Review By A. Colin Flood
Loudspeakers are the only bargain in audio. They provide the most bang for the buck. Loudspeakers are the spokesmen, the voice of the audio chain. For music lovers, seeking to recreate the live rock concert, orchestra hall or studio performances in the intimacy of their own abodes, selecting the loudspeakers is the first step in the journey towards perfection.
Proper positioning, and then upgrading, the speakers is usually the next step towards improving any basic home music and movie reproduction system. Find speakers with satisfying sound and you move on from there to improve the audio chain.
For tweaking audiophiles, who can't resist fiddling under the hood, in order to get that last smidgen of realism, loudspeakers are also the last step towards achieving an audio/visual system of miraculous capabilities. When the front-end of the chain reaches a "plateau of ‘provement," the back-end receives attention again. On and on then, the viscous cycle repeats itself...
My first audio speakers were a large two-way cone system; 12-inch woofers with a tweeter. They were in unfinished pine boxes, with edges as awkward as a teenager's elbows. They were first attempts by neighbor Ralph Karsten, who went onto Atma-sphere repute, creating some incredible sounding and well-built tube amplifiers including their M-60 Mk.II.2 OTL monoblock.
Karsten also provided me with a gold-faced, tube Fisher receiver with a Miracord turntable to power my clumsy speakers. They cost $40 each. My parents thought I got "took," but the system sounded wonderful to my inexperienced ears, exuding music, creating joy. At Karsten's, I heard my last speakers, the ones I cling to now, after a dozen years, the mighty classics, Klipsch corner horns (see my writer's bio).
I auditioned over a dozen loudspeakers for Enjoy the Music.com, using the same room, mostly the same components, and the same music and movie samples. I also heard several dozen wonderful systems in audio boutiques, Klipsch horn gatherings and other audiophiles' homes.
Listening to a variety of loudspeakers in the same place trains the ear to hear subtle differences. A learned ear is important for a well-informed subjective conclusion. As our article on the superb Stradivarius violin last year thoughtfully demonstrates, even the best, most reliable scientific evidence, falls short of completely accurate conclusions. Therefore, evaluating loudspeakers, even under the best circumstances, still relies on subjective opinions. Graphs and charts aside, we judge audio systems and speakers with our ears. As well, we should.
Yet an elegantly simple system of tubes and single drivers is not where tweaking audiophiles live, is it? They live in the extremes. They want the best imaging, soundstage, dynamics, treble and bass possible. Some want it at any price. Myself? I want the most I can get for the least I can pay. Call me frugal. I call it financially efficient.
The least expensive speakers I reviewed are one of the best values. Six years ago, the charming Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti bookshelf loudspeakers (pictured right) gave overall very good performance for the $275 a pair. Like the little $120 Trends chip amplifier, the M3Tis have more in common with far more expensive competition than they have glaring faults. They are both small, low-priced, yet well-constructed; providing fairly good sound for a remarkably low price.
The most expensive loudspeakers I reviewed were the $4K Vince Christian E6c satellites and sub system. The E6c towers are tall and thin - with a pair of 5-inch mid-range drivers, two in each speaker - performing most of the work. Although they were laid-back sonically, I remember them fondly for their excellent soundstage. The sound wrapped around me. They are the first loudspeakers that come to mind for orchestral music.
Only one speaker system leaps to the fore when I think of treble. The six silver cones of the Axiom Audio M80Ti towers (pictured right) provide not only some of the best mid-bass I've heard for the price, but also sharp treble. The M80Ti have two 6.5" bass, two 5.25" mid-range and two 1" dome drivers in a straight line down the center of the cabinet. I found their treble response "is very smooth, an excellent balance of detail and sweetness, with a pretty and detailed presentation throughout the mid-range. A noticeable sizzle in the mid-treble range adds crispness to cymbals, without sounding like the sharpest notes you have ever heard. Nothing is missing there either. Brass instruments do have a bit of bite to them, just not the ‘blat' or ‘blare' that metal horns do so well. Rated to 22 kHz, the M80Ti high end is sweet and amazingly good."
Bass lover though I am, I have to confess that the mid-range is more important. Who cares if a system has superb bass or treble if the mid-range is un-listenable? The best loudspeakers therefore, have excellent mid-range, both for movies and music.
The best mid-range loudspeakers auditioned had to be the Omega TS1s. As efficient, single driver loudspeakers ($699/pair), the TS1s did not have the deepest bass or the sharpest treble. The critical frequency range for accurate music reproduction is from 300 Hz to 6 kHz. The TS1s measured relatively wide and flat in my abode, from 125 Hz to 5 kHz.
Their sound "is satisfyingly open and airy, without muddiness. The highs neither pull apart, nor stand-alone, from the musical mix. Their flat mid-range response opens up a charming, easy-to-listen-to, harmonic palette. Theirs is not a cold, sterile, or monochromatic musical world. Because of their even balance throughout the mid-range, coupled with the quickness of their super-efficiency, the TS1s midrange is involving, natural and musical."
Because of their modest size, solid construction, reasonable price, unique pearlescent finish, excellent driver, seamless transitions, expression of musical details, dynamic quickness, easy-to-drive nature and reasonable price, I awarded the TS1s my very own "Wife Acceptance Factor" award.
When people say they love gentle or folk music, I think of TS1s first. I think of the wafer-thin cones of Focal Chorus models second. Reproducing the delicacies of the flute realistically is a difficult task for any loudspeaker. Both of these loudspeakers are exceptional at it.
Position either speaker properly on a good set of stands. Match them with a sweet sounding, integrated tube amplifier. The amplifier can be a restored vintage model or new ASL AQ1003 DT integrated amplifier (pictured right) or Cayian A-50T model. Either route is a great value; providing a truck-full of audiophile qualities for modest expenditure.
Two loudspeakers come to mind when I think of bass. The first is the aforementioned Axiom towers, possibly because their 200 Hz upper bass bump gives a pleasant push to music. Like many audiophile speakers, the M80s are impedance challenged (4-ohm rating). They really require a powerful amplifier, such as the Pass Labs X250, to push those dual-drivers around. Yet when they get massive power, they rock with the best of them.
The second loudspeaker that I remember fondly for bass is the deep-digging Newtronics Skates. Using a folded approach, like my big ole horns, to wrap the bass to its lowest frequencies, the Skates reach down to 31Hz. They "are the only loudspeakers I've measured so far to actually reach the inaudible 20 kHz at normal listening levels. The Skates are not punchy low, not too boomy either, but they always added more depth and resonance to music and movies than any other cone speaker I have auditioned so far. They are the first speakers smaller than the mammoth Klipsch corner horns that may not need a sub-woofer for music... well, maybe not right away, anyway."
Search For Perfection
For that kind of scratch, superb systems correct the faults of merely mortal systems. As they do, the wonderful systems of the G-ds sound more alike than they do differently; they sound more like the real thing. These systems provide scoop-loads of four Blue Note qualities in soundstage, imaging, bass, treble, mid-range, details, realism, and of course, enjoyment.
If I had too much money, any one of these fantastic systems would be excellent. As a horn lover, the big red Trios look and sound the most like music to me.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it is their bass and more, much more, that I remember most fondly about Classic Audio's Cinema Ensemble loudspeakers. I truly enjoyed listening to music on them. For $2250 a pair, the Ensembles had two dark-gray, Audax 6.5" woofers with bullet-nose phasing plugs on either side of a wide, dark JBL mid-high horn.
The unique mid-range woofers bracket the horn in a D'Appolito boy-girl-boy configuration, with the mouth in the middle. The woofer-phasing plug does not move; the glossy gray cones move around it.
The result is a snappy bass that matches the natural dynamics of the horn. This combination of dual-bass drivers with a horn provided the most involving and enjoyable sound.
The Ensembles provided the creamy edge in imaging, soundstage, dynamics, treble and bass that tweaking audiophiles love, along with very good mid-range. With either my vintage solid-state receiver or my 2A3 tube Paramours, "the Cinema Ensembles provide a clean, low-powered, crisp and generous slice of the audio nirvana pie. They make music better than ice cream."
Like the Omega TS1s above, forgoing the need for powerful and expensive amplifiers makes better quality speakers like the TS1s and the Ensembles practical choices for many budgets.
Do they come close to the three ultimate dream systems? As much as I would like to, I cannot really say, for the differences of front-end equipment, music and rooms were too different for honest comparison. I can say the Ensembles weren't so much accurate as they were enjoyable. Like tube amplifiers, the place to test them is not on the bench, but in the living room.
I can say I still love my big ole horns for the same reasons I cherish the memory of the Cinema Ensembles: I enjoy the music with them! I am still in the viscous cycle of improving my front end and big ole horns, but if I finally tire of the Khorn's cumbersome size and room requirements, the Ensembles are the speakers I think of first to build a superior audio/video system around.