It was probably a show report from CES that first tuned me into Escalante Design. Following that, I read an interesting review by Dave Thomas. The Escalante website expressed a responsible sensitivity toward the earth and the way it should be treated. I liked that. Furthermore, I've been through their home state of Utah many times, bicycled the road up Bryce Canyon, drove through their namesake town, swum in the moonlight at Capitol Reefs. The Four Corners area, Moab, Arches, Dinosaur and Flaming Gorge are all places I've set foot. But while history may have brought me to the product in a subliminal way, it does not make an audio review. In fact, there was an uncertainty on both our parts as to whether I would actually do this review. I had committed to it without ever hearing or seeing the product, and then, when I was to finally take possession of the loudspeakers at the New York show in May, logistics became a problem and they went back to Colorado with the Butler amplifier people. I can't honestly say that I fell in love with them when I first encountered them in New York, but clearly they were a product deserving of a review. Eventually, they landed at my loading dock, but it felt more akin to an arranged marriage than one born of passion.
My initial interest had been with the Uinta Subwoofer. I'm not a subwoofer expert, but I have long wondered what a good subwoofer would do for my Kharma 2.2 reference loudspeakers. More than one reviewer of Kharma loudspeakers has commented on a lack of gut punching bass, and now, even Kharma has introduced a subwoofer of their own, albeit at $9,500 ($4,000 more than the cost of the Uinta). I was hoping to find a more moderately priced solution with the Uinta. I followed the excellent set-up instructions to the letter, but could not get the Uinta to blend with the Kharmas. A conversation with Tierry Budge, the designer, who goes back in audio history to Wilson Audio, Voce Davina and Talon Audio, suggested an arduous process of minute adjustments that would probably take me the entire summer. I reasoned that if it was that difficult, it probably was not meant to be.
I proceeded to retire the Kharmas to the wings and set up the Pinyons, which meant first setting up the Hoodooh Monitor Stands that accompanied them. The stands are a handsome design, but two significant flaws are evident. In this first production run, the holes for filling the stand with sand are about the size of a soda fountain straw. Filling them would be about as tedious as drinking a Frosty through a straw at Wendy's. I opted out, choosing Plan B, which I will get to in a moment. The second problem is with the pointed feet that come with the stand. They are exquisitely designed with the ability to level the stand by adjusting their height and they are manufactured with a jewel-like finish that is lost in my broadloom rug. But there are only three of them, meaning the stand is susceptible to tipping if bumped. Granted, the added weight of lead shot and the 52 pounds of each Pinyon monitor should add some stability, but with just the weight of the Pinyon, I am still not convinced three spikes is the way to go. Additionally, the spikes have an obscure metric thread that prohibits me from trying the stands with a set of Stillpoints. Eventually, I gained enough confidence that I was able to walk through the room in the dark, but it was an acquired skill. And the presence of visitors and small grandchildren makes me wary. By comparison, if I accidentally bump the floorstanding Kharmas, they do not move. The shortcomings of the stand are certainly rectifiable and hopefully will be overcome in future production.
The overall look of the Pinyons on the stands is visually coherent although not as artistic a union as we have seen from the Sonus Faber or NHT. As a unit, they do not have the weighty presence of a large floorstanding loudspeaker. The room, on the large side to begin with, seemed even larger and airier with the Pinyons in place. The loudspeakers themselves are clearly a contemporary design with the brushed aluminum veneer on the sides creating an image of a wave or horn coming down from the upper back edge to the lower front edge. In an arena of intense competition with product branding of utmost importance for a fledgling company, the emphasis on design is understandable. With their Atlas Grey Metallic finish (actually a very deep blue-grey borrowed from the Porsche Boxster) they certainly look their price, but I couldn't help wonder if the loudspeaker would be more elegant without the metal veneer and the design merely milled into the sides of the cabinet. The reflection on the high gloss finish should be sufficient to bring out the design. Sometimes the subtle approach is more elegant. And a more subtle approach would allow the Pinyons to look more at home in a formal or traditional décor — something that could be important for a spouse and broaden the potential customer base.
Matt Waldon, the soft-spoken president of the company, tells me that they are indeed offered in paint only, and even without the wave milled into the sides. Their newest finish is environmentally friendly bamboo plywood that, in the photos I've seen, looks like a light maple. Due to the extreme rigidity of the actual cabinet, the various finishes reportedly make no difference in the sound quality. Matt also explained that they have found a much better painter for their cabinets, and that current production is far superior to my review sample, which is the same pair that people saw at the Primedia Show in New York in early May, 2005. Accordingly, the price has gone up since then, too. On a technical note, the Pinyons have a proprietary binding post that clamps both positive and negative terminals with the twist of a single knob. It is the nicest arrangement I've every used, but it only takes speaker cables terminated in spade connectors, or possibly a thick bare wire. Many major cable companies will re-terminate your cables if this is necessary. Or, you may want to stay tuned for my next review.
Listening to the Pinyons
There was an immediate recognition that they were significantly different from the Kharma 2.2, but a certain "rightness" about this loudspeaker emerged in a very short time. The music was eminently enjoyable right from the start as I listened to the black compilation CD that I use at shows. In fact, the music was so compelling that I never got around to taking notes about the experience. For two months, I just kept listening, and listening, and listening. Lest you think I had become totally mesmerized by these loudspeakers, let me share some cognitive impressions.
The Pinyons exhibit an extremely high degree of focus — among the handful of very best that I've ever heard — from top to bottom, not just in the midrange. They are extremely smooth and grainless over their entire range. The treble is handled by a new Scanspeak tweeter that goes way higher than I am able to hear, and its extremely high resolution eliminates any hint of hiss or splashiness. It seems neither rolled off nor tilted upward. Overall, it makes me wonder why all the fuss about diamond and beryllium tweeters. Cymbals and violins have met their master, if they have been well recorded. There is a switch at the back of the monitor that offers a 2dB boost to the treble if your room is exceptionally absorptive. I tried it, but didn't need it.
I could easily have written the words above with the Pinyons directly on the stands, but as an ardent believer in the importance of vibration control, I eventually proceeded with Plan B, mentioned above, and scavenged a pair of Symposium Isis Platforms from other systems. The Isis Platforms were placed between the monitors and the stands. There was a noticeable improvement in focus and a slight improvement in transparency. From my experience with both the Isis and the Symposium Svelte Shelf, I have no doubt that the latter would impart even greater gains. The clean black and silver lines of these shelves would be totally in keeping with the aesthetic of the loudspeaker and the stand. While not inexpensive, the Symposium shelves provided a justifiable gain that should be considered by anyone purchasing the Pinyons. These shelves are now also offered in custom sizes for such use on speaker stands. I should also mention that the entire reference system is treated with various vibration control devices, no doubt contributing to the superb focus. The Pinyon is capable of much higher resolution than most high end electronics without vibration control can provide.
In the bass region, there is only a slight degradation in resolution and no artificial boost to disguise the lower limit of the mid-woofer. It doesn't really need disguising. It goes deep, and then disappears. It doesn't fill the bottom octave, of course, but there is plentiful bass for most critical, sophisticated listeners, and certainly enough bass for anyone with a room of moderate dimensions or an apartment with common-wall neighbors. And the midrange? I suppose it's in between the bass and treble somewhere, but I can't tell you where it begins or ends. The presentation is seamless and the tonal balance is just about perfect. I say "just about" because there seems to be a little hesitation on the part of the Pinyons to "let go of the notes," as Sam Tellig says. Don't make too big an issue of this. You need to keep in mind that my listening room is large, and I am powering the Pinyons with the wonderful "little engines that could," the Manley Mahis, in triode mode, maxing out at 20 watts per channel. It could also be that this effect is the result of the extremely fast and controlled attack and decay of the notes, indicating superb engineering and design. The notes don't "hand around" to muddy up the music or conceal the quieter instruments in the background.
Positioning of the loudspeaker has an important effect on the dynamics and "letting go" of the notes. In my room, angling the loudspeaker toward the listening position makes them brighter and more dynamic, but at the cost of distorting the soundstage. To maximize width, depth and uniformity of the soundstage, I prefer the Pinyons firing straight ahead, rather than angled toward me. This decision sacrifices a bit of dynamics and transparency in my room. Of course, since every room is different, you will have to experiment with this to reach your own personal point of satisfaction or pleasure.
Adding the Uinta Subwoofer
Even adjusting the volume didn't cause that to happen. With my room right at the limit where Escalante recommends adding a second sub (6000 cubic feet, not to mention a large archway opening into the family room) I guess chest-pounding bass was not going to happen. This was a bit of a disappointment at first. The Uinta is an expensive subwoofer. It weights 140 pounds. It has two 12 inch direct coupled drivers — one on front and another one inside. There is a 500-watt internal amplifier driving it. The crossover and volume control knobs are simply the smoothest knobs I've ever twisted. And there is a parametric equalizer built in to tune out room resonance at the listening position.
But lots of good things happen with the Uinta. There is serious deep bass, and it is very tight. It is also very fast, blending seamlessly with the Pinyons. The subtle room tones of the recording venue blossom and the "you are there" feeling is carried right on up through the midrange. Moreover, the addition of the Uinta subwoofer makes the music complete. Not only does it flesh out the bass and extend it into the bottom octave, but the focus of the midrange and the transparency of the midrange both improve. Don't ask me why.
The combination of the Uinta and the Pinyons results in even better positioning of the various musicians. By themselves, the Pinyons create a deep soundstage with my tube monoblocks. Adding the Unita subwoofer extends the soundstage even deeper. Furthermore, I notice no qualitative difference between music powered by my tube amplifiers and the music provided by the subwoofer with its solid-state amplification.
Turning the volume down to 87dB average with the Escalantes, the soundstage becomes more recessed. I feel like I am in the back of the performance hall, or up in the third balcony. The music is still clear and focused, but not as dynamic as I'd prefer, again, possibly because of the size of my room. Keep in mind that the Pinyons are more than five feet out from the wall behind them, and the sidewalls are far to the left and right of each loudspeaker. Add to that the ability of the tube monoblocks to throw a wide and deep soundstage. The Pinyons matched the Kharmas in soundstage width, but exceeded them in depth. To move myself forward in the performance venue, I simply turn the volume up. In doing this, I feel more connected with the performers and I can hear more inner detail. Yet at no time during the months of this review, did Linda ever complain that I was playing the music too loud.
Turning the volume up merely brings the performers closer to the listener without audible distortion and without distorting the positioning on the soundstage or the size of the performers. The performers become larger as I turn the volume up, but never to an unnatural size that might qualify them for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The volume control acts pretty much like a zoom lens on a camera. Moving in the other direction, down to the low 80's or 70-something dB, the music becomes less compelling, though still highly focused and transparent. I would definitely not recommend spending this kind of money on a loudspeaker to those who need to listen at low volume for any reason other than occasional background music. You would simply not be using what you are paying for.
When listening to this trio, there is no single trait that jumps out and calls attention away from the music, yet like any thoroughbred, it has its own particular characteristics that will attract one listener and turn another away. And it is in comparison with other loudspeakers that these subtle differences come to light.
I've talked about some of these above. The ability of the Escalantes to achieve superb focus from top to bottom is world class, yet it might not be to everyone's personal liking. Recorded music with this much resolution gives you more inner detail than you are likely to hear in a concert hall. And all the details present in the recording are reproduced for you to hear, for better or for worse. In this sense, they make an outstanding monitor for recording studios, and you can listen to them all day at high volume without fatigue.
For those who love music that is less than perfectly recorded, they also cut through the noise and present you with the music. My two favorite "worst" CDs are Live At Winterland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Real Live by Bob Dylan. The Escalantes strip away most of the garbage and let you enjoy the music and the lyrics hidden within. Likewise, when listening to less than perfect garage sale LPs, the Escalantes are so fast and so focused that the clicks and pops fly by with minimal intrusion, being reduced in duration and lowered in volume relative to the music. And for those to whom Rap is a foreign language, the Escalantes automatically translate the lyrics and makes them clear.
Just for kicks one summer night with the windows open I cranked up Nas doing his song "One Mic" with the bass putting out about 100dB at the listening chair. With the heavy drum beat the mid and upper bass distorted, obviously from the clipping of the Mahis. I had the Uinta crossed over at about 40Hz. I backed it off to about 98dB peaks and went outside to see how it sounded from the street. Not bad, and certainly not obnoxious. Clear music doesn't seem to carry as far as distorted music.
One of my most memorable listening moments came when I heard Wilson Phillips sing "Daniel" on the Two Rooms tribute to Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Not only could I enjoy the wonderful harmony, I could hear their voices slightly diverge and recognize three separate singers. Likewise the voices of back-up singers were clearly heard, even when they were substantially lower in volume. And words in African languages that are completely foreign to me in songs by Hugh Masekela and Paul Simon could be perfectly heard, if not comprehended. The gospel choir in Lyle Lovett's "Church" could be clearly heard and understood in the farthest depths of the soundstage.
Another revelation of an outstanding character presented itself when I was taking SPL measurements. My frozen pizza, to which I had added anchovies, reached perfection in the oven and I took a break. Sitting in my recliner, 30 degrees off-axis to the outside of the right loudspeaker, (where I had dragged it to make room for the SPL meter and tripod in the sweet spot), I realized there was still a formidable soundstage. In fact, I found myself peering around the right loudspeaker to get a better "view" of the singers. This was a good eight feet to the right of the sweet spot. This means, of course, that you could replace your listening chair with a conversation sofa (one of those curved sofas that are about 10' long). Or, stretch your imagination a little further. With their deep, recessed soundstage, the Pinyons and Uinta could be used for an incredible home theater with stereo sound! At the extremes, it wasn't perfect stereo, but there was a sense of width and depth that did not collapse to the nearest loudspeaker.
Even more so than enhancing my comprehension of lyrics, what really elevates my appreciation of the music is the ability of the Escalantes to recreate the timbre of individual instruments from one end of the audible spectrum to the other. The Escalantes are real timbremeisters! The tonal coloration and harmonics that emanate from the body of a guitar or a piano have a richness that few loudspeakers can manage. With their outstanding focus they reveal the minute micro-dynamics, the slightest nuance of musical inflection that a musician might use to communicate with another musician or with an audience. Those whose musical taste is heavily weighted to New Age electronic music might want to consider a more euphonic loudspeaker, since the presentation of this music — at least as I hear it on Hearts of Space — comes across as a bit dry, lacking in overtones and harmonics with the Escalantes.
The first graph here shows the frequency response of the Pinyon and Uinta together as I listened to them for the past couple of months. Three things jump out at me. First is the dip in the 60Hz to 90Hz range. Second is the dip in the lower midrange centering at about 325Hz. This latter dip is probably caused by a floor reflection. The same dip appeared in the VR-4jr response curve with the loudspeakers in the same position. A recent article in an electronic newsletter from one of the major print magazines reminded me of this "Allison Effect." And since it is dependent on loudspeaker position, and the Pinyons were in the same position as my reference loudspeakers, I did not notice the dip. And third, the graph suggests an extraordinary smoothness from the middle of the midrange on up through the treble. (The smooth roll-off from 8kHz to 20kHz I attribute to the fact that these are 30 degree off-axis measurements, as well as to the shortcomings of the inexpensive meter). The lack of gut punching energy in the lowest octave was also manifested, and encouraged me to play around further with the crossover, gain and parametric controls on the subwoofer.
The second graph shows the frequency response of the Pinyons alone. I was surprised they did not measure stronger in the 40Hz to 65Hz range. I attributed this to the fact I had the front baffle 65 inches out from the wall behind them. I subsequently moved them to 47 inches out, which improved the bass considerably, but also shook up the midrange and treble measurements.
Finally, in the third graph, you can see that with some experimentation with the controls of the subwoofer, I was able to extract more powerful bass response, and indeed, it did sound stronger without any loss of resolution. These results were achieved primarily by adjusting the gain and the crossover. The parametric equalizer requires more skill and patience than I could muster at the end of the review period, particularly with the instrument I had to work with. Continued listening at these settings verified that strong bass is the heroin of high-end audio. The strong gut-punching bass is available if you choose to use it, but I personally prefer to rein it in a bit so as not to distract me from the rest of the music. Nonetheless, the bass is tight and it is fast.
Check, Double Check
Both the Kharma and the Escalantes transition perfectly from top to bottom, but in the Kharma 2.2 the bass and the treble fall off slightly in focus. Even the midrange of the Kharmas does not match the superb focus of the Pinyon. Consequently, the timbre and inner detail of the music is much more accessible with the Escalantes. But there is focus, and there is transparency. And transparency is where the Kharmas rule. As I always say, improving focus is like putting your eyeglasses on; improving transparency is like taking your sunglasses off. With the Kharmas, in spite of their massive size, their ultra-rigid cabinet lets the loudspeaker completely disappear. The music gets completely out of the box and appears before you as if on stage in your listening room. The Pinyons do not let go of the notes quite as easily. If my room was smaller and/or my amplifier was more powerful, the dynamics of the Escalantes might have equaled their excellence in focus. This is why we have horse races. And both of these loudspeakers qualify for the Triple Crown races at their relative price point.
I also hooked up a solid state muscle amplifier, my venerable Plinius SA-100 Mk III. The focus dropped off a bit across the audible spectrum, and the soundstage compressed to the front a modest amount. But the results strongly suggest that a high quality solid state amplifier would also be an excellent choice for driving the Pinyons. In fact, the Plinius with 100 watts per channel in 'Class A' allowed the Pinyons to relax a bit more than with my little Mahis.
Tweeter: ring radiator, soft-dome
Woofer: two 6.5-inch drivers
Frequency Response: 34Hz to 50kHz
Impedance: 8 Ohms nominal
Dimensions: 17.75 x 8.25 x 12.75 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 52 lbs. each
Type: The Uinta Subwoofer is a self-powered, direct coupled design
Woofer: two 12-inch drivers
Frequency Response: 18Hz to 800Hz
Amplifier: 500 watts
Transient Power Rating: 3000 watt at 10mS
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 23.5 x 16.5 x 22 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 140 lbs.
Voice: (801) 373-4712