I first heard of Fritz Speakers at
the CAS 2011 (California Audio Show) in
July. The Carbon 7s were playing in one of the best sounding rooms of the show,
and I struck up a conversation with Fritz himself at an after-show get together
he and his showroom-mates were hosting. We hit it off immediately, which will
come as no surprise to anyone who's met him...chatty and amiable, Fritz gives
the impression that he could hit it off with just about anybody. He's also got a
ton of great stories about the audio industry, the music industry, and about
building speakers...something he has been doing for a long time.
Fritz Heiler is a modern American artisan. He
started out as a cabinet maker, but a day spent at a local audio dealer looking
at speakers inspired him to make his own. Then he started making them for
friends. Then friends of friends. Now, almost 40 years later, he is still at it,
and he's still a one-man operation, designing and building everything he sells.
Fritz stars out the design process with cabinet
size and crossover values determined by loudspeaker modeling software. He then
meticulously tweaks the crossover -- one part at a time, one value at a time --
by hand and ear alone. The subject of this review, the Carbon 7s, feature a
series crossover which, as I understand it, allows for a very low parts count
that maintains the sonic purity you might find in a first-order crossover, but
provides a much steeper curve that enables each driver to "focus" on what it
does best. A series crossover is not a magic bullet...it still requires careful
matching with the drivers, and the ScanSpeak 8545K mid-woofer and ScanSpeak 9500
tweeter seem perfectly suited.
Of course, none of that would matter if it didn't
prove itself in the listening, but prove itself it does: the Carbon 7s are a
true music lover's speaker. They do not reach out and grab you in an
in-your-face audiophile way, they more seduce your with an irresistibly
inviting, smooth presentation. More like a warm campfire than a firework show,
but did you ever notice how you can't look away from campfire? That's kind of
how it is when the Carbon 7s are playing. "Just one more track..." I kept
telling myself, long into the night.
While the Carbon 7s are definitely for those who want to enjoy, rather than analyze, their recordings, they don't have the overly sweet/syrupy tonality often associated with "musical" speakers. Highs are crisp, clear, and accurate: recordings with excessive sibilance, like the first few tracks on Emmylou Harris' Spyboy, still sound sibilant, although not as annoyingly so as they would be on a pair of ultra-linear monitors. Bright recordings, like Van Halen I, still sound bright, but also come across with all of the energy and impact that comes with an extended top end.
Bass on the Carbon 7s is extraordinary: they play
very low for a speaker their size...test tones in my living room were audible
below 30Hz. Of course, these are still stand-mounted speakers...they don't move
a ton of air, and won't rattle your floorboards. Still, I kept them about four
feet from the front wall, and never felt the need to turn my subwoofer on the
entire time they were in my system.
Of course, music lives primarily in the midrange,
and the midrange is not neglected in the Carbon 7s. I had an easy time finding
music that sounded fabulous on them. Smaller groups are the thing (reproducing
full-scale symphony orchestras is not a strength of any stand-mounted monitor),
but even largish groups like the David Murray Octet, on their classic Black
Saint album Home, sounded excellent, swinging madly with clear
delineation between the band members. That said, the most magical moments I had
with the Carbon 7s were with intimate recordings of duos, trios, and soloists.
I love challenging, experimental music, and I
find it makes excellent evaluation material for audio components: if I can be
enthralled by music that is devoid of obvious hooks and grooves, the system must
be doing something right. I recently picked up Historically
Innocent and Sexually Indifferent, by Chicago-based improvisers the
Fanlab Duo [Peira Records PM06]. Both members (Daniel Fandi on one channel and
Brian Labycz on the other) play modular synthesizers, only occasionally using
them to generate sounds normally associated with music. Sounds range from
microscopic pops, clicks, and glitches to full-tilt washes of static and noise.
However, if you listen closely, which is very easy to do with the Carbon 7s,
their elaborate dialog becomes clear...each of these pieces is a dramatic ebb
and flow of non-traditional sound, completely improvised live. The third track,
"Your Dad is a Grandpa, Your Uncle is in Jail, Your Dog is an Orphan"
may be the best piece I've found yet to introduce people to this type of music.
It's fairly short, just under 6 minutes, and builds to a palpable climax before
releasing into the closest thing to harmony the album has to offer (it is, at
best, a Schoenbergian harmony, but a harmony nonetheless).
As my time with the Carbon 7s was winding down,
ECM released the remarkable ECM
[ECM 2211], a remix project for electronic music producer Max Loderbauer and
greatest DJ in the world Ricardo Villalobos. Loderbauer and Villalobos were
given full access to the ECM back catalog, and I must say, I'm impressed with
their choices: recordings from Arvo Part, Louis Sclavis, John Abercrombie, and
Christian Wallumrod (whose music I was previously unfamiliar with) all appear,
along with several others. I must also say that the sonic results are unlike
anything that has appeared in the oeuvre of any of the artists involved: nothing
on here will be mistaken for the spacey breed of chamber jazz the label is
typically known for, but this is no booty shaker, either. The more abstract
tracks work the best: a stunning showcase for the Carbon 7s imaging ability, re:
ECM opens with "Reblop", which tosses subtle electronic
swirls and curlicues at you from every corner of the soundstage. Acoustic
instruments (like Christian Wallumrod's piano) bubble to the surface as well,
giving the feeling of walking through a forest late at night that's teeming with
life you can't see. Mesmerizing.