It grabs you with its form. You will either love it or hate it. The publicity for TAVES 2014 in Toronto last fall made the Grant Fidelity Audio room a "must see" destination to explore this new open baffle speaker from Israel. Israel, you ask? Not exactly a stronghold of high-end audio manufacturers, but it turns out PureAudioProject is a multi-national effort with parts sourced from Israel, Germany and the USA, with distribution through Grant Fidelity in Canada. My review of their $3750 PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB speaker was soon in the works. PureAudioProject's Trio 15 TB marks the first deviation by Grant Fidelity from its tradition of sourcing product from China and Rachel Zhang has hit the ground running with this speaker. It sounded incredibly inviting driven by Psvane's new tube powered preamp and power amp, a $10,749 combination which also was purchased directly by a consumer at the show. With my experience with low powered tube amplification and even an open baffle speaker, I didn't have to twist my editor's arm very hard to wrangle the first available review sample.
Since the distribution had only recently been set up, parts for my review of the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB open baffle speaker were sent to me directly from Israel (the metal and wood super-structure), Germany (the crossover and German Oak baffles) and Ohio, USA, (the drivers). Yes, this is a Do-It-Yourself kit–but before that scares you away, let me say that while an Allen wrench and a Philips head screw driver are required, most of it goes together with your fingers and your brain. With my roots in electro-mechanical design going back to my Erector Set in the 1950's this was a lot more fun than work and the process yielded a great deal of satisfaction. The accomplishment of assembling this speaker is worthy of high praise for someone with a fifth or sixth grade education, which is to say that it is pretty easy. The design is very well thought out and the fit and finish of the parts is very high quality. As you see here, it does require a bit of staging area to assemble.
Rather than boor you with a nut and screw description of the assembly process with the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB speaker, my audio buddy Tom (in the photo above) and I shot a video of the assembly process that should allay any fear of your own competency in this project. (Link to Video). Actually, for me, being in the furniture business, the toughest part was selecting the finish for the baffles. In addition to the four German Oak finishes, you can also choose baffles made in Iowa City of Plyboo, three-layer plywood made from bamboo. After much anguishing I selected the Smoked Oak with the white oil finish from Germany since this is one of the newest trends in the furniture industry with end tables and entertainment centers becoming increasingly available in this light grey, slightly satin finish. The PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB speaker's baffle is solid oak and the finish is excellent, highlighting the different grain density of the wood. Furthermore, the three baffles of each speaker are cut from the same board so the grain patterns flow from one section to the next. The left and right speakers, however, are not book-matched, giving the pair a more casual or natural appearance. The grey finish is exceptionally complimentary to the many plants across the front wall of the listening room. (Some would call it a jungle.) The other oak finishes and the Plyboo are equally appealing and complement the open architecture of the design. The ubiquitous gloss black and gloss white seen from other manufacturers would be too formal in my opinion and are thoughtfully left out.
Open baffle designs, like planar designs, need to be placed out from the wall behind them in order to effectively couple with the room. During break-in, I had the front baffle about 45" (115cm) from the front wall and it didn't work well. Bringing it out to about 63" (160cm) the magic began to appear. Center-to-center distance was about 86" (~220cm) between the speakers and a speaker-to-ear distance was about 94" (~240cm). This is roughly an equilateral triangle of mid-field size. The speakers were placed on the long wall of the room with side walls far to the left and right of each speaker. Many people would choose to put these speakers on the shorter wall of their room and sit a further distance away. The low position of the full-range driver would be less critical in such an arrangement. In either orientation the large baffle largely hides the pillars and the metal struts, as well as the backsides of the drivers when seen from the front. The backside was not completely hidden when entering the room but the baffle grabs your attention quickly enough to largely ignore the complexity of the drivers and wires. After the first week I didn't pay any attention to the exposed sides. If your spouse remains fixated on the back side, some formal psychoanalysis may be in order.
Speaking of wires, the crossover can be mounted on either the left or right side strut at the bottom of the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB speaker, which may facilitate having your power amp located off a bit to one side without requiring unusually long speaker cables. At least it gives you a foot or two of flexibility. With the wires going from the crossover to the drivers I was able to use the knobs holding the structural bolts to keep the wires from crossing one another and channel them somewhat out of sight. I also took the liberty to ignore the instructions and put the knobs on the back pillar on the "inside" of the speaker so they could not get "hooked" on a person's clothing when someone was maneuvering about the speaker. This brings up another point about the stability of the speaker. The speaker is tall and the footprint is small. A triangular column is more easily tipped over than a rectangular column. And since the mass of this speaker is low (relative to a fully enclosed speaker of this size), it could be easily toppled by a tiny dancer. In a sedate, adult listening room it was no problem, but in a free-wheeling party environment, particularly with the speaker angled back, there is a liability. Installing the feet on outriggers to enlarge the footprint and increase the stability should not be difficult for the company or even as a home modification by the owner.
The speakers were supplied with feet that swiveled and had a smooth flat surface to protect a hardwood floor, but on seeing photos of my room with broadloom carpeting, Ze'ev rushed me a set of pointed spikes which pierced the carpet and improved the sound considerably. Even greater improvement was achieved by placing SoundDampedSteel IsoFeet squares under the spikes as I normally do. Eventually, due to the mid-field listening distance and the perceived need to raise the speaker higher in addition to tilting them back, I used 2.25" (~6cm) thick slabs of architectural slate to raise them. A 3" or 4" lift might have been even better in my case, though this will depend upon your listening distance and the height of your ear in your favorite chair. The result was certainly worth the effort at the time and the expense is minimal, depending on the material you select. The grey slate blended nicely with the smoked oak finish.
I started out with the Triode Lab Finalé F138-FFX Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier that puts out 6 wpc in Class A using EL84 tubes. The sound was lovely at very modest listening levels but the speaker would just not get up and boogie. So I stepped up to a new integrated amplifier from Eddie Wong under a new banner, Magic Tube Research, that seemed to have a much stronger bottom end with power coming from a pair of EL34 tubes, again in Class A. This amp allowed me to take the Trio 15TB up another notch, peaking at over 90dB at the listening position, but in my 6000 cu.ft. room with openings to adjacent rooms, this was still not enough power to bring the speakers to life.
Finally, I rolled out my "big gun," Coincident Technology's Turbo 845SE integrated amp. I say "rolled out" because at 85 pounds I decided it was healthier to build a rolling amp stand than to risk lifting this beast every time I wanted to use it. (As a point of reference, your sofa probably weighs about 85 pounds.) Furthermore, the Turbo uses a single Psvane 845 tube per channel to put out 28 watts, each side. Sure enough, the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB sprang to life, capable of punching out peaks at 98dB on all but the most difficult musical passages. Particularly noticeable was the bass that tightened up, extended deeper and became a lot more dynamic. I played with the speakers aimed just to the side of each ear and again with them aimed straight ahead. There was a considerable difference which Tom quickly picked up on when he came to listen. The tonal balance is out of whack with the speakers aimed straight ahead. The bass is too prominent and the midrange and highs fall off, indicating the full-range Tang Band W8-1808 driver with its aluminum phase plug and whizzer cone is relatively directional. What I liked about the sound with the speakers aimed straight ahead was the greater soundscape that reached into the far back corners. But there was obviously better focus, more even tonal balance and better transparency with the speakers toed inward. In your own room, you will have to play with this, particularly if you place the speakers on the short wall where side wall reflections will come into play, unlike what happens in my situation. With the fixed location of my dedicated lines, it is not very convenient for me to alter the speaker orientation in my room.
So, What Does It Sound Like?
With considerable fussing I was able to achieve extraordinarily good focus resulting in excellent soundstaging both in size and placement of instruments. Aiming the speakers just to the side of each ear improved the focus and evened out the tonal balance. It also reduced the bloom around the instruments and revealed a shorter decay of notes. The Trio enabled excellent cognitive recognition of lyrics on difficult recordings such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live At Winterland and Bob Dylan Live 1966 The bootleg Series Vol. 4. Likewise with Neil Young and Crazy Horse on Live Rust. Smooth female vocals give me trouble with soft consonants, but Nora Jones' "come away with me" had more clarity than I've ever heard it in my room. And at the other extreme, on "American Folk Blues Festival ‘70" Shakey Horton's shrill harmonica was deftly handled and came across as "live and in person."
The whizzer cone probably makes the Tang Band full-range driver more directional than not, but as long as the cone faced my head, things sounded pretty good. I certainly didn't feel like I had to keep my head in a fixed position and I could wiggle about in my recliner to maximize my comfort without affecting the music. While listening in the next chair to the right, the music largely shifted to the right speaker, but not completely. Solos pegged to the left channel by the recording engineer were still audible, but noticeably attenuated. For dance music, the bass is omnidirectional, so it gets a passing grade in that column, but you certainly will not be reveling in the best features of the speaker as you boogie about the room. Raising the speakers up and tilting them back brought the music up to eye level, but it did not achieve the sense of height that speakers with omnidirectional drivers typically display in my room with its vaulted ceiling. The strong suits of this speaker keep this from being a significant shortcoming.
Another factor that had a noticeable influence on the sound was the front wall behind the speakers. In my room there is a large bay window with tall panes that stretch nearly floor to ceiling. To keep the warmth in during the winter, and heat out in the summer, these windows are dressed with accordion honeycomb blinds that also disperse and absorb some of the sound, high frequencies in particular. Near the corners on each pane of glass are placed 2.5" squares of Dynamat, a damping material commonly used in automotive audio applications to quell body panel reverberations. On my windows the Dynamat adds clarity and a bit more air to the top end. With conventional box speakers, leaving the blinds down improves the sound by absorbing and dispersing the back wave. With the open baffle design here, the reflected back wave couples with the front, much like the rear-firing drivers do in many Von Schweikert and Vandersteen models, and creates a fuller, three-dimensional soundscape. Leaving the blinds up improved the focus, transparency and imaging within the soundscape to a small, but noticeable degree. So you want to pay attention to whatever sound treatments are on your front wall behind the Trios.
With the crossovers sitting out in the wind on the lower struts, it occurred to me that they would be subjected to a lot of RFI and EMI so I put a sheet of ERS paper over one and a rat's nest of ERS strips over the other. A slightly blacker background emerged. Is it worth the effort? Well, all these little things add up. Another tweak I contemplated was to cut off the clips on the internal speaker wires and solder them directly to the drivers and crossovers. This would have been quite easy to do, but I never quite got around to it.
The Strong Suits
The outstanding transparency of the Trio is due not only to the Tang Band driver, but the open baffle design, which theoretically imparts no sonic signature. The open baffle design certainly keeps the cost down, not having to embrace extraordinary engineering feats or create mystery materials that go into the most expensive speakers with their inert, stealth-like cabinets. But the open baffle concept does have its costs. One of them is power handling and another is the difficulty in producing deep and strong bass. The Trio is largely successful in overcoming both of these hurdles. Driven by the Coincident Turbo the Trio had no trouble playing cleanly in all but the most complex, demanding passages. It completely sorts out heavy metal and rap music. Orchestral music was beautifully layered and appropriately dynamic. I found it mildly addictive to listen in the 92dB to 98dB range as measured at the listening position. But since this level causes damage with prolonged exposure, I typically dialed it down to the 85dB to 90dB range for music peaks where it was still very enjoyable for amplified music and slightly over-realistic for unamplified music.
Bass was surprisingly good in an unexpected way. With four large 15" Eminence Alpha-15A drivers you might expect to be blown away with deep bass possessing a room-induced loud peak in the mid-bass region. This didn't happen. Instead, the mid-bass was properly aligned with the mid-range down to about 40Hz, where if fell off rather quickly. The Alpha series is the least expensive from this respected company in Kentucky. Consequently, the frame of the driver is stamped steel and vibrations were quite apparent to the touch of the metal. With this much surface area, the cones only vibrated +/- 1/8" during heavy bass passages. I pulled out John Marks' compilation of organ music, Pipes Rhode Island, and played Howells' Master Tallis's Testament with some serious 20Hz notes. It didn't seem to go as low as I remembered from playing it with subwoofers, but the bass was satisfying. Overall, the tonal quality of the bass was not quite as good as the midrange and treble. The cost of a single woofer is only about 1/3 the cost of the China-sourced Tang Band W8-1808 full range driver so this is not surprising. Four times good gives you more bass volume, but qualitatively it does not elevate good to great. It would also be possible to spend four times as much for a single Eminence Imperio series 15" woofer with a cast basket and a much heavier magnet. That change might make an interesting, but also expensive upgrade. Don't make too much of this, please, as a listening session with Mikey Hart's Planet Drum was thoroughly enjoyable without any major shortcomings aside from the absence of deep bass. With this much cone surface, the drivers were hardly stressed at all.
My crude SPL graph shown above shows a suck out in the bass at 100Hz. Maybe I'm not expert enough listener to recognize this, or familiar enough with live instruments that play in this region, but I didn't notice it in listening sessions. Vincent Belanger on cello was "in the room" on "La," an excellent recording by Fidelio. Likewise with the dip at 5 kHz in the treble. Someday I'll get a decent microphone and a computer program that will give me a sweep reading, but in any case, note that this graph was made from ear level at the listening position in the listening room, not an anechoic chamber on axis with the speaker as you more frequently see. Therefore, it is subject to all the room effects of my listening room. This is a pretty good response, given these criteria.
I'm tempted to overlook the treble region since it is covered by the full-range Tang Band and my own hearing is not good above say 10 kHz. Suffice it to say that the fundamental tones of bells, cymbals and violins sounded natural and clean suggesting that their upper harmonics were likewise in proper form. There was nothing I noted to suggest otherwise. Long term listening, several hours at a time revealed no irritation at the upper end. The sibilance normally experienced on Paul Simon's Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes was very well controlled. With most music I listened to it was easy to slip into the You Are There of live recordings and They Are Here of studio recordings. The slightly elevated midrange may well have contributed to the presence and immediacy of the music. Part of what made this all possible was the quality level of my source components and amplification, but on the other hand it's impressive to know that this reasonably priced speaker shines so well in the context of a more expensive system than it is likely to call home.
It occurred to me that perhaps I had over-tuned the speaker early on when it was still breaking in. So I slowly deconstructed my speaker set-up. First I removed the SoundDampedSteel Isofeet from beneath the spikes, which proved to be a step in the right direction. Next, I removed the slate risers, a move that extended the decay of the notes further and warmed up the sound. And finally, taking a clue from Synergistic Research MiG domed footers; I replaced the rear spike with one of the original swivel-headed footers with a non-penetrating surface contacting the floor. This, too, cut down the focus a bit and extended the decay, finally making the Trio more musically inviting. Next I tried two of the flat feet at the front and a spike at the rear. This was better yet, but after thinking about it, the next day I re-set the speakers with three flat footers. This not only increased the decay of the notes, but it increased the bloom of the instruments. The music had swing. My foot was tapping. I was emotionally involved with the music. The space between the notes had shrunk and the bass had picked up a slight, but noticeable softness. As Zen masters and a few Westerners since then have said, it's the silence between the notes that makes the music, and this is what I've altered. On music I've heard a hundred times I felt a fresh wave of goosebumps and a re-play of Vincent Belanger's "La" brought tears to my eyes.
Another consequence of softening up the bass with the use of the three flat footers was heightened awareness of the limited reach of frequency of the dual 15" drivers. To look at the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB open baffle speaker you would think they must reach really deep into the low bass, but no. This is one of the limitations of open baffle design. The Eminence drivers are very good down to their free air resonance (Fs) of 41Hz as shown in my SPL chart, but below that they fall off quickly, which is to be expected. I fell asleep late at night, wondering what the Trio would sound like with my pair of Tekton subwoofers with dual concentric 12" drivers.
Subterranean Homesick Blues
As has happened in the past with other full-range floorstanders, adding the subs (crossed over at 50Hz, the lowest setting) improved the entire musical presentation, adding more vivid tonal color, better focus, improved soundstage and even improved the overall transparency to a slight degree. I have no idea why all this improvement happens since the subwoofers and the Trio are not connected in any physical way except by receiving the same signal through the same amplifier. If I had more time in my life, I might pursue a PhD in psychoacoustics, but that's not about to happen. What did happen was deeper, tighter, more palpable bass. At first it seemed the tonal balance of the combined presentation leaned toward the bass, but after extended listening, equilibrium between the bass and treble was re-established. I've never considered myself a bass-head, and with my reference Kharma speakers delving down into the low 30Hz range I was pretty satisfied with my music without the lowest octave. The subs added that lowest octave, or most of it. Re-visiting Master Tallis's Testament recorded in a Rhode Island church just about converted me to a born-again Christian. The low organ notes were felt in my chest, through the Flexsteel recliner, and even when placing my hands on the wall behind me. I also noted that the open baffle of the sub and the sub's cabinet vibrated, though not as vigorously as the baffles and struts of the Trio. I went back and forth, with and without the subs, several times. The Trio alone is very, very good, and not likely to disturb the neighbors. But with the subs taking the design to full-range status, the Trio is even better. That the Trio alone performs so well for $3500, and with the subs perhaps doubling that cost, acoustically, this is benchmark performance that can put you right in the venue of your music when the room is properly set up.
Obviously I've fallen into the rabbit hole of fine tuning in this review, tweaking the sound to my personal preference. With your gear, in your room, the results will probably differ, as may your own preferences. For sure, there are people out there that will love the drier, tighter presentation of the Trio on spikes and that's fine. But the path of discovery I've shared with you here should make it fairly easy for you to successfully set up this speaker with confidence. The beauty of the speaker is that it is so tune-able and can be tweaked to satisfy the needs of a broad spectrum of listeners.
Hey, Babe, Take A Walk On The Wild Side –
As always, you get to choose. I'm hedging my bet on buying the review sample of the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB speaker. Not because it is not a great speaker, especially for its price, but because I'm in awe of the potential of the design. Their website has announced upgrade kits to this Trio15 TB open baffle design, which incorporate either a Heil ESS or BeymaAMT horn replacement driver for the Tang Band reviewed here. Hopefully I will get to hear these new versions at the impending Montreal Salon Son & Image 2015 show about the time this review hits the Internet. And it is easy to imagine other possibilities beyond these new and undoubtedly more expensive versions. The message here is to get your ears to the Montreal Salon Son & Image 2015 show, or AXPONA Audio Con in Chicago, or HIGH END 2015 in Munich (Germany). For shows beyond that, stay tuned to their website. So, do I recommend the PureAudioProject Trio 15 TB open baffle speaker? This is a new star being born. Forget Class A, this rates OMG$$$.
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