The 2006 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF, see show report here) was more than a show it was an opportunity to meet with the people who shape the audio industry. One of them is most definitely the globe trotting Mark Schifter. I met him some years ago when he was involved with Audio Alchemy. He was then and remains deeply involved with producing and marketing affordable Hi-End audio. Residing with his family in Boulder Colorado he also maintains a residence in China and another in Khabarovsk Russia. At the present time he is setting up a speaker building plant in, I kid you not Cali Colombia. In the process he has learned the languages and the cultural and business climate of these nations. He spends a substantial amount of his time in China where along with his business partner Mr. Pu they established an umbrella company called Sound Art China. Within the framework of this company they operate Onix America. If there is a future for our hobby than it must befall entrepreneurs like him who confront an escalating spiral of increasingly expensive and unobtainable audio systems.
Mark Schifter heads up his U.S. operation by employing a streamlined marketing concept, they have no middleman dealer network. His site is called av123.com and it is a web based direct to buyer distribution system. Of course this is not the only web-based source for Hi-End audio components. And I must not fail to pass along an honorable mention to two other value-based entrepreneurs like Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio and Roy Hall of Music Hall. However there is no one more actively involved with the conceptual development and manufacture of the products he markets. Mark Schifter and his partners own and operate the Chinese factory that fabricates the Rocket brand speakers that he sells. Therefore he is in a position to leverage deals that are hard to match anywhere else. Make no mistake it is not the man nor the company but the cause that I espouse I want every one who loves quality music to be able to fully enjoy it in their own home.
Marriott Tech Center Room 2004
There was a full line of electronics and speakers of every type in the Denver AV123 presentation. They displayed so many, things that they spilled out onto a table set up in the hallway On that table I saw a hard to believe price under $200 for a sub woofer. But for me the hi-lite was most certainly the début of the Strata Mini speakers. Even as I listened in the small confines of this room under difficult show conditions their sound was exceptionally fine. All of the speakers in their line have the Rocket brand prefix followed by a name or number designation. Mind you I am always captured by the sound of wide-open and delicately articulate speakers. Just like my reference Quad ESL 63 electrostatic speakers the SM (Strata Mini) 8” planar ribbon midrange and 1” ribbon tweeter have the very same ability to portray a clear realistic image comprised of fine details. During my visit I was informed that the Strata Minis had a built in subwoofer and amplifier.
Av123.com usually offers a few online package deals. During the course of my evaluation I have on many occasions needed to call the Tech support / customer hotline to ask for clarification and assistance. And on one occasion they honored a speaker warranty by sending me a replacement part that fumble fingered me broke. They seem to have anticipated most every situation and function very much like a storefront dealer. One last blurb about their on line web site. Within that domain they have a place where the owner purchaser guys and company fact totems share pictures, tips and comments about the av123.com products. I guess by now you can tell that I am suitably impressed.
I don’t know anywhere else that you will be able to find similar Internet accommodations.
Lets Get Physical
My review pair of Strata Minis speakers are finished with two-toned piano black on top and bottom and satin black on the rear enclosure. The sloping front panels are veneered with gorgeous South American Rosewood. They stand on sturdy solid brass spiked feet just a bit over four feet tall. They are a 4 way design, they have a I” round aluminum ribbon tweeter on top and just below that a rectangular 8” Planer Magnetic midrange driver positioned just above a 5.25” Atohm cone driver called a mid bass coupler. The word Atohm is the name of the French company that makes this particular 5.25” driver. The speaker enclosure is really a half enclosure; it’s only the bottom part that’s needed to house the 8” woofer and 350 watt woofer amplifier. Each speaker enclosure weights in at 97 lbs. Lets take a closer look at the woofer; this is a very smart piece of work. It is a rear facing bass reflex design using a folded vent loaded into a slotted port.
The rear enclosure has a very imposing ribbed heat sink for the bass amplifier measuring 11.5 inches by 5.25 inches wide. You plug the supplied IEC style power cord into the back of each speaker and then turn on the internal amplifier with a red-lighted rocker switch. The speakers then remain plugged in with the power on. The owner’s manual is a mixed bag that inspires a few questions. The initial setup and positing out lined in the book is very good they even show you how to use a Radio Shack SPL meter to fine-tune in room bass response. The manual has an illustration showing the preferred amplifier hook up. This involves running your power amplifiers speaker cables to a pair of plastic covered WBT style binding posts. Then using a set of factory supplied jumper cables you than link your external amplifier from the WBT connections upward to the binding post connections for the internal woofer amplifier and crossover.
As I look through the owners manual what gets me is my own curiosity, they show 4 sets of binding posts and just below that two more sets of RCA female connections. O.K. so now we count a total of 12 places you could plug something into. The book has illustrations that show ways you can connect a preamp or power amp or subwoofer out to the SM speakers. But those same illustrations show the other unused connectors crossed out. O.K. so I guess you don’t need them right now but I do hope that they offer a promise of future applications and/or a broader range of hookup options.
Onix (Melody) SP3 Integrated Amplifier
Mark Schifter volunteered to send the SP3 along with the speakers. At the time this was a package deal that he offered on his web site. I surmise that he wanted to impress upon me the quality of this match up. (He succeeded) The SP3 is an unusual amplifier with unusual origins and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Melody brand name tells me it is an Australian design built in the Peoples Republic of China. In January at the CES in Las Vegas I saw a completely different beautifully made Melody branded amplifier in a dealers demo and for me this was an eye opener. The Onix branding tells me this version is a Melody design imported and marketed exclusively in North America by AV123. Looks wise you will see a very utilitarian metallic gray box like device. Structurally it is an unusually compact integrated with built like a tank construction. Made of cold rolled steel it has an aluminum faceplate with one large stepped attenuator style volume control knob in the center and just above that a blue led that indicates power on. The fact that an amplifier at this price point employs a stepped attenuator volume control is quite remarkable. Deceptive in appearance this chunky little amplifier weights in at a hefty 56 lbs.
What’s funky looking about this integrated is there are only two, left and right output transformers on top; something certainly does not look kosher. The bottom plate of the amplifier has three cone feet arranged in a tripod and a bulge in the bottom cover over the missing and very necessary power supply trans former (I told you it was compact). It is a class AB push pull design producing 38 watts per channel. It’s more than a small curiosity that this amplifier uses four 5881output tubes for power. I knew a little about these types of tubes but this is the first product that I have evaluated that uses them as output devices. O.K. so someone is going to point out that I they are really quite common, but it’s really much more how these tubes sound that prompts my curiosity.
But before I get to that part I need to tell you the driver tube compliment is comprised of two each 12AX7, 6922 and 12AU7, all dual triodes. Tube bias is adjusted using a voltmeter and the procedure is described in the owner’s manual. On each side of the amplifier are 2 bias potentiometers (Pots) accessible using a screwdriver and through holes drilled though the chassis sides. This is a total of 4 potentiometers used individually to adjust the bias setting for each of the four 5881 output tubes. (It came adjusted from the factory so I didn’t have to readjust it.) There are two things I do not like, the fact that this integrated only has two switch selected RCA input connections and that it uses WBT style plastic covered speaker binding posts for 4 and 8-Ohm speakers. As I say that I know this is a European Union mandated safety requirement but I still prefer binding posts that I can tighten down with a socket tool.
Note: Did you know that you should never turn on an amplifier in a system that is not connected to some type of load at the speaker terminals? Some amplifiers have built in protection for just this situation and some might not. The problem is no load means the amplifier might see an infinite load and may try to drive it. Of course an infinite load requires an infinite amount of power, which translates into heat. At a bare minimum most tube amplifiers have a resistor, which will melt and an open the circuit. There is a warning of this very situation in the SP3 owner’s manual.
The Strata Setup
Let me say upfront my listening space is a giant pain in the ass, somewhere around 60 hertz I have a nasty bass node. My room seems to hate some speakers or maybe it is that some speakers seem to hate my room. As a consequence most speakers require some sort of a room do-over before they start to tell the truth. And yes I do have a phalanx of room taming devices but I didn’t have to use most of them when I set up the Strata Mini’s. As a matter of fact I ended up moving my sound absorbing devices back and away from the speakers sides. To say I am surprised is a gross under statement. Clever, darn clever AV123 engineers are what they are, still the whole thing given some thought can be figured out. The ported 8-inch woofer is down next to the floor and fires backward toward the rear wall and so you hear and feel its effect directly and indirectly. Not only can you adjust the room response by moving the speaker position relative to the (rear) walls but also it can be locked in using the controls on the woofer amplifier. These are the usual three; volume, phase and crossover frequency and the initial settings for flat response are shown in the owner’s manual. This degree of control should work wonderfully well in a home theater setup were you could really crank up the bass levels and do some damage. (I didn’t try it) This explains only how the bottom most portion of the audio spectrum gets good. However there is much more going on up above the bass frequencies.
Typical large cone woofers could not possibly keep up with a planer tweeter and a planer midrange. Using the 5.25” Atohm midbass coupler mounted on the front baffle solves the transition problem. Three more important design features contribute to the coherent, detailed and wide-open sound stage generated by the S.M. The first is a time alignment of the drivers created by the backward slant of the speaker and additionally the curved face of the front baffle reduces edge reflections. The narrow shape of the front baffle to some small degree simulates a line source that is wide open without any vertical or horizontal beaming. To cut to the chase these speakers were exceptionally easy to integrate into my room with a wide space between them they painted a detailed and spacious stage that I could listen into. I love speakers that can image a panorama of a performance. I can imagine the boundaries of my room recede and I can enter believing I am in that space. The Strata Mini’s can image just like that. Understand, I’m not really into doing a review and then detailing a list of recordings I listened too like so many other audio publications do. To my way of thinking this doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense. You probably do not have the exact same recordings and you almost certainly listen through a totally different audio system. Having said that let me tell you what happened when I played an SACD version of The Look of Love by Diana Krall (Verve 589-597-2) For the first time in a very very long while I relaxed took off my thinking cap and just let Diana take me along for the ride. Her performance became convincingly lifelike, an unexpected and immensely enjoyable moment.
The Matchup And The Shootout
For this try out the speakers were packaged with the Onix SP3 amp so the next question must be how do the two work together, very nicely thank you. This makes sense, remember the speakers have a built in 350 watt woofer amplifier. Consequently you don’t need to work the Onix SP3 integrated amp very hard to get music out of it. Come to think of it (and I just did) the fact that you don’t have to buy a bigger amp to drive these speakers translates into saved money. Even though I know you probably do not own a 40 watts per channel Kt 88 powered PrimaLuna Prologue 2 integrated amplifier. And I realize I shouldn’t describe something that amounts to a component comparison between amplifiers that you may not own. With all that said I confess I am weak and I can’t resist doing just that. It was not so long ago I reviewed and then purchased the critically acclaimed PLP 2 amplifier. The similarities between the PLP 2 and the SP3 are striking and for me impossible to ignore. Both integrated amplifiers have nearly the same power specs the SP3 at 38wpc and the PLP 2 at 40wpc both are Class A/B. Most importantly both amplifiers neatly fit into the same marketing slot. I believe any one looking to buy an integrated tube amp would quite reasonably put the $999 Onix amplifier and the $1,195 PLP1 or even the 1,445 PLP 2 on the same shopping list.
I should point out that there is an awful lot of mostly Chinese manufactured competition out there for both of these little amplifiers. Sonically speaking there are far more things both of these amplifiers have in common. I can say that when I tested the Onix SP3 driving my pair of Gradient ESL woofers it had slightly better control over the bass than the PrimaLuna Prologue 2. But the PLP 2 goes just a little bit deeper with a sense of slightly more powerful bass. The Onix sound stage is a bit more forward when filling in the center image while the Prima Luna 2 places center images a little farther back. The all-important tonal structure of both amplifiers renders instruments and voices exactly the way they were burned on the CD. Other than these relatively small characteristics I could live quite happily with either one of them. The choice will probably come down to price and features. The less expensive Onix has only two line inputs while the Prima Luna has four along with a source selector and an auto bias circuit for the output tubes. What would dramatically tip the scales in favor of the Onix SP3 is the prevailing combination / package deal that av123.com might have at any given time.
I really don’t have any way to fault the sound of the Onix SP3 Integrated amplifier. But for me it is a little too much of a bare bones component. If price were the only consideration than the Onix would be the clear unchallengeable choice. On the other hand consider that the Strata Mini speakers inhabit an entirely different universe. The price performance ratio is so exceptional that I can honestly call it a break through product. I would have to go back many years to find a suitable comparison. It would be between the Strata Mini Speakers and a fourteen-dollar Grado elliptical cartridge that amazed every body. If we look at the big picture you will find many hundreds of speakers ranging up to this $2000 Dollar price point. You will also find that the full range (27Hz to 35KHz) Strata Minis clearly dominate. There is one more fact I can add to punctuate my conclusions. I expected these speakers to follow an industry wide cost cutting trend and use a cheaper class D digital bass amplifier. What I found was a very respectable Class AB 350 watt solid-state power pusher. I should have figured that out the minuet I saw the big black heat sink bolted to the back panel. Echoing the strong encouragement of some of my friends that have sat in my listening chair, I am going to buy them! I could go on and on but I would only risk repeating myself. They are at the pinnacle of and beyond their class, they are the value benchmark, they simply have no real competition, they are that good. I take a bit of personnel satisfaction knowing I was the one who introduced these speakers to the readers of Enjoy The Music.com®.
Thank you Mr. Schifter.
AV123 Rocket Strata Mini Loudspeaker
Type: full range floorstanding loudspeakers
Four way four driver direct radiating system with a folded vent
Drivers: Planer magnetic 1" tweeter, planer magnetic 8" midrange, Atohm 5.25" midbass coupler, and 8" subwoofer driver.
Dimensions: 47 x 17.5 x 11.5 (HxDx W in inches)
Weight: 94 lbs each (315lbs total shipped/crated/palletized)
Warranty: Three years
Price: $1,995 per pair
Onix (Melody) SP3 Integrated Tube Amplifier
Type: Vacuum tube integrated amplifier
Tube Compliment: four 5881, two 12AX7, two 6922, and two 12AU7
Power Output: 38 watts per channel
Operation: Class AB
Bias: manually adjustable
Output Impedance: 4 or 8 Ohms
Input Impedance: 250K Ohms
Input Sensitivity: 380 mV
S/N Ratio: >90dB
Total Harmonic Distortion: 1%
Weight: 56 lbs.
Dimensions: 12 x 8 x 13.25 (WxHxD in inches)