The Speakers of Planet SET, Part III

Hello again!

As promised last time, in this third installment of our survey of highly efficient, SET-friendly speakers, we’ll look at some of the more moderately priced offerings from a number of manufacturers. Of course, what constitutes “moderately” priced is both relative and subjective, depending upon your budget and your priorities, so this division into Pricey and Moderate is somewhat arbitrary – all the more so because a number of our manufacturers have “moderately” or even “bargain” priced entry-level offerings but also offer upper echelon or “statement” models that easily invade “pricey” territory.

For our survey, I’ve (again, arbitrarily) chosen this line of demarcation. If a speaker brand has any SET-friendly model that retails for under US $3000, we’ll call it moderately priced; if all its offerings are $3000 and up, we’ll call it “pricey.” Caveat: prices tend to change (read: rise) over time…

In this regard, Coincident Technology, which we mentioned last time, could just squeak in under the “moderately priced” bar with their $2999 (without special stands) Triumph Extreme II monitor.

“Moderately Priced” SET-Friendly Speakers

Sonist Audio:

A solid contender, at the entry level, for Moderately Priced status goes to Sonist Audio. This firm, founded in 2004 by the late Randy Bankert and now run by Jonny Wilson, is devoted to producing affordable, SET friendly (i.e., very efficient) speakers. They feature gorgeous, all-wood cabinets, simple, first-order crossovers and ribbon tweeters that are time-aligned and situated behind a deep waveguide. I’ve spoken to Jonny Wilson and he’s a very friendly person who clearly gets a kick out of continuing the Sonist legacy and design philosophy. Jonny also runs cable manufacturer Snake River Audio, and under his direction, all of Sonist’s offerings have been upgraded with Snake River internal wiring. Sonist’s web site currently has all their models labeled “call for pricing,” but a recent brochure listed their newest model, the Recital 2 bookshelf, at $2295. Sonist’s top of the line Concerto 4 floor-stander is said to have 27 Hz low end extension and to be 97 dB efficient! Steve Hoffman, the noted recording engineer, raved about the Concerto 4 in this thread on his forums.

Tekton Design:

No survey of affordable, efficient loudspeakers would be complete without making mention of the large palette of choices offered by Tekton Design of Utah, USA. Founder and Designer Eric Alexander has been in the business for decades and has worked for some of the bigger names in audio. Earlier in Tekton’s history, the firm featured highly efficient designs incorporating Fostex full range drivers, supplemented by a tweeter to fill in the high end, such as the Katz Meow mini-towers owned by my friend (and Audiogon poster) “sebrof.” Current Tekton offerings are (with several exceptions) based upon a combination of large, wide-range, pro audio drivers manufactured by Eminence, supplemented with a super tweeter. (These large Eminence drivers were designed for applications like guitar and bass guitar amps.) The sensitivity of Tekton’s offerings generally falls into the mid to high 90’s (dB) with 8 Ohm average impedance, making them a good match for low power tube amps like SET’s. But what makes Tekton really stand out is their pricing structure. None of Tekton’s current stock offerings exceed our $3000 price ceiling. Their huge, top of the line Pendragon (3 tweeters and 2, 10″ Eminence drivers) retails for only $2500. These prices reflect Tekton’s standard, matte painted finished. Custom paint colors and wood veneers, along with upgraded crossover parts are available for additional cost. Tekton’s designs have been very well reviewed all over the audio press, both in print and online. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with the Lore Reference and you can read my informal impressions in this post.  Like some (but not all) direct order speaker brands these days, Tekton offers a home trial period. Don’t like’ em? Send them back within 60 days and you’re only out return shipping and a restocking fee. I’ve chatted with Eric Alexander on the phone several times as I’ve been going through the speaker selection process and can vouch that he’s a very pleasant and accommodating fellow to talk to.

Zu:

It’s difficult not to make comparisons between Tekton Design and Zu Audio. (As a matter of fact, this enormous discussion thread on Audiogon was devoted to doing just that.) Both firms are located in Utah. Both use Eminence pro audio drivers topped off by super tweeters in the high end in many of their designs (although Zu’s are heavily modified with phase plugs, trim rings and some sort of nano-technology secret sauce [my terminology, not Zu’s] to treat the paper cone of the big driver. Zu clearly puts a lot of thought into their branding and image (which is not to say that they don’t put a lot of thought into their speaker designs as well). You might say that they position themselves as The Great American Anti-HiFi Speaker Company, wresting the audio business from the clutches of the old guard, stuffy, snobby, paunchy-middle-aged-audio-nerd-who-reads-every-word-of-Stereophile-every-month-and-has-his-speaker-cables-on-risers crowd. (Any company that features a photo of Johnny Cash flipping off the viewer as part of Zu founder Sean Casey’s blog post on “Why Such Strong Love/Hate Opinions About Zu?” is definitely positioning themselves as “cocky disruptor of the status quo.”) Zu currently has 3 floor standing speakers that come in under the $3000 mark: the Omen, Union (listed as “out of stock” at this writing) and the Soul. All are extremely sensitive (upper 90’s) and run the main driver with no crossover, coupled directly to the amp. Zu also seems to have the most generous trial policy in the business: You get 60 days to audition the speaker, and if you decide to return it, Zu pays return shipping. Call Zu and you’ll probably end up talking to Gerritt Koer, who I can personally attest is as chill, friendly and customer centered as you’d expect.

Spatial: 

Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with the question, “What is it that attracts loudspeaker companies to Utah and compels them to build speakers featuring big, Eminence-sourced drivers?” (I really don’t know.) In any event, here, again, we have a speaker firm hailing from the Salt Lake State: Spatial Audio. Helmed by Emerald Physics founder Clayton Shaw (who no longer works with EP) Spatial is devoted to producing innovative, open baffle designs at real world prices.(Open baffle designs use dynamic (cone) drivers mounted to a flat baffle with the rear of the drivers exposed to the open air. One advantage of such an approach: there are no “boxy colorations” to the sound because there’s simply no box.) Furthermore, while Clayton’s Emerald Physics models required DSP (digital signal processing) to achieve their controlled directivity and room-specific tuning, Spatial’s models do not. Spatial would not have made it into the “Moderately priced” field even a few months ago, but they recently released their Hologram M3 model, which is available in a standard version for $1499 (!) and a “Turbo” version (with better binding posts and crossover components) for $1895 (shipping is extra for both). The audio press has lavished extravagant praise on Spatial’s offerings for their imaging, sound-staging and openness. They are also pretty sharp looking, IMHO. I corresponded with Clayton Shaw and asked if the Holograms would be driven properly by an 8 watt SET amp and he said that they would. Caveat: The Holograms are a 4 Ohm load. (The Kit 1’s speaker taps can be switched from 4 to 8 Ohms with some trivial rewiring.) Spatial offers a 45 day trial period; buyer pays return shipping and a restocking fee.

Decware:

Decware is an American company founded by chief designer Steve Deckert. Known mostly for their highly regarded, handmade, low power tube amps, Decware also markets several speakers suitable for SET amps, including a couple of omnidirectional models. All current models are priced at under $5000 a pair, with mosts in the $1000 to $2500 range.

And now, for the single driver experience…

In the field of high sensitivity loudspeakers, a particularly interesting segment is populated by single-driver designs. This means just what it sounds like it should mean: single driver speakers use one driver to cover the entire frequency range. These drivers typically have very, very light speaker cones and powerful motor magnets. Why bother trying to make a single driver cover the entire audio spectrum? For one thing, a single drive speaker needs no electronic crossover network to divide up the frequency spectrum among specialized woofers, midranges and tweeters. This avoids all sorts of potential nastiness, including phase anomalies and the tendency of complex crossovers to suck power (which is one reason that single-driver speakers tend to be rather sensitive and SET friendly). Also, providing a true “point source,” single driver speakers are cherished for their otherworldly imaging prowess. On the downside, single driver designs are often faulted (by those who don’t care for them)  for having limited bass response, limited dynamic range and the tendency to produce harsh or “shouty” treble, although the brands in our survey claim to have surmounted these issues through careful and innovative design. In our previous post on “Pricey” SET-appropriate speakers, we touched upon two premium brands, Teresonic and Voxativ. For those of us not in a position to spend mega-bucks on loudspeakers, here are a few suppliers of single driver designs that mere mortals might just be able to afford:

Omega:

Remarkable for not being located in Utah 😉 , Omega Speaker Systems of Norwalk, Connecticut, USA, is the brainchild of Louis Chochos, who designs and hand builds all of Omega’s products. “When you purchase a pair of Omega loudspeakers, you know my fingerprints are all over them, literally,” says the designer on the Omega web site. Rather than using off the shelf drivers such as those from Lowther or Fostex, Louis Chochos uses only proprietary drivers built to his specifications in the United States. Current offerings utilize either a 4.5″ or 7″ driver with a composite paper cone and ferrite magnet or, in Omega’s top tier Super Alnico monitor and Super Alnico XRS tower, a 6.5″ hemp fiber cone with an alnico (aluminum-nickel-cobalt) magnet. An 8″ ferrite and paper cone driver, which will be Omega’s most sensitive to date, is in the works, although it hasn’t yet appeared in any of Omega’s regular production models. In addition to four different, standard production monitors, three different towers and two subwoofers, Omega also offers Outlaw Speakers – experimental and one-off designs that can be made to order. Besides refining its proprietary drivers, Omega places great emphasis on cabinet quality. Cabinet walls have four layers and feature either high-end wood veneers or, at a lower cost, high quality laminates. (I’ve seen Omega’s Ebony veneer in person an it’s gorgeous.) I’ve also spent a lot of time chatting with Louis Chochos on the phone and he is a delightful person who clearly puts his heart into his work and his products. Omega’s most expensive, production speaker is the Super Alnico XRS tower which retails for $2995/pair. Omega offers a 30 day home trial period.

Blumenstein: 

Hailing from the Seattle, Washington area we have Blumenstein Audio. Designer and craftsman Clark Blumenstein takes a refreshingly purist approach to the design and construction of his company’s products. I can’t put it any better than the web site itself. “One way to understand the uniqueness of the construction of our speakers is to list off the physical parts they do not have and then list back what they do have. They have no damping, no tweeter, no extraneous drivers, no capacitors, resistors or inductors (no crossover), no equalization, (no BSC, no Zobel network, etc.), no biscuits, no miters, no paint, no primer, no lacquer, no solderless clips, no grill cloth, no nails, no threaded inserts, no spikes, no unnecessary curves, no nameplate, no structural plastic, no terminal cups, no removable panels, and no internal chambers. Instead of allowing the acoustic environment of the speaker cabinet to be slowed down by all those unnecessary design crutches, Blumenstein speakers are made of just wood, glue, and finish. These simple ingredients, kept in balance, produces a totally natural sound free from the typical anomalies (frequency, phase, dynamic, and impulse response) that are considered to be par for the course handicaps to traditional speaker designs.” I’ve never seen Blumenstein speakers in person but love the look on their web site. Cabinets are made from layers of either birch or bamboo – and there’s a two-tone premium finish that (IMHO) is especially sharp. The firm’s Orca Deluxe satellite, paired with its Dungeness Deluxe subwoofer, creates a nearly full range system (in birch cabinetry) for $1100. Blumenstein offers a 30 day home trial; buyer pays return shipping and a 15% restocking fee.

Whew!

Congratulations (and thank you!) if you’ve read this far!

Originally this was planned to be the final installment in our SET speaker survey, but it occurred to me that a word about the world of Do It Yourself (DIY) SET-friendly speakers was in order, so we’ll cover that next time.

Your comments…

are always welcome, including suggestions for brands I may have overlooked.

Until next time…

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3 thoughts on “The Speakers of Planet SET, Part III

    1. Great addition, and thank you for the comment. I actually spoke with Brian Charney back when I owned my Omega Speakers. He has a great deal of experience modifying the Audio Note Kits “Kit 1” single ended amplifier that I use, and he gave me a bunch of suggestions about how to upgrade the amplifier. Very nice guy, and his speakers are indeed interesting looking. Have you heard them yourself? Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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