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Second Thoughts: Digging into ( the clue ) from Sjöfn HiFi

( the clue )

I kinda feel like this is a setup of some kind. I mean, seriously. What am I supposed to do with a speaker that has a name like this? I think I missed a memo. Maybe two. And now, I’m being punished. Or made the butt of some kind of joke. Or something. Whatever — I’m confused. Wanna know why? Lemme give you a clue.

See? It’s too easy.

These speakers come from an oddly-named little company out of Seattle, the source of all that was cool (and caffeinated) back in the 1990’s. Personally, I like Seattle and am prone to view anything and everything coming from the Pacific Northwest with beneficence and joy all out of proportion to its actual value.

We all have our biases.

All kidding aside, please pardon my being blunt — these loudspeakers are simply outstanding, and at the current asking price of $1,000, they’re a bargain. Yes, a bargain. Why? Because to do better requires heavy lifting — and cash. Yes, can’t forget that part. Piles of cash.

Reviewers natter on and on about the whole price-performance curve, and how at some certain and never-defined point, ever-increasing amounts of money is required to gain ever-decreasing amounts of performance.

In that analogy, ( the clue ) is the knee of that curve. I suppose that makes it something of a benchmark.

I’ve heard quite a few speakers, but I’m hardly an encyclopedia of sound. There are a lot of audio dudes out there that can probably pick apart any given speaker’s performance just by looking at it. Yeah, I’m not one of them. I prefer to sit down with a loudspeaker, get comfortable with the sound, swap in a couple of references at some point to clarify my thinking, and Bob’s your Uncle. That sort of thing takes time, lots of listening, and some care.

I didn’t really need any of that to know that ( the clue ) was awesome.

I remember wandering through RMAF in 2011, stumbling into a Sjöfn HiFi room and being completely taken aback. A friend was smirking at me as I stared at the modest little boxes making “all that sound”, and asked me what I thought the price was. I missed it. By a lot. Smug bastard.

Honestly, I thought the room had to be some kind of joke. Like maybe someone stripping down a Magico and slipping the drivers into a plain box, just to see what show-goers would do or say. A sort of social psych experiment or something. Yeah, my head is full of spiders. Sorry.

Anyway, there it is. These little dudes sounded way better than most everything at RMAF last year, and far better than they ought to. I really don’t get it. But … they do. In point of fact, they sound amazing. And not just “at their price”, but period. I love ’em.

Setup and Stuff

There’s a lot on offer here. Frequency response is rated from 28Hz to 42kHz, with that lower number being room dependent. Which is interesting — because it is going to be how your room plays that dictates how your speaker+room will sound. Of course, that’s always the case, but here, with ( the clue ), that’s actually intentional.

This isn’t a typical speaker made to sit on a stand, sitting way out in the middle of your room. Like, say, my $7,000 pair of Joseph Audio Pulsars. No, ( the clue ) are more like those Audio Note speakers that sit in the corner, converting your regularly-shaped room and corners into impromptu bass-horns. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Audio Note speakers — I mean, they sound fine, but it’s kind of a cheat when you’re spending thousands of bucks for loudspeakers. Kinda like Merlin using an off-board equalizer and an external widget to tame their tweeter response. To me, it’s weird. Design and build your loudspeakers correctly in the first place and none of that silly shit is necessary.

So, no, ( the clue ) doesn’t have or need any outboard electronics or dampers, but it does use your room. Not quite as a bass-horn (a la Audio Note), but more of a full-spectrum horn. Kinda-sorta.

If you’re like me, you have a lot of room treatments in your listening room. I have stuff from Acoustic Sciences (best), GIK (very good) and some other random brands (satisfactory). Sjöfn HiFi’s Lars Erickson suggested I pull all that crap out.

This is interesting, actually, and something I’ve had debates with Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound about. He tends to go au naturel at audio shows, far preferring the natural dispersion of live plants over fancy Tube Traps. I’ve been experimenting for years, trying to find a happy balance between live and dead sound. My friend Larry Borden of Dagogo has repeatedly said he, like Ethan Weiner of RealTraps, shoots for “overdamped” in an effort to eliminate the deleterious effects of room interactions on the sound he’s trying to coax from his reference/review audio system. I’ve gone that route, as it’s almost inevitable as a recommendation — every audiophile that spends any time at all on an audio forum will have heard the old saw about how “the room is the most important variable in determining the sound quality” and what you then need to do is either, a) treat the room, or b) employ room correction, or c) have bad sound.

Bollux.

The single biggest determiner of the sound quality in your room is, and is always, your loudspeakers. Your room can distort them — sometimes radically. Note the emphasis on “can”, and that I didn’t say “will”. Why? Because this is really rare. Most rooms don’t need a lot of correction. In fact, too much and you’ll actually make the system sound worse.

So, I took Lars’ advice and pulled all my corner traps from the room. And, to make a long story short, the world did not end.

I think ( the clue ) does excite my room, and with very judicious application of room treatments, I was able to tune my room to a pair of ( the clue ). And by doing so, I got way more bang out of your buck. It’s kinda freaky.

As I mentioned, I started with nothing. Just a bare room. This made the sound kind of lumpy, with too much mid-bass energy and slap echo and reflections. I then tried the Room Lens set (the black 3-pillar tubes in the pictures) because I felt like it (and they’re easy to sling around), and that helped a bit. Imaging tightened up, but there was still some bloat and slap, so I added back in the Tube Traps at the 1st reflection point. Slap = satisfactory. I then added in a 1″ thick wall panel behind the speakers, which virtually eliminated the bloat. I could have been done at this point, but, of course I wasn’t. I tried 2″ thick panels, 4″ panels and 6″ panels behind the speakers. I found that anything over 4″ tended to attenuate the highs too much and just generally dulled the sound, so, I think your best shot is 2-4″ to get the best balance of damping and response. I’d try both and just go with whatever you like best.

But you’re going to want something back there — and this is probably why Lars always sets them up this way at trade shows. Oh, and just so we’re clear, that something is going to be directly behind the speakers. Not, like, centered on the front wall 3′ behind them, but right behind them. As in, touching them. I used speaker cables with banana connectors — don’t. Use spades. Remember, the port is on the front, so you’re not going to obstruct anything. Just shove the speakers right up in there. The pad doesn’t have to be big, a 2’x2′ panel will work if you hang it. I have a bunch of 4’x2′ panels that I just propped on the floor and they worked great.

You’re also going to want to toe them in. The instructions say 22.5°, but there’s really no need go for your protractor. Face them forward, then, halve that distance, so they’re at about a 45° angle. Then, halve that again, and you should be close enough for government work. At my seat, the speakers fire well over my shoulder. Close enough, says I. Another note: you’re also going to want to bring them down a bit lower. Think of this as a room-augmentation thing, so lower your stands to about 20″. If you can’t, nothing horrible is going to happen, but the farther they are from the floor, (everything else being equal,) the less bass response you’re going to get. In my room, this 20″ stand height put the tweeter a good 6″ below my ear level — which is much lower than usual. No worries — this is what you want.

Before I wrap this section, I wanted to throw out there that I think this might be the most awesome home theater in-a-rack speaker I’ve run across. You know, for when your significant other forces you to stick that giant widescreen TV into a wooden atrocity she found in the Sunday circulars. The problem would be the center channel, but three of these puppies might be spectacular in a confined-space setup. Unfortunately, I was not permitted to explore this particular option. Just offering it up ….

The Sound

Imaging is fantastic, with a wide soundstage and sports some cool wrap-around effects. Layering had more to do with companion gear (better got me more), but I found it to be unreasonably deep and tall almost no matter what I paired with them. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that all this immensity was a direct result of that nearly on-wall placement. If you’re magic phrase is “the speakers disappeared”, well, let me help you out — the speakers vanished into my room, and in my room, the entire 14′ front wall became my soundstage. Very impressive!

The sound is totally non-fatiguing. Everyone that came and went from the Sjöfn room at RMAF and Newport commented on how easy, open and awesome the music sounded. That isn’t to say that the sound was polite, quite the opposite — it was engaging and quite lively. I found the mid range definitely on the smooth and warm side, and very friendly to lots of different recording styles. The presentation was clear and clean and, again, very open sounding — no constriction or constraint, just big, bold and pleasantly forward.

Bass? This is in the “you’re not going to believe me” category, so I’m loathe to say much here. Stripping away as much hyperbole as I can, the bass is — oddly — robust. There’s no rational reason why the bass feels so big, but it does.

Some of this is illusion, but not as much as maybe you’d think. My handy-dandy Stereophile Test CD and old handheld analog Radio Shack Sound Level Meter says that there is a slow roll starting at about 63Hz, and while 31.5Hz is very audible, it is at least 10dB down. In my room. Sounds wimpy, right? Ha! No. Not so much.

Pulling out a “test track” from Jem, I went to work. Jem’s Finally Woken album features some tunes with a nice, deep bass line. “Come On Closer” has a catchy two-string bass track that wanders up and down with real punch and scale — I like the song because, well, it’s kinda sexy, but the main thing is that it really does cast a light on speakers with a one-note bass response. Assuming I’m reading the tab right and assuming the tuning isn’t odd, the bass line looks like it hits an open string, an E, or 41Hz, multiple times during the tune. Check me out, being all musician-like. Anyway, this is interesting, because this part of the frequency range is a real tipping point for many speakers, even if they supposed go far lower. On my reference eFicion F300s, this note is clear, bold and beautifully “rounded”, in that the harmonics that go even lower seem like they get expression too, adding a great deal of nuance and rich impact. By contrast, on my Magnepan Mini system, these notes don’t really form — it’s like they get the “top half” or something. On ( the clue ), the notes feel expressed, but simply don’t bloom quite a fully as they do on the eFicions. It’s more like the very bottom-most bit just slowly fades out — not entirely, just a little. It’s not hollow, not truncated or chopped — just attenuated. This is similar to what happens on my big Maggie 3.7s, actually. The presentation is there, it’s just not chest-thwacking in that most satisfying way that a full range loudspeaker (or a good sub) routinely delivers.

Flipping over to my other bass-abuse track, Chris Jones’ “No Sanctuary” off of Roadhouses and Automobiles, I look for thunder. The vocals in the chorus can do some truly eerie and wonderful things with harmonics that can stir your guts — and shake the pictures off the walls. With a full range speaker, or at least something that can do 30Hz with conviction (that is, flat), you get some truly awe-inspiring sound, which is one of the reasons you’ll hear it played at audio shows. On the eFicions, this tune will make the kids run for cover and the dog will flee the room. I can’t get that effect from the big Maggies, unless I hook up some subwoofers. Oddly, ( the clue ) do a better job on this than my Maggies. Yeah, I have nothing for you, but there it is. I prefer this sort of thing on the little speakers. It’s weird.

Speaking of which, is it just me, or is this just bizarre to be talking about in the context of a speaker that is 14″ tall?

This is a lot of words, but the point is this — there is real bass, it is far deeper than the cabinet size suggests, and it’s clearly taking advantage of the room to pick up gain.

Moving on.

As I said above, I found the treble response and clarity to vary with the amount of absorption placed between the speaker and the wall. Too much, and things get dull. Too little and things don’t get bright, per se, but your room has too much to say about the sound, if you’re picking up what I’m laying down. At ~2″ of padding, the speakers produced a clean, clear extension with effortless clarity. Obviously not on par with the big AMT tweeter in the just-reviewed eFicion F300s, but still, quick and clean, with very good dispersion. Decays were well formed and seemed to extend well, if perhaps not up to the highest levels I’ve heard. Again, go thinner on the pad if you think you’re getting blunted here.

Ambient noise, conversations, string noise, breath, all of these things (and far more) can collectively be lumped under “detail”, and I find they add a sense of drama and realism — one that is most commonly lost with mid-fi systems. So, I listen for detail, just to see what the system will do with and to these errata and mixed-in elements — does the system bury them or highlight them? The eFicions tended toward “highlight”, whereas ( the clue ) do not, but strike more of a middle ground. The crickets on my “Cricket Test”, for example, did not tend to light up the soundstage with tiny fireworks until I had turned the volume up more than I was typically used to listening.

So, back to that “knee of the curve” comment. I think ( the clue ) can be bettered in just about every category you choose to name, but doing so isn’t going to be straightforward or cheap. I can’t give a percentage figure — “these speakers give you 90% of those speakers” — as that’s pretty much meaningless as anything other than an illustrative analogy. But I understand the temptation — you get so much for this $1k that you really start wondering if continuing the search is worth it. Frankly, I’m not convinced.

Comparisons

I don’t really have much in the way of affordable monitors, so I’m afraid that an outright cost-comparable mash-up just isn’t possible.

The only other speaker I have in the stable to trot out is the Joseph Audio Pulsar. At seven times the cost of ( the clue ), it’s hardly fair to compare … but perhaps it’s helpful to use this landmark as a way of locating my comments on the playing field.

After hanging out with relatively affordable ( the clue ), the question of value keeps coming up. How much do you need to spend. How much does your spend actually buy you? Wildly subjective questions, but perhaps it’s comforting to know that all that extra dough for the Pulsar does in fact mark another definitive point on that price-performance curve. That is, the point at which where you begin to wonder what even can be done to top it. In short, the Pulsar brings a metric ton of elegance, refinement, coherence along with a stunning bass response. I put them down on the stands I had ( the clue ) speakers on, bringing them 3′ out into the room, and changing nothing else, I went back to the test tracks. All that stuff about rounding out the bottom of the notes on the Chris Jones and Jem tracks? Yeah. Doesn’t apply. No roll-off, no attenuation, nothing missing — just big bucketfuls of thunder and menace. My inner Takei was all: “Oh myyy.” Top to bottom coherence is best in class, but then, at $7k/pair I think it’s fair to expect such things as table stakes. This is one of the best transducers being made today, and as such, I think it’s fair to say that the Pulsar is just playing a different game than my pair of ( the clue ).

That said, this admission shouldn’t take anything away from the ( the clue ) — because at or anywhere near it’s price, I’m finding it just about impossible to find a better-sounding value. If you believe that you have to spend several thousand to get “great sound”, well, guess what. $1,000 buys a lot more than just a seat at that table. Yes, $7,000 buys you more, but that’s not a surprise. Do you need what that extra cash gets you? How the hell would I know? But what I can tell you is that I didn’t pine for it. ( the clue ) made me happy as a clam.

The Look

The cabinets are boxes. Unapologetically plain-jane boxy-boxes. The black front baffle is 1″ thick and the side walls are 3/4″ MDF with a plain veneer. Piano black is an option, but I’ve never seen it on any of the demo pairs at shows. The level of fitment and finish is about what you’d expect for this price: clean, well made, without bling. The faceplate shows the mounting screws that keep it on the body of the cabinet. The binding posts are an unremarkable 5-way that simply stick out the back of the otherwise featureless cabinet. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Another thing — there’s an ergonomic issue here that may well have been glossed over, and it shouldn’t be. With this near-wall design, ( the clue ) are the most room friendly, life friendly, space friendly speakers I’ve had in my listening room. If you have constrained space, need to have your speakers up near the front wall to keep them out-of-the-way, or simply want a tidier, higher WAF setup, I’ve yet to find or hear a more compelling speaker that doesn’t need mounting screws, braces, and a stud finder. I have 5′ of floor space back! My five-year old twins are absolutely thrilled and have started a wild rumpus in the Reclaimed Area.

Associated Gear

Odyssey Audio “Klaus Special” monoblock amplifiers provided all the grunt I could want. Just for record keeping, I preferred the high-output of these amps over the slightly more linear low-power First Watt J2. The speakers are a low/moderate 87dB with a 6ohm nominal/4ohm minimum impedance. Give them some power, says I, and ye shall be rewarded.

I used a Wyred4Sound STP SE preamp for signal switching duties. A Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC Series 2 with Alpha USB converter pulled the tunes from a Mojo Audio Mac Mini Media Server.

All signal cables came courtesy of Black Cat Cable‘s Morpheus product line. Power came from Nordost‘s Blue Heaven LS power cords and a QB8 power distribution center. A Mojo Audio Enigma power cord fed the big power supply on the Media Server.

My adjustable speaker stands are actually from Reference 3a. I used a pair of Svelte Shelves from Symposium USA to extend the top plate of the stand in order to jam the speakers as close to the wall as I could and also dampen and isolate the speakers. EdenSound‘s TerraStone platforms gave my amps a healthy lift off the carpet.

Conclusions

I am thrilled with the performance of ( the clue ) speakers from Sjöfn HiFi. The value they represent is absurdly high and, in the right room with the right gear, can very easily represent a satisfying jump-off point for many audiophiles looking to get off the merry-go-round. $1,000 gets you stunning sound — a big sound stage, incredible bass, and a thrilling presentation. Sure, you can do better. But that’s way easier to say than do, and I am unsure if there’s really value in that approach. Really.

For all this, inclusion on the Most Wanted list seems obvious and natural. Serious performance and serious value? You’d think this kind of approach would be more common, but it’s just not. Which is why this loudspeaker is such a nifty little find.

( the clue ) is a no-brainer. Go catch one before Lars catches … a … clue … [sigh] … and raises the prices on you.

Manufacturer’s Note

9/23/2012

You can obviate the roll-off below 60 Hz that you mentioned by moving one speaker (or MAYBE both) to within 1-2 feet of a side wall. That is, assuming your listening room isn’t larger than 2200 cu. ft. or so. If the latter is the case, we’ll be showing something at RMAF next month (er…in less than three weeks and yikes!) that will not only fill in the bottom end, but afford 6-7 dB more dynamic range.

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15 Comments on Second Thoughts: Digging into ( the clue ) from Sjöfn HiFi

  1. Kedorlaomer // December 22, 2013 at 3:29 PM //

    I know the price difference between the models is enormous, but have you had a chance to listen to anything by Devore? I guess the Gibbon 3XL would be the obvious reference. If so – how would you compare the two?

  2. These speakers look like they were put into Dayton Audio speaker cabinets. They also look like they are using Dayton Audio binding posts. Hmmmmmm….

  3. dr patrick // July 5, 2013 at 12:29 AM //

    I own a denon N7 ceol and am lookibg for a speaker to pair it with. Do you think the clue will be over the top for this setup? I am still new to av world and listens mostly high quality online streaming music. I am also looking at klipsch b 20 book shelves speaker. Unfortunately I am unable to audition either of these speakers before purchase due to distance. Comments? Thanks.

  4. I’m interested, but reticent. This review was reinforced by your inclusion of ( the clue ) on your favorite things for 2012, but other than some cursory reviews by others, I notice that you seem to be singing solo on these dynamos from Sjofn. Where’s the chorus coming from satisfied owners? Can’t find that, nor real specifications, anywhere. Flash in the pan, or an enduring product?

    Better yet, how do these compare to the Fritz offerings?

  5. Another interesting review! Thanks for answering questions about the Lore-S. I bought them based partly on your review, and I couldn’t be more pleased. This review was starting to make me wonder … Nah, love my Lore-S!

    • Part-Time Audiophile // September 20, 2012 at 3:27 PM //

      The Lore-S is remarkable. I actually don’t have a pair here, or I’d have compared them — my pair were a reviewer’s pair that had I was lucky enough to host for a couple of weeks before I had to send them on their way.

  6. I’m surprised they didn’t send you some of their speaker cables with the Clue–I used them with some Audio Note speakers when I really didn’t feel like paying for the Audio Note Cables and had really nice results. I can’t remember if you have heard the Nola Boxer, but that is the speaker I’m interested in comparing these to.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // September 20, 2012 at 3:26 PM //

      I haven’t had any opportunity to hear the Boxer, yet, unfortunately. And no, no Supra cables for me it seems.

  7. Another great review…have been checking your web site everyday just to see when this review will turn up. 🙂 I was seriously impressed by it as well during the recent NY Audio show. Just a quick question. How does the (Clue) compare against Tekton Design Lore-S? If you fact in the price for a pair of stand, they cost almost the same. Thanks!

    • Part-Time Audiophile // September 19, 2012 at 10:42 PM //

      I don’t actually have a pair of Lore-S still here, so I don’t have any way to directly compare … but … I think the Lore-S is a stunning speaker and I really haven’t found it’s match yet. ( the clue ) speakers are a bit cheaper, and way smaller, and are way more room friendly (take up a lot less space), but they’re not as refined.

  8. How’s the bang-for-the-buck compared to something like the Lore S? (or the Lore, if you wanted
    price matching). Very cool find!

    • Part-Time Audiophile // September 19, 2012 at 10:37 PM //

      Vinnie, I think the Lore-S is pretty much unmatched. Just my opinion! But it is a slightly different thing.

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