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March / April 2005
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Verity Audio Sarastro Loudspeaker
Can tubes, FETs, and transformers mate well?
Review By George Pappas
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Verity Audio Sarastro Loudspeakers  It never ceases to amaze me how many different approaches there are to designing and building loudspeakers. There are loudspeakers which are designed as a one-way, two-way, three-way or more, high-order crossovers, low-order crossovers, time and phase coherent, cabinets made out of wood, cabinets made out of more exotic materials, soft-dome tweeters, hard-dome tweeters, ribbon tweeters, different cone materials, and on and on.

Being 51 years of age now, I've listened to a wide array of loudspeakers in my lifetime, and with some maturity, I've found some general rules of thumbs about why loudspeakers sound the way they do. Ribbon tweeters generally sound quicker. faster and are generally more extended. Driver cones that use very pliable surrounds generally produce better micro dynamics and are also better at reproducing the finer nuances of the music. In my experience, higher-order crossovers protect the drivers better, usually can go louder, but seem to have trouble releasing the music out into the room. I call this phenomena "the music can't get out of the box". I am also not a great fan of metal drivers including metal-dome tweeters, as I find these drivers can sound very clinical, analytical, often hard and harsh sounding.

I first heard the Sarastro at the Montreal Audio Show in the spring of 2004. I was very impressed with the way they made music. They sounded very, very open with a great wide and deep soundstage and wonder of wonders, even the tonal balance of the speakers was very neutral. In my opinion, it is absolutely disgusting the amount of loudspeakers that are manufactured today that intentionally have the upper midrange and treble significantly louder than the rest of the frequency range to fool the purchaser that the speaker is more detailed and transparent. I personally find over half of the modem speakers produced today are totally unlistenable for me. I am also fully aware that other people have opinions that are the complete opposite of my point of view. So be it. For me, it is such a refreshing change to find a loudspeaker that has a flat, neutral frequency response, and one that actually sounds like music. One that has the warmth and the mid-bass body that sounds like natural, live, unamplified music.

The Verity Audio Sarastro is an extremely well designed product. It is also a speaker that is very musical, very non-fatiguing and a pleasure to listen to, especially for extended listening sessions. The first thing that struck me about the Sarastro is the exquisite finish of the cabinetry. The metallic high-gloss silver finish on the review pair was absolutely stunning and flawless. These speakers are just a joy to look at and even a greater pleasure to listen to.

This speaker actually comes in two modules; the upper module containing the 6 inch midrange and the 2 inch pure ribbon, and the lower module containing the 11 inch woofer. The upper and lower cabinets are separated by an aluminum slab damped with Sorbothane material. This aluminum slab sits between the upper and lower modules. It is there to minimize the acoustic vibration from the bass cabinet from reaching the upper module cabinet. There are three sets of binding posts at the rear of the speaker. One set is on the lower portion of the woofer module, the second is at the top portion of the bass module and the third set is on the upper midrange/tweeter module. This allows greater flexibility for mono wiring, bi-wiring, as well as wiring the speaker for best aesthetics. I was told, and it is also my experience, that for best sound, connect the speaker cable to the upper bass module binding posts directly. From there, use the supplied jumpers to connect the binding post from the upper module to the binding post at the top portion of the bass module. If you are bi-wiring, connect the first speaker cable to the midrange/tweeter upper module and the second speaker cable to either, the top or bottom binding post on the bass module.

The drivers that are used in the Sarastro loudspeaker are very impressive. Both the woofer and the midrange driver are made by a company in Denmark called 'Audiotechnology". It is Mr. Skaaning's company, the man most responsible for Scanspeak as well as Dynaudio. The woofer is an 11-inch diameter damped polypropylene cone with a very large 4-inch voice coil that is of underhung design. Underhung means that the length of the voice coil of the driver is shorter than the length of the magnetic gap. The main benefit of this is, that the voice coil is always in the linear portion of the motor assembly, no matter what position the cone is in its excursion.

The midrange is a 6-inch damped polypropylene cone with a 2 inch underhung voice coil. Both these drivers have what is called a "symmetrical drive" motor assembly. This means that the behavior characteristics are the same when the woofer and the midrange are moving forward as well as backwards. Most drivers are not linear in this manner. I was also really impressed with the very soft, very pliable and compliant surround material of both these drivers. Having a very pliable surround is extremely important because it allows the voice coil and cone assembly to move easier and respond much quicker to the movement of the cone thus allowing the driver to produce better microdynamics and finer nuances. The voice coil and cone assembly don't have to fight the resistance of a hard surround.

The tweeter of the Sarastro is a 2-inch pure aluminum ribbon. This is the Raven model that is built in the United States and is reported to be one of the most linear tweeters available. I have seen this driver's waterfall plot and it is as near ideal as I've ever seen. This ribbon is used with a matching transformer in this speaker. This is typical for a ribbon driver as its impedance is very low. An added benefit is that the Sarastro has a very high sensitivity at 93dB. This makes the speaker very easy to drive. The Art Audio Diavolo single-ended amplifier, which produces a whopping 13 watts per channel, had no problem driving this speaker to satisfying levels.

The 11-inch woofer is used with a port and is tuned to a fourth-order Bessel alignment. This allows the bass response of the Sarastros to be quite low and the manufacturer's specifications rate it at 20Hz to 50kHz (+/-3dB). Just a small note here, when a speaker has a plus or minus 3dB extension that is below 30Hz and specifically in the range of 20Hz to 25Hz, this is very, very low in deed. The bass in this region is actually not heard so much as actually felt by the body and by the chest. The speaker is rated at a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and the minimum impedance quoted by the manufacturer is 4 ohms. The Sarastro comes in a variety of finishes, including the metallic high-gloss silver on this review pair, Italian high-gloss black piano and many choices of exotic wood veneers such as Italian high-gloss Makore, Sycamore, and quilted big leaf Maple.

In terms of design choices, the Sarastro is a three-way loudspeaker. The 2-inch aluminum pure ribbon tweeter extends to a very high 50kHz and is crossed over from the midrange at 5,500Hz. The Sarastro implements a precision transformer in series with the ribbon as stated above. The ribbon tweeter has a resistor in its network to bring the loudness/efficiency of the ribbon in line with the midrange. The crossover to the tweeter is an 18dB per octave third-order crossover. This is a high-order crossover which usually effects the phase and timing of a driver. I'm going to talk about this later, along with its sonic characteristics. The reason that the tweeter is crossed over at a very steep 18dB per octave slope and at a high crossover point of 5,500 Hz, is to avoid a crossover point in the very critical upper midrange and also, to better protect the tweeter.

The midrange and woofer both use low-slope 6dB per octave crossovers. These crossovers contain an absolutely minimal amount of parts due to the high quality of the drivers. A simple inductor coil is used for the woofer and another inductor coil along with a capacitor is used for the midrange. Incidentally, the crossover from woofer to midrange is at 150Hz. In my experience, shallow 6dB per octave crossovers sound much more natural, are more open and are also more musical to my ears. I applaud Verity Audio for using lower slope crossovers on the woofer and the midrange. One of the benefits of lower-order crossovers is that there is an absolute minimum of components in the crossover that aid in the transparency and openness of a speaker. It also allows the amplifier to better grab and control the drivers. Another benefit is that the crossover is time and phase coherent. This means that all the musical frequencies arrive at the listener's ear at the same time. They are not jumbled up in the time domain.

 

How Does It Sound?
The Sarastros also took a very long time to fully break in. After two months, they finally relaxed to almost fully broken-in. Before this, there was a slight lack of ease in the music, not harshness or brightness, but just a slight irritation that wouldn't allow me to fully relax and unwind into the music. At no time however, can I say that the Sarastros were irritating, even right out of the box. Be very careful when auditioning the Sarastros because they do really take a long time to substantially break-in. This is also very typical of speakers in general, as it takes a great amount of time to fully break-in the wiring inside the speaker, the binding posts, the solder, the capacitors, the inductors, the resistors, as well as the actual suspension of the drivers, even including the break-in of the wiring within the drivers. I've had speakers that have taken a good part of six months to fully break-in.

The most impressive feature of the Sarastros is the unique and very rare combination of marrying detail and transparency with musicality and an ease of listening. In my experience, this is truly rare, especially in loudspeakers. Some speakers are very detailed, very precise, and have a great deal of 'audiophile' qualities but are just not listenable beyond about 10 to 15 minutes. for me personally. On the other hand, I have heard other speakers that are very easy to listen to, have great warmth and musicality but do not have the transparency and clarity, which helps in creating the illusion of live music. I'm sure you've heard speakers that fall into both of these camps. Very rarely do I find a component, especially a loudspeaker, which can accomplish both of these at the same time. This is the major magic of the Sarastros. True, they are very expensive loudspeakers, but other loudspeakers, even at this price level, just do not do this. The Sarastros have an incredible balance between the initial quickness, the "bite" of say, a trumpet, combined with the horn sweetness of that instrument including all the nuances as well as the decay characteristics.

In James Taylor's song "You've Got a Friend," the Sarastros produced both the quickness of the plucking of the guitar strings on the initial transients as well as the smoothness of the fundamental, including the woody resonance and body of the guitar. Another example is in the song "Please Don't Go" where these words are repeated in the chorus. This "Please Don't Go" chorus was very smooth and very musical and, at the same time, I easily heard the different nuances and phrasings each time these words are repeated in the chorus. I was not aware of the different phrasing, as I've never heard this so clearly in any other loudspeaker. Also in this same song, the echo reverberation and decay was clearly heard. All these examples allowed me to be drawn closer to the lyrics as well as the emotion of the music.

Another major benefit of the Sarastros is that they have an excellent tonal balance. The speaker sounds warm and musical but not slow and syrupy, with the volume level of the tweeter, the midrange and the woofer being pretty well even. The reason why more speakers do not have a balanced, even total balance is just totally beyond me, as it is the easiest thing to do, especially with modern test equipment. The problem might be, that designers are relying too much on the test equipment and simply forgetting to listen, or possibly, not knowing how to listen. Thus, missing the whole point of the exercise.

The ribbon tweeter on this speaker is exceptional. The tweeter easily picks up the very soft repetitive cymbal hits of the drummer on Diana Krall's song "I've Got the World On a String," on Diana's "Only Trust Your Heart" CD. These cymbal hits are very airy and distinct with the lightness of real cymbals as opposed to the more common "tttsss" sound.

The bass on the Sarastros is very deep, tight and very well damped. It does indeed go very low. This is excellent bass response, especially from a ported system, it sounds well designed and also, very well tuned. The bass is generally well balanced in loudness with the midrange and highs. Bearing that in mind, at least in my room and in my system, the bass volume is just slightly lower in level than the midrange. This is not objectionable and it is a minor point, but in my room it was noticeable. In general, the bass is very well extended and also is very tight and fast, which is a very rare combination. Also, the amount of very deep bass down to 20 to 25 cycles per second is very impressive. This speaker goes deep enough in the bass that it creates the very foundations of the music and also adds power, dynamics and a sense of solidity to all types of music.

I tried the Sarastros mono-wired with a single loudspeaker cable and the jumpers, as well as bi-wired with two discrete cables of the same make and model. There is absolutely no question that bi-wiring this speaker provides a substantial increase in its performance. It is extremely important to use "discrete bi-wire" cabling. This means the exact same separate cables, one for the midrange/tweeter and the other for the woofer. Internally bi-wired cable such as Cardas, Audioquest and others do not perform as well as the separate discrete bi-wire configuration. This is not only true of the Sarastro but in all speakers that I have tried, especially if they are designed with simple 6dB per octave crossover slopes. The difference is much more noticeable on speakers with these low-sloped crossovers. This is why several speaker manufacturers including Thiel, JM Labs and the late Dunlavy speakers have no provision for bi-wiring. I believe the main reason why they did this is so that their customers would not be able to reduce the performance of their loudspeaker because of cabling errors.

To my ears, the benefits of discrete bi-wiring on the Sarastros include a larger soundstage, better depth, better layering of the acoustic space, an even smoother, less uptight sound that allowed me to further relax into the music at a deeper level. An unexpected benefit to the discreet bi-wiring is that even the tonal balance got better. The bass, midrange and high frequencies were noticeably and significantly closer to the same loudness level and were also better integrated from one end of the frequency spectrum to the other. It sounded that all the frequencies were closer to being cut from the same cloth, so to speak. The music was also noticeably smoother when there was a change in dynamics, for example, when Bruce Springsteen belted it, the music sounded less-stressed with little to no breakup at that point. Finally, the last benefit is that the bass is tighter and punchier and sounds better controlled by the amplifier.

This speaker is so musical and at the same time extremely transparent. Combining these two benefits is, I believe, one of the hardest things to accomplish in speaker design. And Verity Audio has done this brilliantly here. There is clarity and a transparency, like a veil or curtain has been removed from the music. One can easily hear the difference in the recording quality between various CDs, even the differences in quality from song to song within the same CD. In the CD set called The Best of Motown, track 15 is the song "War." You may remember this song as, "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing." In this song, a musician is playing the tambourine and its shaking and percussive sounds are so shockingly close to a real tambourine that I used to play in a church band about a year ago. It had just the right percussive, metallic qualities, as well as the mass, solidity of the fundamental notes, including the sound of the wood rim. The Sarastros are very unique in that they combine the transparency and clarity of electrostatic and ribbon speakers with a body, mass and solidity that the best moving-coil driver speakers have to offer.

The extreme transparency of this speaker provides incredible benefits as stated above, but also, at the same time, this very benefit also manifests a few very minor deficiencies. These deficiencies would probably not be audible or at least not so audible, if this speaker wasn't as transparent as it is. The Sarastros strengths are a bit of a double-edged sword here. One of the things I noticed is that the midrange driver started to sound a little bit harsh at the top end of its bandwidth. The midrange is crossed over at a relatively high 5,500 Hz and at that frequency, the 6 inch midrange driver sounds like it is starting to develop some cone breakup and/or beaming at the upper part of its range. Combine this with the fact that the midrange driver itself is extremely transparent and clear, and it makes this breakup even more noticeable in the Sarastros. I tested this hypothesis by placing a heavy towel over the tweeter to block its sound and found that it was in fact the midrange driver that was slightly breaking up at the top end of its range. Now I could clearly hear that it was, in fact, the midrange getting into trouble at the top end of its range. It is highly likely that Verity Audio decided to move the upper crossover point of the midrange higher than normal to get a more cohesive sound by having the midrange driver do most of the music making. The tweeter and the woofer just fill in the top and bottom of the range. In fact, Julien told me that this was one of their design goals, to have the coherence of a single driver along with the extension of a multi-way speaker. Their sales brochures also state that the crossover point is higher than normal to keep the crossover point from the critical midrange area. This design choice creates benefits as well as drawbacks, something that is typical in speaker design, not to mention in life itself.

The Sarastros had very good stage width and depth, as well as excellent center fill imaging and solidity. The soundstage of these speakers generally started at the plane of the speakers and extended back from there. Very rarely did the music emerge forward of the front plane of the speakers. This gave the Sarastros a more laid-back type of quality as opposed to a more punchy, in-your-face type of sound. This may have been a function of my room as it is fairly narrow. Even in spite of my narrow room, the Sarastros still managed to sound excellent. This is quite a feat for a comparatively large full-range speaker to work so well in a relatively small, and narrow listening room.

The transparency and musicality of the Sarastros makes evaluating different components in the chain extremely easy. For example, inserting different speaker cables and/or interconnect cables makes a greater-than-average difference in sound quality. For example, I could hear the difference between the Nordost Valhalla cables vs. Cardas Golden Cross cables. The speed, quickness and openness of the Valhallas was very easy to discern with the Sarastros. Alternatively, the sonic characteristics of Cardas Golden Cross were also easy to hear, namely, the warmth and smoothness along with its exceptional 3D holographic soundstaging.

There are several small nitpicks that I have noticed in my auditioning. To put these in proper perspective, these are very, very minor points and are not significant flaws. It is the result of design choices that are inherent in any speaker design. The fact that these minor nitpicks can even be heard is a testament to the transparency, clarity and smoothness of the Sarastros. In a lesser speaker, I highly doubt that these would be audible or at the very least as audible as they are in the Sarastros. The first item is that the ribbon tweeter is not perfectly integrated with the rest of the drivers. The ribbon tweeter is extremely airy, has incredible extension, but somehow doesn't perfectly integrate with the midrange. I have also noticed this tendency in other speakers that use moving coil drivers matched with ribbon tweeters. Perhaps it is the difficulty of matching a ribbon design with a moving coil drive system. I don't really know though I highly suspect, and this is an educated guess, that the high-order 18dB per octave crossover used in the tweeter is creating phase problems. This, in turn, precluded it from matching perfectly and seamlessly with the midrange driver crossed over at a low-order 6dB per octave.

Another possibility might be the inline transformer required to be used with this ribbon driver that is creating the problem (or contributing to it). I also noticed that the volume level on the tweeter is just a touch lower than the level of the midrange. This is an excellent design choice because if the tweeter does not fully integrate with the midrange and the volume levels between these two drivers are the same, the tweeter mismatch is even more audible. It is also a refreshing change not to have the tweeter set at a louder volume than the midrange, which is so common in most of today's loudspeaker designs. One of the speakers I own is the time and phase coherent Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i. Because this speaker uses exclusively low-slope 6dB per octave crossovers, as well as having time-aligned staggered drivers, the integration of the tweeter and the midrange is exemplary. Hearing my Green Mountain speakers makes this slight deficiency of the Sarastros more noticeable.

I also noticed another minor deficiency. In my room at least, the lower bass was not as well integrated nor did it come from the same plane as the upper-bass and midrange. I originally thought that this might be a psychological phenomenon of the rear-firing woofer so I decided to test this by simply reversing the polarity of both left and right woofers while keeping the midrange and tweeters in the same polarity. This resulted in the lower bass being more cohesive with the rest of the music as well as moving forward, closer to the plane of the upper bass and midrange. It was still not perfectly seamless and integrated, but it was an improvement. I have an unsubstantiated gut feeling (that means a guess) the rear-facing woofer is not fully integrating with upper-bass and midrange coming out of the front-firing midrange driver. The front firing midrange is crossed over to the rear-firing woofer at 150Hz that, perhaps, may still not be low enough to fully integrate these two superb drivers. Perhaps, this is the cost of having a rear-firing woofer configuration that provides other benefits, which Verity Audio points out in their white paper available on their website. It states that the reason they use a rear-firing woofer is to get the woofer closer to the room boundaries and/or the corners of the room to increase the both the amount, as well as the depth of the bass response.

 

Summing It All Up
Trying to get a handle on the value of the Sarastro loudspeakers is very difficult. These are very expensive speakers by most peoples standard. The cabinets and their finishing are spectacular. They are a joy to look at as well as to listen to. Very important to note also, the Audiotechnology drivers and the Raven ribbon tweeter are very expensive. They cost several times the price of drivers that are used in other speakers of this price range, including some $60,000.00 speakers I know. For what you get compared to other speakers, the Sarastros are very good value for your money. You are also not going to be quick to get rid of them. They are just like a soul mate, made for a long-term relationship.

You might ask, "Is any speaker worth this much?" A fair question. Only you can make this determination. However, compared to other speakers in this price range, the Sarastros provide solid engineering, superlative drivers, flawless cabinetry and finishing. They are gorgeous. I've heard other speakers in this price range including the Wilson speakers and I much prefer the Sarastros. Many of the high-priced speakers including the Wilson Audio's, along with the Thiels, sound too precise and very analytical, to my ears at least. They simply don't have the marriage of transparency with musicality. I am not saying that these competing speakers are not good. They are. I'm simply saying that I would rather listen to the great combination of transparency and musicality that the Sarastros provide. In short, truly an impressive world-class loudspeaker. I absolutely would not buy a speaker in its price range without doing whatever it takes to listen to the Sarastros. They are such a significant speaker. Even if you are not in the market to buy or even to afford them, I highly encourage you to go and listen to them. The pleasure and the grin from-ear-to-ear will be worth it.

You can have your cake and eat it too. They are very coherent, the bass goes low, and they can play very loud yet cleanly. They use one of the finest, if not, arguably, the finest drivers availably anywhere at any price. The cabinets, the finishing and aesthetics are just fantastic. I did encounter some minor, and I do mean minor nitpicks. These speakers are like a good wife, a soul mate. They are for a long-term committed relationship for "music lovers" rather than "audiophiles." Just like a good friend, you can be with them and listen to them for hours without fatigue or boredom. And heck, they even look gorgeous to boot!

I flat-out would not buy any speaker in this price range without doing whatever it takes to hear these, somewhere. You not only might fall in love, but you might just find your long-term relationship for life. Julien, it was an honor and a sincere pleasure to review and fall in love with your Sarastro loudspeakers. It broke my heart to pack them up and send them back. I may have to go for some therapy due to separation anxiety, I don't know. Do yourself a favor, dear listeners, and go to your nearest dealer or somewhere where you can hear these magnificent speakers. It may be a love affair that you never forget or find you can't live without.

 

Specifications
Type: three-way, rear ported full range floorstanding loudspeaker.

Tweeter: 2-inch aluminum ribbon

Midrange: 6-inch damped polypropylene cone

Woofer: 11-inch damped polypropylene cone

Frequency Response:  20 Hz to 50 kHz ( 3dB)

Sensitivity: 93dB/W/m

Power Handling: 400 watts

Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms (4 ohms minimum)

Dimensions:
Height: 47.5 inches
Front width: 11 inches 
Rear width: 14 inches 
Depth: 20 inches

Weight: 150 lbs.

Finishes:
Standard: Italian high-gloss black piano 
Special order: Italian high-gloss Makore, Sycamore Quilted Big Leaf Maple, and Metallic high-gloss silver

Price: $29,995 with flight cases

 

Company Information
Verity Audio
1005, Saint-Jean-Baptiste,
Quebec City, QC
Canada
G2E 5L1

Phone: (418) 682-9940 
Fax: (418) 682-8644 
E-mail: info@verityaudio.com
Website: www.verityaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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