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Big Sound and the Clearwave Symphonia 7R

Ooooh, pretty!

Is there a rule that audiophiles must be fetishists, too? If so, it's written in the Big Audiophile Rule Book (BARB), right under the note that says we're all f***ing nuts. But yes, if pressed, I'd have to confess that I do like me some fancy fiddly-bits. Accuton drivers and RAAL tweeters ... you don't say? Oh myyy. Yes, I think it's fair to say that you can color me "intrigued". Jed Kunz of Clearwave Loudspeaker Designs sent me swanky pair of Symphonia 7R ($4,695/pair), and I feel that it's reasonable and correct to say that they are a stand-mount exercise in audiophile temptation. I might have drooled on myself taking them out of the crate -- clearly, there was some kind of mistake. There's just no way something this nice was allowed to escape from the shop. "Wow" was all I was really able to say out loud. Look at 'em! They look ... amazing.

The finish qualifies as “piano” — think “ultra-high gloss” — that I’ve only seen bettered on a pair of speakers 15x their cost (and that was a close thing). The slight tilt-back to the fascia that Designer Jed tells me is 5%, gives it a stylish look and helps with time/phase alignment. Added to the mix: “lots of bracing, very expensive crossovers, pure ribbon tweeters with amorphous core transformers, Cardas binding posts, and lots of custom aluminum trim.”

Result? Heh. Heh heh. Heh heh. Heh heh. I am the great Audiophilio!

Now, don’t you “settle down, Beavis” me, hater. This is a sweet, sweet design! And they’re a dramatic step up in look/feel and sound quality from most of their competition in the sub $5k space — this finish is on par with the best I’ve seen. Of course, this finish is a double-upgrade — a hand-rubbed piano finish ($1,200 extra) paired with an exotic ebony veneer ($525 extra) — so this may not be the most affordable approachable with this brand. Go that route, though, and ye shall be rewarded. Double-wow.

Soundings

Think you’ve heard a loudspeaker with a ceramic driver, have you? Think they all sound the same, do you? Yeah. Wrong. These ain’t ya mama’s ceramics. Accuton has come a long way from their “I don’t do loud” days. Speaking of which, this loudspeaker is only rated as 85dB which makes me suspicious — they sound way more sensitive than this. In fact, they play louder than my Joseph Audio Pulsars (@87dB), at the same volume setting, for example. Jed says that this may be a baffle-step compensation issue, something he accounts for in his specs, but usually isn’t factored in to the numbers we obsess about.

The bass from these “little” cabinets is plenty-big for a gut-punch. I have to confess, again, that I still fall victim to this cliché. How many times must I marvel at how a cabinet this small — which it really isn’t, at 16.5″H by 9″W by 14″D — cranks out such a big sound? I don’t have a good answer other than “I ought to know better” but my expectations still tell me that they shouldn’t. But … there it is. I’ll go in to this shortly, but here’s a quick one-liner for you — you may not need a floor-standing loudspeaker. Said another way, if you’re pressed for space and have opted for stand-mounts as a way to “compromise” with your listening space, I think you’re gonna be tickled by what you’re not giving up.

For example, I can energize the room for Chris Jones’ “No Sanctuary Here” in a very alarming manner. Heh heh, heh heh, heh heh. Ahem. The bass-line in that track is clearly articulated and the menacing room filling-ness of the chorus/refrain is happily realized in my not-so-little listening room. Sorry — did I mention that loudspeakers this small really aren’t supposed to be able to do this? I’m almost positive I saw that written down someplace. Moving on to Jem’s “Come On Closer”, the kick-drum/electronica bass track is right there at volume. That is, it’s not falling off, getting lost, or 10dB+ down. It’s biggity big. Ka-pow.

My reference point for over-achievement in the lightweight loudspeaker category (as opposed to feather or bantam) has been the $7,000/pair Pulsars from Joseph Audio. They’re a healthy 15″ by 9″ by 13″, which makes them suboptimal for desktop use, but pretty much invisible when put on stands — perfect for WAF! What they are able to put into the room is altogether arresting. Fed a diet of red meat (high current!), the Pulsars can stun small animals, scare the living crap out of small children, and cause severe annoyance in spousal units a full suburban block away (or at least when she’s out in the back 40, which is pretty much the same thing).

Anyway, all that said, the Symphonia 7R play deeper, fuller, and punchier. Queuing up Morcheeba’s Blood Like Lemonade, an album in the High Spin Zone over here, cemented the feeling — the sound on the 7R is satisfyingly rich, tonally round, and fulsome, with no little emphasis on “fulsome”. It’s as if the Symphonia’s are bringing another octave to the table, which may explain the sense of a lower tonal focus and the weight that vocals have. Pardon the reach, but it’s like the difference between a 300b in triode and running it in push-pull, if that helps, which it shouldn’t, because it’s not. That is, it’s not all mid-range. There’s fullness across the audio band. Like what a 300b could do, if it were implemented in a way that totally kicked ass.

If you’re getting the feeling that I am enthusiastic about these speakers … good. I am!

Wanna know about mid-range realism and detail? How about I just say “yes” here. I mean, that’s what these drivers do, and it’s a far cry from some of the paper-cone loudspeakers I’m familiar with. If you’re a detail freak, or an aspiring one, ceramic is a good place to start your quest. Compared with the elegant sound of the Pulsar, the Symphonia have the edge on detail. It’s sleight, but at lower volumes, the Symphonia lose less of the hall ambiance — you know, the glasses chiming, chairs sliding, boogers thwacking — the sort of thing that us audiophiles go nuts over.

Again, drawing contrasts with my Pulsars, the Pulsars are more coherent, top-to-bottom, totally (and tonally) seamless. To my ears, the champ in driver transitions has always been (and still is) the Joseph speaker — mainly as there doesn’t seem to be one. The Asymmetric Infinite Slope crossovers in the Joseph loudspeakers line are simply the best I’ve heard.

By contrast, the Symphonia transition wasn’t. That is, wasn’t a contrast. In fact, the drivers — with two wildly different technologies — seemed to blend fairly well and I wasn’t caught out by any particular discontinuity. It wasn’t until the volume was cranked way over, fully past “normal” and “stupid” and into “dangerous” that differences between the two designs were apparent. The Pulsars presented a more neutral and more balanced sound overall, maintaining their dancer-like poise all the way up the volume chain. But … they do seem to appreciate a bit more goosing of the volume control to “come alive” than the Symphonia. Do you (or do you need to) listen at normal to low volumes? The Symphonia might be exactly what you’ve been looking for. Resolution that goes all the way down ….

I’m not sure what I expected with the RAAL ribbon tweeter, but I’m not sure I got it with the one I found in the 7R. This one is bigger (wider) than normal, so the off-axis is actually … pretty good! I tried them toed-in to fire directly at my ear-balls and then I tried them sent straight down the room, and eventually settled on “some” toe-in, firing more or less over my shoulders, as a way to get the biggest sound stage and not lose center-image stability. Not that I did lose it, but I just felt that this was the strongest, most holographic, image I got. There’s really only just so “real” Nat King Cole can get, and when I got there, I said WTF and stopped fooling with it.

Anyway, if you’re expecting sizzle and zing, this isn’t the implementation for you. In fact, the treble did anything but call attention to itself. At first, I was pretty much convinced it was rolled off … but it isn’t. There’s plenty of shimmer and sheen. I really have no complaints in the top end here at all. Decays and brassiness are all the rotting metal you could want (decay + brass … get it?). Want detail? I’ve got an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you absolutely must know, the Diacera tweeter in the TIDAL loudspeakers brings more “sparkle” and “air” to the feast, but it’s a different presentation. And given that the Diacera tweets cost something north of $7k each, I think it’s safe to say that the comparison is silly.

What you probably want to know is “are they musical?” Actually, I’m not exactly sure why you’d want to know that, but I did hear no less than three audiophiles cluck to each other about this at RMAF last year, referencing some mega-priced loudspeakers, so I suppose some of you are gripped by this question. But, if asked, I would have to shake my head and say “I have no idea what that even means.” If, by chance, you mean “does the music sound inviting, with real emotional content — does it cause my spirits to soar and my heart to race and my eyes to tear up and my soul to catapult into the heavens to fly with the little birdies … oh oh OH!” … then you really need to put down the pipe. Maybe go for a walk. Get some sun. Eat some vegetables. Something.

But yes, the music that I can get these guys to produce in my listening space is very compelling. Perhaps more importantly — at least to me — is how easy they are to listen to — they’re totally non-fatiguing. I was able to play them all day, every day, for weeks, and all I wanted to do was play more music. And given how partial I am to a big, phat ass (on loudspeakers!), I found these to be dramatic overachievers. Ska-doosh.

At $4,695 a pair (base price), however, they are nowhere even in the same zip code as “affordable”, and I get that. That said, compared with the $65k TIDALs, they’re an outright steal. Yes, that’s crazy-cash, but it’s not that weird — “getting into” high-resolution loudspeakers with ceramic/ribbon technology, and doing it at an “affordable” price point, is harder than it sounds. Have you, by chance, priced out a pair of Raidho loudspeakers, for example? Yeah. Ouch. Perspective’s a bitch, ain’t it? The fact is that there aren’t many manufacturers fussing with ceramic drivers these days, and those that are routinely charge an arm and a leg for their work. Sure, there are exceptions — like Clearwave, for example. But as a entry point, I’m finding it very difficult to justify the next step. The Clearwave Symphonia 7R are, for want of a more eloquent way to put it, simply wonderful. Is that trite? Maybe. But I can’t think of a loudspeaker at this price that I’ve had as unequivocal a reaction to.

So, here’s the bottom line — if you’re looking for room-filling sound with a bass response that is on par with a floor-standing loudspeaker, the Symphonia 7R is your Huckleberry. If I didn’t already own a pair of superlative stand-mounts, I’d have bought the review samples on the spot.

The designer

I like to annoy manufacturers, designers especially, with inane comments about their relationships to their parents, their first crush, how many tattoos they have, whether they prefer silk or leather, that sort of thing. Jed Kunz, the designer/owner of Clearwave Loudspeaker Design, was kind enough to respond to my lame attempts at an interview. Read it and weep, bitches.

1. What is your goal in loudspeaker design?

I feel that a speaker is the most important element of the audio chain, and because of their complexity, variety, and sonic rewards, I have become obsessed with them.  That is the artist designer in me speaking.  The relentless pursuit of understanding how and why they work led me to make new discoveries to try to reengage my state of mind during a time when I listened to live music and all my problems, dilemmas, and worldly affairs seemed to dissolve.  All the means must justify the ends, so I’m left with one thing… that emotional musical experience all over again.

2. What 1 thing (or 3 things) must be true for you to be willing to put a design “out there”?

Nothing in life is perfect and I must live with my own flaws.  I can always be a better designer, engineer, artist, philosopher, and speaker designer; to name a few.  Knowing this, I have to ask myself, like some of my most influential professors asked before me, “What defines greatness?”  I continue to be intrigued with this question, so I work towards that very thing– the concept of producing a musical transducer that I feel represents the best I can do, and one that’s truthful to the concept.  I have found that it’s ever changing as new technologies, approaches, discoveries, and methods have evolved in my research.  Every now and then I try to fit sleep into the picture, but luckily I have a network of individuals associated with my company that make these things obtainable while adding their input, so that the business moves in the right direction.  I’ve really focused on the idea of value with the current products and that is measured in multiple areas: sustainability, refinement, execution, sound engineering, beauty, and most importantly– musical correctness.  Simply put, if a speaker in development doesn’t offer more than what I have currently available in my product line, it doesn’t make it into production.

3. Can you discuss your crossover approach? I know you’ve told me that they’re “proprietary”, and I get that, but what can you tell the readers?

Crossover design involves many trade-offs, and I must say that I have worked with many individual drivers that do not exhibit inherent traits that make what I want to achieve with a crossover possible.  So, at that point they don’t make the cut and the measurements of new drivers and parts continue.  During that research and development, and there have been countless drivers tested, some drivers really stand out.  I then model and measure them using advanced software to determine how they’ll perform in my intended application.  Every now and then the stars align, and I notice that the measurement of one driver’s response will work really well with a minimalistic crossover and complement another driver in the completed system.  I add only enough components in the chain to achieve my goals and maintain the highest levels of transparency.  I work with drivers that act like true pistons, exhibit low distortion, and yield the fastest transient response.

Many designers just look at on-axis response during the crossover design process, and I think that is a mistake.  The sound radiating from the loudspeaker should really have its power response taken into consideration.   In order to do that, I have found that aligning the phase of the individual drivers through careful adjustments in the electrical transfer functions yield a flat response not just on-axis, but at many points in space.  This is especially important at the estimated listening position or listening window ….

There is a lot of confusion out there regarding crossover slopes.  Electrical filters and acoustic transfer functions are usually what’s confused.  In other words, I theoretically can have a 1st order electrical filter (6db/octave) in a circuit (one capacitor) with a driver that nets a 3rd or 4th order acoustic transfer function.  The electrical filter in this case combines with the natural acoustic roll-off of the driver to net a steeper slope.

Other things like impedance correction, notch filters, and Zobels are taken into consideration based on how the crossover topology (which is proprietary), drivers, and other components in the loudspeaker interact with each other in order to present a manageable load for the amplifier and obtain a flat overall response.

4a. Tell me about the size of that bass port. It’s huge!

What you noticed is the fact that the port is flared at each end.  The 2″ diameter of the port is not actually abnormally large for the application.  The flared ends help eliminate port noise and chuffing at louder volumes where port air velocity issues can arise.

4b. Isn’t there a limit on how big this should be before it’s actually hindering the bass response?

That is true if a port has too wide a diameter relative to the available depth of the speaker cabinet needed for the port’s required length.  In other words, a wider port’s length would have to be longer than a narrower port in order to hit the same box tuning frequency.  The port is tuned perfectly in the Symphonia 7R and yields a deep bass response with no ripples in the response.

5. What’s next from Clearwave? Smaller? Bigger? Cheaper? More expensive?

All of the above, in time.  There always will be a very specific focus with the current products and new prototypes.

James Lipton

If you’ve never seen James Lipton do an interview for his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” series, I can’t recommend it enough. Lipton is frighteningly good at getting notoriously private folks to open up and tell the most surprising things. His signature sign-off is a series of 10 questions he borrowed from a French series, “Bouillon de Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. Jed humored me, so let me present his responses here, with thanks.

1. What is your favorite word?

Juxtaposition.

2. What is your least favorite word?

Uh.

3. What turns you on?

When there’s a challenge aligned with a goal, and then I achieve it.

4. What turns you off?

Violence.

5. What sound or noise do you love?

When I’m out hiking, and I hear a waterfall in the distance.

6. What sound or noise do you hate?

Anything painful.

7. What is your favorite curse word?

Depends on the situation. I’m pretty mellow, but say I’m about to get clipped by a reckless driver while out for a jog, I may let out a certain f-word.

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Well, I like to think I should do what most interests me in this lifetime. Many things are in or out of my control, so while I don’t except failure, I like to think that I know my limits. The problem is my limits are always changing, and at the same time, life is quite the paradox. Maybe that’s why I like the word juxtaposition– things go well together where logic might say otherwise. For example, I’ve found success often is a mixture of luck and hard work… two seemingly very different things, but key ingredients none-the-less.

9. What profession would you not like to do?

That I know for sure– I’d never want to work in the ER. I’m just not wired to handle that kind of stress.

10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

You’re not alone. Welcome.

Cast of supporting characters

I started the speakers on a steady diet of Pass Labs, only toward the end moving them to the higher output monos. The XA-60.5, with 60wpc of Class A output, never broke a sweat driving these loudspeakers.

Most of my listening was evenly split between analog and digital.

The stands I used came from Reference 3a. These stands are fully adjustable, and I set the heights so that my ears sat at tweeter level. The stands have little elastomer buttons that are set on the corners of the top plate, which made it difficult to seat the speaker satisfactorily, so I adopted my (now preferred) coupling/de-coupling trick I use with all stand-mount loudspeakers. I set the speakers directly on a Symposium Svelte Shelf and set the Shelf on a trio of Symposium Rollerblock Jrs. This setup gives extremely good isolation from vibration in both north/south and east/west directions, and additionally provides good cabinet damping to the loudspeakers (not that they necessarily need it).

  • Amplifier: Pass Labs XA60.5 monoblocks, Pass Labs XA100.5 monoblocks.
  • Preamplifier: Wyred4Sound STP-SE, Pass Labs XP-30
  • Digital source: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Series 2 DAC with Alpha USB converter, Da Vinci DAC from Light Harmonic. Channel D/SETA Buffer. iFi iUSBPower.
  • Analog source: TW Acustic Raven phonostage with TW Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable, TW Acustic Raven tonearm and Ortofon Windfeld cartridge.
  • All cables from WyWires, including “Silver” interconnects between components and “Gold” between phono and pre/pre and amps, Juice II power cords
  • Power Conditioning: Silver Circle Tchaik 6 and Shunyata Hydra Triton

7 Comments on Big Sound and the Clearwave Symphonia 7R

  1. how would you compare 7R with PSB Synchrony One, both being ~ same price? PSB got good reviews in Stereophile. In other words do you get more, for the same price, with PSB One or 7R? Same thing with Lawrence Audio Violin which got good review in TAS and costs ~ same as 7R?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // January 23, 2014 at 1:19 PM //

      I do like the Synchrony One quite a bit — it’s a really balanced loudspeaker. The Clearwave I had, however, is clearly a more high-end product: better drivers, higher level of fit and finish, &c. The Synchrony will play lower, but aside from that, I can’t really speculate as I don’t have any significant time on any PSB speakers. Ditto Lawrence.

  2. How would you compare this implementation of the Raal to, say, the tweeter in the Eficion F300?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // August 13, 2013 at 2:42 PM //

      It’s been a while, but I liked both. Neither were aggressive; both were open and detailed.

  3. Soundminded // April 2, 2013 at 9:06 AM //

    Checking out the drivers they’re worth about $400 a pop retail. applying a standard 40% OEM discount, estimating the cost of the boxes, the crossovers, and the labor to assemble them, then applying the typical markup for consumer electronics, the price seems about right for the cost to manufacture. But why would anyone want to spend thousands for a speaker that can’t reproduce the bottom two octaves just because they’re small? $400 seems like an awful lot of money for what may be a great midrange driver but is quite frankly a stinko woofer. But that seems to be what the market will pay for today so it might make him some money. Perhaps if I go to the NYC show I’ll get to hear them.

    I think it would have looked better if the drivers were black and he’d put a grill cloth in front of them to hide them. Seeing the drivers kind of destroys the effect of all that shiny lacquer.

  4. I ain’t no bi-yatch! B … rotha. LOL! Very nice write up/review! I need to check these out real soon! Any chance these will demo @ the NY audio show 2013? I’d also love to hear a comparison of these and the PTE’S! Love the potential of these being able to “play” in the same arena as the Raidho’s/Tidal’s! … @ a more user friendly price! Yeah!

  5. Kemper Holt // February 28, 2013 at 12:31 PM //

    Beautiful finish, high WAF!

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