There is an old joke that says in heaven the bureaucracy is German, the police are British, and the food is Italian; while in hell the bureaucracy is Italian, the police are German, and the food British. The joke doesn't specify where the speakers come from in either destination. If your idea of heaven is elegant and romantic, than Italy's Sonus Faber or Bolzano Villetri might take the honor. On the other hand, a more laid back, polite heaven may go for British-made KEF or the venerable Quad ESLs. Does that leave German speakers doomed to hell?
Not if Canton Electronics has anything to say about it, and as Germany's largest and best-selling loudspeaker manufacturer, they certainly do. Not a new player, Canton began in 1973 with a single speaker model and a simple (yet ambitious) mission statement: "to produce the best loudspeakers in their class". Since then, the company's breadth has increased dramatically, as indicated by their updated mission: "to produce the best loudspeakers in every class". Indeed, Canton's current line-up ranges from inexpensive sub/sat "lifestyle" systems to the $30,000/pair Vento Reference 1 DC.
While many loudspeaker manufacturers cut costs these days by moving their manufacturing to Asia or selling direct on the internet (or both), Canton continues to rely on a traditional dealer network and does the majority of their manufacturing in Germany. Canton keeps costs down and QA high by doing everything in-house (they make all of their own drivers, cabinets, and crossover networks), and making efficient use of "trickle down" technology.
Canton's new Chrono series is based on their long-standing Ergo series, which was first introduced in 1980 (the current model was released in 2005). The design goal for the Chrono 502 was, from what I can tell, to put the $1400 Ergo 602 into a $1000 box. Never having seen the Ergo in person, the only differences I can determine between the two besides the $400 price drop are finish (real wood veneer on the Ergo, faux beech on the Chrono) and driver color (black on the Ergo, silver on the Chrono).
The tweeters trickle down from an even higher level. The Chrono 502 is the least expensive speaker in the Canton catalog to use their proprietary ADT-25 tweeter, noteworthy for its one-piece dome and voice coil former. The tweeter's motor system is specifically modified for each model, but this is essentially the same tweeter used in their flagship Vento Reference 1, although with less expensive magnetic materials, structures, and internal machining.
Taking the Box Out of the Box
Of course, it doesn't matter what I think about how the speakers look…you can see from the pictures if they will work for you cosmetically. However, the pictures don't reveal details of build quality, and giving the 502 a solid tap on the side of the cabinet caused a hollow resonance to ring out that was anything but reassuring.
Near the end of the review period, I removed a 7-inch driver from one of the 502s to take a look inside. The front baffle is made of typical
0.75" MDF, however the rest of the cabinet is just 16mm thick (scarcely over 0.6"). Removing a rather generous quantity of polyester acoustic stuffing revealed a complete lack of cabinet bracing…a compromise that resulted in a reverberant boxiness at one particular midrange frequency (somewhere near the low end of Rebecca Pidgeon's vocal range). A pity, because otherwise part quality seemed fairly high: a dual-flared port tube, (what look to me like) film capacitors in the crossover (not all of them, though), and good, solid binding posts.
I placed the 502s in the same position that works well for other speakers of this size in my room: about 3 feet from the front wall, 4 feet from the side wall on one side and 2 feet on the other, with the speakers about 8 feet apart. This produced a linear frequency response, good imaging, and a decent soundstage. Later on I tried my "special occasion" speaker position (identical to the above but 5-6 feet from the front wall) and found it improved soundstage depth quite a bit and soundstage width slightly. The manual recommends an equilateral triangle between the two speakers and the listening chair, a position that worked well for me. Toeing in the speakers directly at the listening position provided the best imaging, however I later found out that Canton designs their speakers for a flat frequency response at 15 degrees off-axis, so leaving the speakers perpendicular to the front wall should result in a more linear response.
The Sound of Music
So much for conventional wisdom.
Once I put some tunes through the 502s, they instantly struck me with a compelling musicality. The kind of sound that says, "hey you…sit down and enjoy this album." It became clear very quickly that, while Canton's engineers don't neglect solid engineering principles, these guys are music lovers first and foremost.
In listening to the 502s, I presumed their frequency response was close to linear. This was supported by the measurements I received from Canton just days before my deadline, indicating better than +/-2.5dB across the vast majority of the audible range. Looking at the 502's impedance curves (seen here) suggests they would present a less than consistent load to the amplifier over the frequency range. Impedance dips well below 8 ohms for most of their operating range, but phase angles are fairly benign, never reaching 45 degrees. They certainly would pose little difficulty for any solid-state amplifier worthy of the name solid-state, and might even work okay with higher powered tube amplifiers equipped with 4 ohm taps. The 'hiccup' in the impedance at 500Hz is probably a resonance caused by the compromises in cabinet construction noted earlier, although this is about an octave or so up from I would expect to see it.
The 502's bass performance isn't spectacular, but isn't too bad for a speaker this size: a gentle roll-off began around 60Hz in my room, with some bass still audible around 40Hz. I'm sure they were intended to be used with a subwoofer (they offer one in the Chrono series: the $600 AS 525 SC) but the bass is good enough that you could get along without one while you save up. Integrating the 502 with my PSB SubSonic 5 was a cinch. I ran the 502 full-range and set the sub's crossover to pick up where they naturally rolled off. Having a properly set up subwoofer helped liven up the room, and brought additional authority and musical enjoyment to most program material. I won't go as far as to say a sub is essential with the 502s, but it is highly desired.
Given the amount of attention Canton calls to their ADT-25 tweeter, I looked forward to hearing it in action. I was, in fact, very impressed…although more by what it didn't do than what it did. The 502's highs sounded natural: not overly smooth, but not rolled off, and never harsh, tizzy, or fatiguing. The music of techno-pioneers Kraftwerk can be grating on speakers that suffer these problems, but on their 2005 live
effort Minimum-Maximum the Cantons gave suggestions of the humanity lurking beneath the surface on songs like "Tour de France" and "The Model", yet are not incapable of a groove…edgier pieces like "Numbers" and "Music Non Stop" still made me want to get up and dance like Dieter on "Sprockets". Touch my monkey!
The 502s are neutral enough make them adept at portraying a wide variety of music styles. Ute Lemper is one of most diverse vocalists around, a characteristic made very obvious on her 1988 debut, Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill. From her guttural performance of "Cäsars Tod" (in German) to her impassioned take on "Je ne t'aime pas" (in French) to her initially sweet, ultimately brazen rendition of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" (in English), Lemper spans the decades, continents, and moods of Weill's music and the 502s took me right along with her. This isn't best sounding Lemper album I've ever heard, a fact the 502s didn't gloss over, however the vocal performance still shone through the flaws in the recording.
Rammstein's Sehnsucht rocked harder, and Randy Brecker's Some Skunk Funk grooved heavier on the Sierra-1. Michael Brecker's tenor saxophone on the latter recording sounded slightly smoother and wood-toned on the Chrono, a bit edgier and metallic on the Sierra-1. I've been listening to Brecker for around 20 years and was fortunate enough to have seen him live on a few occasions…the Sierra-1 sounded unquestionably more like the real Mike Brecker, although I could imagine some listeners preferring the Chrono's version.
That said, if you're an ardent Teutonophile at heart, or the all-powerful SAF beacons you towards something that will harmonize with your Bauhaus-chic living space, the Chrono may be right up your alley. Who knows? Maybe I'll find their shiny baffles waiting for me someday as I pass through the pearly gates.