In [musical] activity men sail a boundless and
bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage,
neither starting point nor appointed destination.
At Sea in Role Audio's Sampan Speakers: The Greatest Disappearing Act
There are few dirtier words in audiophile circles than that of 'Lifestyle.' You might just as well quote Karl Marx at a meeting of the Bilderberg Group or question the Immaculate Conception aloud in the Vatican. One manufacturer told me in no uncertain terms that if I used the word in a review of their product, it would be the last of their equipment that I would see for free. I did. I used the word, proudly. And I have not heard from the marketing director since. I won't mention the offending manufacturer here, except to note that the product model number began with an 'L' and when I asked what the 'L' stood for, I was informed the 'L' was actually for 'Lifestyle.' It's a vicious audio world to be sure. To quote Erol Ricketts of Role and NSM Audio, designer of the speaker under review, and erstwhile Mazda RX7 racer, "Yep. Don't say 'Lifestyle'."
Oops. I did it again.
But what, may I ask, is so wrong with having a life or style or, god forbid, a lifestyle? Must all good audio be hair shirt, ugly, big, hot running and flaky? Must all Lifestyle Audio sound like crap and be designed for people more concerned with form than function? The dichotomy is, of course, a false one, as most truisms, especially in audio, usually are. Unreliable audio can sound just as terrible as the good looking audio in Tom Cruise's private cabin on Scientology's 'The Freewinds.' Erol Ricketts and his colleagues at Role and NSM Audio understand this. And I believe blowing this false dichotomy out of the water is the raison d'être ofRole. Role Audio is to NSM Audio as Lexus is to Toyota. In Mr. Rickett's words:
Thus was Role born out of NSM.
Now the speaker before you is not your average horn-loaded full range single driver speaker — if there ever was such a thing. But rather a transmission line speaker in an unfeasibly narrow cabinet that does one of the best disappearing acts I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying since seeing Doug Henning make an elephant disappear. Even the smell was gone. It was my wife who first noted that the Sampans had done an audible runner. That my wife first noticed that the speakers had gone missing, or at least could not be located with your eyes closed, is not altogether surprising as seeing or hearing in stereo has never exactly been my forte.
I was born with a bit of lazy eye — it's better now, thanks — such that I have never been able to see into one of those multi-coloured 3d drawings where if you look at them long enough, or squint, or wash down a few tabs of ecstasy with a gallon or so of Evian (or so I have been told), a dolphin pops out at you. It is the same for me with stereo.
Rarely do I ever have an opportunity to walk around the sound stage, inspect Norah Jones from behind, check the rivets on the drum kit to confirm that Keith Moon's 1965 Drums really was a Premier single-bass, or otherwise wax pedantically on correct microphone placement. Never for me has a soundstage indicated to me the different heights of the horns of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis's during the glory days of Kind of Blue.
And when I close my eyes, I am never really able to precisely visualize a sound stage in three dimensions. Whether it is a wonky ear, like my wonky eye, or even poor set up, I am simply not able to do the same at live venues either — which half the time is so damn amplified for me to prefer listening to music at home. So I enjoy stereo, and multi-channel, particularly for cinema, but razor sharp, holographic, hewn from Jerusalem Stone imaging has never been what I was after. And you know, I don't really care.
What I am after is hi-fi getting out of the damn way and getting on with the job at hand, viz. reproducing the music of my choice in my house the way I want it heard. And what I don't want to hear are amplifiers, speakers, cables, cartridges, arms, isolation tables, egg crates or the deleterious effects of mysterious to me jitter. I don't want any of that such that I have developed a visceral distaste of the sound of equipment bordering on the pathological. And that is why I have gone to such trouble to not hear it. (Is it not curious that you spend more on an amp to hear less of it?) And by and large, the Sampans (within their limits) accomplish this in spades. Now I am not saying that the Sampans are the last word in neutrality or bass extension, but their faults are eminently forgettable as they get on with the business of reproducing sound. That the speakers are named after an ancient type of family sailing vessel that travels silently through slow moving waters and is also capable of seagoing voyages is perhaps no accident.
I used the Sampans in three systems, with six different amplifiers, in three different situations and they never ceased to amaze me or my guests who heard them in action. For a while, I had the pair of them next to a very much larger pair of speakers and would ask people to point to the speaker that was playing and I would conservatively guess only one out of three people correctly identified the Sampans as playing and no one commented on an absence of bass.
In the front room, I powered it with my Audio Note Kit 1 with which it seemed to get on like a house on fire, only being flummoxed by very loud, complex orchestral material. It was also somewhat unsurprisingly very friendly to the female voice. It also adored the pair of Leak TL12+s which I now sadly regret selling after dusting them off and demonstrating them to the buyer with the Sampans. In my office, I powered the Sampans with the diminutive Dared tube/mosfet hybrid with a speaker at the end of each corner of my desk. The drivers were at almost perfect ear height. This was certainly an arrangement that I grew to love.
Downstairs, I used them for surround where I think their great virtues were lost in the crashing and banging of Jack Black, Naomi Watts and King Kong. Even a respected Lowther cabinet builder in these parts (he who bought the Leaks) said he could not believe the quantity and quality of bass that was being reproduced from such a slim little cabinet. And this is a fellow who I understand to be grudging with praise. Another feature of these speakers is pasties and I am not talking Cornish pasties either.
Yeah. You heard it right. Acoustically transparent speaker grills that fit perfectly around the driver, held in place by that same magic glue that served Gypsy Rose Lee so well. Personally, I preferred the Sampans with the pasties removed. Why? I don't know if I could hear whether or not the pasties, ahem, grills were in place, but I just rather liked the look of the drivers. And I think here are the time and the place to get a bit technical. As I am not technical, I am going to quote the designer.
It is also not quite fair to say that the Sampan's titanium, eastern sourced driver is directly connected to the speaker posts. Between the amplifier and driver is an electrical filter — well, you really couldn't quite call it a crossover could you — as well as the black magic of the transmission line which breathes the bass of the speaker directly into the floor.
"The Sampan's design is a true one quarter wave TL design. Because at 37 inches, the length of the cabinet is 1/4 the length of the sound wave at the drivers resonant frequency. But even here a vent is used to shape the response of the speaker."
(This is one speaker you don't want on shag carpet. I elevated mine on spikes set onto pennies — I thought the discounted Canadian pennies with their lower copper content sounded marginally better than their US dollar equivalents, but this may just be jingoism.)
Mr. Ricketts again,
"My earliest designs were high order crossover, multi driver loudspeakers, but I came to appreciate the magic of minimalist first order crossovers when I designed the Model 10S in 1992. Since then all my designs have been one-way or two-way, first order designs. My design ideal became the single cone full frequency loudspeaker."
And what does Mr. Ricketts value?
"I value imaging. For me, imaging is evidence of the "rightness" of the design: electrically and acoustically. If the speaker is imaging well it is resolving all the information presented to it, including information about the room the music was recorded in."
Clearly, this is what I was hearing. Whether it was listening to Dan Behrman's excellent blues program on Canada's 'Radio Espace' on Friday Nights, or working my way through a box of vinyl that an Expatriate Englishman dared not take on the plane to his new home in Australia animating dancing penguins, I heard through the Sampan's music and, let me say it, imaging to die for, and a speaker disappearing act that I wouldn't have believed possible.
The tiny full range driver of the Sampan will not deliver you trouser flapping bass or confuse the overpriced neighborhood mutts on their daily constitutionals, but it wouldn't and it's not supposed to. If the volume was too high or the amplifier was running out of steam (the Sampans are not as efficient as you might expect at 88 db/m owing to the electrical filter and Transmission Line design) the Sampans would let you know. But within their limits, the Sampans were magic. Crackly 78s on my restored Garrard 301SW put the performers, including Caruso, dead centre in the room. Segovia moved into my living room and stayed well past his welcome. Not only did Julian Bream make an appearance, he brought along the church he records in. The songbirds heard during the quieter moments made me pine for England. John McLaughlin was annoying as ever, but that said, Passion, Grace and Fire with McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Paco De Lucia was a 1950s stereo demonstration record hoot, only this time without trains or the famous hole in the middle, unless you count Mclaughlin as an a'hole. But perhaps I am just being too hard on an Australian. Australia is, after all, a nation that produced (and took away) Bon Scott, which brings me to my next question: can such small speakers rock?
Motorheads, particularly those of the NASCAR persuasion, have as a mantra that there is no substitute for cubic inches. Well, they are half right, as many members of NASCAR nation are half right about being half right about a lot of things, but the fine engineers at Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Ducati and Kawasaki on two wheels and Renault, Ferrari, Honda again, BMW-Sauber, Toyota, and Mercedes Mclaren on four F1 wheels, show that much can be done with less. So while it probably requires a modern 15-inch Tannoy Dual Concentric connected to the local nuclear power plant to reproduce the sound of Phil Rudd's kick drum or a Lowther loaded in a horn bigger than my house, there is a middle, condominium friendly way, which may not shake the rafters, but will definitely get you singing along with Angus in short-pants, and that is what the Boys and Girls at Role have accomplished with the Sampan. With perfect aplomb, the Sampans can play the whole Lucinda Williams Repertoire from the bluegrass 'Lafayette' on 1980s Happy Women Blues to the grit and raunch of 'Righteously'on World Without Tears. And, what's more, it won't make the dog sick or create a deal breaker with your spouse. You can do more with less.
Type: Single driver, transmission line loudspeaker
Driver: 3.5-inch cast frame transducer, MLSSA matched transducers
Frequency Response: 35Hz to 20kHz (+/- 5dB)
Rated Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended Power: 5 - 250 watts
Dimensions: 37 x 4 x 4 inches (HxWxD in inches)
Warranty: 10 years
Shipping Weight: 15 lbs each
Price: $1995 per pair