Acarian System's Alón
The Napoleon System
Reigns over the Small, Smaller, Tiny and Minis
Review by Karl Lozier
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During the past CES (see
show report here) I was mightily impressed by Carl Marchisotto's presentation of his
Alón by Acarian's new Lotus Elite Signature loudspeaker system. They were set up in one of the larger rooms and though very moderate in size (augmented by a pair of his Thunderbolt subwoofers) they filled that room with sound almost as smooth, natural and sweet as the biggest and most expensive rigs exhibited. Some feat for a pair at just eight big ones. They still sounded impressive when I asked Carl to turn off the subwoofers. As they were well out from any walls and corners it was apparent that in any typical living/listening room they would probably satisfy any music lover down into almost the deepest bass. How's that for an introduction to
Alón's Napoleon loudspeaker system?
A couple of months after CES, I called Carl with the idea firmly entrenched in my mind to review his Lotus Elite Signature loudspeakers (a special upgrade version of the standard Lotus at double the price). We wound up briefly discussing all or almost all of his designs. Either his eyes sparkled or his voice perked up as he mentioned and discussed his recently introduced Napoleon System. There seemed to be a definite implication that the final results of the project audibly exceeded expectations. We discussed the system further, but he was evasive about some questions I had. That undoubtedly piqued my interest while I was being politely and willingly set up. Shortly thereafter I received three boxes. One contained the Thunderbolt subwoofer (used in multiples in
Alón's $120,000 Grand Reference), one long box contained five of the tiny Napoleons' a common number for purchasers going the home theater route, and the third, a small box containing a single tiny Napoleon. This number was at Karl's suggestion initially, not Carl's. It would give me extreme flexibility to experiment, including being able to use the Napoleons as a stereo pair in my main system and at the same time in a LCR setup, or in a quad setup in my multichannel or home theater system. This is definitely not a prime interest of EnjoytheMusic.com but is of interest to our readers that have to make one system do double duty. The Napoleon System showed great promise used that way as well as typical stereo use.
The tiny Napoleons are about five and a half inches wide, eight inches high and seven inches deep. Napoleon refers to the tiny speakers separately; Napoleon System - System refers to them plus the Thunderbolt subwoofer. They are nicely finished in a choice of black or rosewood with a perforated metal grille. Think about those measurements. You can fit one into a shoebox with lots of room left over - particularly in shoeboxes large enough for my shoes. There are some definite and some potential advantages to that small size. They can wind up being almost invisible and that can create some outstanding illusions. If needed, they can fit on almost any shelf and their front panel port is very helpful then for sound quality. Rear panel ports can become audibly messy in close quarters such as in cabinets, bookshelves and so on. Most loudspeakers are designed to "stand up" even though they may do quite well "lying down". The Napoleons are so short
(eight inches) that it would be rare to not be able to use them upright. Take particular note of that, you who may embark on that adventure into three, five or whatever number of channels for whatever reason. Even if you just add a center channel speaker to your stereo setup, laying a third (left or right) speaker on its side for a center channel creates a different sound for the third speaker. I believe that everyone agrees that all the loudspeakers used in the LF and RF and C positions (left front, right front and center) ideally should be identical. What is left out of that statement is the word "sound"; laying a third front speaker on its side in the center position is no guarantee that it will then sound identical to its left and right mates! Whether it is noticed by or bothers listeners is difficult to predict. That situation usually gets even worse if the manufacturer decides to make that third loudspeaker (center) different by adding another tweeter on the "other side of the midrange unit" or more commonly with an additional midrange driver on the other side of the tweeter. That is a design effort to try to balance things out when placed on its side, but they rarely sound the same as the original left/right design. No need to do that with the tiny Napoleons.
The other part of the Napoleon System is Alón's Thunderbolt subwoofer. It is truly a subwoofer not a woofer and is self powered with the usual controls including auto on/off. Its cabinet size is very typical or average as subwoofers go. From what I can see or have read about it, there doesn't seem to be anything special about it. In fact, with my lack of design knowledge, I have held a long time bias against ported/vented subwoofers. Personal experience usually left me unimpressed with their quality though bass sound quantity was sufficient. Here is a hint, it is special and it needs to be to keep up with the tiny Napoleons. In retrospect, it would be interesting to try the Thunderbolts with an electrostatic loudspeaker, usually regarded as the most difficult type of system to mate with a subwoofer.
Hopefully that presents sufficient background so we can get down to the nitty-gritty of what counts - the sound. The beginning or smallest Napoleon System consists of a pair of the Napoleons plus the Thunderbolt subwoofer. Since I received three pairs of the Napoleons, it was rather simple to keep track of the effects, if any, of break-in time. Yes, break-in definitely existed but occurred fairly quickly with the Napoleons. It must be assumed that is because they have to work fairly hard to produce loud listening levels with their four and a half inch woofer/midrange cones. They definitely can produce loud levels without a sense of strain. As usual, any loudspeaker's break-in time is determined by the disc being played (bass content) and loudness level (the higher the better and quicker). A good alternative is the use of specialty break-in discs such as Purist Audio's System Enhancer Rev-B, which is entirely a break-in-disc, or the Reference Recording XLO disc, which also contains a few test/technical tracks and music tracks. Use these sorts of recordings when you are out of the room or out of the house or they may drive you nuts - but they are effective. The Thunderbolt subwoofer break-in was much more problematic. It seemed to be slow to even start sounding as Carl Marchisotto had described its sound quality. Was it simply difficult to work it hard enough to break-in fairly quickly? Carl questioned the quality of my fairly long interconnect needed when I was experimenting in my
multi-channel (home theater system) and not a factor in use in my main system which is stereo only. Then he mentioned reports and personal experience of very long break-in times for the Thunderbolt that were often traced to its integral amplifier. Surprisingly, that turned out to be the answer and now after many weeks of use when listening from a "cold start" it sounds as if it takes more than a half hour to really perform near its best.
Most of the listening sessions for the Napoleon System were done in the stereo mode. Do not worry, I did much experimenting in
multi-channel modes including simply three channels up to and including a relatively full 5.1 mode. I brought a pair of my long time home theater resident Paradigm Atom model speakers into my main listening room and hooked them up to my main system, which is stereo only. Yes, hooking up a pair of speakers listing for $189 a pair to preceding equipment at the five-figure level sounds crazy and probably is. I did not use vinyl as a source for these many listening sessions. To the usual "Heart" and Toshiba 9200 DVD-Audio players I had by now added Sony's latest top line SACD/CD player the NS999ES, which is particularly convenient to use when repeating or searching for tracks.
Used in this unaccustomed setup the Atoms presented a rather rich and definitely warm soundscape. It was pretty obvious that their design was delivering a more than it should from a bit below a hundred Hz to probably three hundred Hz. Very pleasing warmth from a small (but not tiny) loudspeaker system. They were noticeably better out from the wall behind (probably due to the rear port) and were best at between one a half to two feet out. Substituting a pair of the even smaller Napoleons resulted in a noticeably leaner tonal quality to the sound. It was apparent that even though the Napoleons are vented (front slots hidden behind the nonremovable metal grilles) Marchisotto made sure they do not sound like typical vented loudspeakers. Those vents are not adding any bass fullness with that response's usual concomitant loss of detail and clarity in the mid-bass to upper bass and even a bit into the lower mid-range. As a result of moving the Napoleons closer to the wall behind them, I found that at closer than eleven inches they were starting to add the fullness of the Atoms. The Atoms simply did not have all the clarity and detail of the Napoleons in that revealing upper bass to lower mid-range area. The Atoms have been favorites of mine for a long time and I believe I reviewed them or reported on them very favorably about four years ago and more recently a couple of magazines have published favorable reviews of the latest version.
Clarity, detail and a sense of transparency turned out to be consistent hallmarks of the Napoleons sound quality. It takes a very low distortion transducer to deliver that sort of quality. They definitely were not adding emphasis in that critical range where addition in turn creates extra fullness or richness that makes small loudspeakers sound as if they have more or more extended bass than they really do. They have been offered only as part of a system. That system includes the companion Thunderbolt subwoofer and that is a wise decision - though subject to change I've heard. I imagine that many listeners will think they can take a pair, or more, of Napoleons and add a lower priced woofer or subwoofer to them (and there is a "ton" of them available) and have a fine system. I think not, though the end result may be better than many competitors. Be forewarned that after extended burn-in or break-in, the controls on the Thunderbolt may require much tweaking to give you the system's best. Start with the phase control within an "hour of twelve o'clock" for a long time and simply play with the interacting gain and
roll off controls. Too high a setting of either one would alter a baritone's voice in its lower register. Yes, Frank Sinatra is a baritone. You want to get the richness and fullness of trombones, French horn and cellos to sound that way without a sloppy bloat in character and loss of detail while melding with the Napoleon and its smooth and revealing response; it is a critical area.
The quality of the upper half of any subwoofer's response is important in the extreme when combined with the Napoleons. That area is exactly where most add on woofers and subwoofers are under-performers. They are usually designed with "home theater" in mind and that more is better; quantity not quality is the more common goal.
Setup correctly, the smallest Napoleon System (two Napoleons plus a Thunderbolt) is very impressive and does many things exceptionally well. It certainly seems to be full range though there are hints of
roll off in the highest octave, as the Napoleon sounds so clean in the top end as if harshness and distortion products were substantially reduced. At the bottom end an honest (full and solid) twenty-two Hz was easily reached even without corner positioning. As usual with a single subwoofer, corner placement was best (not so with full range loudspeakers). The Thunderbolt allowed the deepest notes of the musical range to fill my larger than average listening room with as clean, clear and
non-boomy bass as you'll hear outside of the recording venue. That is a real treat if you are an astute listener that has noticed what the average woofer or subwoofer does to the mid-bass range. I do not know why it does so good, though transient response and lack of hangover pop to mind, but will see what Carl has to say about his design. Actually it did quite well in many positions in my room as long as it was backed up close to a wall, but that corner was definitely best. Moving the Thunderbolt around to various spots in the room was definitely aided by using the previously reviewed Sound Care Super Spikes. These unique "internal spikes" aid limited movement of components, including loudspeakers even on carpeted floors. Of course they can continue to be used same as any spikes. For the moment I will credit them for preventing a recurrence of January's hernia repair operation. Seventy-pound boxes such as the one encasing the Thunderbolt have been known to lead to such events particularly when handled by one person. It comes with threaded regular spikes that would be attached after finding the best location.
Stereo setup for the Napoleons was simple and easy for me. The Herron preamplifier has dual outputs and while one set was feeding a pair of the tiny Napoleons full range, the other was feeding the line input of the Thunderbolt's built in class AB amplifier. Very straight forward so that the subwoofer's controls act as indicated. However, if being fed from a source such as most AV receivers that usually have built in crossover networks feeding the subwoofer output, things get very complicated rather quickly and require much thought and experimentation. Keep this in mind when setting up any subwoofer system so fed. Beware, Beware! Many if not most AV Receivers, even the truly better ones do some strange things for a variety of reasons, including logical ones. It has to do how the audio is handled for different inputs. As a result, when I attempted to get away from subwoofer's output built in crossover by using a preamp center channel output I found out that the center channel output was rolled off in the bass range! I
wound up using the pre-amplifier right front only output to drive the subwoofer. In agreement with Carl Marchisotto I found it cleaner, and logically so, than using both right and left front speaker outputs.
Using the simplest Napoleon System puts it into a hot bed of activity in the lower half of the two to three thousand dollar price range. Well-known floor standing models such as from
Vandersteen, Thiele, Silverline Audio (latest product reviewed elsewhere in our equipment review section) and many others offer popular and formidable competition as full range loudspeakers in that same price category. None of them offer comparable bass range extension, power or clarity of detail throughout the entire bass range as far as I know or have heard. The Napoleon System is tough, but not impossible, to match in its price range realizing, some excellent stands' costs may have to be added. Some of their competitors seemingly offer a tad greater high-end extension as well as a degree of increased detail in the top half of the frequency range though with a touch of added brightness at times.
In the stereo mode, the smallest Napoleon System offers a great deal. Foremost is a sense of great clarity and apparent detail, but not hyper detailing - that would be a negative quality that would seemingly add detail beyond what is actually on the recording. Fine for showroom demonstrations but not for long-term musical satisfaction. Male and female vocals are as clean and clear as you are likely to be hearing at any reasonable price. The entire bass range is the best I have ever heard in my home - period! I can state that observation differently. There is no subwoofer that I know of for less than three thousand dollars that can equal the sublime bass detail or transparency of
Alón's Thunderbolt. With reasonable attention paid to positioning, its audible frequency range is not to be questioned - it is all there. Same is true with a fair number of other subwoofers, yes even at or below my arbitrary three thousand dollar mark. Its quality
Along the entire length of its wide range is not currently matched and certainly not by anything within a thousand dollars of its price. My suggestion is to not think even once about pairing those over performing tiny Napoleons with any subwoofer or woofer other than the Thunderbolt. To do so is to violate the trust that should be given (it has been earned) to the designer's creation - the Napoleon System. If that trust is broken here the poorer result you almost assuredly will get will be deserved - you have been forewarned. I would suggest designer Marchisotto do a bit of a survey to see if customers might prefer a different color cabinet choice or perhaps just a different grille cloth choice. I hear much grumbling about large black boxes looking out of place in the décor of many rooms.
A possible concern to some listeners is the fact that the smallest (2+1) Napoleon System can sound a bit on the small or excellent imaging side of soundscaping presentation compared to even some of Marchisotto other designs. The answer to that possible concern was simple though it cost a bit more then and well worth it to many listeners. Adding one as a so-called center channel or doubling up the left and right stereo pair using a few inches of bare ended cable made for a bit of a transformation with more of a room filling quality and even greater sense of ease and fullness. Essentially the same qualities were heard when I substituted loudspeaker cables as evaluated later in this review. I have a nice piece of furniture labeled as a "home entertainment center" and purchased with "home theater" or
multi-channel audio use in mind with a television set stuck in the middle of it.
Let me tell you - the Napoleon System and my light oak cabinet is a moderately priced "wall" of excellent sound for music or movies! Want to gently sneak into a home theater system without going completely broke? Try the Napoleon System with plenty of Napoleons and prepare to be entertained in the truest sense of those words. Stupendous, greatest I've ever heard even including six figure systems at CES - no, but eminently satisfying and likely to remain so for a very long time. This is true whether listening and watching the evening news or reviewing new CDs a couple of which were reviewed in this
multi-channel or home theater budget setup. The cabinet is approximately nine feet long and seven feet high. I have played around almost every way possible with six Napoleons. No final decisions yet, but at times I feel they are almost wasted used in my rear channels. I keep those channels turned down quite low which adds ambiance, hall sound or whatever and is usually noticed only when absent. I do not have helicopters flying in from the rear.
As a result, I had an overabundance of Napoleons and a bit of time to experiment and experiment I did. Unfortunately, even after many weeks my results are not etched in stone. I find myself most commonly using a pair of Napoleons upright and almost touching each other in the important center channel position and a single one in the left and right channels and other times all three positions have a pair. Literally as I am writing this and the preceding two sentences, I have a single speaker in each of the front three positions supplying me with very satisfying music. I just finished a Frank Sinatra album and in the middle of this sentence Rainbow Body (see current music review section) a beautiful Telarc recording now available in both regular and
multi-channel versions, featuring some particularly good contemporary classical music, is playing very satisfyingly.
Yes, the three different ways I have used the Napoleons (always with the Thunderbolt and a pair of something in the rear channels) results in three different sound presentations. They are obviously closely related but differ very slightly but definitely as one or three are added in the front channels. The added warmth and fullness is often appreciated for straightforward music listening. For "home theater" or concomitant visual happenings, it seems to make somewhere between little and no difference.
The Napoleon reigns over other loudspeakers, anywhere near its diminutive size - that is about as close to hyperbole as I get. I like to stick to the facts as I hear them. It would be a mistake to ignore them because of their diminutive size-simply listen and be prepared for a surprise. The Thunderbolt reigns over other subwoofers that are near its size or price and even more costly models if we are audibly considering clarity, detail, and freedom from distortions and muddy bloat. I am specifically eliminating quantity of output as a basis for comparison. It seems as nearly every listening session reveals some slight but meaningful bass detail such as with a solo double bass being played or plucked or the impact of the mallet on the tympani or bass drum. It simply is more realistic sounding and revealing than others, though it takes a great deal of break-in time to reveal its audible rewards to music lovers. As a system the combination must dominate that very real niche market that allows a listener to start with a stereo system that expands easily and almost perfectly into a full blown
multi-channel or "home theater" setup that should completely satisfy nine out of ten listeners wanting to wind up there. As a pure stereo system (right and left) augmented by a subwoofer masterpiece, it can overall be bested by some more expensive and larger systems including my memory of
Alón's own Lotus Elite Signature at about three times the price. What do you plan to do for an encore Carl?
With the basic review finished I was able to again question designer Carl
Marchisotto. He answered each and every question that I had written down. I will briefly mention some of the highlights of that interview. The Napoleon System contains no secrets. As chief chef, Carl's analogy, he used and considered the various options same as the other chefs are able to do. None of the materials are exotic per se. Cost was not really a design consideration, but listening quality and compatibilities were absolute goals. There was no cost cutting remembered with either the tiny Napoleons or the companion Thunderbolts. The tiny-size Napoleons were designed to go full range, not needing any
roll off on the bottom end for protection from being overdriven and thereby eliminating another potential crossover. Port design (slotted) was a major factor in that respect and was not meant to add fullness to give the typical sensation of more bass and room filling ability with a definite loss of imaging specificity. The slightly larger
Alón Rascal model has more of that fullness sensation prized by many listeners. I had correctly guessed that the Napoleon's small mid/bass driver was basically the same driver used in a three-way
Alón loudspeaker system as the mid range unit and there listed as having a
tri-laminar coating. The slightly different bi-laminar coating in the Napoleon actually allows it to then become are upper-bass/midrange driver instead of its original midrange only design. As with other minute design decisions, listening tests were the final decision makers. The tweeter is a silk dome design.
Personally (Karl, not Carl) I believe much more thought and design plus listening sessions went into his Thunderbolt subwoofer than into the tiny Napoleon. Carl seems to believe what a number of other designers do but he seemingly has not allowed any one goal to compromise other design goals. Fine transient response is basic for excellence in any transducer. It matters not whether tweeter or subwoofer - the ability to start and stop moving almost instantaneously without adding anything (even in the time spectrum) or not quite reproducing anything such as the initial leading edge of any signal. The cone must be very light to be able to move very quickly and stop in an instant. Fine, but lightweight cones are usually not stiff enough to resist distortion-inducing flexing. Metal cones, special ribbed designs and so on add weight. Marchisotto would not accept that compromise. As a result he designed a large cone using a number of lightweight materials woven together with Kevlar reinforcement that basically does not flex and at the same time is lighter than almost all other known cone materials, same as in his $120,000 system.
He claims no compromising in the internal dedicated amplifier which is run in traditional class AB mode - no class D or "switching" amplifiers here with their theoretical advantages in the very bottom of the bass range. No servo feedback loop for error correction in Carl's design either and in my mind I had always assumed that the detection and following correction of distorted cone movement happened so quickly in a well designed servo loop that there was no audible disadvantage. Not true, Marchisotto claims that reasonably critical listeners can and do hear the effects that are occurring in the time domain. Simply put, the correction, by definition, has to happen after the error/event even though it does occur quickly. I think Carl now has Karl convinced even though a few top designs such as by Velodyne, Genesis and others put out prodigious amount of air moving capability with seeming ease. Somehow the designer has played around with the many parameters involved with vented enclosures. I think he deliberately avoided trying to get the last few Hertz of extension at the extreme bottom end, say below twenty Hertz. He traded that off (probably) for extremely accurate cone movement with no added bass bloat and absolutely no feeling of a boomy bass. If you hear boomy bass with the Thunderbolt there are two possible causes. The boom is in the recording or the controls on the rear of the subwoofer are set incorrectly. There is very definite interaction between the volume/gain and crossover controls.
Incorrect adjustments are very obvious with the very revealing Napoleons and their dependence on help from upper half of the Thunderbolt's output.
If you think some other subwoofer is superior in clarity, detail and lack of distortion I would like to know. Just make certain that you compare them in exactly the same room position.
For those who want to listen for bass detail and clarity, a list of the last group of CDs I used for that purpose, as well as overall, follows:
Carmen Ballet [High Performance series RCA 09026 63308-2], Eastman Wind
Ensemble Compilation [Mercury 434 322-2], Peterson Trio We Get
Requests [Verve V6-8606], Copland Fanfare [Reference Recording HDCD
RR-93CD], and Hovhaness Mysterious Mountains [Telarc SACD Multi 60604].
Some background information and continuing events may be of interest. After finishing the main body of this review using the Napoleon System as a stereo system replacing my much more expensive Genesis system (six times as expensive) with eight subwoofers and so on, the Napoleon System went
multi-channel. Each of the tiny Napoleons is magnetically shielded. It became, has remained, and will remain my "home theater system" which has been a work in progress lately, now with everything except the monitor and cables replaced. Even with my rave review of the Napoleon System, after day in and out of listening to it for movies, news, DVDs and CDs used in the
multi-channel system, something was subtly bothering me. The Sony 999ES player was holding up its end quite well as was the over performing Denon AVR 3803. The Thunderbolt's special interconnect cable fixed the early problem with my budget cable. Kimber Kable's Hero model interconnect also does fine with the Thunderbolt. Use one of these two if you have been trying to get by using a typical economy interconnect to feed the outstanding Thunderbolt. Years ago, to compensate for the tendency of my fledgling theater system to be slightly on the bright or harsh side, I chose Kimber's 4 VS series loudspeaker cables. These cables, with their use of a special polyethylene dielectric (wire covering) are well known for their ability to tame harsh or bright sounding components. My thinking turned to the idea that my new system plus the superb Napoleon System of loudspeakers had no need to be "softened". I called and talked to Kimber's very knowledgeable Dick Diamond. Dick agreed and said he would send something to try and thought it would cure the minor problem in the
multi-channel use of the Napoleon System. Kimber Kable sent the next step up in their line, the similar 4 TC model loudspeaker cables. The main difference is the use of Teflon dielectric with the TC models. Yes, even the material covering the wires affects the sound! As expected, the soft high end had become more neutral sounding as Kimber's representative had predicted. There was something else, unexpected, in Kimber's "relief package". It was a set of their rather special Monocle-X loudspeaker cables.
I burned in the Kimber Monocle cables, hooked them up (a bit of a hassle with the crowded rear panel of my Denon receiver) and listened, and listened and listened some more. The resultant sound almost bowled me over. Hard to explain, but Kimber's Monocle-X loudspeaker cables improved, significantly improved, the overall sound. The Napoleon System was surprisingly taken to an even higher level. The Napoleon is not cable sensitive, it is simply so revealing that flaws in preceding components are clearly revealed, but not emphasized. The highest performing tiny loudspeakers, the Napoleons, are now connected with the Monocle loudspeaker cables. With the over performing Thunderbolt subwoofer the combination performed as if they were "one". The same thing had been true with the stereo Napoleon System used in place of my main system for the first few weeks of evaluation.
They are the top line Kimber Select loudspeaker cables that have long been in permanent residence.
I hope I have painted an accurate picture of this outstanding Napoleon System of loudspeakers. It is probably unequaled, much less surpassed by anything any where near its price range in its ability to go from stereo to any
multi-channel arrangement easily and with outstanding sound quality belying its diminutive size. It will respond accordingly with future improvements to auxiliary equipment and cables. Highest recommendation. Please take my numerical ratings with at least a couple grains of salt. Overall musicality approaches 100.