coherent manner. They will make your favorite vintage solid-state receiver sound much better than you ever thought it could while your choice low-powered tube amplifier (current or vintage) will redefine budget audio fun.

In the end, my choices centered on the Woo Audio WA6 and the Conrad Johnson MV 50A1 recently rebuilt at the CJ factory. The SET amplifier yielded a slightly larger three-dimensional presentation, but the CJ had both more extension at the frequency extremes and a more palpable midrange. Both models drove the Heresy IIIs louder than I needed. Time spent with the Dynaco Stereo 70 and PAS 3 preamplifier also made for highly enjoyable encounters.

Dynamics Make the Difference

The Heresy IIIs offer up a very natural sound. Still, the one aspect that’s usually missing from a low-budget system is the ability to play loud and clean. As the polar opposites of the Magnepan MMGs—which possess a seamless midrange presentation but can’t really rock—the Heresy IIIs give up a little bit of coherence yet have the capacity to play heavy duty rock and roll at reasonable levels. I couldn’t even think about spinning SunnO))) at anything above a whisper on the Magnepans. And the small woofers in the otherwise excellent Paradigm Millenia Ones can’t move enough air to get the job done. But on the Heresy IIIs, I wasn’t three minutes into “Etna” and my neighbors were already throwing things over the fence. Next time, I better close the door.

Subsequent metal explorations left me with the same conclusion: These speakers can really rock without any of the compression that occurs with a less-efficient speaker that’s mated to a modest power amplifier. Playing 99db speakers with a 40-watt-per-channel tube amplifier (and its warm distortion characteristics) is like having 1000 watts per channel on tap for 89db speakers. Because the Heresy IIIs play so loud and cleanly, they actually pose a slight threat to your hearing. After an hour of Ozzy and Dio classics, I noticed a slight buzz in my ears. So proceed with caution if you buy a pair.

Just as a high-powered amplifier can make moderately efficient speakers light up, the same holds for high-efficiency speakers. They take the burden away from your amplifier and no matter what music you enjoy, deliver an ease that you just can’t get from a pair of mini monitors. Another side benefit? The Heresy IIIs can play at low volume levels and retain their resolution. Even if you aren’t a metalhead, you’ll be surprised at how lifelike acoustic and vocal records sound, even at soft volumes. Plus, the Heresy IIIs are as linear as they are dynamic. When listening to complex music, the speakers did not lose their poise; they transmitted fine details at every volume level.

A Solid Choice

The Klipsch Heresy IIIs constitute a consummate blend of vintage and modern sound in a package that’s easy to drive and effortless to integrate into your listening room. No matter where you are on your hi-fi journey, these speakers provide a constantly engaging and truly thrilling musical experience. And, considering they are built with care by one of hi-fi’s true pioneers, you can’t go wrong.

After living with the Heresy IIIs for several months and listening to a wide range of music, I found no blatant shortcomings—especially considering the price. Sure, I’d love to see them made out of solid wood like they were in the 50s, and some better binding posts would be nice. But these accoutrements would add to the cost and don’t affect the sound.

One of the secrets to any good loudspeaker at any price is its ability to convey natural reproduction of the critical mid frequencies. The Heresy IIIs handle this job better than most competitors, and by adding a huge dynamics at well under $2,000/pair, they’re an unqualified success. I know this much: I need a pair.

The Klipsch Heresy III

$1,598 per pair, any finish


Analog Source Rega P3-24 w/Rega Exact 2 cartridge
Digital Source Simaudio Moon 750D    Sooloos Music Server
Amplificatio Woo Audio WA6    Rega Brio R
Cable Audioquest Rocket and Columbia

Dali F5 Fazon Loudspeakers

High-end audio products are often subcategorized by a single factor. For instance, in the mid 70s, many speakers built in California had a “West Coast Sound” characterized by a forward treble and somewhat forceful bass. Meanwhile, speakers from the other side of the country were said to possess an “East Coast Sound” favoring midrange accuracy.

While it’s tough to pigeonhole modern speakers according to such parameters, speakers from Denmark seem to share a natural tonality and an ability to capture the essence of instrumental texture without calling attention to their presence. Dali excels at these aspects. Its new F5 Fazon loudspeaker takes prior achievements two steps further by combining timeless styling with great sound and a small footprint.

Available in gloss black, white, or red, the Dali F5 is gorgeous to behold and will look right at home in the most fashionable of homes. Best of all, at $4,495, the F5s are affordable works of art.

Details, Details

Beautiful woodwork is a Danish hallmark, and Dali has always offered great cabinets. Throwing a wrinkle into traditionalism, the curvy F5s are machined from a block of aluminum. The speaker features an absence of parallel surfaces in order to keep to a minimum any cabinet resonance.

The three-driver complement works in a 2 ½-way configuration, with the crossover points set at 800 and 3200Hz, respectively. Dali maintains that their incorporation of wood fibre mixed into the pulp cones utilized in the dual 5-inch woofers are significant contributors to the model’s natural sound; adding increased cone stiffness and a more randomized structure. It also helps with the inner damping of the cone, a claim that only a few minutes of listening confirms as true. I have a personal preference for soft-dome tweeters; I’m always willing to forgo a smidge of ultimate resolution in the service of timbre. And here, the F5 delivers with a 1-inch soft dome tweeter that, as Ice-T would’ve said before he became a “Law and Order” mainstay, keeps it real.

A pair of banana jacks flush-mounted in the silver bases and a tiny compartment that allows you to completely conceal your speaker cables round out the form-and-function factor. Acoustically transparent speaker grilles magnetically attach; your décor and offspring will decide whether they should be left on or off.

Grilles aside, you should have the F5s playing music in a few minutes. Thanks to fairly wide dispersion, they will not suffer terribly if not aligned just right. If you are in the position to fuss over speaker placement, the F5s yield a bit more bass extension if you can keep them about 18 inches from the rear wall. Since the tweeters rise only 29 inches from the floor, lower seating grants the best imaging performance.

Finally, don’t let the 87db sensitivity frighten you: These speakers are incredibly easy to drive and work equally well with tube, transistor, or Class D amplification. Anything from 25 watts per channel and above should get the job done.

The F5’s Evaporative Nature

The F5’s bass response is solid but not overbearing. At first blush, one might think the speakers slightly thin because the upper-mid bass response isn’t goosed to provide a false sense of thickness. However, when called upon to move air, the pair of 5-inch woofers is mightier than the spec sheet suggests. Sampling Peter Gabriel music, old and new—via Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and his more recent Scratch my Back, respectivelythe speakers dispense ample impact. Via the F5s, there’s more than enough oomph on “Back in NYC” to sound convincing and hold at bay any thoughts of a subwoofer. Moreover, textures present in the acoustic bass line of “Heroes” on Gabriel’s latest record affirms that’s what is sonically conveyed is anything but one-note bass.

The F5s often remind me of my favorite mini monitors’ midrange clarity. Yet the former take up a smaller footprint than my Harbeth P3ESRs on Sound Anchors stands. Tracking through Pat Metheny’s new What’s It All About? demonstrates how well these speakers keep pace with the guitar icon’s fretwork and harmonics without becoming lifeless and flat.

Of course, enthralling midrange and ample bass don’t alone make a fantastic speaker. Thanks to the small woofers, the F5s offer the degree of coherence required to effortlessly disappear in a room. The resolution will convince you that something very special is happening—an experience that allows you to ease back in the chair and focus on the musical event. Vide, “I’m a King Bee” from Grateful Dead’s Fillmore East: April 1971. The record boasts a wide range of texture and complexity that challenges the best speakers. Answering the bell, the F5s create a wide soundstage that mimics the Fillmore’s hall ambience.

Fatigue-free Finesse

Many speakers make impressive showings during a 10-minute demo. You know the drill: A salesperson plays some plucky guitar bits, runs through some female vocals, and even spruces it up with a touch of classical music or piano fare. It’s often all presented at high decibel levels. Still, you walk away impressed, perhaps so smitten that you reach for your wallet. But somehow, after a few extended listening sessions, those new speakers lose their luster and you’re right back to where you started.

A natural feel, which might initially make the F5s slightly less exciting, is what will keep you enthralled with them down the road. Even after full-day sessions with the F5s, they never become tiring. As much as a crammed Sooloos music server gnaws at my inner DJ and tempts me to spin singles, I find myself listening to many records all the way through with the F5s—truly the mark of a great speaker. I just want to stay in the groove, whether it’s with yet another version of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

No, the F5s do not present the finite level of “pinpoint imaging” that some more decidedly audiophile speakers possess. However, they throw a full-bodied and three-dimensional soundfield. The wood blocks and triangle in Serge Gainsbourg’s “Douze Belles Dans la Peau” from Chant a la Une illustrate this strength. The triangle sporadically pops in all around the room, while the wood blocks are distinctly left of center and somewhat diffused, sounding just like a pair of wood blocks when I strike them in my listening room.

Dynamics are equally impressive. Although small woofers can only move a finite amount of air, these speakers’ woofers give a gold-ribbon performance when faced with heavier fare. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Who present no problem. But, if your tastes tend towards the heaviest metal, I suggest adding one of Dali’s subwoofers.  AC/DC’s “Back in Black” comes across just fine, but Danzig’s “Am I Demon” requires a stronger push over the cliff. Just as important as dynamics, the F5s retain their open character at low volume levels—not always an easy trick and, perhaps, even more telling of a given speaker’s linearity.

Well? Hello, Dali.

Dali F5 Loudspeakers

$4,495/pair (factory) (US importer)


Digital Source Sooloos Control 15     dCS Paganini stack
Analog Source Avid Diva SPII/SME 3009/Ortofon SPU
Phono Preamplifier ARC PH6
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson MV-50C1     Channel Islands D500 Mk.II    McIntosh MC 452
Cable Cardas Clear

Estelon XC Loudspeakers

It’s been a year and a half since we penned the world’s first review of the Estelon XA speakers, the premier product from Alfred and Partners. Since then, the lineup has expanded to five products, including models below and above the XA, not the least of which is the XC. The latter utilizes Accuton ceramic drivers. They’re combined with designer Alfred Vassilkov’s proprietary crossover designs and wrapped into a sexy enclosure shape, also unique to Estelon, which involves a marble-based composite material.

The XC’s alluring design stops enclosure vibration cold. Between the distinctive composite material’s high density and undulating shape, which eliminates standing waves and resonance, the XCs provide a striking clarity. You merely hear what the drivers are capable of producing—and the sound is indeed very, very good.

The XC is designed for smaller rooms than its three larger siblings, yet the tonal quality is essentially the same. How? The XC employs the same 1.2-inch tweeter as the XA and X Centro, and the XC’s smaller stand-mounted enclosure uses a pair of the 7-inch drivers similar to the ones in the larger speakers.

Having just spent some quality time with the XAs at the Munich High End Show, my memory of the company’s house sound is extremely fresh. These speakers boast incredibly low distortion; they have clarity reminiscent of a pair of full-range electrostatic speakers. Vide, the detail present on “The Seeker” from the Crash Test Dummies’ And God Shuffled His Feet simply staggers. A huge soundstage extends well beyond the speakers, and the multiple overdubs are easily laid bare.

Small Speakers, Big Sound

The tonal purity and low-level detail rendered by the XCs allow them to shine on any densely packed recording—electronic or acoustic. Brian Eno-like in nature, Dave Stewart’s Greetings From the Gutter features endless layers of miniscule electronic sounds that hover out in front of the speakers and bounce off the walls in all directions. When the music is experienced through the XCs, a full-range electrostatic speaker comes to mind, confirming the precision of the XC’s crossover network, even in the critical vocal range.

Throwing a piano-and-violin torture test at the XCs doesn’t cause them to blush. “Poco Adagio,” from the Jung Trio’s Dvorak Trio In F-Minor, Op.65, features both instruments together. Despite the record’s lack of bass, the XCs prove the equal of a massive full-range system, reproducing the record’s width and height all the while keeping the three players perfectly separated in the recording space. Get this wrong and the violins become screechy. The XCs shine, especially near the end of the track, where passages become decidedly more fortissimo.

Using the XCs in medium- and small-sized rooms yields great results. Remember, all four Estelon models are designed to produce an almost identical sound in terms of quality, tone, and timbre. It’s just that the smaller XC is optimized for rooms of lesser volume, and in which the large floorstanding model doesn’t make sense.

The room gain from my small (11 x 17 foot) living room convinced me there’s more than enough low-frequency extension to comfortably play any kind of music. Even bass-heavy tracks, like those from Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, enjoy enough weight to forgo the thought of a subwoofer. Unless you are trying to spin hip-hop discs at club level, the XC will impress. And while formidable in my dedicated listening room (16 x 25 feet), the XC lacks the last bit of the XA’s dynamic punch, staying true to Estelon’s design brief.

Perfect Pace

The speakers’ ability to keep musical pace intact is excellent. Of course, the freedom from coloration (both driver and box coloration) makes vocal recordings a thrill—whether it’s the gravely warble of Elvis Costello or irreproachable tone of Ella Fitzgerald.  The five-part harmonies on the Fairfield Four’s Standing In The Safety Zone epitomizes the XC’s capabilities at handling wide dynamic swings just as all five vocalists remain distinct from one another.

Low distortion is another of the model’s outstanding virtues. Regardless of the music, these speakers return breathtaking clarity. While they have no problems rocking out, acoustic-music aficionados will be astonished at their tonal purity. Even the most densely packed test tracks are charming, suggesting that many of our recordings may not be as limited as we often suspect. We just need a bit more resolution to delineate the information contained within.

While the XC cannot play as loudly as the XA in a large room, the additional 2db of sensitivity (89db for the XA versus 91db for the XC) makes for a better range of amplification choices. The XA performs admirably with 45 watts per channel of vacuum-tube power, yet more power is always better. In contrast, the XC is well matched with amplifiers in the 50-75 watt range. It’s even a charming partner, albeit at slightly lower levels, with Unison Research’s 25-watts-per-channel S6 amplifier.

Looking for extremely high quality in a moderately sized space? The XC needs to be on your short list. You can start with modest amplification, and upgrade to the world’s finest gear without needing to trade-in the XC on anything else.


Highly resolving without being discordant, the XCs put you right at the front of the presentation. My listening position in the main room is more intimate than with the XAs. The XCs work well about seven feet apart (tweeter center to tweeter center), and my listening position is eight feet back. They produce an awesome soundstage in all three dimensions. It almost feels as if my couch is inside a gigantic pair of headphones!

Unless you need to reproduce the last bit of sub-40Hz bass at earthquake levels, the XC handles every kind of fare with equal aplomb—from electronica with SBTRKT and Fuel Box or heavy rock, ala Black Sabbath. The recently remastered CD of Paranoid is a treat when cranking the XCs to their limits on “Fairies Wear Boots.” There’s a wall of screaming guitars, but no exhaustion from the speakers. And the big beats in Fuel Box’s “One Day” do not detract from the vocal stylings or delicate percussion tracks laid over synthesizers.

Just like that of the XA, the XC’s slightly forward tonal balance—combined with its ability to resolve detail—needs to be considered when choosing the proper amplifier.  These speakers will show off what your upward components can and cannot do. Naturally, your personal taste will determine amplification selection, as will any speaker capable of such high performance. If possible, audition the XCs with your amplifier.

Setup Simplicity

The XCs are carefully packed in foam-lined flight cases, with integral stands. Ask a friend to help you unpack each of the 110-pound (49kg) speakers and move them to their initial spot in your listening room. From there, fine-tuning should be a cakewalk. Akin to an electrostatic speaker, careful attention to rake angle—easily adjustable with the spikes in the stands—and distance from the rear wall afford the best balance of low-frequency energy and image size.

Our test speakers arrived after logging plenty of hours, so they were immediately ready to go. My experience with the Accuton drivers in other speakers, as well as the XA, dictates that Estelon models need at least a few hundred hours to sound their best, especially in the low-frequency range. Their extremely low distortion triggers one other caveat: The ceramic drivers exhibit barely any cone breakup, so there’s a small margin between driving them to distortion and driving them to damage. Fortunately, they play at high levels quite comfortably, so only the most overzealous users need worry.

Such small cautions aside, the Estelon XC provides fantastic performance in a compact shape. Suitable for most rooms, these speakers are highly revealing and make for an excellent cornerstone for a no-compromise system. Enthusiastically recommended.

Estelon XC Loudspeakers

MSRP: $22,900/pair (stands included)


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/ Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011
Power Amplifier ARC REF 150    Burmester 911 Mk. 3    Pass XA200.5
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Maxim & Dmitri
Accessories SRA Scuttle rack    Audio Desk Systeme Record Cleaner    Furutech DeMag and DeStat

ACI Emerald XL loudspeakers

Back in 2006 we gave the $1700 ACI Sapphire XL loudspeakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards, and we were curious to see if the $800 Emeralds would do the family proud. This small stand-mounted two-way excelled in smaller rooms and found its calling as a nearfield monitor or part of a desktop system. When supplied with quality amplification, the Emeralds defied expectations.