The Pendragon from Tekton Design is a monster. With a sensitivity of 98dB, they are big, full range, and the sound is impressive as all hell. They’re also $2500.
My first thought on hearing that was “holy crap, that’s cheap!” But after saying this a couple of times, in a couple of different places, I now feel like I have to add an obligatory comment about pricing. Yes, it’s true — $2500 is a lot of money.
When loud speakers with similar specs — and similar sounds — are all lined up, I think it’s pretty much guaranteed that the Pendragons are the least expensive offering in the the “full range” category. By a lot. In fact, I can only think of a couple of speakers that can even come remotely close to the price/performance ratio of the Pendragons. But full range and under $10k? Sorry. That makes these speakers really, really unusual. And by unusual, I mean, like, unique.
So, let’s start with what I got.
Tekton’s new Pendragon
I didn’t get the default drivers that ship with the “normal” Pendragons. After chatting with Eric Alexander, Tekton’s designer, I was offered the choice of ordering with an 8ohm version of the drivers (with an entirely different crossover), that is, the greyish ones that ship with the very popular Lore model. Just an FYI, the Pendragons typically ship with bluish 4ohm drivers — the 8ohm grey drivers are a zero-cost option. Curious? Just talk to Eric at ordering and he’ll sort you out admirably.
[Editor’s Note 2/3/12] Seems that Eric has made some changes to the Pendragon — including making the 8ohm drivers the default option. The link to the updated page is here. Guess he liked the way mine turned out! [/end Editor’s Note]
The speakers are very precisely spec’d and Eric tells me that they measure flat between 30Hz and 30kHz. As for the bass, the speakers are only down 4.5dB at 20Hz.
[Cough] Excuse me.
Each speaker sports a pair of widebanders from Eminence, set in a D’Appolito Configuration with 3 tweeters sandwiched between them, are precisely separated by 20” (center to center). Exactly what this does, or why Eric chose this very particular configuration, is something he won’t tell me unless I sign an NDA. Secret sauce? Most definitely. While I have no problem with an NDA, it doesn’t really help me much if I can’t tell you about it, so I avoided temptation.
I asked about the time alignment, just to be thorough, and while the speakers aren’t exactly time coherent (“it is what it is”), Eric says its really close. What that says to me is that is so close you’re not going to notice.
If you asked the random audiophile about a speaker that had a sensitivity of 98dB — and had a nominal impedance of 8ohms — the first thing that will come to mind is “TUBES”. I think this is fair, too — well, at least that’s what I was thinking when I heard about the speakers’ sensitivity.
And why not? Honestly, the trend in high end speakers these days is really unfriendly to the tube amp. Haters! The goal appears to be to create an incredibly linear performer that will show textbook-flat measurements in a Stereophile review. Unfortunately, what this means is stiff drivers, lots of crossovers, and generally speaking, a speaker that requires a monster amp to sound even remotely like what the designer wanted it to. It’s really disappointing! Big amps are expensive to buy and expensive to own and run.
Tube gear isn’t cheap either — those darn tubes are either breaking in or breaking down. But that said, I think it’s far easier to find a cheap tube amp that sounds great than it is to find a cheap solid state amp that sounds nearly as good. And contrary to what a quick visit to CES might tell you, us consumers are not all rich as Croesus, so designing toward inexpensive is better than good — it’s just smart.
Well … Eric had something slightly different on his mind when put together the (original) Pendragons.
Because there’s something else you get with really high sensitivity — the ability to play really LOUD. And these Pendragons do that all day long. And that’s exactly the point. As for why, well, it helps to know that Eric’s a musician. Ask him about music, he’ll tell you that his passion is for the live venue, and his goal when making speakers is recreating the live spaces and the energy of live events — but doing so at real-world prices.
But getting back to tubes — I opted for the 8ohm drivers over the 4ohms ones for the flexibility for using tubes. Not that I would, necessarily, but just that I wanted to be able to. I mean, it’s not like you can’t use tubes with 4ohm speakers, but given the option, most tube amps prefer (and respond better to) higher impedances. Eric tells me that with his 4ohm Pendragons, he tried out his own, personally-owned 300b tube amp — and wasn’t especially blown away by what he was hearing. On the solid-state amps? They were crushingly awesome (I’m paraphrasing). But on the low-power tubes, well … not so much. It wasn’t until he got a chance to try out the 8ohm drivers that all of that inverted. Tubes now? Awesome. Solid state? Still awesome. I have a suspicion that Eric prefers the 4ohm drivers in the Pendragons — that’s how he designed the speaker, after all — and his stated goal and preference is to play big music really loud. That said, he is very enthusiastic about his “Option II”. I felt like he used my curiosity about tube compatibility as an excuse to tweak and play with his speaker design — works for me — and now he has two speakers for the price of one (as it were).
Eric has been building speakers for 25 years. I guess you could say his professional career really started when he owned an “ultra high end” custom car audio store in 80s-90s. Toward the end of that gig, a friend of his, Zu Audio’s Sean Casey, introduced Eric to Ray Kimber and in 1996, the two of them put together Diaural Labs. This rather productive R&D period led to a designer role at Edge/Aperion Audio in 1999, and while there, he won a Subwoofer of the Year award from Perfect Vision for one of his projects. In the 2001-2205, he worked for Sound Tube Entertainment, designing in-wall “commercial audio” systems — professional sound systems for airports and companies like Chilis, Applebees, and others. While at Sound Tube, he invented “Broadbeam Technology”, an ultra-wide-dispersion tweeter that’s been implemented in about $30M worth of equipment, and competes with products from Bose, JBL, Klipsch, &c, in the distributed audio space. Eric started Tekton Inc in 2003 and made it a full time concern in 2005. Tekton puts out several hundred speakers per yea, with the Lore model being the most popular, but the range is pretty broad. His target market? Affordable hi-fi. And given today’s market realities, I find this to be smart thinking.
Everything Tekton makes is built and tested by Eric himself. His grandfather was a carpenter, so Eric’s been playing with wood and making cabinets since he was a kid. His parents introduced him to music, and the notion of playing music, and he subsequently became obsessed with drums as a pre-teen. I can only imagine how happy that choice made his parents. Anyway, he says he realized in Jr High that what he wanted to do was build and design hi-fi. He’s a musician with a passion for modern & acid jazz, loves rock, and plays that and country/western. Yikes.
It’s worth noting that Eric’s also into motorsports. I mean, really into their approach — taking common designs, adding uncommon tweaks, and creating something unique. Building and designing his own racing engines in his teens, he gained an appreciation for how Ferrari, and others, were able to “do something special” with those standard designs to get that last bit of “oompf” out of them. This is a passion he believes he is able to translate directly into his designs to help him “push the envelope of sound.”
Hi-Fi and the Widebander
Okay, so what do the Pendragons sound like? Would it be cheesy to say “music”? Because that was my first thought. Other than “wow”, that is.
So, yes, the Pendragons play LOUD and the sound is as clear as a bell all the way up to eleven — even with only moderately powered amps. That is, they throw a giant sound stage at high SPLs that is coupled to an very easy yet dynamic sound. They’re just tremendous. Let me explain.
I got this CD for Christmas, a gift from my wife. It’s called Lorraine from Lori McKenna. The first track is “The Luxury of Knowing”. It’s a country tune, and while this sort of thing is not really my cuppa, there is this bass note that gets dropped into the tune that sounds like like a giant, brass bell of a kick drum. On the Pendragons, the note is HUGE, round, deep — and on the Pendragons, you hear the over tones, the under tones, the fullness of the thing in a way that a near-full range speaker (like my Magnepan 3.7s) simply will never capture. It’s like the Pendragon has “headroom” to spare on even a note that deep, so the entirety of the thing is fully captured and effortlessly presented. What I’m trying to say is that the bass on these speakers is just stunning. And yes, this was more and deeper bass than what I was hearing on my Magnepan 3.7s, which probably begins to roll off about 10Hz higher than the Pendragons. If you’ve never heard true full range speakers, that is, something that can do subwoofer-type depth, you’ve been missing stuff. A lot of stuff. To me, right now, it feels like an unacceptable amount of stuff. My eyes are still wide with the shock at how much I’ve been missing. Holy. Freakin’. Cow.
[Editor’s note] A quick aside — and a comparison. I’ve gotten a couple of emails about this point, so let me clarify a bit. The Maggies play plenty deep — this is one of the hallmarks of the new dot-7 series of releases. The bass is BIG on these guys and hits HARD. But, to get there, you need to crank the volume up. No, not to eleven, but still, loud. Like 85dB or so. If you get there (and go beyond), the differences in bass between the Maggies and the Pendragons actually begin to close. Why is that? Well, it has to do with the way you actually hear bass — or don’t. Bass perception simply decreases as volume does, and the deeper the bass signal, the quicker the drop off. Interestingly, this also means that a flat bass response in a speaker, the bass appears to drop off a bit early! To get “more bass”, you can do one of two things. One, boost, prop up, or otherwise augment the bass. This is what subs do for you and one of the reason they’re so universally popular. Two, you turn up the volume so that what bass there is, is now simply louder. Of course, everything else is too, but at least now you’re getting bass! Back to the Tekton. In contrast to the Maggie, which does in fact hit deep and hard, at least at volume, the Tekton hits deep and hard at every volume. This is what I meant about “missing out” — I don’t usually crank it up. [/Editor’s note].
If I had to locate the “Tekton Sound” in the universe of speakers-that-are-known-to-me, the obvious place to start is Zu Audio. Given that they share drivers (or very similar drivers), this isn’t at all surprising, so if you’ve liked “Zu Sound”, then you know what I mean — and you should have a good idea of what you’re in for.
You have no idea what I mean? Well, to me, Zu really does the rock-n-roll thing to a “T”. They’re big. They’re bad. They’re in your face. And it’s all about the music. People have called them “rock speakers”, which I find misleading, but the idea is that they sound great turned up loud. They’re not fussy, not pretentious, but they sound really good with just about everything you throw at them. Old music. New music. Compressed music. Audiophile standards. Zu doesn’t care. And my Tekton Pendragons seems cut wholly from this same cloth.
The downside — and frankly, the only downside that I seem able to find — is that this also means that these are not speakers for the detail-freak. I talked to Eric about this, and he gave the verbal equivalent to a shrug. It’s the big flat baffle, he says. Getting more precision (read: detail) out of the drivers would require a lot of tweaking to the speaker’s cabinet. And when I say “a lot” I mean a lot. Something to tune of a couple of grand worth of tweaking. And that really wasn’t where this speaker was supposed to go. Eric also admitted that these drivers might not be as “hi-fi” sounding as some, but I’m on the fence as to whether this is a good or a bad thing. Borrowing a turn of phrase from Srajan Ebaen at 6moons, there’s no pixelation. In fact, they’re almost kind of smooth. On the plus side, everything sounds pretty good. Even crappy recordings! Like metal? You just found your speaker.
Now, before you get all uppity, all I’m saying is that some of those old metal/hard rock recordings I have sound … well … suboptimal. On the other side of the coin, hyper-detail seems to be a (rather unsettling) trend in audiophilia, so if you’re only into that, just be aware that this probably isn’t your speaker. Now, I’m not saying that detail is lost, per se, all I’m saying is that the Pendragons don’t emphasize this, contrary to many of the speakers you might find in Stereophile.
Now, this is not to say they’re veiled in any way. The Pendragons are most definitely not. Overall, the immediacy is arresting and the tweeter array on the Pendragon presents the treble clear and sweet. This is a D’Appolito configuration, after all, so the mid range here is as open as you’re going to find on any speaker. The music is just what you hear — not the room, not the conversation three tables to one side of the drummer, and not the freakin’ crickets. I’m also not getting any hotness, no glare and zero grain out of these things like I have on some of my other speakers — so Metallica, Ozzy, and Judas Priest, played loud, sound just as obnoxious (and the recordings sound as poorly recorded) as they ever do. In other words, they sound awesome on these speakers. In fact, the sound is very similar to my Maggies. The Pendragons show great top to bottom coherence! “Planar-like” would not be out of place as a comment on how these speakers sound.
The question that you may be asking is (because you’re an impertinent wretch): how do the Pendragons compare, then, with the Magnepan 3.7s?
This question is actually hard as the speakers are very different, even though they are swimming in the same end of the affordability-pool. But taking a stab at it kind of feels like a tennis math — the comparison is giving me whiplash.
Anyway, the $5500 Maggies sound “bigger” — it’s that line-source thing and how physically big the Maggies are. Unlike many speakers, especially those sporting a D’Appolito array, the Pendragons actually have very good vertical dispersion — maybe the best I’ve heard — and the Maggies don’t. Of course, the Maggies are almost 6′ tall — there’s simply no need for vertical dispersion.
I get the best sound out of both of them with the speakers firing directly at me (total toe in here), so there’s not much about off-axis performance that I have to report on either.
Nothing has ever filled my room better or more robustly than these Maggies, and that includes the Pendragons (though these did a far better job than my old Merlins).
The ‘dragons, on the other hand, very obviously go deeper.
Against that, the Maggies have more of the hi-fi sound that I want, but still aren’t bright or edgy — that is, not after I tweaked the living hell out of them. Stock, the Maggies will offer a different answer; here, I could see the ‘dragons winning. They’re insanely easy to listen to! And that bass … lordy-lou!
So, that leaves fit and finish — and price. My Maggies are finished in aluminum, which matches everything else I have, so the effect is neat. The optional wood panels are even nicer looking. The Pendragons, as I ordered them, fall down a bit in comparison, though a good veneer would go a long way to evening this up again (available at additional cost). Both speakers are big, but my wife prefers the more traditional speaker-like look of the Pendragons to the Maggies, which she says are just too damn big to put up in the main room, you know, where guests might see them. Hmmpf.
Anyway, there you go. An argument in process. Which one is “better” will depend on your priorities — and your budget. Either will do you right. But only one of them will work well with tubes generally and SETs in particular. Might not sound their best this way (see below), but I have options with the Pendragons that I just don’t have with a Magnepan.
In the end, I’m probably keeping both. Unless Eric has something else coming down the pike. Then, well, all bets are off. Isn’t this a great hobby?
A note about measurements and the upper mids. The Eminence drivers used in the Tektons tend to go into breakup in this region (see the Stereophile measurements on the Zu speaker, relevant here because this is the same driver, minus the whizzer cones and phase plug). Eric crosses over to the tweeter array before the measured breakup region, which I suppose limits the drivers to their comfort zone. I’ve noticed no notching or suckouts (not that I necessarily would), but after talking about this specific thing with Eric, it was something he was very aware of and something he designed around.
Look and feel
Budgets are pernicious things. With no care for your consumers’ pocketbook, a designer can do all kinds of silly things. Take a look at a Magico if you’re wondering what I mean. As a designer, when you are concerned about your customer’s ability to actually afford your cri de coeur, you’re rather limited. The entire Tekton line is designed with cost in mind, so it shouldn’t be a surprise anyone that there’s no leather-wrapped surfaces. No exposed strips of worked aluminum. Wood veneers are certainly available, but as I mentioned, they’re extra-cost options, as is automotive-grade paint. That stuff costs money, so if you’re all about the aesthetic as opposed to the performance of your kit, factor those elements in to the cost.
Back to the speaker at hand. The binding posts are robust 5-ways, but are pretty generic and stick out the back of the cabinet. The cabinet itself, which is CNC’d and heavily braced internally, looks very precisely made, is very solid, but there’s a bit of a (rather dull) thud when you rap on it’s side. To get a cabinet that big totally inert — like a Wilson cabinet, for example — would easily drive the cost up by thousands (and thousands) of dollars. Again, not unexpected — but this is a far cry from the drum that my old Totem Forest used to be.
So, yes, at $2500 you’re not buying the be-all, end-all when it comes to audio jewelry. It’s a fact. If you’re willing and able to move past the somewhat plain-vanilla looks, what you do get is a high quality, well made, great sounding, loud speaker. That plays LOUD.
Beating the drum, er, amp(s)
I was pretty lucky with the timing of these speakers. I was able to try out a variety of amps with them, all with various results.
Just beat it
I think these speakers are hilariously awesome. Full range for $2500? Are you out of your ever-lovin’ mind?
Every time a heavy beat drops line into the mix, I’m worried that my appearance has become a bit unhinged — the looks I’m getting from my wife are just troubling. Hmm. Anyway, do you like hip hop? These speakers are gonna make you turn off your subs, pack them up and sell ’em on AudiogoN. Like techno? Ambient? Anything with an artificially deep bass track? You’re about to find out if your room treatments and bass traps are effective. My guess? They’re not.
Here’s the long and the short of it: the ‘dragons had me in stitches. This price/performance ratio is outrageous. Sure, you can find a ton of speakers for less than $2500. But they’ll either be fat monitors or skinny towers. Or they’ll suck. At Tekton, that money will buy you a huge-sounding (and actually, physically, huge) speaker that will make you the envy of your cheap ass friends. Your smug overpaid audiophile pals will be scurrying off to desperately research a way to justify their (suddenly overpriced) speakers. And yes, you can now — finally — turn it up to eleven. Which, in case you were wondering, will be loud enough to stun and kill small animals. Be warned. 😉
Note: no animals or children were harmed in the writing or research of this article.
For more info, please contact Eric Alexander at Tekton Design.
I’m not sure anyone actually reads this blog, so whether you happen to be that 5th and final person that hits this page (not you, Ma!), or curiosity just seizes you in its jaws and shakes you like the timid little rag doll you dress up like every other Thursday night (you know who you are), be sure to tell him the Part-Timer sent ya. It won’t actually do anything for me, but, well, it kinda sounded cool in my head before I typed it out. Roll with it, you ingrate!