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January 2008
Superior Audio Equipment Review

A.R.T. Loudspeaker Stiletto 6
This is what value is all about.

Review By Nels Ferre
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

A.R.T. Loudspeaker Stiletto 6 Loudspeaker  A.R.T. Loudspeakers may be a new name to most readers. They were a new name to me, but it turns out that the brothers that founded A.R.T. Loudspeakers, Derek and Ramsay Dunlop, have a long and rich heritage. They are members of the family that founded and operated Systemdek, the British turntable manufacturer. In fact, Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK bought the plans for one of the Systemdek models and successfully sells it today as the Audio Note TT1. Upon Systemdek's demise, the Dunlop brothers decided to concentrate on the other end of the system chain. A.R.T. Loudspeakers was founded in Scotland in 1998.

 

The Stiletto 6
The Stiletto 6 is a relatively compact floor standing tower, measuring 37.75" x 8.5 x 7.75" (HxWxD) . When I helped the UPS driver bring them to my upstairs condo, I was a bit surprised. The with their birch cabinets, the speakers were quite a bit lighter than I expected, weighing in at 39 pounds each. The top section of the front of the speaker holds a 6" doped paper woofer with a rubber surround, and a 1" horn loaded fabric dome tweeter. Around back is a single pair of heavy duty binding posts sourced from Germany's WBT. Below the binding posts is a small port.

The first order crossover is populated with Clarity capacitors from England, as well as air core inductors which are manufactured in house by A.R.T. Loudspeakers. The speakers rest upon four stylish spikes, for better coupling to the floor. A few thoughts on the design: the second order crossover results in an easy load on the amplifier, and the horn loaded tweeter is very efficient, so the speaker should be able to be used with a wide variety of amplifiers. On their website, the Dunlop brothers state that the Stiletto 6 can be used with flea powered SET amplifiers, with which they have an affinity. They are designed to be used with amplifiers as small as 8 watts, and have a nominal impedance of 8 Ohms, with the minimum of an easy to drive 6.5 Ohms. Additionally, the woofers utilize a rubber surround, which adds to longevity: foam surrounds will deteriorate over time. I have had to replace the woofers in my Infinity speakers for that exact reason. The grilles are held to the front baffle magnetically, which provide a clean appearance when the grilles are removed.

 

Cabinet Construction 101
The relatively lightweight cabinets made me do a lot of thinking about cabinet construction and speaker resonance. Most speakers are made of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard.) MDF is basically wood chips bound with glue, and manufactured into sheets. It is the preferred material for cabinet construction for a couple of reasons. First, it is inexpensive. More importantly, it reduces resonance. The thicker the board used, all things being equal, the lower the amplitude of the resonance. Usually the cabinet is reinforced with additional MDF. On the surface of the cabinet, veneer is applied to make the cabinet visually appealing.

The Stiletto 6 is manufactured differently. The cabinet is manufactured of multiple layers of birch, not MDF. Of course the cabinet is more expensive to manufacture. No manufacturer tries to make a product be more expensive to manufacture: most build to a price point. Keeping manufacturing costs low, of course, increases profit. So why use real wood, as opposed to MDF?

I think it all comes down to cabinet resonance. I can't see a way to truly eliminate them, without going to a cabinet made of some type of stone, which would be hideously expensive, not only to manufacture, but also to ship. MDF is a great compromise, inexpensive and easy to work with, but does it really work? Resonance is a slippery thing: it can't be eliminated, only reduced and shifted to a frequency that hopefully is less noticeable. It is not unlike a woman's girdle: it changes her shape, and hopefully makes her more attractive, bit at the end of the day, nothing has really changed: she still weighs the same and has the same body type.

If I am reading the design of the A.R.T. Loudspeaker Stiletto 6 correctly, they have used Birch in an attempt to work with resonance instead of attempting to eliminate it. I certainly did not hear anything untoward, resonance wise, in the months I lived with them. Another thought occurred to me: many musical instruments are made with wood, not MDF -- the exact thing we are trying to reproduce. The difference between a conventionally built speaker and the Stiletto 6 can easily be seen around back, at the cutout for the crossover/binding post assembly. The edges of the cutout are not finished, and it is easy to see the layers of birch used in the construction of the cabinet.

 

Setup
As I currently own a small condominium in the city, I do not have the luxury of a dedicated listening room. The living room is exactly that- where we live. The electronics are housed in a low boy Scandinavian style rack, with my SOTA Star Series III turntable and Bella Extreme Signature 3205 tube power amplifier placed on top. The speakers flank either side of the rack, above and behind the rack is a wall mounted Sony 40" flat panel LCD monitor.

The living room is approximately 17'x12' with an eight-foot ceiling. The room opens to the dining room and galley kitchen in the right when facing the system. There is a short hallway behind the listening area that leads to the bedroom and bathroom.  The floors are hardwood laminate, with soundproofing material between the planks and the cement sub floor. The walls are drywall over cement block. Furniture is sparse, with a leather sofa and leather recliner/rocker facing the system. In front of the sofa is a small wooden chest, pressed into service as a coffee table.

The Stiletto 6 speakers were placed in approximately the same place as my Infinity speakers, two feet out from the front wall, with a slight toe in. This was well inside the manufacturer's specification. As the A.R.T. Loudspeaker Stiletto 6 is rated at a nominal impedance of 8 Ohms, I wired them to the 8-Ohm tap on the 3205 Signature. The system is set up along the short wall, firing across the length of my listening space.

When the speakers were set upon the supplied spikes, the tweeters were perfectly aimed at ear level, as they should be.

The Stiletto 6 saw a fundamental change in my system, which is PC-based audio. During their extended visit here, I decided to take the advice of a few friends and give PC audio a go. I have to tell you- I love it. As I write this, about 60 percent of my collection has been converted to Apple Lossless Files, stored on an external USB hard drive. The discs have been placed in storage, giving me added space in my small digs. I tried the much-touted Exact Audio Copy, converting the WAV files to FLAC, but I found the occasional dropouts (one or two a day with Foobar 2000 as a playback program) bothersome. On a whim, I decided to give I Tunes for Windows a try, and I prefer it by far. It's easier to use, and works perfectly- no dropouts at all. And, in its latest 7.X release, it sounds great. Feeding a Trends Audio 10.1 USB to SPDIF converter with my Dell Inspiron 2200 laptop (1.4 GHz Intel Celeron processor, 1.2 GB RAM, Windows XP Home) then on from there to an Entec Number Cruncher 205.2 DAC with a JPS Labs Digital RCA cable, it has changed the way I do digital, and greatly increased the variety of music I listen to. My collection is all right there, at worst, a second or two away. Because my CDs are migrating to my storage unit after conversion, I will no longer be listing catalog numbers in my reviews from this point forward. Although I have switched to PC based digital, during the review period, my listening from digital sources were split primarily between the JoLida JD-100A and the Naim CD-5x, with the optional, and highly recommended Flatcap 2x power supply.

 

Listening
There is a lot of sonic goodness packed into the Stiletto 6. Initially, I thought they were a bit hard sounding in the upper midrange, but I realized that I had never used the 8 ohm taps off of the amplifier, and that section of the output transformers required break in. A week or so later, and all trances of the hardness had disappeared. I doubt it was an issue of driver break in, as the review samples had clearly had been previously used. While the speakers themselves were in perfect condition, the boxes gave up that they had been used and repacked. While I have no idea how many hours were on them, their character did not change after the first week of heavy use.

A.R.T. Loudspeaker Stiletto 6 WooferThe Stiletto 6s produced a very together, cohesive sound. Although, they are just a bit on the cool side of neutral, and are more forward than I am used to, I could, and did, listen to them for extended periods of time, not only with music, but movies as well. What is really surprising with the Stiletto 6 is its prodigious bass output. Although the specifications clearly state a response down 3dB at 34Hz, I take tat with a grain of salt. Lots of components measure well and sound terrible (and vice versa.) This wasn't the case with the Stiletto 6. These had gobs of bass, with no sense of strain, if the recording called for it. But it wasn't just the amount of bass that made the Stiletto 6 special, but how it was presented. Visiting The Jam on "Start" from their 1980 release Sound Affects, the bass is presented in a distinct fashion, with the bassist plucking the strings hard with one hand, and his fingers coming off the strings with his other  hand quickly to make the bass line "pop." This is the way it is supposed to sound, but with the Stiletto 6, the sound did not localize from the bass driver, instead, it sounded as if it started there and ran all the way down the front of the cabinet all the way to the floor.

Drums sound very alive and real, and are easily heard at the back of the sound instead of on the same plane. This, of course, is how it should be- but not all speakers are created equal. Lorenna McKinnet’s The Book of Secretsis a must have if you are into Celtic music at all. The music is great, and so is the recording. The kick drum that is in the opening track was reproduced with proper scale (read grand) and because the instrument isn't plucked as it is with an electric bass, the speakers virtually disappeared. Of course your brain knows the sound is coming from the cabinets, but close your eyes, and the precise location of those cabinets becomes somewhat blurred. Bass content in movies was very hard to localize, just as it is in the theater, my wife is about movies as I am about music, and we watch a few movies a week here. The Stiletto 6s were very convincing while enjoying movies on the Sony LCD.

Both female and male vocals were presented with some of the most natural and lifelike sound I have heard. I have mentioned Les Paul in many previous reviews, but I have been remiss, as I have not mentioned his late wife Mary Ford. Her voice, to my ears, was as close to the sound of an angel as I can imagine here on earthh, and the Stiletto's don't disappoint. On "Sentimental Journey" from their box set The Legend and the Legacy, the track is portrayed so well, that you not only get an excellent performance, but you can almost smell the cigarette smoke along with the sound of her lovely alto voice.

Dynamically, the Stiletto 6 is very fast. The low mass of the Norwegian SEAS drivers are a big positive here, allowing each instrument or voice its own place in time and space. Massed voices are very clearly reproduced, each voice, and the differences between them, clearer than I am accustomed to. Listening to "Because" from the Beatles last album Abbey Road, it is easier to pinpoint each member's addition to the track. Or, better yet, try the Capella version from Anthology 3, there is beauty on that version that could give Mary Ford a run for her money.

A.R.T. Loudspeaker Stiletto 6 TweeterThe highs were certainly more extended than my Infinity loudspeakers and although the tweeters are horn loaded, I had no issues with them. They are smooth when the music calls for it, but can certainly bite when necessary. I would recommend, however, pairing them with smooth electronics. These speakers will not smooth out harsh associated electronics.

This is the part. in the review where the reviewer goes on and on about clarity and detail "I heard things with the speakers that I have never heard before." Sorry, I am going to disappoint you, it did not happen. The Stiletto 6 is about the whole experience, not minute detail after minute detail. Sometimes, I wonder what we are really trying to accomplish in this hobby? The sound of a gnat fart, as one manufacturer terms what I call hyper detail or music. The sound of live music in ones home is a losing battle, unless you are a member of a garage band. The real goal, I believe. is enjoyment- as in "Did I really enjoy myself, did I get off on the music, maybe relax and forget life's worries for a few hours?" Maybe the question is "Do I get as good of a taste of the music as the recording allows?" If those are the questions, then the Stiletto 6 is a resounding success.

Of course, there is the matter of money, as I am not convinced one has to spend 5 grand on a pair of speakers to get there. What the Stiletto 6 speakers do have convinced me is that my time with the Infinitys is coming to a close. I've been happy with them for 15 years now, but progress marches on, and there is no longer factory support for them. It will be like saying goodbye to an old friend.

The Stiletto 6s are very versatile. While I did not have a single-ended triode amplifier here during their stay, I really wish I had gotten to hear this combination, as I am sure the results would have been excellent. While tubes did power them for much of the time, a push-pull ultra linear amplifier like the Bella Extreme 3205 Signature will sound completely different from single-ended triode. The kind folks at Naim did send a full compliment of Naim solid-state gear while the Stiletto 6s were in house. I did not expect synergy: it has been my experience that speakers designed by tube lovers do not find sonic bliss when powered by solid state. I was wrong on this one. I actually preferred the Stiletto 6 driven by the Naim stack as opposed to my reference system. Music and voices simply sounded more alive, more real, with the Naim electronics. The Naim gear was awarded an Enjoy The Music.com Blue Note Award for 2007.

The Naim synergy came up in a recent telephone conversation with Yujean Kang, A.R.T. Loudspeakers' U.S. Importer. He told me that he was not surprised at my finding. Apparently, many Naim owners have discovered A.R.T. Loudspeakers, and they are becoming a quite popular pairing. I totally understand why.

The only negative I can find with these speakers, in direct comparison to my trusty but aging Infinity Kappa 6.1s is a clear and distinct lack of body. By this, I mean that listening to an acoustic guitar, for example, the A.R.T. Audio Stiletto 6 highlights the sound of the strings, and glosses over the sound of the body of the guitar. I am reminded of a black and white photograph of John Lennon working in the studio at Abbey Road circa 1965. In the picture, Lennon's tobacco sunburst Gibson acoustic is close mic'ed, with the microphone inches from the strings. My Infinity's, by comparison, cannot hold a candle to the Stiletto 6 in the areas of clarity, frequency extension at both ends of the spectrum, or micro dynamics. But the old Kappas (the last series of speakers designed by A.R.T. Nudell) have body and soul. One easily hears not only the strings, but also the actual body of the instruments. This is especially true with wooden ones such as guitars, violins, and cellos for example. They are more "mid hall" in presentation, and reproduce much more spatial cues from the recording. I do want to stress that many may not notice this shortcoming with the Stiletto 6, even after extended listening. It will, however, be easily heard in direct comparison to a speaker that is superior in this aspect. Some may prefer the more direct sound that the Stiletto 6 provides.

 

Some Thoughts On Value
The A.R.T. Audio Stiletto 6 retails in the United Kingdom for 1995 pounds sterling. So why are they $5000 for the pair in the United States? Unfortunately, the dollar is very weak presently, at approximately two dollars to the pound. Add another $1000 for the pair to the U.S. Distributor, who covers shipping, duties, and warranty repairs and we get to five grand. Blame it on exchange rate that is current at approximately £1 to $2 or you can blame it on economies of scale, as smaller manufacturers can not absorb the hit from the exchange rate as well as larger manufacturers can. Price increases are affecting all of the British manufacturers right now. The situation is what it is, deal with it. If you must blame someone, blame the politicians. Elevated fuel costs are also causing higher transportation costs. (Again, "fat cat" politicians.) And don't think that waiting it out will change the price in your favor: the British made record cleaning machine I have lusted after for years was introduced to the U.S. at $1299, now it is $2235. I hardly think the price is going to go down. That $1299 looks like a bargain now: if I had only known. At the end of the day, for those who decide to bring a pair of Stiletto 6's home, the sting of the price paid will fade over the years, while the level of enjoyment received for the money spent will not. That's what value is all about.

 

Conclusion
I have thoroughly enjoyed the time I have spent with the Stiletto 6's. They are well built and should blend easily into most decors. They will please those who value a "front row presentation." While I am certain that I can find a speaker that I prefer for $5000 a pair, they most definitely deserve an audition. They just may be what you are looking for. I would like to thank Yujean Kang of Tangram Audio for his generous loan of the A.R.T. Audio Stiletto 6 Loudspeakers.

 

Distributor's Comment
I would like to thank Nels for his very informative review on this Stiletto 6 model from A.R.T. Loudspeaker of Scotland. In this review, Nels really shows a very good picture about how these speakers are built and a correct description of their basic sonic quality.

This sonic quality of the Stiletto 6 is a quality that is present in every model in the A.R.T. Loudspeaker line, which is to present the most musical presentation that will make the listener feel as if he or she is right in front of the musician. However, a music presentation is combination of the entire system. When Nels described the different experiences between pairing with Naim system vs. his own reference system, you can imagine that the possibilities of a third or fourth system pairing will result complete different sonic experiences. In this review, I totally agreed with Nels' view according with his own experience. But I would like to share a little of my own experiences with this speaker since I also had them for a good amount of time.

At home, I set up the Stiletto 6 with my Acoustic Plan's power and pre-amp (these are hybrid amplifiers with triode input and MOSFET output) plus my old personal CD player from 47 Labs. What I hear besides the detail, which Nels described in the review, is genuine body and soul. Well, a big part of the fun in this audio game is to search for the most desirable pairing, isn't it? I'm not trying to challenge Nels for his nice review. I just want to share my own experience with Nels and other readers.

One thing I'd like to point out is that the US version of Stiletto 6 is slightly different than the U.K. version. As Nels pointed out the upgraded WBT binding post and so on, the price is slightly higher (US$5000) in comparison with the U.K. version. I believe the sonic quality of the Stiletto 6 could easily compare with many other speakers that are much more costly. When paired with high quality electronics and source, they clearly and neutrally put out what was put in them from the electronics and the source.

Yujean Kang
Tangram Audio

 

Specifications
Type: 2-way floor standing loudspeaker

Tweeter 25mm fabric dome with acoustic faceplate

Midrange/Woofer: 180mm treated paper

Frequency Response: 34Hz to 20kHz (±3dB)

Sensitivity: 88.5dB/W/m

Impedance: 8 Ohm nominal, 6.5 Ohm minimum

Crossover: Bi-wirable, 1st Order network

Internal Wiring: Premium quality OFC copper

Binding Posts: Bi-wirable gold plated (Note: U.S. version is not bi-wireable)

Cabinet: Internally braced birch plywood cabinets with hardwood trim.

Dimensions: 960 x 215 x 195 (HxDxW in mm)

Weight: 14 kilos each

Price: $5000 in wood, Piano finish is $8,800

 

Company Information
ART Loudspeakers
3 Dukes Road
Troon, Ayreshire
Scotland KA10 6QR

E-mail: contact@loudspeaker-art.com
Website: www.loudspeaker-art.com

 

United States Distributor
Tangram Audio
3131 Piccolo Street
Pasedina, CA 91107

E-mail: info@tangramaudio.com
Website: www.tangramaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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