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March 2012
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere!
Ascend Acoustics Sierra Tower Floorstanding Loudspeakers
A true music lovers' floorstanding speaker.
Review By Clarke Robinson

 

Ascend Acoustics Sierra Tower Floorstanding Loudspeakers  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.

 

Skin Deep
The Sierra Towers arrived very well-packed, with the same natural bamboo finish as the Sierra-1 monitors that I've had since 2007. Since then, a few other manufacturers have started to discover the merits of bamboo speaker enclosures (sustainability, good looks without veneer, great strength, and excellent acoustic damping), but most charge a good deal more for bamboo cabinets than Ascend, some even offering bamboo as an option with a significant price increase. Another welcome deviation from current trends: the Tower cabinets are made in Southern California, and come in three standard finishes, with custom finishes (including the natural that I received) a $200 upcharge. The cabinetry and finish are just as flawless as the Sierra-1, however with around 3 times the amount of material, the Tower cabinets do resonate a bit more during a highly unscientific "knuckle wrap" test.

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.

 

Under The Hood
Taking off the grilles, you find that 3 of the 4 drivers on the Sierra Towers appear identical to those on the Sierra-1. I always thought that the Sierra-1 drivers were good enough that if Dave were as good at accounting as he is a speaker design, he could have just used them in a tower configuration, charged $2000 a pair and been done last year. Ascend fanboys (myself included) probably would have gone nuts for them and he could have spent his summer relaxing on the back deck grilling steaks and listening to old Doobie Brothers vinyl (or whatever it is speaker designers do on their days off). But Dave, being the hard-working perfectionist that he is, had lofty goals for his first tower speaker...something about improving every aspect of the Sierra-1 "from top to bottom" and "laying waste to many 'high end' towers in the less than $5000 range".

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...

 

Newly Modified Woofers
The bass is so extraordinary on the Sierra-1, the woofers needed the least attention. Dave wanted the Towers to play lower, but that wasn't as important a goal as improving the midrange and treble performance. Still, he writes: "We have made some changes to the dual woofers that have yielded some noticeable benefits. One of these changes was to increase the number of voice coil windings which has resulted in slightly deeper bass combined with a more manageable impedance profile," and "One of the cool design traits is that the dual woofers match the sensitivity of the mid-woofer so almost zero padding is required. Sensitivity is important for this product and we are coming in at an honest 89 to 90 dB/W/m anechoic."

 

NrT Tweeter
The tweeters received more than just modification. While the outside looks largely the same (the elastomer waveguide is now black instead of gray) the new NrT (short for "neodymium ring-magnet tweeter") has a completely new motor assembly that was developed by a joint venture between Ascend and SEAS of Norway, and is only available from Ascend Acoustics. This is how Dave describes it...

"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."

 

Midrange Driver
With its solid metal phase plug, the new midrange driver is a thing beauty. According to Dave, it "uses a combination of an underhung voice coil combined with an advanced neodymium magnet system. Also, this driver is housed in its own critically damped sealed enclosure, the volume and damping of which is carefully controlled to obtain a specific acoustic rolloff and Q."  

 

You Got Any Proof To Go With That Pudding?
As fascinating as that is, all the technology in the world is pointless unless it produces real-world results. So how do the new Towers sound?

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 candidly revealing.

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 missed it.

 

Bona Fide Rockers
If I've ever heard a set of speakers built from the ground up to rock, the Ascend Towers are it. Every group I threw at them: Zeppelin, Metallica, Tool, and AC/DC to name but a few; rocked, thrashed, crunched, and grooved exactly the way I wanted them too. Everything about them seems optimized for head-banging, eye-blinking impact, and I gave them every opportunity. Of course, "real" audiophiles will tell you that rock 'n' roll recordings don't make for very good loudspeaker test material. I say that the only good test material is the music that you most often listen to, and a speaker that can't deliver the goods from Van Halen or Opeth has no place in my audio system.

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.

I 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 off.

I've 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.

A 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.

 

Thousand Trick Pony
I know I'm going on about the Sierra Towers' volume capability and facility with bombastic music... it is what I look for in a loudspeaker. There are plenty of speakers that excel at musical intimacy (e.g. single-driver speakers, the classic BBC LS3/5A, etc.), but playing clean, loud, distortion-free music is more difficult engineering feat, and the Towers pass the test with aplomb. I wanted to find out what they could do with a wider variety of source material, so I turned to a quieter set of recordings to find out.

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 A Sierra
Besides their physical characteristics, the Sierra Towers share another important trait with their stand-mounted cousins: they are incredibly easy to drive. Both speakers in the Sierra line were deliberately designed with an impedance curve that is nearly flat through most of it's range. On top of that, the Towers are 89db efficient (anechoic), or about 1/8 of a turn on my volume knob more efficient than the Sierra-1. It doesn't require a whole lot of watts to get the Towers really cooking, and it is something that most any solid state amplifier (and probably some tubes) could do without breaking a sweat.

 

Conclusion And Buying Advice
The base level Sierra Towers (with a Black Matte finish) are $1898.00, and shipping to anywhere in the continental United States is a flat rate of $96, so for comparison's sake, let's call them $2000 speakers. In the audio industry in general, $2000 isn't much for a pair of full-range floorstanders. In fact it is cheap enough, unfortunately, to run the risk of not being taken seriously. All too often the floorstanders that you find in this price range are a mess... sloppily constructed wastes of time with boomy bass and annoying cabinet resonances. The ones that aren't a mess are often single-drivers, transmission lines, or other horn-loaded cabinets, and I won't deny that these have their own charms. However, they typically don't play full-range (where you don't even want a subwoofer) with the kind of muscular presentation provided by the Sierra Towers. Based on what I've seen recently, speakers that deliver the same type of musical performance as the Towers are more commonly found in the $4000 to $8000 range.

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... "set it 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.

 

Associated Equipment
Marantz SA8003 SACD Player
Music Hall DAC25.3 USB DAC
Parasound Model 2100 Preamplifier
Parasound Model 2125 Amplifier
Listening room is approximately 13 feet wide and 25 feet long.
Acoustic treatments include wall-wall carpet, curtains, and a large overstuffed sofa.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Four driver floorstanding loudspeaker
Tweeter: 1 exclusive NrT 26mm high-definition soft dome tweeter w/integrated elastomer wave guide. Axially magnetized neodymium ring magnet with large damping chamber and fully underhung voice coil, wide surround and low-viscosity magnetic fluid cooling. Fully manufactured by SEAS of Norway.

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)
In-Room Sensitivity: 92dB @ 2.83v / 1 meter
Frequency Response (Anechoic): 41 Hz to 28 kHz (±3dB)
Sensitivity (Anechoic): 89dB/W/m
Minimum Impedance: 4 ohms
Minimum Recommended Power: 25 watts
Maximum Continuous Power (unclipped peaks): 300 watts
Cabinet: Exclusive V-LAM construction featuring vertically laminated bamboo. Bass reflex via flared rear port tube. Isolated sealed internal midrange chamber.
Dimensions (grilles off): 43 x 7.5 x 10.5 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 44 lbs each
Connectors: Two gold plated all metal five way binding posts.
Warranty: 7 year parts and labor

Pricing
Base model: Black Matte finish, $1898/pr includes black matte base
As reviewed: Natural finish: $2098/pr includes satin black base

Standard finishes:
Satin Espresso: $1998/pr includes satin black base
Satin Dark Cherry: $1998/pr includes satin black base

Custom finish options (may require additional production time):
High Gloss Black: $2098/pr includes high gloss black base
Satin Black: $2098/pr includes satin black base
High Gloss Espresso: $2098/pr includes high gloss black base
High Gloss Cherry: $2098/pr includes high gloss black base

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.

 

Company Information
Ascend Acoustics, Inc.
1062 Calle Negocio
Suite G
San Clemente, CA 92673

Voice: (949) 366-1455 
Website: www.ascendacoustics.com


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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