World Premiere Review!
I first had the pleasure of meeting Scott Bierfeldt, President and Chief Designer at Verdant Audio, at AXPONA 2019 in a by-chance meeting. I was planning on heading out earlier than expected on Sunday, as the snow was starting to come down (attendees may recall), and I was a bit nervous about the six-hour mark. drive home to the cornfields of Missouri. Nevertheless, the rooms beckoned me back for one more quick tour that morning, where I happened to walk by a familiar blue glow within the Verdant Audio room.
At the center of a very attractive system were a pair of stunning Art Audio Quartet 845 push-pull monoblocks. I was familiar with Art Audio from an introduction years prior to their 50-Watt SET Adagios, and was aware that Verdant Audio had re-introduced the UK company to the U.S. earlier that year as the sole domestic distributor. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued stepping into the room noting several examples of Art Audio pieces, as well as the premiere of two monitor designs created by Scott, under the Verdant Audio name.
After chatting for some time and spinning some tunes (so much for getting ahead of the snow!), we managed to arrange some quality home time with the Quartets for a review (see Enjoy The Music.com's November 2019 Review Magazine), which, when completed, were admittedly difficult to part with. Fast-forward to January of this year, when Steve Rochlin put out the call to review either of the two Verdant Audio monitors (Nightshade 1 is $7499 and the Blackthorn 1 is $9999), which were undergoing subtle upgrades to their designs. It was with delight that I took the opportunity to do so. Handing the choice to Scott, he proposed an evaluation of the Blackthorn 1, largely in that it had not yet received a published review.
Scott describes his motivation behind creating the Verdant Audio Monitors:
"When I started Verdant in 2018, the landscape for speakers in the $6000 to $10,000 range looked a little different. I really struggled to find a monitor I liked that sounded big, looked simple and was easy to drive in that price range. They were either tough to place, lacked the detail I was expecting, the soundstage was disappointing, too bright, too warm, etc.... I just couldn't find the goldilocks product for me. Ultimately, my wife challenged me to solve these problems and make a speaker that made me happy."
In all, there are four monitor models currently offered by Verdant Audio, all under $10,000:
Bambusa AL 1 (Bamboo cabinet) @ $3499
Bambusa MG 1 (Bamboo cabinet) @ $4999
Nightshade 1 (Fiberglass cabinet) @ $7499
Blackthorn 1 (Carbon Fiber cabinet) @ $9999
The Nightshade 1 and Blackthorn 1 designs have a "Silver Reference" upgrade option (+$2500), whereby offering a substantial improvement in both transient detail and soundstage. The details include VCap silver-gold oil capacitors on the tweeter (Mundorf on the Nightshade 1), pure silver wire from Kimber Kable, and silver binding posts from WBT (It should be noted that my evaluation pair did not include this option).
The Blackthorn 1 Design
The two primary modifications will be thicker top and bottom plates, as well as replacing the hollow tube post with a more rigid solid piece of billet aluminum. It will retain the standard mat black powder coat as a standard finish and priced at $1200 per pair. Customization is an option, whereby the cabinet plate can be modified to accommodate any monitor shape and weight, with other colors and finishes available as well.
If I may momentarily inject a thought: From my perspective as a professional musician, the magic and challenge of the audiophile journey is coming as close as possible to documenting the psychoacoustic variables of live performance. All of my personal and review audio pieces are assessed with this end-game in mind, with the core question being: Through the synergistic relationship formed with other mechanical audio pieces, how does piece X help or detract from accurately representing the complete performance experience? Yes, of course, it is a process of ultimately resigning oneself to an illusion, as there is no equal to the live performance aesthetic.
And yet, we participate all the same, as representation through highly-refined audio playback is a fulfilling hobby that provides deeply personal and engaging experiences. Indeed, like art itself, it represents a deeply personal/psychoacoustic connection that compels us to engage, compelling an internal as well as external identity.
So then, in the quest for that sonic hologram, how do the Verdant Audio Blackthorn 1 monitors fare? For starters, they do grab your attention in many ways, but principally through their exceptional balance and presence. Make no mistake from their demure size, these unassuming monitors will pressurize a moderately-sized room with ease. They throw a wide and convincing soundstage with marvelous imaging. I found they benefited from a modest toe-in within my 17' x 14' dedicated listening room, with the ideal being 40" off the front wall (long) wall, 8' spread, at a 112" listening point.
Localization of sources within the soundstage (i.e. sense of scale) was quite accurate. Although the stage depth tended to come off as a bit shallow, the side-to-side placement was wide and true to source. Indeed, an impressive sense of scale overall.
The presentation never became saturated. Music was always well-managed. I particularly enjoyed the Blackthorn 1's ability to retain full information at low-amplitude listening. This I partly attribute to my VAC Statement 450S iQ backing them up. At 84dB efficiency, they will appreciate and return the favor of hefty power, be it solid-state or tube.
The Blackthorn 1 offers a well-balanced frequency spectrum (in the context of a two-way monitor), with no artificial extension, stridency, or bloat. Crisp transients prevail with a full timbral representation of instrumental sources. Conversely, they present an exceptional reach of lower frequencies, producing tight and well-defined bass/midbass, firm transient definition, and plenty of heft and body. Verdant Audio suggests pairing the Blackthorn 1 with a sealed subwoofer with the crossover set at 60Hz. Upon conversation with Scott and further experimentation with my Velodyne DD10+, I found my situation responded best with the crossover set at 50Hz at a very mild amplitude for a seamless blend.
One can say much when framed in the context of, "For a monitor…" All the same, one will be for want of little beyond what this exceptional speaker can deliver. It will provide all that is behind it. That is to say, to the extent that source, power, and conduits can provide, the Blackthorn 1 will present the best possible reproduction of that cumulative live performance energy.
A Few Reference Examples
Italian acoustic guitarist, Antonio Forcione, has often integrated his voice with those of middle eastern, north/east African, and Mediterranean sonic flavors. His collaborations with the likes of percussionist, Adriano Adewale, and kora player/pioneer, Seckou Keita, strive to synthesize similar but otherwise rarely-met musical relationships.
I found this particular reference recording to be a perfect sonic canvas to assess the Blackthorn 1's frequency and timbral control, without segregating or isolating these musical values from each other. Haden's sound is tactile, yet heard organically and felt visceral. One of the things I admire most about Haden's performance is his innovative sense of harmonic exploration while well-anchored rhythmically. In a path carried forward in true Mingus-esque style, Haden's character is well-delivered through the Blackthorn 1. Tracks like "For Turnya" are heard with all the harmonic complexity and timbral coarseness Haden creates. Similarly, Forcione's connection with his guitar is as soulful as it comes, the dialogue between the two seemingly unfolding in real-time ten feet in front of me, each engaging with the other in a manner that the Blackthorn 1 diminish nothing from the reality of the moment.
Jeff Hamilton Trio The Best Things Happen [CD/Azica]
Enjoying The Best Things Happen, the Blackthorn 1 helps the listening experience move beyond listening to feeling tactile elements of the swing, from the feathered bass, to the placement of the stick on the ride, to that just right laid back walking line in the double bass. This was also a great reference to experience the expanse of stage width, and source imagery, which was both spot-on.
Bruce Hornsby Harbor Lights [RCA Vinyl LP]
This 1993 release was the first without "The Range," and, with the exception perhaps to the fifth track, "Fields of Gray," really broke loose of the pop shoestrings that, IMHO, tended to tie down Hornsby's amazing virtuosity, both in performance as well as compositions. His choice of guest bandmates had as much to do with this, guests such as Pat Metheny, Bonnie Raitt, and Jerry Garcia, who collectively were given ample musical room to stretch out and feed off of one another in an otherwise improvisational, jazz-like setting (For further study, I highly recommend his 2007 project, Camp Meeting, with Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride).
The overall mix of this recording is quite hot, with a fairly forward balance, but otherwise good dispersion side-side. The opening title track, "Harbor Lights," in particular, really tests the Blackthorn 1's ability to tame saturation in the mid-bass and bass frequencies, which it does with aplomb. There's enough groove, attitude, and personality in these tunes to keep any crowd in perpetual motion for days on-end, and the Blackthorn 1 doesn't miss a step. They expanded the walls of my listening room and opened the ceiling without issue. Quite an aural illusion for such small speakers!
There are a few developments in the pipeline for the Verdant Audio speaker line that bears note. In addition to the monitor stand improvements mentioned previously, these include:
A crossover redesign for the two Bambusa models.
A new monitor design that will feature a simple, first-order crossover and low (~1000Hz) crossover point.
Full-range floorstanding versions of both the Nightshade 1 and Blackthorn 1. Experimentations with bass reflex, transmission line, and isobaric designs are ongoing. There is intent to have a prototype ready for the 2021 shows this Fall.
Continued research and experimentation with 3D printed cabinet and bracing designs.
The above suggest an ongoing commitment to growth and innovation in high-end audio, whose objective remains focused on developing speakers that deliver extraordinary listening experiences. One can of course argue the perspective and attainability of a $6000 to $10,000 speaker budget relative to the average audiophile consumer. Perhaps more relevant however is to note the impressive and over-achieving musical presentation offered within the context of this price range.
As the flagship model, the Blackthorn 1 is truly an over-achieving monitor design, offering a massive and articulated stage to musical performance well beyond its modest size.
With the integration of a fine subwoofer, they offer an amazingly full-range presentation with fantastic imaging, rivaling my Daedalus Athena v.2 full-range reference speakers. Anyone seriously considering monitors that will serve a variety of high fidelity applications (and even those who thought a monitor would not be enough) should make every effort to audition these fine speakers. Highly recommended!
Dimensions: 8.5" x 15" x 11" (WxHxD)