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December 2007
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Gemme Audio Tanto & System Audio Ranger Speakers
The Ranger & Tanto...
Review By Phil Gold
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

  Please 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

Gemme Audio Tanto LoudspeakerLet 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. This year they have introduced two full range speakers based on the same highly advanced cabinet, the VFlex. The Vivace features a single Fostex driver (FE108E Sigma). Obviously any cabinet that can achieve a full bandwidth performance from one four inch driver must have some special properties. Vivace is aimed at the low output tube amplifier crowd and will not produce head-banger type volume levels.

The Tanto, 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 this review.

I asked Jean-Pierre why these particular drivers were chosen for the Tanto:

"Both drivers were chosen for their excellent match. This enables us to use a first-order filter (one capacitor to the tweeter, leaving the mid/bass driver completely crossover-free). In particular, the Silver Flute was very flat from 80Hz to more than 5kHz. This gives us a very flat frequency response in the critical midrange section without any disruption or passive component interference. For us, matching the drivers was more important than using popular brand names. The VFlex architecture is also sensible to Qts (a measure of the sharpness of a driver's free air resonance) and Vas (a measure of the cone's stiffness) T&S parameters, so for example, the mid/bass needs low Qts (contrary to what one could expect...)."

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):

"In these speakers, most of the money is put into the enclosure construction. Since VFlex speakers can produce very high pressures inside the cabinet (we once blew one completely... the wood cabinet literally exploded), we designed a double enclosure of different densities, tied together by a special viscoelastic bounding material. VFlex accelerates and filters the sound through a compression chamber, then though an expanding volume path, much like a standard back-loaded horn. The sound is then passed though another compression chamber, moving towards the back port. We call this Focused Pressure Field loading. The dimensions of the port, its position and length are precisely calculated for the enclosure and the driver. The effect is a bit similar to how an active loudspeaker, using a separate amplifier will boost the speaker low bass extension. VFlex operates by accurately controlling cone movements, and accelerating air motion, much like a turbo charger in a car engine."

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.

With prodigious 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 dining room!

 

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 listening room.

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:

"XS technology means that the wave guide around the tweeter controls the sound distribution, so that it is not reflected against the front plate and edges on the cabinet. The wave guide is an advanced acoustic solution that directs sound waves away from obstacles simplifies the electrical circuitry in the tweeter and improves the sound quality. XS technology also ensures that the tweeter distributes sound over a greater area than traditional tweeters. A 12mm front plate made of cast aluminum serves as the vibration-free base from which the tweeter transmits information that requires precise membrane movements all the way down to 0.0005 mm. This front plate has built-in ducts to prevent compression of the air behind the membrane. The unique textile membrane weighs only 80 mg and is possibly the lightest ever made. A separate built-in chamber behind the membrane of the tweeter is magnetically shielded."

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.

"The W1104XL is the first 4" woofer capable of producing a genuinely deep and full-bodied bass sound. The light membranes sound more natural, and their small diameter allows for superior distribution of the sound. Reproducing bass sound is all about the ability of the speaker to move air, and in this context, a small membrane has to work significantly harder to move the same air as a large membrane. The challenge is to increase the membrane's mobility – and W1104XL outperforms every other woofer of the same size.

· The membrane's mobility is 3–5 times greater than an ordinary woofer

· Incredibly durable construction, both mechanical and electric

· The specially designed membrane weighs just 0.8 grams and is made of a paper-like material

· The chassis is cast in aluminum and designed to enable substantial airflow

· The heat is drained off by cooling ducts

· The voice coil is made of fiberglass

· There is an additional passive voice coil

· A magnet system with built-in metal rings reduces distortion"

The reference Wilson Benesch Act 1 Speaker uses a similar 2.5-way topology, again using identical drivers for the bass and the bass/midrange drivers. Although the Ranger's main cabinet has the traditional rectangular cross section, the front baffle flares out towards the top, giving the Ranger the ultra modern appearance of an exclamation mark, especially with the black fabric grill in place.

Beneath the 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. Given all the strengths and weaknesses of these speakers, I can't say one is always better than the other, so I'm going to lay out my experience with a range of different recordings.

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 Power". 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 Tanto's strengths include a very wide frequency response, good imaging, rich color and warmth. Weaknesses include deep bass pitch accuracy and speed, compression at high volumes, limited dynamics and a lack of low level resolution.

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! Here are two well thought out new products punching way above their weight. If you are in the audiophile camp that believes strong bass is fundamental to good sonics, and you don't have room or appetite for big speakers with 10 or 12 inch woofers, you now have two new options.

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 look

 

The Tanto may float your boat if:

·        You prefer acoustic music

·        You like layering and imaging

·        You prefer a more traditional look

·        Your budget will stretch a bit further

Both speakers impressed me in Montreal, and they continue to impress me at home. I hope you'll give them both a listen.

 

  Tanto Ranger

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 the room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value for the Money

 

Manufacturer Reply

Dear Phil,

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!

Best Regards,

Jean-Pierre Boudreau
Gemme Audio

 

Specifications

Gemme Audio Tanto VFlex 
Bass/midrange driver: 6.5" paper cone doped with wool / cast frame
Tweeter: .75" ring radiator with 1st order crossover
Tweeter Crossover: 1 single capacitor (6dB / octave at 6KHz)
Sub-Bass Technology: VFlex turbo-charging cabinet construction
Sensitivity: 91.5dB/W/m
Frequency response: 18Hz to 30kHz
Impedance: 4 Ohms
Recommended Power: 20 to 300 watts per channel
Internal wiring: Cardas
Binding posts: Cardas multi way gold plated - not bi-wired 
Dimensions: 36 x 10 x 16 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 80 lbs each
Price: $5495 US / $6000 Cdn 
Warranty: 2 yrs driver replacement

 

System Audio Ranger
Frequency Response: 45Hz to 35kHz ±1.5dB
Impedance: 4 Ohms
Sensitivity: 87dB/W/m
Recommended Power: 70 to  300 watts
Woofer: Four SA W1104XL - 4"
Tweeter: SA 2506XS2 - 0.75"
Magnetically Shielded: Yes
Binding Posts: Multi-way and bi-wired
Crossover network: (24dB/octave) 900Hz / 2200Hz
Finish: Real wood: Maple or cherry
Finish: Painted: Satin white - other colors to order
Dimensions: 46 x 5 x 12.5 (HxWxD in inches
Shipping weight: 62 lbs each before sand loading 
Price: $4500 US / $5000 Cdn
Warranty: 2 yrs for production defects, 5 yrs for components

 

Company Information

Gemme Audio
9697, boul. St-Laurent, #300
Montreal
Quebec
J7P 1N1
Canada

Voice: (450) 472-5908
Fax: (450) 735-4262
E-mail: jpierreboudreau@videotron.ca
Website: www.gemmeaudio.com

 

System Audio A/S.
Klosterengen 137K
DK-4000
Roskilde
Denmark

Voice: +45 36 45 80 80
Website: www.system-audio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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