is changing. That is not the beginning of the usual high-end review. I know
that. But it is the beginning of this one. First, I should state that this
review concerns, if you have read the title, the Ars Aures Midi Sensorial Mk II
speakers. The name in itself is a mouthful. You can also be spared the trouble
of skipping to the end, assuming you care, to find out that this speaker system
is quite remarkable. It is in a class by itself, by which I mean not that it is
better than everything else out there. There is no way that I am qualified to
make such a representation. Rather, the Midis are both very, very good and they
are an exception to the high-end norm.
So yes, the weather seems to be changing pretty
noticeably, at least in New York. From what I understand, New York is not alone.
But in our area, 100-year storms seem to be annual events. Insurers are
retooling their models to account for climate change. Sandy has reinforced
impressions that were already half-formed or more. I do not intend for this to
be a political discussion (though I won't shirk from that) but am rather making
some simple empirical observations from a small but growing body of data. We've
got some interesting weather coming our way and the trend seems to be on the
To step back, this story starts with a summer
rain. 48 hours before Irene (tropical storm - 2011), we had a flash storm in New
York that brought over two inches of rain in less than 30 minutes to our
neighborhood. While I live on a hill, there are buildings above ours on that
hill. The storm runoff from this "pre-Irene" poured into our garden and seeped a
little bit into our bottom floor, where the audio system resides. We were away,
but a good friend checked on it for us. One of the speakers, on the floor (more
later) and closer to the walls, was surrounded by an inch of water. The other
was not yet touched. He moved the speakers and mopped up.
I came home because Irene was on the way. Set the
alarm because she arrived at midnight. About 1:30 AM the rains came. The walls,
perhaps already saturated, released water into the lower floor. I had moved the
entire system, as well as rugs, tables, chairs, and computer equipment, to the
next room, farther from the fluvial plain. All night, I Shop-Vac'ed the floor
and soaked up water with towels and blankets to prevent further damage. Eight
hours of work, and they paid off.
So Irene didn't hurt us. However, the earlier
storm flooded the lower floor. (There has been more since.) And my old speakers
Those were the Midis Mk I that I had reviewed for
Enjoy the Music.com in
September 2005. The Midis were and are constructed of a beautiful wood
veneer over approx 30-60mm M/HDF. I learned later that if MDF or HDF takes on
water, it expands. That is what happened to the Midis. They expanded internally
and split open the veneer. You might be interested to know that I did not find
this out until two or three days after Irene, because I had thought the Midis
were safe. Only upon really looking at them closely did I see that there were
cracks in the beautiful outer cabinet.
Fortunately, I had good insurance that paid to
replace the speakers. (If you are reading this, make sure you have good
insurance and that it will pay the replacement cost of your components.) While
one was damaged, insurance will pay for the pair (think of earrings, or
candelabras, or table service for eight).
So... I ordered a new pair of Midis. All during
the time between my audition and purchase of the original Midis and the arrival
of the Mk IIs, Ars Aures had made many changes to the Midis. They eventually
warranted a designation as a new edition of the speaker. Ars Aures do not draw
much attention to themselves, and they are never going to be the sort of
manufacturer to declare that the revision of their product has now rendered all
previous versions and pretenders null and void.
Before I go further, I wish to add one word about
Ars Aures, since I am writing from the United States. They do not have a US
distributor right now, and so you can stop reading if you wish. Ars Aures are
well-represented in many other countries, certainly throughout Europe, and so
can be relatively easily procured there. In the US, though, you will need to
import them yourself. That is too bad, but it may change in the near future.
Nonetheless, as Ars Aures' customer base is largely in Europe, this review may
still be of interest.
While the size of the Midis is not far from the norm at 120 x 25 x 50 cm, and while the profile is commendably narrow, the speakers viewed from the side have a dramatic curve from the overhanging top edge through the "waist" and to the floor.
My new Midis are done in a "mocha" chocolate
finish. You can quite literally choose whatever finish you want and Ars Aures
will match it as closely as can be done. Bear in mind that every pair of Midis
is hand-made and pretty much made to order. Even if you do not ask for a custom
color, there are still well over a dozen standard finishes from which to choose,
from white to black with incandescent colors all through the spectrum.
That is the outside, and both my wife and I find
it attractive. The inside, however, is more important, and one can see the care
in the construction of the Midis -- quite the norm for Ars Aures.
The cabinets are well braced, the walls are not
parallel, and the speaker has a solidity and integrity that is clear to anyone
who tries to move them around. They are spec'd at 60kg, but they feel much
heavier to me, and I am not unaccustomed to lifting more than 60kg. It may be
due to the fact that large-ish speakers are just somewhat unwieldy. So while
many of us may be able to move more weight in the gym, to carefully move
speakers about is not as easy.
My Midis, under construction...
The Midis are relatively tolerant of setup. They
sound good almost wherever you place them. But Ars Aures advises that you mark
the floor, and continue to move them until the sound is completely satisfactory.
I wound up placing them fairly wide, 230 cm apart, about 120 cm from the back
wall, with about 15 degrees of toe-in.
The Midis, unusual again among high-end speakers,
do not come with spikes or with pre-drilled holes. Ars Aures recommends that
they be placed on marble risers (buy your marble of choice at your local
supplier) for the best sound. I cannot say why this is optimal, accustomed as I
am to placing my speakers on spikes. And I do not wish to drill holes into the
cabinet, although that would not be that complicated at all in view of the
I used both a marble base and, while waiting for
the marble, some composite bases made by Gramma, who manufacture sound isolation
for professional applications. I know that Benedetto Cassarà, the exceedingly
warm and gracious chief of marketing for Ars Aures, will be disappointed, but I
could not discern an advantage to the marble over the Gramma bases. That said,
the marble would complement the "aura" of the Midis better than the more
quotidian look of the Gramma bases (they are not beautiful but they work and are
quite sturdy). I can say with both experience and confidence that any base beats
no base by a mile. Here we can cite two major reasons: (a) the ample bass of the
Midis is tightened and focused and reflections in the lower octaves are better
controlled, and (b) the bases keep you from getting the water damage that befell
my first pair.
In any case, setup is not that involved -- you can be up and running in 15 minutes. The Midis have new and improved binding posts that accommodated any and all of the connectors that I have (principally large spade). The posts are about three feet off the floor, so be prepared for the wire to have to rise to that height.
And listening is not that hard, either. I heard
almost no break-in period, so to speak. I tend to be skeptical of break-in in
general, as most of the time I am unable to separate my own "getting used to"
the component from some theoretical and subtle change in the component itself.
(Though as an aside, I would note that the terrific Wyred 4 Sound DAC-II that
has made all my digital music quite pleasurable to listen to did have a break-in
during which it went from great to even better.)
So, what is new?
Next, the crossovers, made entirely by hand, have
been re-engineered with new components to carefully match both the slope and
speed of the actual transition between drivers. All crossover components were "ultraselected"
to achieve the tightest possible tolerances and the most consistent performance.
Crossover signal paths have been shortened to reduce signal loss.
As an aside, the revamping of the Midis was in
part a result of the five-year development of the new Ars Aures flagship
speaker, the Estasi (read: ecstasy), and the Midis benefit from that effort.
Cabinet joints have 20% greater rigidity, resulting in a reduction in cabinet
The Midis also have totally new binding posts, developed expressly for Ars Aures by Deep Audio, an Italian company, who partner with a university-based R&D department. The binding posts are formed of a special bronze-copper alloy (along with other metals), which is akin to a similar alloy used in particular parts of some high performance race car engines.
The midrange drivers, made by SEAS, have been
revised to Ars Aures specifications with a new gluing process and a new basket
alloy to improve the blending of the sound at the crossover points. Benedetto
advises that the current drivers, which are rounded squares, will be revised to
be circular in the near future.
Remarkably, even with all of the above changes
and more, the speakers are almost physically indistinguishable from the earlier
version. But the sound - that is another matter entirely.
Finally, the Midis do not present major problems
to the amplifier. I have used them with a number of amplifiers, and they sound
good with all, whether tube or solid-state. They certainly do like tubes and are
easily driven by tube amps of modest power. I used them as I have the previous
edition with the Music Reference RM-9 Mk II (125 wpc) and the RM-9 didn't have
to work hard at all.
The Mk IIs are all this and more. While they are
clearly made of the same stuff as the earlier version, they improve on it in
many areas without losing any of the magic. On almost every record one can hear
greater transparency, tighter bass, greater definition in space, better
microdynamics, and a little more speed. In addition, I have not yet found a
piece of music that disappointed me on the Midis. That might be a criticism: I
have some bad recordings, and I know the bad parts but don't pay them much mind
with the Mk IIs. Rather than ruthlessly highlighting the negatives, the Midis
always yield enough overall balance that I can listen to the music and not the
Early on, I pulled out Last
Time Around (Atco LP) for the first time in maybe 20 years. I had
been reading Neil Young's very interesting memoir, Waging
Heavy Peace, and had Buffalo Springfield on my mind. The LP is almost
45 years old and has some wear from wayward roommates. In spite of that, "On the
Way Home" had some shimmer and definition that were quite unexpected. I also did
not hear the exaggerated midbass I thought was coming.
I know Comes a
Time (Reprise LP) as well as I know any record, but there was new
life and new articulation to the guitars strumming separately and together. And
maybe I was looking extra hard, but Young and Nicolette Larson were highlighted
simultaneously (cf. "Four Strong Winds", without Young obscuring her vocal.
For every review, I listen to "You'd Be So Nice
to Come Home To", from Art Pepper's Meets the
Rhythm Section (Acoustic Sounds LP). It's a terrific recording and a
great tune, very well played, and it always makes me feel good. My notes here
said "best ever" and I thought that the top end came close to the gorgeous highs
of the Adam Audio Column Mk IIIs that I reviewed in November of 2011. The
improved top end, combined with the coherence, fluidity, and the deep bass of
the Midis, makes for great music.
I will cite just a couple of more examples under
the clichéd rubric of "everything sounded new to me". Wilco's "Impossible
Germany" from Sky Blue Sky
(Nonesuch CD) impressed with the easy articulation of internal space within the
soundstage and the music itself. The long and beautiful instrumental close to
the song defied any description, beyond perhaps "soulful".
Finally, having just seen Mike Scott and Steve
Wickham of the Waterboys twice here in New York, I had their music on my mind.
Jennifer Warnes' tamer but still impassioned interpretation of "The Whole of the
Moon" from The Hunter (Private
Music CD) showcased all the strengths of the Midis: ease and continuity,
impressive and well-controlled bass, transparency and detail in the upper ranges
that are always at the service of the music. It's a recording I know and like
well, that I have nonetheless thought a tad cool. But the new Midis (with some
help from the W4S DAC) removed layer of gloss and opened the song up.
So yes, the weather isn't what it used to be.
Among all the problems caused by the extreme weather we have been experiencing,
the damage to a pair of high-end speakers is far down the list. The fortunate
outcome for me is that it introduced me to the new Midis, and I find it hard to
envision ever wanting for more.