I don’t have a great track record when it comes to attending regional audio shows.
Several years ago, I had made all the necessary plans to immerse myself in Denver’s annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the biggest high end audio show in North America, but I got into a major car accident on the way to the airport. (A Ford F350 pickup truck rear-ended my Toyota Prius – guess which car won?) Thank God I came out with nothing worse than a totally ruined car and a bad case of the post-wreck jitters, but I was just too rattled after the crash to make the trip to Denver.
Then, a few years later, a trip to Northern California to visit my in-laws just happened to coincide with the California Audio Show! Happy as the proverbial kid in a candy store, I got to duck into the show for about 3 hours total.
Two rooms really impressed me that afternoon. One was the Audio Note room, where a pair of AN-E’s, fed by what must have been tens of thousands of dollars of Audio Note electronics, was making wonderful music.
The other very impressive room that day belonged to Fritz Speakers, which is the high end speaker firm run by John “Fritz” Heiler. I’d actually spoken to Fritz a number of times on the phone over the course of several years. I’m an active poster on Audiogon, Audio Asylum and several other audio forums, and when Fritz read in a post that I was selling my Merlin TSM’s on Audiogon, he reached out to see if I’d like to try one of his models. I don’t now recall why that never happened, but every so often, Fritz would give me a ring to just talk about audio – something he’s always delightfully glad to do. It was thus a special pleasure to finally meet the gentleman in person at CAS that year and hear just how fine his room sounded. At a small fraction of the cost of the gear in the Audio Note room, the rig sounded lovely and Fritz Heiler, ever jovial, was clearly getting a kick out of the enthusiasm expressed by the crowds of visitors to his room.
Fritz Heiler lives near Los Angeles and has been building speakers since his college days in the early 1970’s. He loves experimenting with premium drivers, hand built cabinets and crossover parts. His goal: to create top-flight, high-end speakers at reasonable prices. His speaker designs have garnered a lot of positive reviews from the print and online audio press. This in itself isn’t remarkable – print and online audio publications are filled with rave reviews of premium loudspeaker systems from established manufacturers like Magico, Harbeth, Focal, Wilson, YG and many others. What is quite remarkable is that Fritz has managed to garner reviewers’ accolades (including this positive review in The Absolute Sound) while running a one person shop, selling moderately priced monitor speakers, with no advertising budget to speak of.
Fast forward to about 3 months ago. Fritz called me out of the blue. He’d noticed that I’d sold my Reference 3A De Capo monitors and had embarked on a quest for something more efficient to match with my new SET amp. He was offering to ship me a pair of his relatively new, Carbon 7 SE monitors for a test drive. “I’ve demonstrated them at shows with a really expensive 300 B SET amp,” he said in a charming Southern California lilt, “and I’d like to know what you think of them driven by the Audio Note Kits Kit 1.” He offered to FedEx them to me at his expense and then pay to have them shipped to their next destination for a professional review.
How could I refuse?
Fritz stayed in touch throughout the build process and near the end told me that he wanted to hang on to the speakers just a bit longer to run the drivers in before shipping. They arrived in a large and very heavy (over 60 pounds) U-Haul carton, well padded on all sides with heavy sheets of foam core insulating material.
The Fritz Speakers Carbon 7 SE
From images I’d seen on the Internet, I had always imagined the Carbon 7 to be larger than it is. It’s actually a fairly small looking monitor, deeper than it is wide, with very visually pleasing proportions. My review pair, pictured above, was finished in an attractive, ebony veneer, topped off with a matte finish. As you can see below, veneer grain matching is excellent and the overall fit-and-finish is fine, making for a very good looking speaker that won’t be out of place even in a formal living space. NASOAF (Non-Audiophile Significant Other Approval Factor) should be very high with the Carbon 7’s. Kudos as well to Fritz for using magnets in the grill frames and hidden below the front baffle’s veneer for attaching the included grills. Why doesn’t everyone do it this way? There are no grill pins to break off or unsightly holes marring the appearance of the front baffle with the grills removed (which is how I did all my listening).
Build quality of these speakers is impressive, especially at the $2500 asking price. The cabinets are dense and shockingly heavy for their size. They pass the informal knuckle-rap test with ease: no hollow resonances here. Five-way binding posts are sturdy and feature blessedly large holes in the posts for accommodating bare wire connections (which is how my speaker cables were connected).
The Carbon 7 SE’s are a ported design, and you can see the rather large flared port in the photo just above.
There are two design parameters consistent throughout the entire Fritz Speakers line. One is the use of the Acoustic Reality series crossover, a simple, phase coherent, first order design for two way speakers with (as Fritz likes to remind potential customers) no power-sucking capacitor in line with the tweeter. The other trademark design trait of the Fritz line is the use of top quality drivers from highly respected driver manufacturers like ScanSpeak. The Carbon 7 SE uses a Scanspeak 7″ Carbon Graphite Fiber/Paper Pulp composite cone. This is a lighter, faster model of the mid/bass driver used in the original Carbon 7.
The tweeter is a ScanSpeak Illuminator D3004/662000. One of the interesting (and externally visible) features of this tweeter is that the aluminum face plate is painted with a rubber coating – as you can see below – to reduce diffraction effects.
Now, when Fritz told me that he’d gotten great results at shows running the Carbon 7 SE with a single ended triode amp putting out 8 watts into an 8 Ohm load, I was a bit skeptical. Although Fritz posts a graph showing that the Carbon 7 SE has benign phase and impedance characteristics, the speaker is still rated at only 88 dB efficient, which seemed an awfully low figure for a single ended 300 B amp like the ANK Kit 1. On the other hand, if you look here at the ANK web site under the Pricing And Configuration tab, Brian Smith recommends 88 dB as the minimum sensitivity speaker to use with the Kit 1, so perhaps, I thought, pairing the Carbon 7 SE with an 8 watt 300 B SET amp wasn’t such a silly proposition.
It took me a few days to get the Carbon 7 SE’s to sing. This wasn’t surprising. In general, I’ve found that even well broken in speakers need time to settle in after shipping. Additionally, although not difficult to position, I did a fair amount of experimenting until I found a placement that seemed to bring out their best in my medium-small listening room: an equilateral triangle (more or less, spaced much wider apart than I’d initially tried), about 2 feet off the front wall, with only a very slight amount of toe-in toward the listening seat. They sat on 24 inch Osiris Audionics stands, mass loaded with playground sand. Placed in this fashion, I felt the Carbon 7 SE’s threw their best soundstage, very wide and deep with excellent image specificity. I especially appreciated that the Carbon 7 SE’s imaging and tonal balance were stable within a very wide sweet spot. Moving my head from side to side produced no weird shifting of tone or imaging.
As other reviewers have observed, if there’s a Fritz “house sound,” it’s relaxed and musical. By this I don’t mean that they are veiled or sluggish sounding, but rather, that their character is so well balanced that no one parameter of their performance jumps up and down shouting, “Hey, look at me!” They are simply very non-fatiguing and easy to listen to, hour after hour. When I am trying out a speaker and my urge is to keep playing “just one more track before I turn in for bed” that’s a really good sign that the speaker is thoughtfully designed for the long haul. Such was my reaction to the Carbon 7 SE.
Another characteristic of the Carbon 7 SE is coherence, the sense that the music is all of a piece and that your brain can relax because there’s not a lot of work to do interpreting the sounds you’re hearing. I found the blending of the mid/woofer and tweeter to be seamless, a sign of good driver selection and good crossover design.
Although the Carbon 7 SE isn’t a speaker that encourages you to pick its performance apart, let me offer a few specific observations about its sonic qualities. The high end is invariably smooth and sweet, so that even thin, bright recordings (like John Fogarty’s voice on some Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes or Sheryl Crowe’s voice on some of her greatest hits) while still bright, seem perfectly listenable. It bears repeating that I do not find the Carbon 7 SE to be veiled or “slow,” but rather, so well balanced from top to bottom that no part of the frequency spectrum – including the high end – clamors for your attention. Again, this bodes well for long term satisfaction.
I found the midrange of the Carbon 7 SE’s, where so much of the music resides, to be quite beguiling. Vocals sounded three dimensional and well fleshed out if the recording warranted it. Musical instruments like saxophones and trumpets had realistic tone and timbre. The horns on all sorts of pop recordings (Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” and “Everything Must Go” albums spring to mind) sounded just great. Violins on orchestral recordings were sweet and addictive.
And the low end? This is where the Carbon 7 SE’s really astonish. The first time I heard the part of Lorde’s “Team” when the fast, heavy, percussive synth bass “bombs” begin to drop, I literally broke into a grin. “Where did all that impact come from? How can these little guys move so much air?” Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re listening to a much larger speaker (and for that matter, if you have a low powered tube amp, you’ll think you’re listening to far more muscular amp)! In my medium small listening room (around 13 x 16 with an 8 foot ceiling) I can’t imagine pining for a subwoofer with these monitors.
Finally, the Carbon 7 SE’s do a stellar job of retrieving a sense of ambient space in a recording if the recording allows it. Whether the spatial effects are those of a natural, acoustic environment (like a club or concert hall) or synthetic (like studio reverb or the phase effects of a Dark Side Of Moon) the Carbon 7 SE’s will deliver the goods and do the “disappearing act” as well as any speaker I’ve ever heard. To offer just one example, I was thrilled listening to Todd Rundgren’s classic “We Gotta Get You A Woman.” The Carbon 7 SE’s projected a room filling sound field that extended from wall to wall, with the speakers utterly detectable as sound sources. As an admitted soundstage and imaging freak, I was mightily pleased.
So, is it foolish to pair the Fritz Carbon 7 SE with an 8 watt, single-ended, 300 B tube amp? On the contrary! It turns out that this pairing made some beautiful music in my home during the couple of weeks I was privileged to try them out. Would the Carbon 7 SE’s produce more extended highs or tighter bass driven by a higher power, push-pull tube amp or quality solid state gear? Sadly, not having alternative amps on hand during my listening period, I can’t say for certain. But I can say that the Carbon 7 SE’s let the special qualities of SET amplification shine through unscathed.
No speaker (and no hifi component, in general) is perfect, and none will please everyone equally, for reasons I don’t need to rehearse here. Suffice it to say that with variables including room acoustics, musical tastes and associated equipment, it’s always a good idea to audition any component before you commit to it with your credit card. (Fortunately, Fritz is happy to provide a home audition period for his speakers.) If, for example, you like a dry, very fast, ultra-resolving presentation of your music, the Fritz Carbon 7 SE may not be your cup of tea. But if you crave a speaker that is listenable, musical and surprisingly impactful and dynamic for its size, the Carbon 7 SE may make you very happy for a very long time.
Many thanks to Fritz for giving me the opportunity to audition these lovely and very endearing speakers. The highest compliment I can pay them is that if I could afford to own more than one pair of speakers at a time, I’d very likely have purchased the review pair. 🙂
Until next time…