Ever since its inception in 1986, Belgian loudspeaker manufacturer Venture Audio has steadfastly gained a fine reputation and a loyal following. It has constantly been at the forefront of deploying the best available driver technology in the pursuit of musical realism. The Ultimate Charm (UC) is the smallest member of its Ultimate loudspeaker line and represents a significant update of La Charm, a model dating from 1990. To confess, I was originally reluctant to review the UC. To a first approximation, they resemble stand-mounted minimonitors, or to be more exact, minimonitors on steroids. Such a design is prone to suffer from a baffle diffraction step effect in the lower midrange, smack in the power range of the orchestra. Too often the end result is an in-room lean tonal balance, and that's definitely not the way I like it, and explains why minimonitors have not been my preferred mode of sonic transportation for the past 25 years. But then a quick listen during CES 2010 followed by a discussion with designer Hoo Kong Njoo (aka Didi to his friends) proved sufficiently persuasive.
As with all other Venture loudspeakers, the crossover is first order. Didi, as was the late Jim Thiel, is a fan of first order networks primarily because of their excellent time domain behavior and uniform power response. The importance of a uniform power response, at least in the critical midband, is in coupling ambient information into the listening room and more completely immersing the listener in the original soundfield. The trick, as Jim Thiel explained to me many years ago, is to work with drivers that are content with shallow 6 dB/octave slopes. And of course, the ability to customize drivers for such applications is of critical importance. The crossover frequency is 1200 Hz, quite low compared to a nominal 3000 Hz frequency typically deployed for 1" dome tweeter. Lower is better for the simple reason that it makes driver integration less problematic. The idea of chopping up the musical spectrum and feeding it to a set of specialized drivers may at first seem elegant from an engineering standpoint. However, the difficulty lies in the acoustical realm. The problem of trying to blend the output from drivers spread out on a baffle without significant interference effects is far from trivial. The task is made easier when the driver spacing is small relative to the wavelength at the crossover frequency, as it is at 1,200 Hz when the wavelength is about 1 foot. Another benefit of crossing the tweeter so low is a wider midrange sweet spot.
The cabinet is said to be constructed as a sandwich of interleaved layers of high-density fiberboard and solid hardwood resulting in exceptional constrained-layer damping. The low magnitude and quick time signature of cabinet resonances gave the subjective impression of quick bass, being unobscured by slowly decaying cabinet energy. Speaker connections are possible though either WBT Nextgen binding posts or Neutrik Speakon twist-on connectors. Dedicated stands are offered as an option. These are made of cast aluminum sections for greater stiffness and minimal energy storage and feature rubber dampers on the top plate for decoupling the speakers from the stands. The good news is that the stands do enhance the UC's bass precision. The bad news is that they are horrendously expensive, effectively doubling the price of the complete system. However, I suspect that you can do almost as well with far less expensive stands.
The impedance magnitude is reasonably flat (3 to 6 Ohm) over the range from 100 Hz to 20 kHz, making the UC a good match for tube amplifiers. That's a good thing, because the UC performed best in the company of a good tube amp, specifically the deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company's KE-50A, which added tonal richness and textural density missing with solid-state amplification. This superb sonic marriage highlighted the UC's ultimate charm, its imaging prowess. The use of a wide-band tweeter did pay dividends in terms of coherency, speaking as it does with one voice from about 1,200 Hz and beyond. I can flatly state for the record that the UC has superb coherency, and that is an essential catalyst for timing and imaging excellence. The soundstage was spacious, cavernous on some program material, and well delineated in terms of width and depth perspective; I've only experienced more convincing dimensionality from full-range driver designs. Image focus and localization were laser sharp and the palpability factor was in spades! It was clear that the UC imaged like a minimonitor but with far more substantial power handling and bass slam. For example, you really had to watch the juice with the classic BBC LS3/5A minimonitor; if the amp sneezed too hard you'd pop a woofer. The UC, on the other hand, can safely sink up to 200 watt transients without complaining too much.
Midrange textures were smooth and pure, while the lower midrange displayed a surprising degree of weight. When everything was right, it was capable of producing delicious string tone. Reproduction of human voice was superb, with uncommon timbre fidelity, and the innate ability to extract the singer's full palette of emotions. Its combination of speed at the point of attack, transient control, and soundstage transparency made for engaging immediacy.
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