NYAV12: SimpliFi Audio presents Gradient, Bladelius

Room acoustics are the bedevilment of every audio show. This one thing is why you have dozens in the audiophile press say things like “I never listen at audio shows” or “the sound at audio shows always sucks” or “you can never judge a component by how it sounds at a show” or just “shows suck”.

Guess what. They’re all wrong.

If I said  “Tim Ryan of SimpliFi was running a convincing demo at the NYAV Show”, I feel confident that, as understatements go, it would qualify somewhere in the neighborhood of “the US deficit is big” or “the Incredible Hulk is strong”. Technically true, all of them, but the sense of scale and impact is just totally lost.

Gradient killed it.

The $5,995 Gradient Helsinki 1.5 is certainly interesting looking. One thing that may not be immediately obvious as your eye wanders around the various curving surfaces is the open-baffle design. And no, I don’t mean to imply you’re stupid, just that those curves are rather distracting. Anyway, it’s dipole bass all the way here. But that’s not the odd thing. The other odd thing is that none of the drivers actually point at a seated listener. The tweeter is tilted back, though not as much as the mid range unit. And of course, there’s the bass driver. Seriously, nothing on this speaker points where you’d expect it to.

Which is exactly the point.

The designer obviously knows more about wave propagation than I do, but the way that Tim explains it, this speaker’s mid range output produces a cardioid response — no rear energy, more going forward. The tweeter is paired with a wave guide for a similar directivity in dispersion. Together, the listener gets more direct arrival  than with a conventional array with less floor and sidewall reflections and/or artifacts. Which means, more of the recording stays intact and less is lost to the room.

Another element in this heady mix — the $3,495 Gradient Revolution SW-S dipole bass system. From Tim Ryan:

Some Gradient History and the SimpliFi Audio SmartBass System

Back in 1993 Gradient developed an add-on Dipole bass system for the legendary QUAD 63 called the SW-63. This was a module with two 12 inch drivers which also acted as a stand for the QUAD 63. Together with Gradient’s cross-over, this system delivered full-range sound and off-loaded bass from 110 Hz down from the fragile QUADs, allowing them to play 10 db louder. This was endorsed by Peter Walker, the gent who designed those Quads.

With the change of the footprint of the QUAD 63, and the repackaged 988 and 2905, Gradient came up with a scalable add-on dipole bass system for use with any Quad, the SW-S and SW-D. This is, essentially, the lower part of their Revolution speaker, with two 12″ drivers per side. It comes in two versions, the SW-S (a Single Pair of modules per side) or SW-D (‘d’ for “double”, i.e., two SW-S modules stacked vertically for a total of four 12 inch drivers per side).

The SIMPLIFI Audio SMARTBass concept

Based on years of experience struggling with add-on conventional subwoofer Systems, Simplifi Audio have now extended Gradients add-on dipole bass concept to any conventional box speaker system. The System is called SMARTBass and consists of the $3,495 Gradient Revolution crossover and a pair of SW-S modules which retail for $ 3495. The crossover sends the bass below 200 hz to the dipole modules and above 200 hz to the main speakers. This delivers super fast bass with minimal room modes, with the added advantage of relieving your main speakers of bass / mid bass duties below 200 hz. This has the added advantage of better mid-range and less cabinet / port artifacts form your main speakers. This was demonstrated to great effect at the show with the tiny $2,100 Harbeth P3s, extending the response down to 20 Hz.

Nice story, yes, but what you should take away from that is that these “bass systems” are fast. Another thing: dipole bass, as Tim explains it, puts 2/3 less energy into the room for a given SPL — which makes it easier to avoid over-loading (i.e., booming), and would go a long way to explain the stunningly good bass in the Waldorf room all three days of the show. So — want 20Hz? Gradient’s got it, no sweat, all day long — and with no room correction. Skadoosh.

The sound in the Gradient room, with everything running, was quite simply unrivaled at this show.

Other gear! A pair of $6,000 (each) Bladelius Ask stereo amplifiers were on hand, one used for the high end, the other for the low, all connected to the Gradient crossover.

Interesting fact — the Ask is actually two amps in one. One is a standard 165wpc (into 8ohms, doubling into 4ohms) Class A/B amp. The other is a 14owpc Class D amp. The toggle between the two types of outputs is called “Green Mode”. Pretty slick. Want to run on less power? Or run a bass module? Run it Green.

The Bladelius Embla was the “everything else”. Preamp, CD player, DAC, and music server as well. Prices range from $4,500, depending on how much internal storage you want. This was the unit running the show — at least on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday, the Bladelius USB DAC was providing the conversions. According to Tim, “this delivers the qualities of the same DAC and apodising filter in the Embla at an affordable $695.  A MAC laptop was pressed into use as the source/server, with Pure Musics $ 129 bit Software performing bit-perfect playback and volume control … A total digital front-end cost of just $ 824 …

Cables came courtesy of UK designer Dennis Morecroft of DNM. Speaker cables and interconnects run $15/ft-pair and were fitted with the optional HFTN circuit at $300/set. Again, Tim explains: “Simply stated, feedback amplifiers are RF amplifiers operating on a Low frequency signal. The HFTNs block RF above 1 Mhz from going back around the feedback loop of any source or power amplifer and results better clarity. A useful analogy would be how wearing sunglasses which block UV allows us to see more clearly.”