Panatella III Loudspeakers
An Affordable Level of Ecstasy
Review By Todd Warnke
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The first and only time I smoked was several years' back. At the end of a long, nice dinner, a friend and I concluded the evening with
single malt - Lagavulin, my favorite - and a couple of Cohibas. The first ten puffs were blissful, but they led, eventually, to the last ten, which took me down that dark path that ends in a one-night stand, bowed before the porcelain throne. Since then I have not regained the stomach to attempt a 'Gar, which is why the title of the entry-level floorstander in the Silverline Audio loudspeaker, the
Panatella, named after the classic, long and thin cigar, put a small quiver in my stomach when Alan Yun and I first began discussing a review. My admittedly irrational fear was that the Panatella would end up like the last ten puffs, which completely overwhelmed all the good of the first ten. However, since I am your self-sacrificing proxy, I took on the Panatella in spite of the rumbling in my gut.
Aptly named, at 40 inches tall, 8 inches wide and 13 inches deep, the Panatella III is indeed thin and long, but at 75 pounds a side, it is far from lean, although it looks it. This visual lightness comes not just from the narrow cabinet, but also from the way the Panatella is canted rearward several degrees. The review pair was finished in a beautiful, mirror-imaged cherry veneer that would not be out of place on loudspeakers costing four times the
$2,499 retail of the Panatella. Rosewood, the other finish choice for the
Panatella, would, I imagine, give the speaker a weightier appearance.
Four drivers, setup in a three-way, first order crossover configuration do the work of making sound. Up top, designer Yun employs a single 1" soft-dome tweeter from
3,500Hz to power the treble. The midrange is handled by a single 5" paper cone driver, which passes off to a pair of 7" paper cone bass drivers at 1800 hertz. Bass is further augmented by a rear-firing port. Frequency response is stated at 30 to 22,000Hz
with no deviation specified. On paper, the Panatella looks to be a tube-friendly loudspeaker with a stated sensitivity of 92dB/W/m and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. Round back the Panatella is configured for bi-wiring, with Silverline thoughtfully including a pair of copper jumpers should you decide to single-wire the
PIIIs. Silverline also supplies screw-in spikes to anchor the loudspeakers to the floor.
To get sound out of them the Panatellas spent time being driven by various amplifiers, including the Conrad-Johnson MV60, Joule-Electra
Stargates, Blue Circle BC6, Manley Neo-Classic 300B, Ayre AX-7 integrated but the majority of the time they were powered by either a Cary CAD-808 or the Zanden Model 600 integrated, both being natural price partners to the
Silverlines. Speaker wires were from Audio Magic, Acoustic Zen and Cardas, with Cardas the primary connector. The rest of the system varied as well, but the main components were CD players from Cary and
Ayre, DACs from Assemblage and Dodson and pre-amps from Cary and First Sound. Power was conditioned by a Shunyata Research Hydra and was conducted by
Shunyata, Acoustic Zen and Audio Magic power cords. Interconnects were from
Stereovox, Cardas, Acoustic Zen and Audio Magic.
From the above list of gear you can be forgiven for thinking I had to run through a mountain of gear to find a sympathetic match for the
Panatellas, but that is about as far from the truth as possible since these entry level Silverline floorstanders proved as malleable as a politician in an election year. Indeed, it was the adaptability of the
Panatellas, combined with excellent clarity and harmonic definition that allowed me to swap components without fear of mismatch - or fear of missing musical information.
Let's start with that adaptability.
When fronting a lower powered amplifier like the Manley Neo-Classic in single-ended mode
(twelve watts), the Panatellas sounded harmonically rich and finely nuanced, which is the Manley's forte. But with the Silverlines the Manleys also offered up a beautifully and naturally scaled dynamic range. Whether powering through a Muddy Waters train-wreck, building a Brucknerian cathedral of sound or traversing the whisper to a scream reach of Jeff Buckley's
Grace [CK 57528], the Panatella/Manley combination was precise, linear, authoritative, and most important, enjoyable. Significantly, when partnered with more powerful amplifiers the Panatellas were not remade. Rather, reflecting fine engineering, more power generally resulted in a firmer bottom end with only a slight increase in dynamic range although both effects were far more dependent on the skill of each particular amplifier rather than its power rating. The fact that I was able to enjoy the sound of every power amplifier I had on hand, regardless of its power output, certainly lends credence to the specs and reputation of the Panatella as an easy to drive loudspeaker, one perfect for both lower-powered and tubed amplifiers as well as solid-state behemoths.
As for how the Panatellas sound, let's go into some detail.
First, the rated bass response of 30Hz was optimistic in my room. Using the Stereophile test disk and the analog Radio Shack decibel meter I measured a -3dB point in the low 40s, which, considering that their final placement put them pointing down a 23 foot long room, 70 inches from the front wall and 45 inches from the sidewall where they were getting minimal boundary re-enforcement, is pretty good performance. Bass tonality was tight and well defined although there was a very slight added bloom in the 60 hertz region. Bass propulsion was cat quick and lion powerful but all the while without losing clarity and harmonic beauty. In light of their
$2,500 price and slim cabinet, this is low range performance that is quite special.
As for the mids, it is cliché, but simply because it is true - this is where music lives - and it is here that any true high-end product must concentrate its skills to succeed. By using a three way speaker design Yun has both helped the midrange, since the bass drivers are not asked to push their upper-end performance all the way through the midrange; and hurt it by placing a crossover point in the heart of this vital region. To maximize the advantage of this approach as well as to minimize its problem Yun has employed two
7-inch bass drivers, which have the effective radiating surface of a single
10-inch driver but more speed than an 8-inch driver, which is typically used in a two-way, near full range loudspeaker. This speed allows them to keep up with the
5-inch midrange driver. That midrange driver is also close in size to the dual 7s, and so has a similar resonant character, which greatly diminishes the tonal variation of the drivers as they hand-off the audio signal. Lastly, the first order crossover brings the midrange driver in slowly which creates a gentle blend of drivers. This is all academic if not implemented correctly, but Yun succeeds admirably, with a single caveat. I found that situating the speakers in the near-field tended to spread the sonic fabric from floor on up, with the bass staying low and the treble staying high. Sit back at least eight feet though, and the drivers integrate with near point source quality.
As for the midrange sonic attributes, the first word I would use is palpable, followed closely by clear.
Harmonically, the Panatella is one of, if not the most accurate loudspeaker I've heard for less than $5,000, the result of which is the vital and visceral recreation of three dimensional, living, breathing and vibrating musical instruments. Who made that guitar or piano is easily recognizable, not just through careful listening, but by casual, next-room listening. Detail is not the dry, etched and emotionless rendering favored by so many sonic detectives, instead it is life-like, captivating, and always a part of a musical event. So capable is the Panatella in this area that, especially considering their price, I almost cannot over-emphasize their skill.
Clarity is also excellent, although just a wee step behind the harmonic magic. Although counter to the audiogeek instinct, this is as I would have it as I have heard so many systems that swap these characteristics and every single one has left me cold and bored. Put another way, clarity over harmonics makes about as much sense as placing legibility over accuracy in watch design. After all, a highly legible but inaccurate watch is little more than jewelry just as a clear but harmonically deficient loudspeaker is naught but boring furniture.
The treble is cut from the same cloth as the mid-range. Harmonically accurate, detailed but not etched, real in place of hype, the high frequencies lock in seamlessly with the mids. A recording such as the Ambient/Tribal masterpiece
Big Men Cry by Banco de Gaia [Mammoth/Planet Dog MR0163-2] will stress every facet of your system, but perhaps none as much as the treble. With all manner of percussion, samples, loops and electronic effects a hard or even a slightly tipped up treble will draw undue attention, eventually rendering the album unbalanced. In particular, Celestine, the second track, which opens with bells, both distant and near, has two sax solos (!) and the requisite percussion and bass loops needs balance to work. Through the Silverlines I heard brilliant extension, but in near perfect harmony with the midrange. Again, at
$2,500, only the very elite can approach this performance.
Staging is very good, as you'd expect from a narrow cabinet. Right to left spread, as long as you have the loudspeakers placed properly, is even, with the boundaries extending beyond the cabinets, at least if the source allows. Depth was excellent, something that allowed the cathedral used in the I Fiamminghi recording of
Arvo Part, Fratres [Telarc CD-80387] to become an interactive part of the playback. Images on the stage were vivid, solid and extremely life-like.
The sum of these sonic attributes is a loudspeaker that seduces through skill and musicality rather than one that grabs you by the hair and drags you back the cave. Sure, she can lay it down when she has too - Miles (my son, not the trumpeter) has discovered dancing and loves to stomp around the house to Chicago styled blues, so the Panatellas were given a great deal of thrashing and all without even the slightest complaint. But while the Panatella enjoyed her trip to the rough side of town, she was positively radiant when given harmonically complex material. Acoustic jazz, folk, rock and blues revealed layers upon layers of detail, nuance and texture. And classical, regardless of scale, was positively luxurious. Dynamics, a second strong suit of the
Panatellas, were evenly scaled and easy to reproduce regardless of amplifier.
On the negative side, the rated 30Hz limit was off by at least 10Hz, or at least it was in my room. Keep in mind that the low 40s is not bad at all, especially for this price range, but if you
were looking for sub-40 performance, a separate subwoofer would be warranted. Second, the Panatellas need a bit of space to integrate. Fortunately, that low 40Hz bass limit is quite solid so filling a mid-size space is not a problem for the
Next, some listeners, I'd say sonic lovers rather than music lovers, will look for a touch more hyper-edge definition and detail from the
Panatellas. In all honesty, I think they would be mistaken. The way the Panatellas resolve information is quite consistent with the sound of live music, which places it slightly at odds with the prevailing audiogeek style. Lastly, I had a problem with the binding posts. While sturdy, I found that the posts were not all of the same diameter. This forced me to run a set of spades through the bare wire hole. It worked fine, but if I owned these loudspeakers I'd probably order up a set of Cardas posts and replace the originals.
$2,500 is hotly contested price point, giving the Panatellas a lot of competition. Rather than survey the field though, I'm going to compare these loudspeakers to the Soliloquy 6.2 loudspeaker I reviewed a year or so back.
The Soliloquys are, in many ways similar to the Silverlines. Both are ported and have similar physical profiles, although the 6.2 is a two-way design. Both are tube friendly, and both are fairly efficient, although the Panatella is a touch more sensitive while the 6.2 presents a slightly higher impedance. Lastly, with their emphasis on tonal and harmonic retrieval, both are loudspeakers for music lovers, not sonic
The major aural differences between the two are, first, the Panatellas have the knock-out dynamic punch that the 6.2 lacks. Next, where the 6.2 has a slightly polite top-end, the Panatellas offer a flatter high frequency response. On the other hand, the Soliloquy loudspeakers have a handful of hertz greater bass extension. As for harmonic resolution, I give the edge to the
Panatellas, but by a whisker.
Listening to the Silverline Panatella loudspeaker was always a joy. When paired with the Zanden Model 600 integrated amplifier, I was stunned by how natural, dynamic and believable the music was. Throw in the Cary Audio CD-303/200, and for just under $10,000 I had sound the equal of all but a handful of systems I heard at last CES. Sound that was so good, and in all the right areas - tonal accuracy, dynamic power, detail and clarity - that this particular combination of gear made me reassess the sound to price ratio of my reference system.
However, the Panatellas are not a one-trick pony. They worked very well with a broad array of power amplifiers and sources, always revealing the sound of upstream components with the most minimal editorializing I've heard in this price range. Ultimately, they remind me of nothing so much as the Rega tonearms in that they are so good that, while there is better, all the competition is in the next higher price bracket. From
$2,000 all the way through $4,000 the Panatellas simply are the best loudspeakers I've personally experienced. Because of that these guys are sticking around here
permanently as my reference for sane music lovers, and as the air movers in my attempt to build a second system with 90% of the skill of my primary system for a total cost of less than $12,500. So if you are sane or a music lover, head down to the nearest Silverline dealer today to see if you hear what I do.
Wayne Donnelly, in a review two months ago, made several pointed comments about ratings escalation. I agree with his comments and yet find myself guilty of having added fuel to his fire.
When reviewing gear two tendencies emerge. The first is a jaded sense of what is possible. With each step forward we are promised entry to a new, nearly perfect audio recreation, and yet if all those promises had even been half kept, we would not only be able to resurrect Miles Davis on a nightly basis, we'd have to feed him and give him a room. Since this is not so, to some it follows that all the gains are moot, or at best, minor, and that we stand as far away from sonic nirvana as Edison did.
The other tendency is a sense of delight at just how well this dog called audio talks. While it may not be the Kings English, the fact that audio gets us close enough to a recorded event that the effort required to take that last step to recreation is miniscule, is indeed a miracle. At times I have landed a bit too firmly in this latter camp.
For me, the component that offers the broadest tonal palette, the most even frequency response over its working range, and the shortest gap between just hearing and enjoying the feeling is the best. Dynamics are a touch lower on my personal scale, with imaging even further back on the priority list. Products that get those first three things righter than others have, in my past reviews, received an undue push up the numerical scale. Of course no reviewer can completely remove their biases, and we are all under the obligation to reveal those biases as we become aware of them, which is what I am doing now.
To correct for the past I'm downshifting the scores starting here. This means that these numbers may not jibe perfectly with previous numbers. Please understand that even though I am resetting my scale with this review that the comments in the body of this, and indeed in every review I have written, always take precedence over numbers, as I have yet to find a numerical system both comprehensive and flexible enough to take the place of words. To stress that point, by lowering my numbers here relative to previous reviews I am not doing anything to alter the text of any previous review. The words stand and they are not relative. So as you look back over previous reviews and see numbers that are higher than the text in this review may seem to indicate, please re-read both this review and the earlier review for the real meaning behind the digits. If, in a older review I comment that loudspeaker A is better than B, and in the future say that C is better than B, rest assured that I also mean that C is better than A. Of course, the wisest course of action is to use any review as a rough guide, to, at best, winnow the field of potential auditions. After doing that get your bad self out there and find the gear that best allows you to enjoy the music, which is the only thing that matters.