Much has changed since I started
writing for Enjoy the Music back in 2007. I've changed jobs twice, my oldest
daughter is now in middle school, America has its first African American
president, and they say that this year – 2012 – will be the first year that
revenue from sales of music by digital download will surpass that of CDs.
Oh yeah...and one other thing: Ascend Acoustics has added another speaker to it's line up. Ascend is not like many companies that reboot their entire line of speakers every other year. Their philosophy is more like, "let's get it right the first time". As such, the last new speaker they introduced, the Ascend Acoustic Sierra1 Reference Monitor (as reviewed here), is still being sold by Ascend, and is still the same speaker it was when I reviewed it back in 2007.
Dave Fabrikant, President and Chief Designer of Ascend Acoustics, doesn't launch new products just to fill holes in his own product line, he only does it if he can fill a need in the marketplace better and at a lower retail cost than anyone else. Ascend's subwoofer offerings are a good example: Dave worked on his own subwoofer design for at least a year before he found out about Rythmik Audio. When he realized he couldn't make a better subwoofer for any less money, he aborted his own plans and partnered with Brian Ding of Rythmik.
There aren't many companies like Ascend in audio
these days, who try to make uncompromisingly great products and go out of their
way to do it as inexpensively as possible. It's a goal I have great respect for,
so as I heard they were working on a floorstanding speaker I put in for a review
pair. That was over one year ago. A few design tweaks and tsunami-related parts
shortages later, and the Sierra Towers are now in full production.
No matter which finish you choose, the speakers' bases are black, and arrive detached from the speaker, along with a set of robust floor spikes. The Towers have the same footprint as the Sierra-1, so I placed them in the same spot in my room that the Sierra-1 have occupied for the last 4-plus years: 6 feet apart, about 3 feet from the front wall, with about 4 feet on one side and 2 feet on the other from the side walls. I had the Towers toed-in slightly at first, but before too long found that eliminating all toe-in opened up the soundstage nicely, and I left them that way ever since. Technically, a four-driver tower speaker shouldn't have the same pinpoint imaging that a two-way monitor is capable of (a two-way being closer to the ideal of a single point source). I did seem to be able to pick out individual musicians from large ensemble recordings a little easier with the monitors, but on the recordings that I typically use to test imaging: the dogs barking during the intro to Roger Waters' Amused to Death, or any older Miles Davis album with Miles in the center and the band panned hard right & left (like Someday My Price Will Come), I heard no differences at all. I found the most precise imaging came when I sat in an equilateral triangle (or closer) to the Towers.
So, while the woofers and tweeter look identical to those on the Sierra-1, behind the front baffle they are not. Like many companies, Ascend Acoustics runs an online forum for their customers, where the Towers have generated hundreds of pages of discussion over the past year. In between the inevitable "when are they coming? how much will they cost?" posts, much of the Towers' design process was documented. Digging through all that turned up some great nuggets about the technical aspects of the new drivers, all of which were custom designed either for or by Ascend. The quotes below were taken directly from Dave's posts...
"This type of motor structure provides a more powerful and focused magnetic field, far superior ventilation, less magnetic flux leakage and better damping. In addition, the voice coil of this tweeter is now fully 'underhung' -- meaning that the voice coil itself remains within the magnetic gap at all times, which dramatically reduces distortion and compression at higher volume levels, increases efficiency and power handling. This new tweeter is expensive, our cost is 3x more than what we pay for [the Sierra-1] tweeter and I would estimate that if it were to be sold retail, it would have a price tag around $180 each. As far as soft domes go, this is among the very best out there with performance designed specifically for our goals."
You Got Any
Proof To Go With That Pudding?
In a word, spectacular.
In more than one word, the Sierra Towers seriously kick out
the jams. They take every aspect of the Sierra-1's sound and turn it up a
notch...delivering a weighty, front-row presentation that begs to be cranked up
loud. From top to bottom:
The Sierra-1 has a slightly honeyed top-end that I've always
loved. However for the Towers, Dave had a different goal for the treble: to make
it as accurate as possible. The new NrT tweeter accomplishes this with ease,
with highs that are natural and extended without any sense of being overly
smoothed or sweetened. The good news is that they are not the slightest bit
tizzy or strident either, and are never fatiguing... even during long listening
sessions. The Towers score a direct hit for those who want their highs clean and
The Towers' midrange is remarkable. While I never had any
problem with the mids on the Sierra-1, it never really called attention to
itself. The midrange on the Towers, on the other hand, is a main event. It
projects out in to the room at you, with the same kind of palpable impact that
I'm used to hearing only in the bass. Inner detail is fantastic even on
large-ensemble recordings, and they are free from distortion and retain a hefty
amount of dynamic headroom when played at spirited levels.
The overall tonality of the bass isn't much different on the
Towers than it is on the Sierra-1 (and that's a good thing). The Towers play
lower, test tones were audible to the mid- to high-20s in my room, but the real
improvements were in the loss of distortion and physical feel of the music.
Unlike any stand-mounted monitor, the Towers can move enough air to vibrate your
chest, and do it without introducing congestion during intricate musical
passages. You can improve the visceral impact of any speaker with the addition
of a good subwoofer, but it's certainly not required for enjoyable listening on
the Towers. I turned my subwoofer off for the entire review period, and never
Still, those same "real" audiophiles will go on to
say that there is no better test for a loudspeaker than recordings of
full-size symphony orchestras, and they have a good point. A symphony orchestra
consists of about 100 people, each vibrating the air in their own way (by
string, reed, or long-wound metal pipe), plus a couple guys (and they usually
are guys) playing drums bigger than any known speaker drivers. It is no small
feat to take all that and deliver it through a few vibrating cones, which is
exactly what we expect our speakers to do.
thought the Towers would do a respectable job with concert music... I played the
same 1959 recording of Saint-Saëns' Symphony #3 that impressed me on the
Sierra-1 (Charles Munch and the Chicago Symphony, RCA Living Stereo SACD), and
found on the Towers it has an even larger sense of scale and a weightier bottom
end. Later on in the review period a friend of mine brought over A
Copland Celebration, Vol. 1, featuring Aaron Copland himself
conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in his own "Fanfare for the Common
Man". It was breathtaking, with the enormous brass section coming at us
from well beyond the speakers. More modern than Copland, I have a recording of
Gil Shaham and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra performing Arvo Pärt's "Tabula
Rasa"...the first movement has a prepared piano recorded with a very close
microphone, when it's struck the Towers presented it like a hand grenade going
been listening to a lot of electronic music these days, which turns out to be
very challenging speaker evaluation material as well. Electronic music can be
created produced directly to tape, with no natural, real-world limitations on
frequency or dynamic range...pure sonic punishment for a loudspeaker. One
particularly impressive artist I've found recently is Lyonel Bauchet. A
film/TV/radio composer based in Paris, Lyonel is also one of finest
practitioners of the Buchla synthesizer on the planet. My favorite album of his
so far is Buchla Tunes Vol. 2,
available as a download (or for free listening) at lyonel.bandcamp.com
(he has no physical releases that I know of). Opening with the beautiful "Pavane
K4816" and progressing through the abstract, outer-space jam "Uninvited Guest"
to the funky, polyrhythmic workout "Just Read the Instructions" and the spare,
percussive "Nihongo Pulse Balloons", Lyonel covers a lot of sonic territory
here, much of it not of this earth. This is one of those recordings that you
simply strap yourself in and let the Towers take for a ride.
lot of the fun of having a new set of speakers around (or any component for that
matter) is rediscovering old favorites... playing those chestnuts from your
record collection you know (or thought you knew) so well, and hear again for the
first time their charms from a different sonic perspective. There is something
to that... I think we listen differently when we're evaluating a new component
and it does cause us to hear things anew. I think that is a lot of what
motivates audiophiles to continually upgrade their systems. I had a slightly
different experience this time around; it was actually discovering an old
favorite that I'd never really heard before at all. I had recently installed a
new phono cartridge on my turntable when the Sierra Towers arrived, and one
setup guide I found online said to use female vocals as a reference when setting
tracking force, so I dug out a copy of Donna Summer's On
the Radio: Greatest Hits, Vols. 1-2 that I had picked up in a
Craigslist lot a few years ago. Summer sounded fine, but what really grabbed me
was Giorgio Morodor's propulsive synthesizers on the dance floor epic "I
Feel Love"...the Towers' outstanding mids brought enough energy out of this
track to get everyone in the house moving.
First up was Temptation, Holly Cole's 1995 release of Tom Waits' covers. This album has a lot of very subtle, close-mic’ed performances, and one of the best is her heartbreaking take on "I Don't Want to Grow Up". It consists of nothing more than a bass line, a few scattered piano notes, and Cole's vocals sung just barely above a whisper, but the Towers delivered it with nuance and a truckload of emotional power.
Further proof that the Towers do not require full-tilt volume levels to be enthralling came late in the review period, when ECM released The Well, the new album by understated Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen. While Gustavsen's mid-tempo tunes are markedly creepier than the vapid new age music of the '80s and '90s that it brings to mind, it's still melodic and accessible, and the Towers evoked a variety of emotions out of it... from the gospel-tinged "Circling" to the haunting set-closer, "Inside". The Well is the first complete album Gustavsen has recorded with a quartet, and Tore Brunborg's tenor saxophone was gorgeously rendered by the Towers' rich midrange.
It Is Still
And Buying Advice
A lot of words to say that, while the Sierra Towers aren't
cheap, they are an amazing value. If $2000 is in your price range, they should
definitely be on your short list. However, even if you're looking at spending a
lot more than $2000, I'd still recommend giving the Towers a listen... I think
you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Ultimately, the Sierra Towers are what I would call a music
lovers' speaker. Now, I've never met an audiophile that was not a music lover
also, but I've met a good deal more music lovers who are not audiophiles...they
may or may not have nice equipment at home, but they don't make a hobby out of
upgrading their audio systems. These are the kind of people who get far more
excited over discovering a new local band or uncovering a rare bootleg than they
do finding the latest tweak that they can "hear a difference". I'd
recommend the Towers to anyone, but especially hardcore music lovers...
and forget it" types who don't mind spending a little more for something great,
but also don't expect to replace it for ten or twenty years, if ever. I feel the
same way about the Towers that I felt about the Sierra-1 years ago... they could
satisfy for a lifetime, and could be the last speakers you ever buy.
Midrange Woofer: 1 5.25” mineral-filled polypropylene cone woofer featuring an underhung voice coil with neodymium magnet system, vented pole-piece, vented spider and aluminum phase plug.
Woofer: 2 Proprietary 5.25” long throw mineral-filled polypropylene cone woofers. Features non-resonant cast aluminum frame, copper shorting rings, low-inductance motor assembly, vented pole-piece and vented spider.
Typical In-Room Frequency Response: 34 Hz to 27 kHz (±3dB)
Custom finish options (may require additional production time):
As of press time, the Sierra Towers have become available with an optional ribbon tweeter upgrade, a customized RAAL 70-20XR that runs an additional $700/pair. If I'm lucky, someday you'll read an account of the ribbon tweeter upgrade on the pages of Enjoy the Music.com.
Voice: (949) 366-1455