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AXPONA 2014 Coverage Part Three: Loudspeakers

by May 18, 2014
Part 3 of Audioholics AXPONA 2014 coverage will delve into the world of loudspeakers.

Part 3 of Audioholics' AXPONA 2014 coverage will delve into the world of loudspeakers.

For this final part of our AXPONA coverage, we will turn our attention to loudspeakers. Speakers are where the ‘rubber meets the road’ in audio. It’s the end of the signal chain, and so it’s only proper that they should end our coverage. More than any other component in an audio system, the speakers will determine the quality of sound. What’s more, it also determine the appearance of the system more than any other component and also how that system will fit into the life of the user. Some people build their entire rooms around the speakers, while others don’t want the speakers to be visible. Luckily for everyone, there are so many different ways of converting an electrical signal into an acoustic signal that there is a speaker for everyone.

Acoustic Zen Crescendo

acoustic zen duo  acoustic zen single

You don’t see too many attempts at transmission line cabinets these days for the simple reason that they are difficult to design, complicated to build, and therefore expensive. However, when your speakers have a base cost of $16,000, you can afford to use a bit more time and care in their construction than normal. Acoustic Zen has done this, and the result is their superb Crescendo. The Crescendos are a three-way speaker using a MTM driver orientation (mid/woofer-tweeter-mid/woofer) using a 2” horn-loaded tweeter and two 5” mid/woofers for the top half of the cabinet, while the lower half features a transmission line design using dual 8” drivers for bass. A transmission line design is where the speaker cabinet is built as a resonant pipe specially tuned to the driver’s resonant frequency. As mentioned, TL’s are difficult to design, particularly when they need to be stuffed into a small enclosure, as in the Crescendo’s case.  However, Acoustic Zen has managed to pull it off; the resulting sound was terrific, and the Crescendos filled the room with clean and potent sound.

Aerial Acoustics 5B

Areil Acoustics Model B5 speakers front

The Aerial Acoustic room just plain old sounded good. Many of the large speakers at AXPONA were constrained by the small rooms, but the 5B bookshelf speakers were in their element and sounded great. I would say this makes them a bit more practical than some of the monsters seen at the show, as loudspeakers find themselves placed in small rooms more often than not. For a full sound, you will want to use a subwoofer, though the 5B can deliver a respectable amount of bass in its own right on account of a 7.1” woofer which helps achieve a frequency response of 60Hz to 22kHz ±2dB. A pair of the 5Bs can be had for $2,200.

Audio Physic Avantera

Audio Physik Avantera speaker Audio Physik Avatera setup

The Audio Physic Avanteras are a somewhat unusual three-and-a-half way design. Four 7” bass drivers are used up to 150Hz, and the two 5.9” mid/woofers take over from 150 Hz to 500 Hz, with the upper mid/woofer extending up to 2.8kHz. A 1.75” cone tweeter takes over above 2.8kHz. The four bass drivers are side-firing, but mounted facing alternating left and right so their individual vibrations cancel out their cabinet resonance. All drivers are ceramic-coated aluminum cone designs; even the tweeter uses cone geometry. The tweeter, midranges, and woofers are sealed off from each other within the heavily-built cabinet. The speakers weigh 88 pounds apiece and are priced at $28,000. The Avantera room sounded terrific, with punchy bass one would expect from a subwoofer, not a medium sized tower speaker. These speakers sounded much larger than their physical dimensions would indicate.   

Benchmark SMS-1

Benchmark SMS-1 loudspeaker setup Benchmark SMS-1 loudspeaker

The soon-to-be-released Benchmark SMS-1 speakers made an appearance at AXPONA. A distinction of the SMS-1 is the acoustic suspension design, which uses the spring action of the trapped air within the cabinet as a restoring force more than the driver’s own suspension. The claimed advantage of this approach is more linear woofer travel, and a crisper sound since the driver’s suspension doesn’t have to be as stiff. Benchmark claims its acoustic suspension approach produces a more accurate sound than the popular bass reflex design seen on many of today’s speakers. While that claim is certainly arguable, the sound of the SMS-1 was very good, and I did not sense any weaknesses about them in my brief stay in Benchmark’s room.

Cabasse Baltic speakers and Santorin subwoofer 

cabasse baltic close up cabasse baltic pair

The most striking thing about the Cabasse Baltic speakers, after their eyeball-esque appearance, is just how normal they sound in spite of their appearance. These $18,000 speakers sounded exceptionally good, but somehow I expected them to sound as bizarre as their looks. The Baltic is a triaxial design, a three-way where the 1” tweeter is mounted in the 5” mid/woofer, and the mid/woofer is mounted in the 8” bass driver.

There are several advantages to the unique design which French speaker maker Cabasse has chosen to use in the Baltics. First, by having all the drivers nested in each other, all sound comes from a single point which improves time alignment and helps to deal with phase issues. The compact spherical enclosure avoids diffraction from the flat baffle of conventional speaker cabinets and also reduces destructive standing waves within the cabinet. The drawback of the compact cabinet is diminished bass extension, and the frequency response is rated for 80Hz - 25kHz (one publication measured the -3 dB point at 84Hz), so a subwoofer is definitely needed. The subwoofer provided was a Cabasse Santorin.

cabasse santorin

The Santorin is a 500 watt RMS subwoofer using a 11.8” driver in a sealed enclosure, and is priced at $5,000. Like other high-end sub companies such as Velodyne, Paradigm, and JL Audio, the Santorin ships with its own room compensation equalization kit, and has onboard analysis software to correct the response. To my ears, the bass coming from the Santorin nicely reinforced the Baltics with a punchy, crisp foundation. Given the odd design of the whole Cabasse setup, I found myself listening for something ‘off’ to reinforce my preconceived notions about speaker design, but, to be honest, I heard absolutely nothing to complain about. It just sounded good.

Classic Audio Loudspeakers T-1.4 and Hartsfield

Classic Audio Loudspeakers Hartsfield and T-1 point 4 left pair classic audio setup

Classic Audio Louspeakers had an impressive room; unlike many other speaker exhibitors at AXPONA, they were fortunate enough to get a room that befitted their sizable speakers. The outer pair are the Hartsfields and the inner pair are the T-1.4s. Older audiophiles will recognize the Hartsfields as reproductions of the classic JBL Hartsfield speakers from the 1950’s, using the same cabinet design. Large speakers are typically quite a bit more sensitive than small ones, meaning they will get much louder for less wattage, and Classic Audio Loudspeaker models are no different. The Hartsfield has a sensitivity rating of 104dB, meaning it can produce a 104dB sound for a single watt; needless to say, that’s quite a lot of sound for relatively little power. The T-1.4 has a sensitivity of 98.5dB. The advantage of such efficiency isn’t just the ability to get really loud; it also corresponds with lower distortion, less compression, the ability to be driven by any amplifier, and excellent dynamic range overall.

Of course size alone does not get you that kind of efficiency; you need to have some very capable drivers. The Hartsfield uses a 15” bass driver coupled with an exponential horn, while the T-1.4 uses a pair of 15” drivers, one a front-firing mid bass driver and the other a hidden down-firing deep bass driver. Both speakers use a 2” horn-loaded beryllium compression driver for the midrange, and supertweeters for the high treble. One interesting upgrade that can be arranged is the use of “field coil” drivers of the type that were more common in the days of the original Hartsfield. Field coil drivers use a charged coil winding called a field coil in the place of the permanent magnet, and so they need a stream of DC current to generate their magnetic field. The advantage of this type of driver is the magnetic field of field coils are more steady and are less affected by irregularities than permanent magnets and so offer more linear performance. These field coil drivers are quite a bit more expensive than normal drivers, hence why they are rarely seen in speakers these days. If these speakers interest you, both models are priced at $36,500 a pair, and you will also need a plan for shipping and installation, as both models are over 400 pounds for each individual speaker. As these were one of my favorites from the show, I would say the cost and size may well be worth it.

Dali Epicon 6

Dali Epicon 6 alt Dali Epicon 6 speaker setup

These attractive floorstanders are the Dali Epicon 6, which use some interesting innovations that set them apart from the crowd. One of these innovations is the material used in the drivers as a superior substitute for iron, called SMC (Soft Metal Composites), which reduce magnetic eddy currents and hysteresis. The result is dramatically reduced odd-ordered harmonic distortion (subjectively the worst type). Another innovation is the unusual crossover structure. The Epicon 6 divides the treble playback between two tweeters: a 1.14” soft dome which covers 2,550Hz to 15kHz, and a 2.1” ribbon tweeter which goes from 15kHz to 30kHz. As for the bass drivers, one 6.5” bass driver is used for sub 600 Hz playback and the other 6.5” bass driver cover that same range but also stretches up to 2,550 Hz. Dali calls it a 2 ½  + ½  way speaker, but it looks a lot more like a 3 ½ way to me, with an unusually high crossover point.

The cabinet is very heavily braced, with a 1.3” thick MDF front baffle for low resonance, and curvature for reduced standing waves. The Epicon 6 is divided into two chambers of equal volume between the woofers, with each woofer compartment getting its own port. All of these features added up to a great sound in the system I heard them in, and these speakers sounded as good as they looked. I wish I could have spent more time with them. The price of the Epicon 6 is $13,500 to $14,000, depending on the finish.

Dynaudio Confidence C4 Platinum

Dynaudio Confidence C4 Platinum alt dynaudio platinum c4 pair

The Dynaudio C4 Platinum’s driver layout would seem to contain an identical reflection below the top tweeter, but there are some important differences between the lower three drivers and upper three. The differences are described by Dynaudio’s DDC technology, wherein the upper tweeter driver is rolled off earlier than the lower tweeter, with care taken to control the phase differences in an effort to avoid lobing. The front baffle is meticulously thought out for optimal geometry to assist the DDC layout and is also needed to help house the bass drivers, as they are a bit wider than the cabinet itself. The result of these efforts is a far more tightly controlled dispersion, so the sound that you end up hearing is more the sound of the speaker instead of room acoustics. Vertical energy dispersion is said to be reduced by 75%.

Another advantage of the C4 Platinum is the narrow cabinet, which not only helps it fit into more spaces and situations, but also goes a long way to eliminating baffle diffraction which further improves its off-axis response. Supposedly the base is very stable, which is a must for a 120 pound speaker with a high center of gravity. The bass response of the C4 is very good, as you would expect from such large speakers, and the claimed response of 27Hz at ± 3dB has been verified in independent testing. While the music I heard in my visit to the Dynaudio room was not from the highest fidelity recording, the C4 Platinums sounded terrific and, without a doubt, fulfilled the potential of that recording. The Dynaudio C4 Platinum speakers have a base price of $20,000 which can go up to $22,000 depending on your desired finish.

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About the author:

James Larson is Audioholics' primary loudspeaker and subwoofer reviewer on account of his deep knowledge of loudspeaker functioning and performance and also his overall enthusiasm toward moving the state of audio science forward.

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Recent Forum Posts:

oppman99 posts on May 31, 2014 14:22
I just don't understand the appeal of vinyl. IMO digital sounded better in every room that had both vinyl and digital sources. I thought the sq was much better at last year's show as well.
shadyJ posts on May 28, 2014 19:44
I think $73k for an amp is dumb. You could take a monster pro-amp like a powersoft digam k10, have it modified, and hire a guy to put it in an ultra fancy custom case for a lot lot lot less than $73k. I still think the Burmester is cool, but it's just a poor value.
haraldo posts on May 28, 2014 15:54
shadyJ, post: 1033282
That big shiny thing at the bottom of that stack is the Burmester 909, it's a 600 watt x 2 @ 4 ohms amplifier. It also has a 1,250 watt x 2 @ 1 ohm spec. Burmester claims it is stable for a 1 ohm load. It costs $73,500. It's stupid and I want one.

What's stupid about that?
I'd like to buy a Goldmund amp … that makes the Burmester 909 look like a bargain … but I will never be able to afford it …. not even in my dreams ….
FozzieT posts on May 20, 2014 21:17
So, why the photo of the gorgeous Monitor Audio speakers, but no review? Did they suck?
shadyJ posts on May 19, 2014 22:58
That big shiny thing at the bottom of that stack is the Burmester 909, it's a 600 watt x 2 @ 4 ohms amplifier. It also has a 1,250 watt x 2 @ 1 ohm spec. Burmester claims it is stable for a 1 ohm load. It costs $73,500. It's stupid and I want one.
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