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Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Bookshelf Speaker Review

by August 07, 2007
Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1

Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1

  • Product Name: Sierra-1
  • Manufacturer: Ascend Acoustics
  • Performance Rating: StarStarStarStarhalf-star
  • Value Rating: StarStarStarStar
  • Review Date: August 07, 2007 20:00

Typical In-Room Frequency Response: 39Hz - 22kHz ± 3dB

In-Room Sensitivity: 87dB @ 1 watt / 1 meter

Frequency Response (Anechoic): 44Hz - 22kHz ± 3dB

Sensitivity (Anechoic): 86.5dB @ 1 watt / 1 meter

Average Impedance: 8 ohms

Minimum Recommended Power: 45 watts

Maximum Continuous Power*: 200 watts

Maximum Short Term Peak Power*: 400 watts

Cabinet: Exclusive V-LAM™ construction featuring vertically laminated bamboo. Bass reflex via flared rear port tube

Dimensions H x W x D**: 14.25" x 7.5" x 10.5"

Weight (each): 20 lbs each

Shipping Weight (pair): 43 lbs per pair

Tweeter: (1) 26mm high-definition soft dome tweeter w/integrated elastomer wave guide, wide surround, low-viscosity magnetic fluid cooling, pole-piece damping chamber. Fully manufactured by SEAS of Norway

Woofer: (1) proprietary 5.25” long throw mineral-filled polypropylene cone, non-resonant cast aluminum frame, copper shorting rings, low-inductance motor assembly, vented pole-piece and vented spider.

Connectors: (2) gold plated all metal 5 way binding posts.

Inserts: (1) ¼” x 20 inserts for mounting to stands

Warranty: 7 year parts and labor

 *Unclipped peaks

 **Grille Off


  • Imaging
  • Bass response
  • Treble extension
  • Two beautiful finish options
  • 7 year warrantee


  • A tad bass heavy? (is this really a con?!?)


Ascend Sierra-1 Build Quality

Sierra_grillon.JPGIf I had to describe it in a word, that word would be "pandemonium." That was what seemed to be happening in the audiophile community as Ascend Acoustics announced their new "reference" bookshelf speakers, the Sierra-1's. Long time lovers of the brand were putting their beloved speakers up for sale with the Sierra-1's on pre-order. Threads in various forums sprang up with titles as confusing as "Sierra-1's or New Car?" or "I've got 10 grand to spend, Sierra-1's?" Um… what? Sight unseen, ear unheard, the Sierra's were being compared and debated against speakers many times their price. Fanaticism? Rabid consumerism? Prescience? I just didn’t know what to think.

What I did know was that we had been trying to get a pair of Ascend anything to review. For whatever reason, we hadn't secured a review sample in a while and our adoring fans (well, readers and sometimes I'm not sure exactly how adoring they are) had been clamoring for one. Well, serendipity played her hand as the moon eclipsed the sun, the stars aligned, and somewhere an alien with three eyes but only one eyebrow looked at the heavens, confused. We had finally secured a review, but not just any review, a review of these highly anticipated speakers.

Build Quality

Sierra_inbox.JPGThe Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1s arrived well packaged, double boxed and protected by huge foam endcaps. The thin layer of foam fabric (for lack of a better term) shredded as soon as I touched it so it won't be able to be reused for the return trip. The box had a few dings on it but the speakers were completely undamaged. It is becoming more and more important as shipping companies in price wars hire more people with fewer and fewer fingers to handle your products carefully. I've literally had boxes falling apart from the abuse they've taken at the hands of these so called shipping "professionals." It is to the point now that I wouldn't trust most of them to deliver a piece of adamantium undamaged.

Sierra_grain.JPGBamboo. For those of you that don't know, bamboo is one of the few truly renewable "wood" resources out there. It is basically a grass and grows like crazy. It is both hard and flexible and can be fashioned into any number of items including floors, fences, bridges, toilets, drinkware, furniture, and apparently speakers. When I read that Ascend Acoustics had constructed the Sierra-1's out of bamboo, I thought, "Surely they mean that they have bamboo veneer." Well, no, they are solid bamboo, a choice that Ascend made to reduce cabinet resonances despite how hard it is to work with the material. Well, I don’t know anything about that but I will say that the look of bamboo is one of my favorites. The review sample I got was in the natural finish (I would have requested natural had I had the option) and was stunning. From a distance, it just looks like a strange wood grain but from up close, you can clearly see all the different little strips of bamboo that have been glued together in order to create the boards large enough to turn into furniture and speakers. Plus, it's renewable! You can go to bed feeling good that you saved a tree or something.

Sierra_back.JPGTaking a closer look at the speaker, you'll notice a few things. First, there isn't the normal "plastic binding plate" that you see on so many speakers. The high quality 5 way binding posts are mounted directly to the cabinet. Just below them there is a brass threaded insert presumably for wall or stand mounting. The rear port dictates that you give the speaker a little room between the wall and the back baffle. The binding posts make this not only a suggestion but a necessity. You just aren't going to get the back of this speaker that close to something especially if you use banana plugs like I do. There are no provisions for feet or included sticky rubber pads for the bottom of the speaker. The sturdy grill is held tightly on four little plastic nubs. While you can install it either way, only one is the right way. Just look at the label on the bottom, it'll tell you whether you have it on correctly or not.

Taking an even closer look at the speaker, the vertical sides of the front of the speaker are rounded but all the other edges are sharp. It seems that bamboo might be a little susceptible to wear as I noticed a few of the edges already dulled (straight out of the box). You can also see the interior grain of the bamboo where the edges don't exactly match up. This was only present on one of the speakers. With the piano black finish, you are unlikely to ever see such imperfections. Bamboo just has such a detailed grain that any little misstep in construction is likely to be noticeable. Ascend Acoustics assures me that the pair of naturals I received were amongst the very first off our production line. They are carefully inspecting each natural pair of cabinets for these types of defects and are actually matching pairs by hand. An similar defects found will be labeled as "B-Stock" and sold at a discount. To my mind (and wallet), this is just the sort of "defect" that's I'd be willing to accept.

Sierra_edge1.JPG     Sierra_edge2.JPG

Sierra_apart.JPGOpening up the speakers, I was pleased to see a cast rather than a stamped basket on the woofer. While the review sample wasn't shielded, the shielding option is something that I would suggest that everyone think hard about. For about 5% of the cost of the speaker, you won't have to worry about the magnets interfering with your display or (more importantly) anything with a hard drive near it. As HTPCs and music servers get more and more common, this is an issue that people should get more worried about. The cabinet was well braced (obscenely well braced actually) with a central brace between the woofer and the tweeter and corner braces at each of the corners. Match that with the 3/4" bamboo cabinet and you have an extremely inert box. The crossover was attached firmly to the bottom of the cabinet and appeared to be constructed of high quality components as expected for a speaker of this caliber. The interior was lined with what looked to be shredded fiberglass board in a mesh bag. It was nice in that it kept the entire interior really organized and neat. 

Sierra_brace.JPG     Sierra_crossover.JPG

Sierra_woofer_back.JPG     Sierra_woofer_side.JPG

Sierra-1 Setup and Listening Tests

Sierra_front.JPGWhen setting up speakers, placement is always an important consideration. I set the speakers up about 7 1/2 feet from each other and each was about 7 1/2 feet from me. Neither of the speakers was closer than 1 1/2 feet from either a side or back wall. From here I played with the toe-in and decided that I preferred them toed-in just a hair. With the Sierra's pointed directly at me, I felt like they were way too forward and "in your face". You're going to have to play with the speakers in your room to see what you like best.

When ordering the Sierra-1's, you have the option of full shielding or not. This is usually associated with center channels which tend to live very close to displays. CRTs in particular are susceptible to magnetic interference from unshielded drivers. But the Sierra-1 isn't a center channel… or is it? If you'd like to use a Sierra-1 as a center channel, Ascend Acoustics will reorient the tweeter and provide a larger grill so that you can lay the speaker down on its side for easier placement near a display.

Listening Tests
Sierra_tweeter.JPGWhile you can look forward to reading about the Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 in our forthcoming bookshelf speaker shootout, for now you'll have to do with my observations and a few comparisons to the speakers I had on hand. The Usher Audio S-520's impressed me more than most any speaker has on an initial listen - especially at their price point. At $400 a pair (fully shielded and piano black) we are looking at a speaker that costs less than half as much as the Ascend Sierra's. They are just over half the size of the Sierra's as well. Regardless, it is important to remember that these comparisons were done sighted, by me, in my room. Many factors unrelated to the speakers in question could affect my perceptions. As always, you'll want to hear each of these speakers yourself before buying. I powered the Sierra-1's with Emotiva Audio's reference stereo combo the RSP-1 and the RPA-1 fed by a Denon DVD-3910 in pure direct mode.

One note; Ascend provides with each matched pair of speakers a chart of the frequency response of each speaker. These speakers are matched by hand to within +/-1dB of each other! The frequency response graph is actually from the production line measurements. Much like your first child's hand prints, proud owners can frame these and put them next to each speaker or mount on a wall for envious friends to see.

CD: Yello – the eye
yelloImaging. If you don't know what it is, you need new speakers. And if you want to know what it is, pick up a pair of Sierra-1's. The Sierra-1's really surprised me in their ability to image well. I placed the Sierra's in a variety of orientations - pointed straight forward, straight at me, and at a variety of toe-in angles. In every position, they imaged spectacularly. The soundstage was rock solid with vocals and instruments well placed and located. During this part of the testing, I did notice a little port noise as I was moving the speakers but I NEVER heard it from the listening position at ANY volume.

The only real "problem" I had with the Sierra's was a bit too much bass. That sounds weird in a bookshelf speaker review, but the Sierra's had such a strong bass response that I occasionally noticed a bit too much hold over on some notes and the midrange seemed a tad ill defined. In this case, this isn't such a bad tradeoff. For the most detailed midrange response, Ascend recommends using a subwoofer and crossover the speaker over at 60Hz. There was little music that I threw at the Sierra's that I felt was in need of a sub. The bass extension was even enough for the dreaded "Track 6" test that I put most speakers through. Will the Sierra's benefit from a sub, sure, but only to fill out the bottom end of the kick drum and for the occasional challenging track. Oh, and movies. You'll definitely need it for movies. But I didn’t need to tell you that did I?

CD: Bang & Olufsen Vol. XIII – The Sound of Perfection
Sierra_woofer.JPGIt is hard for me to get away from this CD for reviews. There is just so much here to listen too. Just when I think I've exhausted every track, every nuance, I hear something else. I used this album a lot for the comparison of the speaker pairs I had on hand. One thing I was really interested in was treble extension. Once you get past your bass addiction (you can always tell a noobie as that's all they care about) you'll learn that treble is just as important. The Sierra's tweeter performed remarkably well easily out extending the Usher's. High hat's, cymbals, and more were easily reproduced. There were a couple of  cases where I was hearing things with the Sierra's that I wasn't hearing at all with other speakers. The Sierra's were less fatiguing and mostly held together even at higher volumes. Overall, the Sierra's provided an excellent listening experience.

CD: Various - Jazz at the Pawnshop
jazz.jpgLike many of you reading this, I used to keep close track of the albums used for reviews and would occasionally pick one up. Jazz at the Pawnshop was just such an album. With lots of fast percussion, clarinet, sax, and xylophone, it is chock full of sounds that are both easily recognizable and hard on speakers. With the Sierra-1's I found myself enjoying this album as if it were the first time I'd ever listened to it. As a former bass guitarist in a jazz band, this album has a sort of nostalgia that makes me want to pick up the bass again. The imaging with the Sierra's was so good, it made be feel like I was actually sitting directly behind the band at a little night club (it's the clapping that ruins the "front row center" feeling). The bass did muddy up a bit during some of the more complex and challenging sections but overall the presentation was very good. The clarinet sounded very lifelike and realistic, the cymbals and snare were tight and present, and the bass guitar was sufficiently throaty and reverberant. There was definitely some information on the low end that was missing from the drum solos but the depth that the Ascend Sierra-1's reached was pretty staggering.

One thing that really struck me as I was listening to this album was how well the Sierra's provided an accurate and lifelike presentation of the music without being overly bright or "in your face." You hear terms like "laid back" and "warm" bandied about forums and audio discussions all the time and for each the connotations of those words is different. Let's just say this, I found the Sierra's to be very engaging - and that is a very good quality in a speaker.

Sierra-1 Measurements and Conclusion


To get a better idea of what was going on, we pulled a few measurements of the Sierra 1’s. There is a slight dip in the 1kHz to 4kHz range both at 1 meter and via nearfield measurements on/off axis.  Or, another way to look at it is there is a slight elevated response in the 5kHz to 10kHz region.  This may explain why Tom felt the midrange was a bit recessed in his listening sessions.  Bass is definitely a strong point for these speakers with a 3dB point in the upper 40Hz region.  Though don’t expect to get high SPL’s at these frequencies as you are limited by the cone excursion of such a small woofer.  We still recommend crossing these speakers over at 80Hz and letting a good sub or two handle the bass duties below that region.

Impedance / Phase Ascend Sierra 1 (from manufacturer)

Though we didn’t measure impedance/ phase, judging by the manufacturers measurements the +-45deg phase shift and relatively moderate sensitivity and 5 ohm impedance magnitude in the lower frequency band suggests usage of quality amplification from the likes of Emotiva, B&K, etc is advised.  We measured an average sensitivity of 86dB at 1 watt so don’t be alarmed that these speakers will need quite a powerful amplifier (recommended 100+ watts) to play loudly in large rooms.


Sierra_logo.JPGFull bamboo construction, solid build materials, stunning sound… what's not to like about the Ascend Sierra-1's? Very little I tell you… very little at all. As bookshelf speakers go, they aren't the cheapest but this is definitely a case of "you get what you pay for." And you're getting a lot. The bass and treble extension seems out of place in the same box. Usually you hope for one or the other. In this case, you get both and in a bookshelf package. Quite a deal if I do say so myself.

About Ascend Acoustics
Our pledge at Ascend Acoustics is to create the highest quality and most affordable loudspeakers available today.  Ascend will bridge the gap between value brands and overpriced high-end brands.  We will bring, and continue to bring, the high-end audio experience previously not affordable to most consumers, into the homes of our loyal and future customers.

The Score Card

The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:

Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating

Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.

Audioholics Rating Scale

  • StarStarStarStarStar — Excellent
  • StarStarStarStar — Very Good
  • StarStarStar — Good
  • StarStar — Fair
  • Star — Poor
Build QualityStarStarStarStarStar
Treble ExtensionStarStarStarStarStar
Treble SmoothnessStarStarStarStar
Midrange AccuracyStarStarStarStar
Bass ExtensionStarStarStarStarStar
Bass AccuracyStarStarStar
Dynamic RangeStarStarStarStarStar
Fit and FinishStarStarStarStar
About the author:
author portrait

As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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