The ClairAudient story starts, at least for this journalist, back in January 2006. The then prototype, four drivers-per-side in a line-array (with the drivers still sourced from Bandor), that Audience was showing that year at T.H.E. Show. This was along with prototypes of their own amp, preamp, and subwoofer. This was clearly indicative that Audience were off to an impressive start and meant business. Though I had known John McDonald and the late Richard Smith since 2003, that event also marked my introduction to Audience's Design Engineer, Roger Sheker.
Further, while I had come to admire and respect Audience's exquisite cable lineup, given all my experiences with them, that 2006 show is when I first learned that John and Richard had founded the company (in 1997) with a fundamental goal of building a loudspeaker that would set a new standard in audio performance, ideally, one of crossover-less design.
July 2010 saw me visiting long-time audio pal and BluePort Jazz recording engineer extraordinaire, Jim Merod, in Carlsbad, California. During my stay, I was thrilled receive an invitation to visit Audience President John McDonald at his home in nearby San Marcos. During that visit, I had the privilege of hearing the first ClairAudient 16+16. It was a stunningly impressive speaker: one that towered over me in height and had a projected retail of (now) $72,000. By this time, Audience had moved from using the Bandor sourced 3" driver, to employing their own in-house designed A3 driver.
Next came T.H.E. Show 2011, and the audition of The One, which received my Writers Choice award last year for its unparalleled purity of timbre, utter transparency, and faithfulness of pace and timing. That event also saw the inaugural showing of the ClairAudient 2+2, and 4+4. By this time, their A3 driver had evolved to its current A3S iteration.
Next, at T.H.E. Show 2013, came the introduction of the speaker under review in this work, the ClairAudient 1+1. When I stopped to listen, the first thing played for me was a Redbook FLAC file, "From the Beginning" from Emerson, Lake and Palmer's 1972 release, Trilogy. I have to say that while I've heard this cut hundreds of times, that listen was revelatory!
These gorgeous little monitors served up everything in a
delicately layered, remarkably liquid, eerily resolute, clearly defined, and
musically compellingly manner. The concept had been proven; it was an absolute
and stunning success. I have to say that, as taken as I was with The ONE
Personal Reference Monitor's, and given the initial experience I had with the
1+1 at T.H.E. Show 2013, I was more than just a little interested in getting a
pair for evaluation.
Speaking with Roger Sheker, Designer and Engineer at Audience,
I learned that the choice to use a passive radiator was an obvious one, given
the two-fold benefits they afford. In this application, they both offer enhanced
bass extension and prevent the A3S driver from unloading below the tuning
frequency. That eventuality would be bad for reliability, as it would allow for
over excursion of A3S drivers.
Further, as a true bipolar design (both A3S drivers are wired
in-phase), each driver and its respective passive radiator, are housed in their
own isolated chambers, i.e., two separate enclosures inside the same cabinet.
The binding posts are ultra-low mass gold plated brass –
without any nickel in the mix. The binding posts, solder joints, and internal
wire (Audience's own high purity Ohno hook up wire in a cross-linked
polyethylene insulation jacket), are all cryo treated together as a completed
assembly. Finally, the internal damping of the dual cabinet is unique, but
because it is proprietary and confidential, that is all I can say about it.
As gorgeous and well-built as the 1+1 is, the most significant
design attribute is that, true to their founding design goal, and like all the
ClairAudient loudspeakers, they employ no crossover whatsoever! That's right, no
capacitive/inductive filtering, on any order, to muck up the sound.
Although this installation would not prove to be quite as
successful as I hoped, it yielded remarkable
results nonetheless. The problem was simple; the higher efficiency of my VSA's
meant that the lower registers were a bit too loud in comparison to the lower
SPL output of the 1+1s. As such, the evaluation began with 1+1s solo, sitting
atop the silent VR-5 woofer modules. I started the audition with Roger Waters'
1992 magnum opus, Amused to Death,
on LP [Holland 468761], using the powerful closing quartet of songs, "Watching
TV," "Three Wishes," "It's A Miracle," and "Amused to Death."
Moving to "Three Wishes," the Q-Sound effects of the woman's
voice discussing the murder of her children and her attempted suicide, was
recreated well off my left shoulder and outside the wall, and was almost as
coherent and localized as with my reference speakers.
With "Amused to Death," the expansive and dense soundstage was
as intricately layered as with my reference speakers, if not quite as deep or
focused. Vocals absolutely sparkled; they were vital and alive in a way that
raised goose bumps. It was very hard to keep in mind that the speakers under
evaluation sold for $1800, fer Chirs' sake!
From the listening chair in my room, with the 1+1's located
some six-and-a-half feet away from the front wall and sitting atop the VR-5
woofer cabinets, I noted them to be about -5.5 dB at 101 Hz, about -8.5 dB at 93
Hz, and fully -15 dB at 74 Hz. They performed better in either of my two office
locations, where their proximate placement to the walls behind my desks served
to help reinforce their output down to about 65 Hz.
This is when I got serious about, and found an effective
method of, supplementing their LF output with the woofer cabinets of my
reference speakers. After some futzing around with placement, cables, and
metering, I found that connecting only one of my Von Schweikert VR-5 Anniversary
woofer units yielded an extremely effective compromise. Not perfect mind you, it
wasn't stereo. Yet with this method, I could effectively replace the missing
foundational low frequency information of the music. Perhaps more to the point,
the space, realistic perspective, and atmosphere that recordings can only fully
reveal when reproduced by a full range loudspeaker, or with the augmentation of
subwoofers, was also restored.
Next up was the DSD64 version of Carlos Santana's 1970
sophomore release, Abraxas [Acoustic Sounds XSON65490D64]. Wow, I was
astonished! With "Oye Como Va," the space of the soundstage, while slightly
flattened in comparison to my reference speakers, was simply amazing, allowing
one of the prevalent attributes of DSD files – their exceptional regeneration
of space – to shine through with masterful aplomb. Moving to the Rickie Lee
Jones' EP, Girl at her Volcano,
playing "Under the Boardwalk," I was treated to an elevated discernment of the
nuanced dynamic interplay between all the voices on this track, from Rickie, her
background vocalists, and the instruments themselves; the piano especially.
These little guys are the definition
With the Crosby, Stills, & Nash 1982 release, Daylight
Again [Atlantic SD 19360], I was dumbfounded by the individuality
they revealed to these three amazing voices. Listening to the closing of the
title cut, when the three sing, "...do we find the cost of freedom...buried in
the ground..." at 2:07 into the track, in the brief pause just between the word "freedom"
and "buried," there is the unmistakable sound of someone's moist lips parting.
Most speakers in this price range offer up that noise as some abstruse
vocalization. The 1+1's clearly reveal that sound to come from the lips of
Steven Stills, whose voice is center stage on that recording.
Moving to their remastered CSN
album from 1977 [Audio Fidelity 1787], the liberal use of maracas'
and other subtle percussion instruments smattered throughout the track "Fair
Game" finds me queuing it up regularly for evaluations. Exceptional loudspeakers
allow you to hear the individuality of each distinct maraca shake; as the seeds
hit the side of the gourd, they should sound slightly
different each time. Sadly, not every speaker has that ability. The ClairAudient
1+1's pulls it off effortlessly!
The ClairAudient 1+1's will rise to the level of whatever
associated gear, or cables, you
are able to afford to pair with them. One of my biggest concerns is that, given
their relatively modest pricing, perspective owners will severely underestimate
these speakers, either because of their modest asking price or minute size.
Those owners would be selling themselves, and their sonic results, short by only
pairing them with similarly priced electronics, cabling, or sources. They
clearly have the ability to do so
much more. I can assure you that whatever system you drop them into, any
limitations you discern in tonal color, pace, resolution, or microdynamics is a
fault of some other part of the system, not
In my auditions, the better the associated gear (sources,
electronics, and especially cables), I used, the more information they uncovered
and recreated! While I began with the overachieving Audience Ohno speaker cables
(10-foot pair for $399), I quickly moved on to vastly better and even ridiculously
expensive speaker cables, some costing more than 10 times the price of the 1+1's
themselves. To understand that such an inexpensive, miniscule speaker can
effortlessly reveal the differences between $2,000, $5,000, even $25,000 speaker
cables is hard to believe, bordering on ludicrous. But the 1+1's did so, and
with considerable grace!
Overall, the 1+1's were uncharacteristically revealing,
unnervingly articulate, with a haunting honesty of timbre, and were supremely
transparent. These speakers (the entire ClairAudient line, not just the 1+1's)
have simply rewritten the rulebook. With the ClairAudient line of loudspeakers,
Audience has irrevocably advanced the product category known as the loudspeaker!
While I'm sure there are listeners out there who will not "get"
the ClairAudient sound, consider this warning, music lovers; these speakers will
ruin you. Don't give these speakers a serious audition if you aren't prepared to
have your perceptions of reproduced sound forever rocked. Once you hear the
ClairAudient perspective, you will likely find that you will be unwilling, even
unable, to accept anything less! By less, I mean you will not find this level of
transparency, purity of timbre, coherence, microdynamic shading, and resolve
without spending eight, ten, or even twelve times more money!
During my time with the 1+1's, it became obvious that the only
faults that can be ascribed to them are their inherent low frequency roll-off
(starting at about 100 Hz in room, 65 Hz near a wall) and limited macrodynamic
and SPL capability. It is important to note that these are not design flaws or
something that could be addressed with further thought or time; rather, they are
purely a derivative of the mechanical limitations of the physical size of the
amazing A3S driver, nothing more. To that end, if you are willing to invest in a
pair (yes, stereo) of good subwoofers, you'll easily be able to overcome one of
those intrinsic issues, and have one of the most resolute, tonally pure,
musically expressive loudspeaker systems that any amount of money can buy today.
As I look back over my time in and around this industry,
beginning back when brands like Phase Linear and Advent were setting previously
unrealized standards, the Audience ClairAudient project represents one of the
most significant and exciting advances to our hobby that I can recall. Welcome
to the uprising!