Fritz Heiler makes loudspeakers. He’s the man behind Fritz Frequencies, a one-man shop working out of Los Angeles, and all his gear is Made in the USA. But it’s just him, which pretty much explains why he’s so into the compact 2-way designs — little 2-ways are so much easier to sling around. His work is collecting praise in high places, and the reason for it is pretty obvious — he not only loves what he does, he’s really good at it, too.
Quite frankly, he’s precisely why being an audiophile is so much fun.
Great designs and great components make great speakers, so it isn’t terribly surprising that some of the classics, like Totem or Proac or Dunlavy or [insert great speaker company here] have provided some very fertile ground from which have sprung some of the latest Fritz models. Speakers like the Carbon 7 may have started out with bits found Proac speakers. The Grove may have started out similarly, from cues taken from Dynaudio or Totem speakers. The end result, though, is pure Fritz.
He makes his own cabinets. All his drivers and whatnots come wholesale and are installed, just-so, with a capacitor-less series crossover from Acoustic Reality. He’s meticulous. Each new speaker starts life as a mirror pair, one that he builds to spec, but then varies one element in the mirror, so he can A/B them while voicing — by ear — to see which variable, which parameter, which setting, sounds closer to perfect.
He told me a story about a high school reunion where he met up with someone he’d once sold speakers to. They told him that their grandkids had been thrilled to uncover a big pair of Fritz’s very early efforts tucked away into a closet and had excitedly fired them up — and completely rocked out. That sort of thing gets Fritz all misty-eyed. And it should! That’s a multigenerational kind of cool.
Now in the business full-time since a semi-retirement from his “day job” almost a decade ago, Fritz has collected a bit of acclaim at some of the Western regional audio shows. Neil Gader at TAS reviewed the popular Carbon 7 this past January. That speaker is now on their “Recommended Components List”. This is serious work, indeed.
Over the years, Fritz has worked with some of the world’s best drivers. Raal. Scanspeak. SEAS. His latest thinking about driver combos is on his website. Currently, he’s noodling on another set of speakers featuring Accuton’s famous ceramic drivers, but so far, he hasn’t been satisfied with the low-end. “I think I have a solution there, though” he says while I telepathically shrieked “do it!” — I think this would be an awesome speaker to see come to life. And find it’s way into my system! Ahem.
Another project, closer to fruition, is a possible tweaking of the Rev5 (so named because of Scanspeak’s 5″ Revelator mid range driver that he put in the cabinet) in the next month or so. Stay tuned for that — because when it’s ready, it’s coming here. Oh yeah!
Entering the Grove
A couple of weeks ago, Fritz sent me some of his less-well-reviewed speakers, a model he calls the Grove. Well, they’re almost the Grove. The cabinet I got was an older version, without the fancy magnet-embedded fascia that he’s now shipping. New models don’t have the holes that the pics here show — and can come in any number of veneers. Price is now $1600 due to the scarcity of the rare-earth magnets he uses in this design.
Anyway, I yanked them out of their crates and immediately hooked ’em up and started the music playing. You can read about all that in Part One.
The name is tongue-in-cheek nod to Totem’s Forest speakers. Why? Well, I guess you could say that this is one of the roots from which this model grew. The vented mid-range driver is a Dynaudio clone made by Chinese company HiVi, and it’s pretty close to the original, which is lucky because Dynaudio doesn’t sell theirs to the public anymore. Lucky for Totem, that is, as their Forest (and several others in the Totem lineup) is based on that driver design. A couple of other speakers use HiVi drivers, too, but it’s the Totem models that stand out as making the most obvious use (the Model 1, Mani and a few others all sport Dynaudio drivers, so I suppose Dynaudio is still selling to someone).
Since the Groves appeared, I had them mostly on my desktop and wired into one of a pair of integrated amps, either a $4,100 Luxman L-505u, or a $1,500 Red Wine Audio Signature 15. This is definitely a near field set up, and while not necessarily universal in use or configuration (they’re pretty big for sitting on a desk), I am really happy with the sound I got this way. On the Red Wine, the sound was big, deep, and rich.
Moving up, the Luxman is another sweet integrated amp. It has a phono stage. It has a headphone amp. It has blue dials that show you current flow. It’s big, it’s silver, and it’s a Stereophile Class A rated amp.
When hooked into the Luxman, the Grove dropped weight as if it had suddenly come home from spending a few months with Jillian Michaels. The mid range is more transparent. The mid bass is more defined. In comparison, the Grove sounded murky and muddy when it was paired with the Red Wine, but now, the speakers are all buff and ready to play.
Speaking of which. The voice coil on the back of that HiVi driver is a big 3″. That’s a lot, and a lot for an amp to muscle around. So … that means that life will equal power. More power = more life.
… Which brings me to the Plinius. The SA-Reference is a monster of an amp. It’s also $17k or something near it. Huge and 125lbs. 250wpc in Class A/B at 8ohms, with the first 100wpc as all Class A. If it was green, it’d be The Hulk. I actually used to call it “The Beast” whenever I turned it on, because it dimmed all the lights in the basement. That is, until I got it it’s own 20amp feed. Yep, 20amps, and just for the amplifier. That amp is spoiled. But it’s worth coddling. I’m tempted to say that “the amp has the best bass I’ve heard”, which sounds a bit weird as the amp doesn’t really have bass. It passes current. What I mean is that every speaker I hook it to is about to have it’s best-ever bass performance.
With the Luxman, with it’s extremely capable 100wpc, the Grove sounds clear, linear and extended. The jump up to the Plinius adds depth, layers, textures, tone and holography. It’s like stepping into a 3-D image. And not one of those cheesy Avatar images where the canon is the only thing that waves under your nose. Here, we’re talking reproduction in real space. When feeding the Grove this steady diet of New Zealand aluminum, the Grove really opens up. Dynamics, power, drive — it’s was all there with the Luxman, but now, we’ve moved from black belt up to Chuck Norris. Ahem.
I did just about all of my far field listening with the Luxman. Though the spin with the Plinius was a lot of fun, it’s just an absurd comparison to put a $17k amp with a $1600 pair of speakers. Interesting to know what the speakers can offer something to such an expensive amp, sure, but no one is going to do this. What they might do, however, is reach for a big Plinius integrated. That would be interesting.
Wiring was from Black Cat Cables, using the wire from the new Morpheus line. I used these cables because my reference loom from WyWires would have blown the price-appropriateness out of the window of reasonability. The Morpheus cables are also tilted a bit more toward the lean-and-extended side of the spectrum and away from the warm-and-smooth-but-frequency-extreme-challenged cables. I thought the match appropriate for these speakers.
Okay, so, let me dig in a little more specifically. Louis Armstrong’s marvelous LP, Satchmo Plays King Oliver, has one of my favorite tracks by the famous trumpeter, a delicious down-tempo dirge called “St James Infirmary”. This is a rather thoroughly covered cover, but I think most of those are simply played too fast. Here, the music is powerful and mournful, and sort of ominous — if you can get the bass to fill out. Played back over the Grove, I got the shivers. Satchmo is all growl here and the sound coming out of the Grove will convince you that your diet is far too light. We’re talking mo’ butter and roux, here, son. Gwanta heff us sahm etouffee tonigh’, son! Mmm, mmm.
Switching to digital at some undefined later point, I queued up a neat track called “My Name”, off of Living Road by Lhasa. Another eerie track (there must be something in the water over here), the song really emphasizes the quiet spaces to fill the listener with a taste of some vicariously experienced horror. It’s awful. And wonderful. And through the Grove, the notes ring out clearly, fully, and explosively. I love this track.
Want bass? Jem’s Finally Woken CD has a fun little sexy-time tune called “Come On Closer” with a really cool deep-bass progression that’s rather simple and very weighty. While not as skull-crushing as the bass on the Martin-Logan display at AXPONA this year (my new bass reference), by way of the Grove, it was, nonetheless, akin to being hit in the face with a mallet.
I (very) recently sold a pair of Totem Model 1 Signatures, which were my reference monitor for years and years. The bass on these little 12″ tall speakers is legendary — and it uses the same vented Dynaudio driver that the HiVi emulates so successfully. It’s has to have a crazy excursion because there’s no other reasonable explanation why those little Totems can do what they do.
Natural comparison for the Grove, right?
Well, no. Compared to the Grove, my old Model 1s gave up, went out, and decided on an early 3-martini lunch, instead. It’s not that the Grove played louder, sounded bigger, filled more space, had better layering or had better image-lock. It was more refined. So much so, that I think I’m going to have to give up the comparisons with Totem — the Grove doesn’t really sound like the old Totem line. I prefer it, but it’s not the same.
If pushed, I’d say I was much more reminded of my brief stint with a pair of Totem Mani-2 speakers, which are far closer to the Grove in size. And output. You want to know why Stereophile classifies the Mani-2 Signature as a “full range” (not LF-restricted) speaker? It sounds HUGE. Yes, it’s compact, it just doesn’t act that way. You got a problem with that? This is precisely how the Grove plays, too, but … it does so for almost 1/4 the price of the $5500 Mani-2 Signature. Hmm? Hmm. Hmm!
The Grove sports a silk-domed Morel tweeter, another nod to a Dynaudio heritage, which I personally happen to prefer to the metal tweeters, such as, say, might be found in the old Totems. While I got plenty of good imaging on either speaker, I find the Morel to just have that little bit of more — an addition that brings a healthy dash of added refinement and delicacy to the top end. Happily, there’s also no etch, no bite, no grain, and no bad treble juju — something I’ve had to be cautious with on the old Totems. Component matching is always important, but I find the Grove more friendly to a wider variety of gear, including very linear and extended amps, probably because of that sweet little tweet.
To me, Tekton Designs provides an interesting comparison. Both companies strive to create value at affordable prices, and both companies are striking examples of how much audio excellence has come down to the entry-level market. They take different approaches but get to, pretty much, the same place. Not that I’d recommend anyone actually get on to the audiophile train, but for those that have already been infected with the disease and are looking to get their leg up and over the rail that marks the barrier between healthy and dangerous territory, either company presents a fantastic entry into the world of audio’s high-end.
Tekton’s approach leverages a Spartan aesthetic and pairs it with low-cost pro-audio bits and bobs. The goal is to recreate the scale and feel of the live event — Tekton speakers play big, clear and loud — and as for the traditional audiophile widgets and whatnots, well, Tekton has historically steered clear. The notable exception being the recent — and very welcome — introduction of SEAS drivers to the line up.
As I mentioned, Fritz goes a different route. His current designs start as seeds cast off from other audiophile greats before he tweaks them into something more, and his models leverage those audiophile-grade parts, which he then puts into an audiophile-grade box. “The best, for less” if you will. If I had to bet, I think most audiophiles will cozen to the Fritz approach a bit more readily, if only because they’ll probably have heard of the bits and bobs that Fritz uses, because they’re audiophile brands.
Either way you end up, you’re in for a treat.
The $1400 Tekton Lore S is a truly remarkable speaker, and ranks up with the best values I know of in today’s high-end. If it is more detailed than the Grove, it’s not by much. It’s also not as coherent, and while the bass goes deeeper, it’s not as controlled. Both speakers tend toward neutral, but I found the Grove to be more forgiving with average recordings. On the Grove, the high-res re-releases of the Smashing Pumpkins Gish and Siamese Dream are a wonderfully dynamic and exhilarating listen. On the Tekton, they’re a little tedious.
In an altogether unfair move, the smoother and much more expensive (at $2500) Tekton Pendragon evens the playing field, if only a bit, before tilting it all hopelessly wingwangy. The Grove comes across as more refined than either Tekton but it is a great deal more detailed than the Pendragon. However, the Pendragon counters by going far lower and plays WAY louder. All the imaging benefits of a small-box 2-way get overwhelmed by the grandiosity of the sound stage put together by the Big Tektons’ honkin’ twin-10″ drivers and vast speaker cabinet. Said another way, I can kill you with the Pendragon, where the Grove can only be set to stun. Like I said, it’s not a fair comparison, but then, the prices are “only” $900 apart. Interesting to see what you could get, or lose, if you chose to spend more — and have a lot of extra space to fill.
The Grove sounds a bit fat in the mid range (and down through the mid-bass, actually), until it gets adequate power. The Vaughn Pinot Monitor, another compact speaker I happen to have on hand, is a bit different. Sorry — that’s a bit like saying that up is “a bit different” than down. The two speakers, for all that they’re about the same size, go in different directions, so comparisons are really hard. The Pinot is far faster on its feet and more neutral — and never sounds “fat” regardless of what you feed it. The Pinot is almost 9dB more sensitive, so bring out your low-power amps — in fact, tubes sound better here, much better than, say, my high-power solid-state amps, which sound thin. With the Grove, better put those tubes back on the shelf — and this is what makes things tough. The Grove is more detailed, with fuller tone and a deeper, more forceful bass — just make sure you bring the watts.
So, that leaves a lot of odd-ball speaker comparisons of somewhat limited utility, now all scattered across the page like so many leaves and about as helpful. Let me add one more.
The Joseph Audio Pulsar is my reference-class compact speaker. It’s devastatingly good. It’s also eye-wateringly expensive at $7k a pair. Is it worth it? That is impossible to say — I think so, but I know a lot of you would choke at the very idea. Ever hear about that non-linear price-performance curve? Yeah. We’re on it. Going up significantly and clearly from the Grove almost entails something wacky happening to pricing. Okay? Now, putting all those considerations aside, let me just get this out of the way — the Pulsar is the best sounding compact speaker I’ve ever heard. The fact that it’s my reference isn’t doing any particular competitor any favors, so let’s just use it as a whetstone for a moment. No, the Grove isn’t able to successfully pull off a David-and-Goliath routine here — by every measure, save cost, the Pulsar is clearly the better speaker. But — of all those I’ve mentioned so far, it’s also the only speaker that is clearly better.
First and Last and Always
Take a poll. Ask a thousand randomly selected audiophiles what their first audiophile-grade speaker purchase, new or used, was. Chances are pretty high that the answer is Totem.
My first audiophile-grade speakers were Totem Forests. I bought them from a friend who then promptly went out and picked up a pair of used Totem Shamans! But it was this first acquisition of a pair of Totems that, arguably, set my feet along this winding path … let’s just say that I’m a Totem fan from way-back.
But, things change. Markets fluctuate. The value of the US Dollar vs the Canadian Dollar did the unthinkable. And time passes …. I sold all that gear years ago but the Forests remain a darling in my memories. Timeless? It’s a great speaker, sure, but it isn’t the value play it was 8 years ago.
“You cannot step twice into the same stream” is an old philosophical saw. Thank you, Heraclitus. I think being that literal is a bit boring, even if it’s strictly true, so perhaps you’ll forgive me when I say that my time with the Grove has been a wonderful trip. Ah, the memories! And while I have moved on since those heady, pre-kid days, it’s also nice to see that the sound that got me started has also moved on. Traded up, if you will. If I’d had this, back then? My system might still be “back then”, too.
Pair up your Groves with a big amp from Peachtree or maybe NAD and you’ll have a killer system — one that would absolutely smash what I started out with, back then — and would be a great deal cheaper.
Here’s the quotable finale for you. The Grove is a big-hearted box speaker that will dig deep, throw up a huge sound stage, carve all your players in generous 3-D images, tip-toe through your tulips, make you coffee, call you darling, and make you believe it with a visceral twinge of nostalgic longing that’s on par with a swift kick in the gut. Okay, maybe that was just me, but hey, who doesn’t like coffee? I’m always appalled at how much great sound costs, and for the most part, us audiophiles are pretty much stuck paying it if we want that sound. Or need it. So, it is with great relish that I turn to Fritz. Still, not exactly cheap, but assuming that you’re already playing at this level, you won’t have to choose to give up your cake — you can eat that sumbitch, too.