forgive the corny title, fifties fans - I couldn't resist!
Two impressive pairs of floor-standing speakers go head to head today, both stars of the Montreal Festival Son et Image 2007. Each speaker is unusual in its own way each one attempting to elicit quart-size bass from a pint-size box - and both come from specialist speaker manufacturers you may not have come across before.
More than perhaps
any other audio component, the speaker is a flawed instrument whose strengths
are traded off against weaknesses. There is no perfect speaker and an expensive
price tag is no guarantee of excellence. Much depends on the size and shape of
your room, the number and location of listeners, your décor, the type of music
you listen to and the volume level you prefer. Big speakers may reproduce a
greater sound pressure than smaller boxes and will often cover a wider
bandwidth, but smaller speakers often excel at imaging and detail, working well
in rooms that trouble their bigger brothers, not to mention offering great value
for money. Some speakers are designed to work well with low powered tube amps
and others need watts in the hundreds to reveal their full potential. Some work
best close to a wall, others demand open space in every direction. Speakers make
a greater difference to the sound than other components, which is not to say
they are the most important item to get right, or that you should devote XYZ of
your budget to the speakers, where X is variously 30, 40 or 50 percent. There is
also greater variation in the technology and materials going into speakers than
into other components, and they are often the largest components in the system,
so their external design takes on a greater significance. Who wants something
big and ugly in their living room?
Gemme Audio and
System Audio have both taken the path less traveled with the review subjects
today, and while I won't be making a clear-cut recommendation, you may still
find enough useful information here to suit your purpose.
In The Left Corner Gemme Audio Tanto
us start close
to home or at least my home. Gemme
Audio hails from Montreal, formed by two music lovers, Jean-Pierre Boudreau and
Robert Gaboury, who fell in love with the sound of vintage horn speakers.
designed for more powerful amps and higher maximum listening levels,
incorporates two drivers into this VFlex chassis a 6.5-inch doped-paper
bass/midrange driver from Silver Flute (W17RC38-04) and
a 0.75-inch ring radiator tweeter from VIFA (XT-19). We'll look at the Tanto in
Jean-Pierre why these particular drivers were chosen for the Tanto:
In case it appears Jean-Pierre is talking gibberish, I will point you to this reference explaining a driver's T&S (Theile/Small) parameters, which describe their electrical and mechanical characteristics.
The Tanto is not a
traditional two-way speaker. The bigger driver is actually directly coupled to
the output of the amplifier without the aid of any crossover, while the tweeter
uses one simple high quality capacitor to tailor its output. Jean-Pierre
describes the Tanto as a 1.5-way speaker, and is quick to point out the
advantages of this incredibly simple configuration. The simplicity, much to be
desired, is deceptive, since it moves the complexity required to get a flat wide
bandwidth response into the mechanical realm. In other words, it's the VFlex
cabinet that's doing the heavy lifting here.
So what is VFlex?
VFlex cabinets are handmade in Canada from the finest Canadian Maple and feature
a front baffle and pressure load points 2" thick. Both exterior and interior
surfaces are machined. The same basic geometry is used for both Tanto and Vivace
but the final tuning is optimized for the particular drivers used. The horn
loading is applied to just the bass/midrange driver. Jean-Pierre is holding his
cards fairly close to his chest regarding the specifics of the horn loading,
since they are proprietary and unique in the industry at present. But this much
he is willing to reveal (and he didn't use so many technical terms this time):
Whatever complex construction lies within, the Tanto is one gorgeous looking speaker even my wife approves and there are very few speakers she has admired as furniture. The test pair features an exquisite lacquered finish over a charcoal stained cherry veneer on each bulging sidewall, a matt black baffle front and back and a glossy black lacquer top surface. There are no front grills so please keep young children and animals at a safe distance. The Tantos are 36 icnhes tall, 10 wide and 16 deep and weigh a ton or 80 lbs each to be more precise. They sit on three substantial adjustable spikes, one concealed at the front and two mounted on a steel bar protruding a couple of inches on each side at the rear. A 2-inch port is located half way in the centre of the rear baffle and two Cardas multifunction terminals are located near the base no need or opportunity for bi-wiring here. Both front and back baffles are machined with surface vibration breaking V grooves. To minimize coloration the cabinets are heavily braced internally and the inner baffle surfaces feature asymmetric focal grooves to break up standing waves.
As is common with horn-loaded speakers, the Tantos are quite sensitive at 91.5dB/W/m into 4 Ohms, but are better suited to high-powered transistor amps than single ended triodes. My Perreaux R200i can put out 360 watts into 4 ohms and it felt like a good match. These speakers like a good healthy supply of current you have been warned.
levels of bass available the Tantos need careful positioning in the room. In a
very large room you may want to place them with two feet of the wall for bass
reinforcement but in my room they sing much better well away from room
boundaries, and angled only slightly towards the user. Facing the short wall
they revealed a cupped-hands distortion that many horn speakers possess. I found
they preferred facing the long wall, as do the reference speakers. Your mileage
may vary I recommend you take the time to experiment with positioning. Once
optimized they provide an enormous sweet spot, extending even into the adjacent
And On My Right SA Ranger
You may not have
heard of Danish speaker specialist System Audio (SA), founded by Ole Witthoft,
although you will know that many of the world's top drivers hail from
Scandinavia. The company launched its first speaker in 1984, a compact speaker
with a big sound, which would be a trademark for the company over the years.
This philosophy is expressed today throughout a wide range of speakers, all
aiming to surprise the listener with their performance to size ratio. SA
believes in using the lightest possible driver membranes to improve the speed of
response to any given signal and this has influenced both their choice of
drivers and the shape of the cabinets that hold them. They also design their
speakers to be a friendly load to a wide range of amplifiers, to offer a wide
dispersion pattern so that the listening position is not critical, and to be
usable close to the walls without introducing a boomy bass sound. In short, they
aim to be friendly to the partnering equipment, to the listener and even to the
SA also believes
after hundreds of experiments that natural materials (paper, wood-fiber or
textiles) make the best driver cones. Each speaker is assembled tested and
packed by a single employee, who performs upwards of 14 quality tests along the
way. SA expects their products to live up to their technical specifications for
12 to 15 years instead of the industry average of 4 to 5 years.
The SA Ranger
stands tall (46 inches) and slim (5 inches) next to the Tanto, curved sides
replaced by sharp angles and straight lines. The tweeter (SA T2506XS2) sits
between two 4" drivers (SA W1104XL) and is located above ear level in my setup.
SA mounts this tweeter in a proprietary configuration they call XS:
Two more 4-inch
drivers sit close together further down the baffle. Are the four 4-inch drivers
identical? They look it, but the top pair are bass/midrange drivers, covering
the range of 40Hz to 2.2kHz while the bottom pair cover only the bass range of
40Hz to 900Hz. Actually all four are identical but the crossover passes only
bass frequencies to the lower pair, while the bass midrange pair is fed all the
frequencies below the 2.2kHz crossover point. So although a single 4-inch driver
is not capable of moving the large quantities of air needed for a strong bass
response, four of them not only match the performance of a far larger woofer,
their lower mass allows them to react much quicker to a given signal, leading to
much improved bass transient response. System Audio has a name for this
technology too XL.
Wilson Benesch Act 1 Speaker uses a similar 2.5-way topology, again using
identical drivers for the bass and the bass/midrange drivers.
surface the Ranger too hides some sophisticated architecture. The lower portion
contains a 5-liter cavity for sand loading, and the test pair is so loaded,
bringing the weight of each speaker up to 80 lbs. The solid cabinet is divided
into multiple chambers of non-rectangular cross section.
The front baffle features 45mm MDF fiberboard while 42 pieces of wood
veneer (cherry or white maple) cover the sides of the speaker. The Ranger sits
on a black MDF plinth made wider than the box to provide a firm footing. Four
modest adjustable spikes sit at the corner of the plinth. Two sets of easy to
use solid binding posts allow biwiring or biamping, and Nordost monofilament
jumpers are provided to twin the two sets if you do not take advantage of these
options. The 2-inch port is located in the upper part of the rear baffle.
The Ranger is less
fussy about positioning than the Tanto but prefers to face the short wall in my
listening room. It also defines quite a wide sweet spot, a characteristic I
admire. It is 4.5dB less sensitive than the Ranger so is definitely intended for
a fairly muscle bound amplifier.
Seconds Away Round 1
Both speakers have something special going on in the bass. The Tanto is the more extended in that direction, with a frequency response curve flat down to 40Hz in measurements made at the NRC, output substantial all the way down to 20Hz. The Ranger claims a response within ±1.5dB from 45Hz to 35kHz, with a more rapid falloff below 45Hz. But frequency response does not tell the whole story, or we could all just buy parametric equalizers. The Ranger does indeed live up to its billing, offering amazing control over its bass, which can truly start and stop on a dime even doing justice to Bach's organ works. The Tanto goes deeper, reaching even the bass pedal notes the Ranger misses, but while the response may be flat, the control is reduced and the speed and attack of the Ranger's bass is missing. At the opposite end of the spectrum, both speakers offer good extension and a very smooth treble. Neither speaker emphasizes leading edges despite the speed of their response. The Ranger cannot match the Tanto in portraying the slow decay of harmonics that real instruments often display.
The Ranger images
quite well across the room, but it projects an image that lacks the sense of
depth and layering that the best transducers achieve. The Tanto does quite a bit
better in this respect, although the Wilson Benesch Act 1 will put both to shame
with its accurate and stable three dimensional image. When you turn up the wick,
your hearing will give up before either of these speakers starts to display any
obvious distortion. Then again, your amp may wimp out first. This is more likely
in the case of the Ranger, which at 87dB is not an efficient speaker compared to
the 91.5dB/W/m sensitivity of the Tanto.
The biggest single
difference between either of these speakers and the much more expensive Act 1,
and the one that leads me to a certain disappointment with some of my musical
material, lies in the area of dynamics. Lesser components tend to compress
dynamics, since it is very expensive to engineer speakers, amplifiers or even
source components to do justice to the full dynamic range encoded into those
digital bits or analog waveforms. You may call this linearity, presence or PRAT.
Call it what you will, you'll know it when you hear it, and this is the Achilles
heel of both the Ranger and the Tanto. Very few speakers have the ability to
scale without obvious compression, and this is particularly so of speakers with
a generous bass output. The Act 1 is thrilling on some tracks, like Jennifer
Warnes' "I'll Take Manhattan" that sound really good on these two but never really kick
butt. The Ranger and the Tanto are each a bit softer, rounder, more polite
than the reference. You may not share my passion for realistic dynamics, and
depending on the type of music you listen too, it may never even be an issue.
Let's start with the piano tough as hell to do full justice here and it's the dynamics that make the difference for this 88-string monster. Rubinstein's famous recording of the Funeral March Sonata [JVC XRCD JM-XR24008] sound amazing on the reference, and the Tanto is not far behind, rich, sonorous, and musical, but never as menacing as it could/should be. The Ranger fails to convey the magic of Rubinstein's touch. In the finest modern sound Kalman Olah's "A Night in Budapest" [MA on SA] is coherent and impressively dark on the Tanto, lacking just the extreme black background of the reference and losing just a little pitch precision in the extreme bass. Here the Ranger displays less leading edge than the reference, but surpasses it with the speed and pitch accuracy in the bass. All three speakers convince here, although only the reference captures the full excitement of the piece. I keep pulling Hamelin's Shostakovich Piano Concertos off the shelf to see how each new component succeeds with this superhuman performance [Hyperion CDA 67425]. The Ranger offers good color and detail, projecting a wide but rather shallow image. Piano tone fares better than string tone, which lacks texture. Dynamics are on the polite side. The Tanto is more colorful still but slightly less detailed. Dynamics are still pinched, lower strings are weighty but upper strings are thin, taking a back seat to the splendidly resolute piano. Neither speaker conveys the authority, dynamics or spaciousness that the Act 1 reveals here.
I mentioned Bach
before. Let's listen to the wonderful E Power Biggs on the Flentrop Organ at
Harvard. Can you imagine the scene at the christening? I
name this child "E
The killer track here, and one I will never tire of, is the Passacaglia in C
Minor [Sony LSBK46551]. The Ranger loses some points as it cannot reach the very
lowest notes, robbing the music of some of its glory. It does generate a good
head of steam but the sustained bass notes do not play to this speaker's
strengths. The Tanto not only reaches those notes, but produces prodigious
volumes of air, moving me to emulate the organist's feet in lock step and sing
harmony to boot. The Tanto's rendition of the Prelude in A Minor beggars belief
that so much sound can come from such a small box. There's lots of power and
impact to make up for the vagueness on the bottom notes. The Ranger too shifts
an enormous quantity of air with ease here. On the pedal notes it has more
definition and pitch accuracy than the Ranger but less sheer volume. Both these
speakers will knock spots off the reference here, proving their designers have
achieved their ambitious objective.
Ravel's Bolero [MFSL UDSACD 4002] is a wonder on the Act 1, a deep wide image containing delicious instrumental color, propelled forward by the sharp rap of percussion and the swagger of brass and wind, leading inexorably to a passionate climax. Next to this the Ranger is very smooth, full of subtle coloring and wonderful deep bass but lacking the image size or a real sense of excitement. The Tanto comes in somewhere between these two, majoring in transparency and image depth but again missing the attack and extreme climactic power of the conclusion, where compression sets in.
Vocals are a
different story. I much admire the Tanto's way with male voices in particular,
performing magic with the close-mic'ed Lilison Di Kinara on Bambatulu
[MUS2-1119]. But the vocals are all that excel on "Ansa Djallo" where there
should ideally be instrumental layering, a black background and a
get-up-and-dance vibe. In fact neither speaker majors on visceral.
The Ranger also sounds shut in here a lot of detail but a lack of
sustained harmonics and depth fail to ignite, although again the voices are
clear and remarkably lifelike.
Turning to a
recording many of you will know, Modern
Cool [MFSL UDSACD 2003] should bring out the best in any system. With the
Ranger, Patricia Barber's voice is excellent, as are the trumpet, guitar and
piano. So the bass and midrange excel but the treble disappoints it's soft
with little bite or sustain in evidence. The Tanto simply doesn't have the same
precision and attack in the bass, but the brass is brassier, the percussion more focused and alert and the level of
detail improves. Neither speaker approaches the Act 1, which opens up the
soundspace and give you a rush of adrenalin, let alone the Reference 3A Grand
Veena which sets new standards on this disc (see next month's exciting episode).
Play By Play
I had such a good
time with these speakers that I pulled out many a disc I haven't heard for some
time, reveling in the bass information, clarity, detail and smooth treble both
speakers can produce. Not an ugly note came from either speaker, both achieving
high levels of musicality.
The Ranger's strengths include an extended, fast and accurate bass performance, high maximum volume levels, and low levels of distortion. Weaknesses include reduced dynamics, image depth, sustained harmonics and a polite treble.
And The Winner Is
You, the listener!
You should seek
out the Ranger if
You want the experience of
sitting right up close to the performers
You're a head banger
You like rock 'n' roll
Your house has a contemporary
The Tanto may float your boat if:
You prefer acoustic music
You like layering and imaging
You prefer a more traditional
Your budget will stretch a
impressed me in Montreal, and they continue to impress me at home. I hope you'll
give them both a listen.
I wanted to thank you for giving us the opportunity to have our Tanto speaker reviewed in Enjoy the Music.com. We really enjoyed the review and comparison with S.A. Ranger as well as the higher priced Wilson Benesch Art. 1 speakers. The music notes quotation at the end was very interesting as well!
Gemme Audio Tanto VFlex
System Audio Ranger
System Audio A/S.
Voice: +45 36 45 80 80