Is Compromise A Good Thing?
Review By Rick Jensen
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I believe that most of us who are interested in audio, whether listeners, reviewers, or manufacturers, have experienced doubts about the "accuracy" of our perceptions at some point. It almost goes without saying that we know that we perceive sound differently as a function of the environment, the time of day, our mood, and the stimuli from our other senses. And yet most of us tend to ascribe the qualities we hear to the object (component, recording,
room...) itself. That may be only natural, and it also may be largely justified.
Why is this pertinent to the Penaudio system? While the question of the constancy of perception is always on my mind, the Penaudio Chara-Charisma speaker system brings it into sharp focus. The speakers - which, to jump ahead, are remarkable -- are striking at first glance for their compact and lean elegance. The Penaudios comprise a smaller speaker, the Charisma, which is an impressive speaker on its own. It sits atop, and is fully integrated with, the Chara (sub)woofer. Indeed, the two are so well integrated in appearance (rather like a Watt-Puppy system) that most listeners are surprised that there are two pieces to each side. They are of medium height and slim, measuring
nearly 37 inches high, 11 deep, and only 8 inches wide. They are clearly not large or imposing speakers, especially compared with some of the monsters that can be had on the high-end market. Moreover, they are quite attractive, beautifully finished, and can integrate into any décor. Most people who have seen them at my home have found them strikingly attractive.
This is all-important because the Penaudios are surprising upon first listen. That in itself is not unusual; indeed, it is a staple of reviews of fine components. I first heard them in San Francisco at
HE 2003 show with some fine conrad-johnson electronics and was amazed at the full but delicate sound that had no immediately apparent flaws. But, of course, I am far from the first to be impressed by the more modest components at a big show, and that may be part of the perception gambit. We all expect the huge statement products to impress -- those expectations may be unfair, but they are furthered by the very size and sheen of such all-out efforts. And so the smaller, more modest products (think of Joseph Audio, Totem, Triangle, or Audio Physic) are often very pleasant surprises. Maybe they shouldn't be -- surprises, that is.
The Penaudios shared their time in my home with other speakers of utterly different sizes and shapes, all of which are superb speakers as well. And I was constantly challenging myself to get out of the box, so to speak, in arriving at an opinion of them. In comparison, I had two bigger and "fatter" speakers, and they sounded bigger (OK, there are some valid physical reasons why that may be objectively true). And I had two other units, one smaller and one very slim, that sounded, by and large, smaller, although the wider one had a fuller sound. At some point, you have to wonder if you are listening with your eyes or with your ears.
All the above digression is by way of saying that the Penaudios made me listen to them carefully; such is their ability to both confirm and belie whatever perceptual prejudices or biases we may bring to the party. Happily, listening carefully most often devolved into carefree listening, as these speakers are among the few in my experience that (a) sound consistently sweet, detailed, delicate and powerful as required with every kind of music, and (b) are so easy to live with that they can be your first and last high-end
It is worth saying a few words on what lies behind this terrific speaker system. The designer, Sami Penttila, was a musician first and a speaker designer and engineer second. He plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, acoustic bass guitar, electric bass and drums. -- a band unto himself. He is as well surrounded by other musicians. His wife plays proper classical instruments for a symphony orchestra in Finland, and his brother is a bandmate. Sami is a modest and friendly person who at the same time exhibits a focus that is almost laser-like. It is perhaps that focus that has carried him through his design process. He listens first, to every component in the speaker and measures later, with a focus on real-world room response. While the speakers are modest in size and (though quite elegant) in appearance, every single piece of material that goes into the units is itself voiced.
Design & Setup
As noted, the two units are designed to be used apart or together, but they are voiced together. For all practical purposes, I considered them to be a single speaker. Note that Penaudio makes a less expensive upper (I won't say "satellite" because it is not accurate) unit, the Rebel2. I have listened to the Rebel and it has both the same family character as the Charisma and is very nearly its equal.
The Charisma uses a 20mm (0.8") SEAS soft dome tweeter that has been modified by Sami. The midrange-woofer unit, a 120mm (5") modified Excel unit from SEAS, crosses over to the tweeter at 5500 Hz via a third-order acoustical network. The Charisma has the same
width and depth measurements as the Chara, but at 240mm (9.5") high, it makes up about one-quarter of the height of the entire system. On its own, the Charisma will go satisfyingly low with most types of music -- down to all but the last octave or so.
The Chara has a single side-firing 7-inch woofer with in-room response down to about 30Hz, which is about how it sounded in my room. Though small, the woofer in the Chara provides a deep and solid foundation to the music, and it is tight, with a good articulation of bass tones. The crossover between the two units is at 180Hz; I never noticed any anomalies in the crossover region.
In normal operation, the speaker taps of the two units are strapped together (jumpers provided with the combination unit). Val Kratzman, a longtime audiophile and trade representative for many Finnish companies, who has a professional interest in Penaudio, supplied me with a separate set of jumpers from Analysis Plus that he prefers. I confess to a very light preference in my system for the Analysis Plus connectors, but the difference is subtle, expressing itself for me as a slight added clarity in the upper midrange more than anything else. However, I did most of my listening with the supplied jumpers, and did not find anything wanting.
Setup is easy, principally because these speakers are easy to move around. Spikes are supplied, and they are easy to install and adjust. I positioned the
loudspeakers in the usual spot in my small (15.7' x 11' x 8') room, on the long wall (nearfield listening works best in this room), about 4' in from the side walls, 2.5' off the back wall, and 7' apart from each other and from me. I moved them around a bit subjectively and with Val Kratzman's assistance until we were satisfied that we had them in a reasonably good position. After that, I don't know if I moved them more than a half an inch. I should observe that while the Penaudios image with great accuracy, they seem to be relatively tolerant of placement; that is perhaps due to good dispersion of the tweeter and the very narrow front baffle. In any event, it makes for stress-free listening.
I won't say that the speakers startled me "out of the box" because I had heard them numerous times before and knew more or less what to expect. But it was still a most pleasant surprise to hear that the Penaudios from the first moment exhibited all of the characteristics that make them so impressive: a great resolution of both inner and surface detail that never threatens to be clinical or analytical, and open and extended upper range that allows the music to breathe, and startling low-end power that is impressive but just impressive enough.
During their time in my home, they were driven by the conrad-johnson Premier 350, the Roksan Caspian II integrated (reviews of both to come), and my Music Reference RM-9 II. With each the Penaudio loudspeakers proved to be revealing of the caliber and character of the amplifiers: I heard great ease, power and a palpable sweetness with the 350 and a steady, unflappable gracefulness with the Roksan. The RM-9 provided the real pleasure for me. Betraying perhaps my affinity for tubes, I have to say that as good as the speakers are with any fine equipment, they truly sing with the tubes. They are an easy load (minimum 3.9 ohms; I drove them off the 4-ohm tap on my RM-9) and pretty efficient at nominal 87db, and seemed to mate well with all the amplifiers in my home as well as several others with which I have heard them. I would guess that any good amplifier of 50 watts or more would drive them nicely in most rooms, although I would have loved to hear them in a larger room with the gorgeous Premier 350.
For Val, there was another revelation -- as it was the first time he (and I) had heard the speakers with vinyl sources. The additional details and textures that are the hallmark of LPs are all there through the Penaudios; they are great with CDs and better with vinyl.
I listened to many of my familiar records that I have used in the past, as well as to a few new acquisitions, in order to get a good feel for the Penaudios. On all of them were exhibited the traits noted above. But some recordings just jumped out. The Jim Hall "Concierto de Aranjuez" on Concierto (CTI 8012 LP) was an airy and contemplative joy. Every instrument had its space; the horns clear and sharp with no stridency, and the guitar silky and smooth. I wondered if it was almost too smooth, but checked it against the other speakers in house and it was spot on. Depth of the soundscape was adequate, not exaggerated or the deepest I have heard. Truth be told, in my room, one doesn't always hear great depth. One wonders if that is the perception demon again - looking at a nearfield system in a smallish room won't allow us to "hear" depth, whereas the same basic sound in a long deep room lets us "see" real depth. I don't know; I'm not sure. But I was not at all disappointed with the Penaudios on this count. Along the same lines, the width projected by the system is quite good. It gives the impression of going out just beyond the edges of the speakers and the stage seems to be as stable as the recordings will allow.
Another sweet recording rendered very nicely by the Penaudios is the Jazz Samba of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (Verve V6-8432 LP). Again, the interplay of horn (tenor sax) and guitar is clear, well-defined, and with a beguiling sweetness that fits the easy Brazilian rhythm. I noticed here that the Penaudios don't impose themselves on you -- they are not forward at all. So of course, I thought, might they be too reserved and unassuming? I put on the sensational new LP reissue of Eva Cassidy
recordings Songbird (S&P 501) and her beautiful voice was front and center on the title cut, on "Fields of Gold", and on "Wade in the Water", the last of these being a louder, more driving cut than any of the previous ones mentioned above. And again, the separation of the instruments was as good as I have heard in my home, each having ample room to breathe and seeming not to have to compete for air time.
I love the first notes of the first cut ("You'd be So Nice to Come Home To") of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Analogue APJ 010), which have a pace and flow that promises to pull you away from the mundane elements of your day. While the Penaudios here were not quite the equal of my Genesis VI, lacking just the tiniest bit of elocution of the upper harmonics, it was very subtle. I realized I could easily live with them for a long time. The sax was up front and etched just as much as necessary all while the piece as a whole is fluid and coherent.
I spent quite a bit of time revisiting my boxed set of Vivaldi by I Musici (German Philips 6747 029 - 18 LPs). Here the strings were reproduced with the steeliness that one hears throughout the records. I cannot say if that metallic character is truer to Vivaldi, but I will say that the sound of this recording in my home is very close in character to what I heard live in Venice some years ago when I had the good fortune to listen to a Vivaldi concert in a grand Venetian music school. Hearing the thinner, less supple but dynamic attacks of the strings through all the concerti told me that the speakers were doing a fine job of reproducing the records rather than imposing their character on every recording.
I did have to try a few CDs, which by and large exhibited the same general characteristics. I will note one in particular: a CD brought to me by Val from Finland by Kari Bremnes called
Norwegian Mood. I will just say that Ms. Bremnes has a spectacular and crystal-clear voice. Maybe the Scandinavian affinity makes for a good combination here, but it is a beautiful recording of a fine singer whose style -- adult, "popular", sophisticated -- is hard to qualify. The CD has a particularly fluid yet coolish sound, and it is capably rendered with all the strengths of the Penaudios. (I believe it can be found on
The Penaudio Chara-Charisma system seems an almost ideal compromise. For those who do not wish any compromise, my guess is that they will not be satisfied with this
system. But for real music in real homes reproduced with neutrality, transparency, elegance, and
power, they are superb. Equally important to many is how attractive they are. If you want to get off the upgrade train, to be content with a truly high-end, accurate, and eminently lovely speaker, to console yourself that while someone out there may be listening to a better speaker than yours, he likely paid a lot more and he isn't having any more fun, then consider the Penaudios. A remarkable effort, beautifully conceived and beautifully executed, and terrific value for money.
Type: three-way, floorstanding, reflex-loaded loudspeaker.
Drive Units: 20mm ferrofluid textile dome tweeter, custom made 120mm special treated midrange/bass unit 26mm voice coil, heavy copper rings above and below pole piece, solid copper phase plug, long throw 176mm treated paper woofer, 39mm voice coil
Crossover: 180Hz, 5,500Hz (acoustical 3rd order)
Frequency Response: 30Hz to 25kHz
Phase Shift: +/- 15 degrees from 20Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: 87 dB/W/m
Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 140 x 940 x 285 (WxHxD in mm)
Weight: 17 kg
Extra: WBT connectors, internal wiring and inductors are from 99,997% copper foil (alpha-core), polypropylene caps, Goertz MI1 internal wiring.
Prices: Charisma $2,995
Voice: 358 14 618012
United States Distributor
46 Southfield Ave.
Three Stamford Landing, Suite 250
Stamford, CT 06902
Voice: (203) 767-9676
Fax: (203) 357-9955