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April / May 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere!
Gemme Audio's Green Gem Loudspeaker System
A huge leap into the stratosphere of high-end audio.
Review By Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Gemme Audio's Green Gem Loudspeaker System  For the past couple of years, and probably this one, too, Gemme Audio has been one of the best rooms at the Montreal Festival Son/Image (show report here), now renamed Salon Son & Image. The Katana, largest of the three loudspeakers in their VFlex line was the model I particularly sought out for review. Heavy demand combined with a shortage of ceramic drivers from Accuton kept that dream from materializing. What ensued was an invitation to review a model from their new premium Phenix line — that is French for Phoenix, just as Gemme is French for Gem. At $37,500 the Green Gem was outside my economic comfort zone, but having seen the photograph I immediately understood this loudspeaker. The continuing conversation with Jean-Pierre Boudreau, VP Sales & Marketing, made it clear that Gemme really wanted me to write the review. The fact that the Green Gem would be at CES in Las Vegas this year (show report here) was an important factor in accepting the challenge to review the show. In a worst case scenario, I could politely decline the Green Gem after hearing it. The more probable scenario was that it would be a good bit better than the Katana and be more suitable for my larger music room.

At CES I encountered the Green Gem in the Angelis Labor room — each of those names invoking a different fantasy image. Angelis Labor is a new brand from Italy. Their visually stunning turntable with four tonearms looks like something evolved from drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, brought to life by master jewelers. The room was sculpted with light and accented with plants. It had an unquestionable aura of fine taste and wealth. The Green Gem contributed to that aura, but was the more restrained partner, as is sometimes the case with couples. Visually, the Angelis Labor electronics and the Green Gem were a beautiful match. It was an honor to be in their presence.

I took the opportunity to listen to a number of segments from my compilation CD which put me at ease. To this point it was one of a handful of finest rooms encountered at CES and in retrospect, it remained so. While listening, I tried to burn the image of the sound quality into my memory, knowing it would be helpful later. I spoke briefly with Robert Gaboury, President and Chief Technical Officer and then moved on. With so much to cover at CES, I couldn't afford to camp out in any one room.

Immediately upon my return home we arranged to have the Green Gem shipped directly to my business. We pushed the large wooden crate right from the air freight truck to my delivery truck. I took my strongest man with me and we uncrated it right in the truck. No point in lifting more than necessary. Carrying the bass credenza into the house is not a task for amateurs and fortunately we were both experienced in lifting heavy furniture. We placed it in the center of the music room, totally surrounded by the literature from CES that was spread out in sequence on the floor. The box with the two monitors was so small I thought they had forgotten to send them both. Two light weight stands from the show were also sent along because dedicated stands had not been commissioned for CES.

I left everything just sitting there while I continued to work away on my CES report. And then fate struck. In late January a small blister on my retina broke loose. Emergency surgery followed the next day. I was down to one good eye and forbidden to do any lifting. A nine day headache ensued. My friend Tom Lathrop came to my rescue and rearranged the music room, putting the Green Gem into the system so I could at least do some listening. With only one functional eye, progress on the CES report was slow and frustrating. I did a lot of long distance listening from the home office at the opposite end of the house, but I occasionally took serious listening breaks.

Weeks passed and Jean-Pierre kept asking how the review was coming. Well, I was listening. And did I notice any difference during the break-in period? (The Green Gem had been completed just before it was shipped to Las Vegas). Well, (from down the hall), I didn't notice much difference. It was a most unusual circumstance to have this superlative loudspeaker land in my home and treat it as a casual listening device. But in a way, it was a godsend. As busy and distracted as I was, it gave me a condensed opportunity of what it would be like to have this in my home for years. It became just another object in my home. More stuff. I listened to music on it, but I rarely examined it. And when I realized that most owners of a loudspeaker this expensive probably will not sell it for a very long time, this temporally distant viewpoint could be valuable. Allow me to put the cart before the horse and tell you that I could live with the Green Gem for the rest of my life if I were to give up reviewing and retire to the luxury of simply listening to music. It became a fixture that easily shifted my attention from the equipment to the music.

 

Form Follows Décor
The Green Gem is a breakthrough loudspeaker that pays homage to décor as much as it does to music. With the exception of one fairly large monitor, I've always entertained floor standing loudspeakers. Invariably, floorstanders have a visual impact on the room with their front baffle 5 feet out from the front wall behind them. The Green Gem, on the other hand, visually disappears. The monitors, being 7 x 7 x 10 inches tall, were easily ignored on their relatively lightweight stands and were easily moved aside when the situation warranted it. In a more spacious environment the hinged doors on each end of the credenza could be closed to conceal the 15-inch woofers making it look like a normal piece of furniture. Space was tight along the front wall due to the equipment rack and a small jungle of plants, so I left them swung fully open, parallel to the sides for the entire review. A diagram suggests placing the "Soprano" monitors between 3 and 5 feet from the center of the bass driver. A distance of 4 feet allowed me to place the face of the monitor right where I normally place my reference loudspeakers. The credenza was centered on the front wall which is actually a large bay window spanning the 17-foot width of the main room. The room continues into an 11-foot music library to the right and a 5-foot foyer to the left, for an overall width of 33 feet. In the Angelis Labor room at CES the credenza was also place against the long wall, minimizing side reflections, and I suspect this is the optimal orientation. The credenza, with a front to back depth of about 20-inches plus room for the cables and binding posts, was not difficult to reach across to lower the honeycomb window blinds at night. The idea of having a large screen television or a drop-down front projection screen above the credenza to watch concert videos was tantalizing, if not heretical.

I've long held that the most important component of a system is not equipment at all, not the room itself, but the significant other. If the music room is an emotional battlefield between spouses, there will be precious little music appreciation. The Green Gem can be a major force in ameliorating the situation. Not only does it look like furniture, the craftsmanship is of the highest order — as good as anything I've seen at the High Point Market in North Carolina (the furniture world's equivalent to CES) which I visit twice a year. The style here is tastefully conservative with a nod toward contemporary design in the gracefully arched base made from solid dyed mahogany. "Transitional" is another oft used word that applies to the styling. The checkered sapele ribbon mahogany veneer brings a European flavor reminding me of the designs on the bandieri (flags or banners) hurled about in the pageant that has preceded the Palio (horse race) in Sienna and Lucca in Italy every summer since medieval times. The twelve edges of each Soprano monitor are banded with 0.25-inch solid mahogany where most other manufacturers would simply butt the veneers together. The banding fit flush on all sides and is perfectly tapered to join at each corner. Not only does this protect against damage, it is very high class. The credenza, which normally sits back against a wall and is less scrutinized, uses more traditional construction. The satin lacquer finish defers your attention to the gleam of your electronics and the glow of tubes as it did with the Angelis Labor and has the added benefit of not producing glare from your reading lamp when you listen in relative darkness. The silver tweeter stands out in this situation, but it is relatively small and I learned to ignore it. No grille cloth is offered at this level of performance by Gemme.

The large credenza is made with MDF and uses lap joints at the edges, but there is also an internal frame for rigidity. The box is built separately and then attached to the solid mahogany stand. The twelve cubic foot volume is common to both 15-inch bass drivers, but there are some internal baffles as well as a series of five 2.5-inch holes that are part of the "Breathe" technology that I will talk about later. The doors that swing around to conceal the woofers have a recessed handle that befits the style and a magnetic latch to hold them closed.

Location, as they say in real estate, is important. Since the credenza is positioned where many would otherwise have their components, this needs to be taken into consideration, particularly with regard to cables. The Green Gem needs to be bi-wired, if not also bi-amplified as it was at CES. Since my installation was temporary, I wasn't too concerned with the visibility of cables and placement of the amplifiers; I just needed to make it functional. The TubeMagic M23SE monoblocks I primarily used had dual sets of binding posts for the speaker cables, which was convenient. To optimize the décor you may want to have supple cables that can be threaded behind the credenza and lie inconspicuously just above the floor on risers en route to the Sopranos. Given the expense, the aesthetic design and the achievable sound quality, you don't want to undermine your efforts with a poor visual presentation.

 

GreenTree
This particular version is called the Green Gem after GreenTree, the company that manufactured the cabinets in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. The credenza is an adaptation of a media cabinet previously designed by Don Green, one of perhaps a couple hundred studio furniture makers in this country specializing in custom made very high end pieces. His work appears in major juried craft shows in this country as well as museum shops and galleries in the United States and Canada, and he has been featured in Fine Woodworking magazine. Being sensitive to environmental issues Don sources his wood and veneer from areas that practice controlled cutting and replanting, and his use of pre-colored veneer helps minimize waste. Not only is he very talented, he is open to working with future owners to achieve new and unique exterior designs to fit the décor of the intended home for the loudspeaker. In fact, each custom ordered version of this three piece loudspeaker will have its own name, determined by the veneer and design worked out between the purchaser and the cabinet maker. While for me "Green Gem" conjured up an image of a sci-fi comic book character, once it was positioned in the music room the name was soon forgotten. The music rules.

 

The Sound
I had been causally listening to the Green Gem for seven weeks before I finally began to write the review due to the preceding CES show report and the slow progress of my eye surgery. That doesn't mean I hadn't been thinking about it. My first impression was one of disappointment. Not that the Green Gems sounded bad, but that it did not sound as good as it did at CES with the Angelis Labor system. I consoled myself with the fact that the Green Gem had been bi-amplified with four 40 watt tube monoblocks of outstanding quality. That the Angelis Labor system, minus the turntable with four arms, cost over $100,000 was additional consolation. Still, there was much I could learn about the Green Gems. Right from the beginning it was evident this was the finest loudspeaker I had ever had in my system. But best was not "good enough" for me, having heard them at CES.

Now, fast forward to near the end of the review period. Eddie Wong of TubeMagic called to tell me the new Mk 2 production version of his M23SE monoblock and P23SE preamplifier were on their way to me. Eddie had made two previous trips to modify the review samples that finally appeared in the February/March issue of Superior Audio. The Mk 2s with their new PCB Plus would be much better, he assured me. As good as the Angelis Labor?

The new monoblocks arrived without tubes or top plates and in the process of swapping the tubes over from the old version it was immediately obvious there were major changes in the construction and layout of the PCB Plus, which is basically used as a jig for the point to point hand wiring that lies below it. All the ducks were in a row and the smaller transformers had swapped position with the larger ones at the back of the amplifier. All was very tidy, except for one production glitch. The tube sockets for the 300B had been mounted a little too high for the Electro Harmonix tubes, so I ran the amplifiers with the lids off. I left the preamplifier in storage for a separate review, in case you were wondering, and continued to use my CAT preamplifier.

The P23SE Mk 2 monoblocks were most of the solution to my quest. Transparency and focus took a major step forward and the rig was now in the same league as the room at CES with the Angelis Labor. Two months later it was difficult to remember exactly what the Angelis Labor brought to the Green Gem, but since Jean-Pierre was pressing me, I'll say the music was a little sweeter and a little warmer at CES. The TubeMagic amplifiers delivered music with supreme transparency and focus through the Green Gem, close to the sound of the Magico loudspeakers I had recently heard. Part of the difference with my rig could have been the consequence of my digital front end. In any case, the margin of difference easily falls within the differences attributable to the different acoustic environments. That my mature CAT preamplifier and the TubeMagic monoblocks could go shoulder to shoulder with the $100,000 Angelis Labor rig was a gratifying experience. If you live in a castle, however, you will likely prefer the more elegant and complimentary aesthetic of the Angelis Labor.

 

Expanding The Envelope
At first, I wasn't sure if the stands took the Green Gems too far in a good direction. And then the Boston Audio Design TunePlates I had been using with the lightweight stands caught my eye. You might think with all that mass, the stands would absorb the micro-vibrations and the sharp spikes would dig into the flake board flooring beneath the carpet to further anchor the stands. After all, they call them Sound Anchors, don't they? I put the squares (visco-elastic polymer sandwiched between dissimilar thicknesses of stainless steel) under each spike. The improvement in focus was not as great as the benefit of switching to the larger stands — not by a long shot — but the TunePlates definitely refined the sound even further. More importantly, my emotional response to the music took a major step forward — my involuntary toe tapping was indisputable evidence.

I did before and after tests with my compilation CD Planet Drum and Pipes Rhode Island when I installed both the stands and the TunePlates. There is no mistaking that the Green Gems are capable of highly resolved bass that does not upset the tonal balance of this speaker with bloat or obvious distortion. And here I need to remind you that I am driving this loudspeaker (rated at 100dB/W/m efficiency) with 20 watt monoblocks that were more than up to the task. For most music it uses only 2 to 5 watts. It is specified at playing from 32 Hz to 30 kHz. I pulled out my Stereophile Test CD and ran through the 1/3 octave test tones. Descending from 1 kHz, it dipped slightly, and then came on strong again at 40 Hz. It dipped somewhat at 31.5 Hz, and then faded deeply, but not completely out of hearing, down to 20 Hz, so it would seem the specifications are honest. Planet Drum was extremely engaging with very satisfying bass, as was Pipes Rhode Island, John Marks' compilation of church organs in Rhode Island. Neil Young's Live Rust, classic live rock music, seemed a little lightweight in the bass, but the excellent focus and outstanding transparency of the Green Gem revealed the intentional musical distortion and more obscure lyrics to a degree that put Neil right in the room and gave me tingles up the spine. If you need that last octave of deep base, and crave to hear every footfall, you probably need another loudspeaker. There were certainly plenty of ambient spatial cues to give me the "You are there" and "They are here" experiences we all crave.

Moving up the scale, the Green Gem exhibited supreme coherence, no matter what combination of stand and TunePlate I used. I was wondering how this would come about in a three-unit loudspeaker. We hear about the importance of time alignment and proper phase. How are the Sopranos to be lined up with the bass credenza? Can a mortal audiophile accomplish this on his or her own? A diagram accompanied the loudspeaker which suggests the Sopranos be placed along an arc with a 3 to 5 foot radius from the center of each woofer. With my 8-foot loudspeaker cables I was able to achieve a radius of about 4 feet. In a preliminary copy of a white paper on the Green Gem, Robert Gaboury wrote:

Right from the start, my only real concern was using a three box set-up with an unusually high frequency transfer point. It was the only way I could meet the 100dB/W/m efficiency target. It turned out that the arrangement was coherent, provided the bass cabinet is positioned in the center of the twin satellites, and that each satellite is positioned in a 5 foot radius of each woofer (the wavelength of the 200 Hz crossover). Ultimate phase integration is achieved with placement experimentation relative to bass cabinet.

Although I am not a Golden Ear reviewer per se, I had no problems in this regard. This is probably because I took pains to center the bass credenza on the bay window wall and placed the Sopranos in a mirrored position in relation to the credenza with an identical distance from the front wall. I suspect the overlapping range of the two drivers is very forgiving. The drivers, as Robert told me, were selected not only on the basis of their efficiency, but on how well they blended in the region they overlap in order to minimize the crossover and preserve the inner detail of the music.

I took the advice of a fellow reviewer and revisited the recording of J. Gordon Holt reading a short dissertation "Why Hi-Fi Experts Disagree" with different segments recorded with different microphones, from the original Stereophile Test CD. The Green Gem clearly revealed the differences between the microphones, attesting to its overall neutrality. Likewise, Neil Young's Live Rust exhibited the sharp and hissy treble inherent in the recording, while other recordings on my compilation CD revealed the relative strengths and weaknesses of their original discs. Overall, however, the increase in focus and transparency lead to a more engaging and enjoyable listening experience, no matter what the quality of the original recording. The horn loaded ring radiator tweeter leaned slightly to the forgiving side and never drove me to hit the Stop button. Treble was smooth, focused and neither emphasized nor rolled off, as best my aging ears could tell. The tinkling of small bells was an absolute delight. Attack & Decay, Pace Rhythm and Timing were all spot on.

 

Woofer/Satellite System
Just as I was re-discovering the audio field around 1990 I came across an impressive (to my inexperienced ears) sub/sat system from Triad, a loudspeaker company that has since evolved toward the home theater/custom installation market. Like that early sub/sat system, the Soprano monitors completely disappear. On most music the musicians appear a few feet behind them where the bass credenza sits and further into the front yard when the recording has a deep soundscape. Classical music usually has the orchestra seated just beyond the front windows and extending further out toward the road.

Subwoofers have become a category by themselves, often only utilized below 50 Hz with near full-range monitors or floorstanding loudspeakers. Today, you can pay some serious money for one... or twice that for two as many audiophiles argue are necessary for true stereo effect and to minimize standing waves. The bass credenza is not a subwoofer. It hands off to the Sopranos at 200 Hz and fades gently with a first order slope into the midrange. It serves the bass region from 200 Hz on down to 32 Hz. I tried playing the Sopranos without the bass credenza and believe me, it doesn't work.

The Green Gem bass credenza uses what is called the "Breathe" technology that utilizes five large holes without the aid of mass loading typically provided by internal tubes. It is kind of a cross between infinite baffle and bass reflex systems. When I was a boy I was introduced to high-end audio at a friend's home in the late 1950's when a primo infinite baffle loudspeaker consisted of a single coaxial driver (it was the days of monaural, remember) mounted in the wall of a basement recreation room. With the back side of the driver facing the laundry room, it essentially became a very efficient 1000 cubic foot loudspeaker. So the modern in-wall loudspeaker developed for home theater isn't really all that new, but they certainly are a lot better today.

Large drivers in those days got down low by virtue of their diameter rather than their excursion. And so it is with the Breathe system of the Green Gem. It is modeled after the famous JBL 2226 driver and has a maximum excursion of 6 mm. Its movement was barely perceptible with most music. Only some deep organ passages produced excursions that I could easily see. The large size and vintage look of the grey paper coned bass drivers in the Green Gem credenza vaguely reminded me of the stereo console we had in our basement when I was a boy, except it doesn't have the whizzer cones and it's three times as big. You do not get thunderous bass from this system, unless perhaps your amplifier is exceptionally bass heavy. Continuous power handling of the bass drivers is 600 watts, each, so you could do that if you want. What you do get is a very natural, effortless and tonally rich bass that practically lets you taste the drum skins and chew on the sticks. And in my view "tasty" is far healthier than "gluttonous" when it comes to music.

The Soprano monitors are no less delicious. The midrange is a specially designed driver for Gemme that is a pure midrange, not a mid-bass driver. It covers the range from 200 Hz to over 7 kHz range — four octaves(!) which goes a long way to explain the seamlessness of the Green Gem. A single capacitor protects the midrange by rolling off the bass frequencies below 200 Hz. The midrange runs unbridled to over 10 kHz. It is extraordinarily smooth and uncolored; it blends seamlessly with the tweeter. Ring radiator tweeter designs have become increasingly prevalent among the best sounding loudspeakers at shows in recent years and the one used here from Fostex certainly does not disappoint. Extending to 30 kHz, it qualifies as a super tweeter and gave the Soprano a smooth and airy presentation.

A heavy damped stand is necessary to get the optimum sound quality from the Soprano, as I learned, but short fluted wood columns filled with sand could easily be used if the décor calls for it. I've even seen beautifully carved marble pillars from the Middle East at the High Point Market, but I think that trade route has been broken in recent times. And never underestimate the value of the Boston Audio Design TunePlates or the sonically equivalent IsoPlates from SoundDeadSteel in England. BluTak was used to attach the Sopranos to the stands at CES and this makes sense if there is even the slightest chance of them being bumped.

When the music is over, you can close the doors and turn the music room into a sitting room for company once again. The top of the credenza can even be used for floral arrangements and family photos. Don't laugh. My wife buys me two Valentines each year — one for the top of each loudspeaker — and they stay there until Christmas when they are replaced with ornaments. It's a loving touch and a small price to pay to have the best room in the house for music.

To get a better grip on the contribution of the Green Gem and the TubeMagic amplifiers, I re-installed my Manley Mahi monoblocks. At less than two fifths the cost of the TubeMagic the Mahis revealed more grain and less focus as you would expect. But the tonal balanced gave more weight to the bass when used within the limits of its 13 watts in triode mode with minimum feedback. This is not in any way a put-down of the Mahi. It is a mighty amp in its league. The TubeMagic would more fairly be compared with the Manley Neo Classic SE/PP 300B monoblocks.

Next I pulled my Plinius SA-100 Mk III out and let it warm up for a day. It needs a warm up of that length after it has been sitting unused for a while. With 100 wpc in Class A, this solid state amplifier had iron fisted control of the bass and the tonal balance of the bass seemed significantly stronger, particularly when played at a louder than normal (say, 90 to 95 dB peaks). It gave up transparency, some focus, soundstage depth and width, however — all those things at which the tube powered TubeMagic excelled. This doesn't mean you cannot use a solid state amplifier with the Green Gem; it means you will probably have to spend large to find one that will do it justice. With an overall efficiency of 100dB/W/m, however, this loudspeaker begs for a fine tube amplifier.

 

Check, Double Check
I reinstalled the TubeMagic amplifiers and ran through my CDs one last time with the Green Gem. In playing music with lots of bass I cranked the volume and discovered the bass is significantly stronger at higher volume than I did most of my listening for this review. Gemme claims an extended dynamic range of 120 dB. Perhaps I have been too gentle with these loudspeakers during this review. Or perhaps the quality of the music is so good that it doesn't require loud playback levels. I'll leave that question for the next reviewer to probe.

Then I pulled the plugs and swapped in my Kharma, which, with the weak US dollar, now costs close to 60 percent of the price of the Green Gem. The Kharma were less focused, but nearly as transparent. The bass in particular was less focused and the tonal balance was more bass-heavy. In fact, the music sounded thicker all the way around because of the diminished focus. Soundscapes were about equal in size, but the Green Gems had more pinpoint imaging and more holographic notes due to the superior inner detail. With amplified music, the Kharmas had a greater sense of Being There as most amplified bands do not have superb focus, due either to their equipment or the acoustics of large venues. But with classical and un-amplified music, the Green Gem was superior. (I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Mahler's Sixth from 5th row, center, at the Eastman Theater two weeks ago). And for what it's worth, my toe tapped with greater conviction with the Green Gem. This is not to say Kharma is a bad speaker. (My Ce 2.2c is nearer the lower end of their line). Rather, it is to attest to the greatness of the Green Gem.

 

Summary
Gemme Audio has taken a huge leap into the stratosphere of high-end audio with the Green Gem. It breaks new ground by combining ultra-fidelity with high end furniture in a format that values décor as much as fine music reproduction. The bass credenza incorporating their Breathe technology is among the most articulate bass I have heard. The musical presentation is seamless and smooth from bottom to top. It is ruthlessly revealing without being ruthless. Nonetheless, you will want to surround it with beautiful components — that is only appropriate for a loudspeaker of this beauty and craftsmanship. At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2009, the Green Gem, in combination with Angelis Labor electronics, was among the handful of finest rooms. Nothing I heard in familiar surroundings causes me to refute that praise. If you treasure music and it fits your décor, it is worthy of the finest room in your home.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Three piece loudspeaker system
Design: Spatial coherent design with BREATHE™ bass loading architecture
breathe Bass Module: Two 15-icn stiff paper woofers
Soprano Mini Speakers
    1-inch horn super tweeter (Alnico powered)
    5-inch ultra low mass midrange driver (Neodymium)
Frequency Response: 32 Hz to 30 kHz
Efficiency: 100dB/W/m
Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended Power: 10 to 1000 watts
Dimensions: 
   Breathe: 62 x 26 x 22 (WxHxD in inches)
   Soprano: 7 x 10 x 7 (WxHxD in inches)
Price: $ $37,500

 

Company Information
Gemme Audio
9697, St-Laurent Blvd.
Montreal (Quebec) J7P 1N1
Canada

Voice: (450) 472.5908
Fax: (450) 735-4262
E-mail: jpb@gemmeaudio.com
Website: www.gemmeaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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