In November 2015 I wrote a preview about Markaudio-SOTA, which was a new brand of loudspeakers coming to the market. Their speakers were based around driver designs by the very well-known and respected Mark Fenlon. Then in June 2016 I had the pleasure to review the Markaudio-SOTA Viotti One loudspeakers. Markaudio-SOTA have since been incredibly prolific, the product family has significantly expanded to include Cesti Tower, Cesti Bookshelf, Cesti Monitor Bookshelf, Tozzi One and Tozzi Two Mini Speakers and of the course the stand mount Viotti One. The three Cesti individual sub-models are named in shorthand as T, B and MB. It's the Markaudio-SOTA Cesti MB Monitor Bookshelf I'm reviewing here.
The Viotti and Cesti products are designed around the SOTA 11 driver, the Tower uses a pair of SOTA 11s whereas the Bookshelf and Monitor Bookshelf use a single SOTA 11. The Tower and Bookshelf are more traditional as they incorporate a tweeter – though you'd be hard pressed to describe any of these speakers as "traditional". The subject of this review, the Monitor Bookshelf (MB), uses the SOTA 11 driver all on its lonesome. The MB achieves a frequency response of 40Hz to 25kHz with sensitivity being 87dB/W/m. These specifications should tell you immediately that the SOTA 11 is a pretty special driver. It is a custom designed in-house built ultra-wide range wide-dispersion driver employing a 150 micron aerospace grade mixed alloy ultra-low mass cone. If that's too much of a mouthful, just believe me, it's impressive!
The Cesti MB cabinets at first glance may look like simple rectangular boxes but the reality is far from this. The cabinets are manufactured from high density fiberboard (HDF) and rather than being formed as a basic rectangle they have pleasantly rounded corners, the sort of curve which would match a 1950's iconic Eames chair very well, for some reason this springs to mind. The Cesti MB cabinet is very inert, the knuckle rap test results in sore knuckles and a very solid sound, no qualms here. The speaker grill is removable, this has been well thought out as there are no fiddly clips or any need to risk ripping off a nail when removing the grills. They are secured via magnets which are not at all visible. It's all very neat, the grills automatically pop back on in perfect alignment when they are replaced. When removing the grills you are greeted by the single aluminum cone. Looking more closely reveals the baffle is not the usual flat slab, instead there is a sculpted waveguide which is intended to give you the option to tweak the spread of the soundstage, you can either have the waveguides flowing inwards or outwards. It's a nice touch and visually when the grills are off it adds interest. Again eschewing simplicity Markaudio-SOTA have gone the extra mile by making the cabinets individually in left and right mirrored configurations.
The binding posts are high quality being the same type as are used on the top of the range Viotti One. The Cesti MB are reflex ported speakers with the port being to rear so their positioning relative to the real wall will be a useful way to tune their bass to your preference. The finish on the speaker is available in three colors – black, white or red. The red ones in particular look very striking; I selected white are they somehow manage to look both modern and retro at the same time, they stand a good chance of working with most decors and I hoped they would photograph well... don't get me started on what it's like to photograph black boxes! Size-wise I'd call the Cesti MBs nifty; 336mm high x 226mm wide and 194mm deep. That's 13" x 9" x 8", with weight being just over 13 pounds. These mini wonders are priced at $1099, considering their design and lack of manufacturing short cuts I'd say they look good value but of course primarily they must sound good for the money.
Looking At The Set-Up
Back to my "extreme" comment; the MBs will be to most eyes cutely designed, well finished speakers which will readily fit unobtrusively into most domestic environments, so what's this about their being extreme? Their driver technology for a start is fairly extreme, the SOTA 11 is a very modern driver with a lightweight cone with super-supple suspension to front and rear, indeed the front suspension is more a guide than anything significantly supportive. A robust suspension is necessary for PA drivers but if you want detail and speed you don't want suspension slugging the movement of the cone.
Another extreme aspect is that the Cesti MBs are "single driver" loudspeakers. This is not a simple trick to pull off well. At the birth of audio we had single driver speakers, these were usually operating in the telephone band, i.e without bass and there was little treble too. In today's terms these would be mid-range drivers, this isn't hard to do. Getting a single driver to operate from 40Hz to 25kHz is hard to achieve. Many try and fail; many DIY'ers try too, usually with rather compromised results. You may well be asking why if it's so difficult to get good results then why bother with single driver speakers? With a single driver there is no need for a crossover, this means the amplifier sees an easy load. This places less emphasis on needing a powerhouse of an amplifier though it does not mean shortcuts should be taken with amplifier quality. To be fair the Markaudio-SOTA philosophy is to only use gentle and easy to drive crossovers in their other speakers but hey-ho, every bit helps.
Where single drivers score is in great coherence! By coherence I'm talking about totally uniform behavior right across the frequency spectrum with no changes in character or dispersion. Having the sound coming from a point source, versus multiple points on a baffle, is usually a desirable thing. This can, to a certain extent, be achieved with coaxial drivers but there's a crossover involved with coaxials and an extra set of drivers which can never integrate 100% with the main driver. Again the Markaudio-SOTA philosophy is to be incredibly good at matching dispersion characteristics in the first place but with the Cesti MBs they are taking this to an extreme. This is the sort of extreme that some hair-shirt nerdy hi-fi nuts will attempt and by the way I include myself in this group. The Cesti MBs aim to succeed where many others fail, can the Cesti MBs really pull this off? Coherent performance without compromise? Time would tell.
Putting The Markaudio-SOTA Cesti MB To Great Use
If you are doing the hi-fi thing – i.e using stands then you'll need some tallish stands, the exact height naturally depends on you listening position. Ideally the centre of the driver should be at ear height though with the dispersion characteristics of the SOTA 11 the height of the driver is not particularly critical. I imagine a lot of people will use the MBs sitting on furniture and why not, they blend into rooms so well.
Once I had 100 hours on the MBs I placed them on stands and tweaked their positioning relative to the back wall to my taste in bass. This turned out to be 6 to 8 inches, the effect on the bass is easily discerned when experimenting to find the best position. Generally, there should be no need to toe in the speakers, they are designed to fill the soundstage between left and right channels when sitting straight ahead. This works as intended, it's particularly useful as there's no narrow sweet spot, multiple listeners can enjoy the MBs at the same time.
I wasn't too sure what to expect in terms of bass from such diminutive speakers; after all my big rig speakers feature 18 bass drivers with Digital Room Correction and are driven by a 600 Watt amplifier. Very much the opposite end of the spectrum from the MBs... room domination with the big rig vs room integration with the Cesti MBs.
Faithful Music Reproduction
I ran the Cesti MBs for over three months before sitting down to make sense of my notes and write up my findings, which now follow. I was playing Tell 'em I'm Gone by Yusuf (Cat Stevens to readers of more my age); I was thinking how well this album was being reproduced, clarity, totality and just plainly musical. I had in my head that a small delicate driver must be well suited to this slightly simpler style and more atmospheric music than say Rock. It was a prejudice on my part, as I then played Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Massive Attack (lots of oldies) and within sane volume boundaries the MBs pumped out this heavier music without stress or strain. Eric Clapton / Me and Mr. Johnson was really enjoyable, with the bluesy vibe being so infectious.
During my three months of auditioning I tried the MBs with quite varied equipment. I used the MBs in two familiar rooms, trying a few sources and amplifiers with them. For amplification I rotated the 40 Watt Class D Temple Audio Bantam One, prototype Temple Audio 70 Watt Class D monoblocks (now in production), 10 Watt single–ended solid-state Class A Valvet Er1 and my 8 Watt 300B single-ended tube amplifier. The sources I used were a couple of turntables and but mainly Metrum Octave and Musette DACs fed by either a fanless souped-up PC or a Raspberry PI 3.
What became apparent when ringing the changes is that the MBs were very faithful in reproducing the character of the equipment preceding them as well as the mastering of the music being played. I came to the conclusion that the MBs have very low coloration allowing the rest of the system to show its colors. This was brought home strongly when I tried a pair of newly developed Temple Audio Class D monoblocks; these employ a balanced circuit topology. I could hear the benefits of this new design immediately via the MBs and it turns out the same differences could be heard as easily as with my big rig, which includes very much more expensive speakers. I was then able to try a range of power supplies (battery, smps and two linear types), the effects were very plain to hear with the MBs. The new Temple monoblocks are very clean sounding without being sterile, they sound as though they have very low distortion and noise. No doubt their balanced topology is key here. Normally I wouldn't be too keen on a "clean" sounding amplifier so instead I'll define their character as being "pure". These are great new affordable amplifiers on the block.
Something I enjoy is when a system produces that "you are there" type of listening experience, often with vocal or sax. For sure the MBs pull off this trick so that's another box ticked. This matters to myself as I play a lot of Bebop jazz frequently featuring sax.
The Cesti MBs would be great match with a stylish lifestyle iPhone-based system as well as all the way up to a top notch source and amplifier. They possess the perfect combination of being forgiving yet revealing – I'm guessing this is to do with their musical coherence, tonality and room friendly dispersion. These speakers will surely appeal to a very broad set of potential buyers where quality of musical reproduction, ease of system compatibility and domestic integration are key.