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February / March 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Podium Sound 0.5 Loudspeakers
The limitations may very well be your own room.
Review By Ron Nagle
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Podium Sound 0.5 Loudspeakers   The following narrative represents one serendipitous event. The place is the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. I confess, often when sorely pressed for time I simply breeze along barely sticking my head into demonstration rooms. Have grown so accustomed to the lack of innovative audio technology and the recycling of old ideas that most things are only marginally interesting. Was there a chance I would find something different? Against all the odds this time I did. Pausing at a by-way in a Marriott Tech Center hallway. There emanated from a doorway sound that embodied continuity and a natural ease that stopped me in my tracks. Peering in the Laufer Teknik room it seemed the sound was coming from a pair of acoustic room panels. It was in fact a speaker made in England called the Podium 0.5. My error was understandable because what I saw was a very thin wood framed panel with an off white fabric covering on the front and the back. They measured only 0.75-inches thick 55-inches high and 23.625-inches wide. The sound coming from the panels reminded me of my Quad ESL 63 speakers. If you know what Electrostatic speakers can do so seamlessly well than you know what drew me to the Podium 0.5. As I turned to leave I asked for a pair of these speakers and once again serendipity strikes. It turns out the sole distributor is Laufer Teknik in New York City and they are located relatively right next door to me.

 

Now For Something Different
The object of my attention is one very cool cardboard invention. Or more exactly the sound-producing element is a honeycomb flat phenolic cardboard diaphragm panel that is sandwiched with a Mylar moisture barrier. The speakers are completely hand made by Podium Sound in Cambridge England. Technically speaking the cardboard diaphragm launches a bi-polar transverse sonic wave generated by a tapered array. Even at high frequencies they are a diffuse dipole sound source. The White Oak framed sample they sent me has the frame resting on two small pointed brass feet and at the back there is a thick white oak vertical center support. A single heavy steel rod protrudes 12-inches from the bottom of this center spine and holds the speaker upright with a slight backward tilt. The oak center support has four evenly spaced 1.125-inches in diameter holes and two WBT style speaker-binding posts near the base. In these openings there are four magnetic coils.

The electromagnetic driving forces to the diaphragm are these four vertically stacked coils. If you look into the holes in this wooden support you will see what looks like a stack of ferrite washers. Strange gets even stranger, supplied with the speakers are eight round plugs made of something that looks like cotton batting and the back side of each plug is coated with red sealing wax. The Podium people call these “mechanically designed seal-filters by Dr. S. Katz”. The owner’s manual tells you to insert them in the wooden support holes ”to filter out any sharpness or edginess in order to achieve a rounder sound”. Less imaginatively I call them plug mufflers these little plug things work surprisingly well. By trial and experiment I found much to my delight that you could selectively alter or tune the sound of the Podiums buy inserting these seal filters into one or two or all of the four holes in the oak center support. Inserting a plug into the top hole seems to damp the treble frequencies and a plug in the bottom hole damps the bass sound. Before I get any farther into this report you should know that there are three versions of the Podium speakers. The model 1 is the largest and stands 77cm high and retails for $7995 the model 2 is mid sized and my Podium 0.5 sample is the smallest version, it has an asking price of $5995. Note: I was informed that the speakers I listened too were demonstration samples and were broken in.

 

Evolution
Things were not always as they are now. The very first comments about the podium speakers that I could pick off the Internet were mostly negative. It took some more digging to realize two things. The first is that almost all of these comments were about a different much larger prototype speaker. Secondly it was more than two-years ago when they were first introduced at the Heathrow show in 2006 and again later at the Munich show in 2007.

 

Moving Forward
The design of the Podium 0.5 has advanced quite a bit since that introduction. What now sits in my system is a very different device. The initial design and building of the Podium prototype some two years ago was a project by a Mr. Paul Burton. Interestingly Mr. Burton was formerly involved with the NXT Companies development of a flat panel driver that NXT calls “Exciters”. After Mr. Burton left the prototype project a Doctor Shelley Katz re-designed the podium speakers. The new Podiums have a higher impedance, lower sensitivity and most importantly a different tonal balance.

Just out of curiosity I ran a very unscientific frequency sweep using my Rives Audio test CD. This disc has test tones ranging from 20 Hz up to 20 kHz. Down at the bass end of the sweep the speakers started to respond around 45 Hz and with an even step response reached full volume at 110 Hz. At around 250 Hz I experienced a slight resonant buzzing of the panel. At 1kHz the individual test tones held a constant level all the way out to 12.5kHz than a gradual drop off to nearly nothing at 16kHz. Of course the results I experienced will not necessarily be what you get. Everything from the power cords to all the equipment in between, the set up position and your very own Fletcher-Munson Curve plays a huge part in what the speakers will do in your room. None of my test results should be apparent when listening to the complex mixture of frequencies that is music.

 

Unique In Many Respects
The placement of the Podium 0.5 is certainly not a standard set up; they sound far larger than their physical size. I won’t try to compute how many conventional pistonic drivers you would need to equal the radiating area of this speaker. Consider that almost the whole surface of this panel speaker is one huge driven sound source. Combine that factoid with their phenomenally easy to drive 101dB/W/m efficiency. When they were first set up I turned off the mute switch and there was a loud blast of sound. I quickly grabbed the volume control to lower the sound level. The Owners Manual instructs you to start with the volume controls turned all the way down or off. At that time I was powering everything with the new 200 wpc Moscode 402AU amplifier. During my obligatory research I found an on line comment from one happy audiophile who was driving a larger version of these speakers with an 8 Watt SET amplifier. The size of the radiating surface of these Bi-Polar speakers dictates that you must give them plenty of room to breath. As a matter of fact my listening room is a tad to damn small for the speakers. I have them set as far apart as possible, with a slight toe in and 6.5-feet out from the 12-foot wide back wall of my room and they still need to have more room.

Now for something totally non-intuitive: the placement of the Podiums is not dictated as you might expect strictly by room boundaries. Normally with dynamic cone drivers you can experience some reinforcement of frequencies from individual drivers that is dependent on room placement. If you have ever moved a sub-woofer around your room trying to integrate it then you realize placing it in a rear corner supplements bass frequencies. It doesn’t work exactly the same way with a transverse bending wave panel. Why you may ask? Well consider that the whole panel is the single source of all the frequencies you hear. Therefore if you move the speaker closer to a wall all the radiated sound from that single panel will be effected in an evenhanded way. Am not saying that the Podium‘s are entirely free of boundary effects, though it will be to a far lesser extent than cone speakers.

As I said, the wave front generated by these speakers is huge. More good news as the sound stage can be very wide with no beaming in any direction so that there is virtually no sweet spot. If you traverse the speaker positions from left or right you will not hear the usual large frequency shifts. Consider that the single driver element cannot be out of phase with itself so there are no phase related anomalies. Consider also that there is no power supply and no complex crossovers and therefore no notch distortion. Additionally they can be driven to damaging levels with very little power. Last but certainly not least is the wonderful linear characteristics they posses. By that I mean the overall character of the music does not change for all practical situations as you increase the volume.

 

Reality
Nearing the end of my evaluation I changed the speaker cables and the interconnect cable from my Audio Research SP9 MK3 preamplifier to my Primaluna Prologue 2 Tube Integrated Amplifier. These two substitute cables were a big inexpensive down grade from my review sample Kimber Kable 12TC and Silver Streak interconnect. Subsequently I found that the tonal balance shifted. Every once in a while on one of my recordings a fairly narrow treble frequency would become more prominent. With a little experimentation the Seal Filters helped to smooth this quite a bit. Evident to me is that component matching becomes important. The Podium speakers will tell you everything about everything in the preceding system. Secondly I found my Integrated Tube Amplifier was sonically a better match for these panels. Everything is not perfect in Munchkin Land or in my listing room. The drawback for these large area panel speakers is the lack of pinpoint imaging and partially because of it, but to a far lesser extent is micro detailing. Consider that pinpoint imaging usually happens when you are sitting in a sweet spot possibly with a very good line array. But doesn’t this also describe a beaming/directional effect of the speaker? Any directional characteristic is something I consider a limiting factor. Many speakers have been referred to, as near field monitors the Podium speakers are polar opposites. Another way to say the same thing is that your perspective on the performance will be farther back in the hall. The broad soundstage image they present is very suitable for large-scale orchestral music.

 

Coda
All that I have written certainly does not mean that your music is stripped of details. I do hear a sound stage that has outer edges and a very specific center stage. Let me tell you about one of my personal test recordings. I can’t think of a better recording to illustrate the sound stage delineation of the Podium 0.5 than a wonderful version of You Were Always On My Mind by Willie Nelson This cut is from a Sony CD A21562. It is a wonderfully engineered and detailed studio mix with transient speed and studio ambience that highlights the resolving ability of any system. At two minutes and forty seconds into this cut there is a brief faint sound of a person in the background whistling along with the melody. Meanwhile Willie’s vocal resides front and center in all his nasal glory amidst the glisten of steel guitar strings. Backup vocals are delineated and recede from the immediate left of the center stage. In a strange and unexpected way the metallic reverberation of the guitar strings complements the country twang of Willie’s voice. Sit well back from the speakers and adjust the toe in. I predict that if you start out with carved in granite paradigms you will find your preconceptions slowly slip away as you immerse yourself in the coherent Podium sound. The limitations of the Podium speakers may very well be your own room. This box less technology is an overdue and welcomed advance in audio; it is a purist approach eliminating so many of the usual speaker design compromises.

I think by comparison they make other loudspeakers look far too complicated. In this unit there is little to deteriorate, dry out or break down, so they certainly make a lot more sense. Nothing in audio land is perfect, however I would much rather have what the Podium people dish up. That is the whole broad sweep of the pie and not just a slice of it. If I consider all the qualities considering the give and the take. I would not hesitate to take, as I really like them.

Semper Hi-Fi

 

Reference System
Moscode 402AU power amplifier, Prima Luna 2 Integrated Ultralinear tube amplifier,
Audio Research SP9 MK3 Preamplifier
Marantz DV 8400 Universal CD player, Cambridge Audio Discmagic-1 CD transport, Cambridge S-700 Isomagic HDCD D/A Converter, ART DI/O Up sampling D/A and A/D processor, Magnum Dynalab FT 101a tuner and Dynalab Signal Sleuth. 
Roger Sanders ESL Power Amplifier, Onix Rocket Strata Mini 4 way speakers by AV 123, Podium Sound 0.5 speakers. 

System Connections
3-meter Kimber Cable 12TC, 3-meter Kimber Kable 8TC, 3 meter Kimber Silver Streak RCA, 3 meter, Wire World Eclipse-2, RCA, 1 meter Chord Silver Siren, 1 meter and Wire World 10 gauge IEC power cord, Audiobhan 0.5-meter unbalanced digital

Power conditioning:
Richard Gray 20 ampere Substation, Islatrol Industrial 20amp ac line conditioner, Alpha Core Balanced Transformer Power Supply, Audio Power PE-1 power enhancer, Triad 2-ampere isolation transformer

Accessories:
VPI Magic bricks, Argent Room Lens system, Room Tunes Panels, a comfortable chair.

 

Specifications
Type: Electrostatic loudspeaker
Price: $5995
Product Serial Number: PS - 5B02110308er

 

Company Information
Laufer Teknik 
27 Whitehall Street 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10004

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