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Review: (updated) darTZeel CTH-8550 integrated amplifier (with Siltech)
by John Richardson
Oh my, these seem like big speakers, or more like two giant monoliths bearing down on me as it sit in my listening chair. Good lord, I think these things are about to devour me! Of course, it’s been awhile since I’ve had a set of decent sized floor standers in my listening room, so it’s taken me some time to become accustomed to both the appearance and sound of these um, monstrosities. I won’t say I find such designs abhorrent, but the fact that my listening area occupies the third floor of my house may have something to do with my lack of experience with larger, heavier speakers.
The speakers to which I refer are Tekton Design’s SEAS Pendragons, which were designed and constructed here in the USA in Orem, Utah. While these Pendragons are somewhat of an anomaly in my room, my experience with Tekton Design and its founder, Eric Alexander, is not. As it turns out, I have owned a pair of Tekton speakers for a number of years. My Tektons are a smallish pair of desktop speakers sporting single drivers that I bought probably six or seven years ago as part of a small system for my office at work. Driven by several tiny chip-based amps over the years, these small speakers still continue to delight me. Arrayed before me on my desk they simply disappear, leaving an arc of music hanging in mid-air. I bought them to help me get work done in an otherwise drab and uninteresting environment, but sometimes they keep me from my tasks by forcing me to pay attention to the music instead. They’ve been real troopers as well, as they’ve managed to survive several office moves along with a desktop flood (long story …) that left one of them irreversibly stained. No matter, as I love them still. Unfortunately, the chip amp du jour didn’t fare as well.
I recall Eric Alexander being especially helpful when I placed the order for my little speakers. He expertly aided me in choosing the right model for my intended use and guided me toward a custom wood veneer that would complement my surroundings exactly. I felt I got a very fair price for what I received.
Let’s fast forward a few years. When I was offered the opportunity to hear and review a much more modern and very different design from Tekton, I just couldn’t refuse, which brings us back to the SEAS Pendragons that now grace my room. Very different indeed. These seemingly gargantuan transducers are a far cry from my relatively lilliputian desktop speakers.
While most definitely large, this SEAS version isn’t the largest of Tekton’s Pendragon models. That honor goes to the original Pendragons. These bad boys stand a full 54 inches high, whereas the SEAS version reaches only 50 inches in height. The SEAS Pendragons are also narrower and not as deep, so they may end up working better (and looking better) in more regular sized listening environments. I’ve finally become somewhat used to how these look in my listening room, but I still can’t imagine them hanging out in our living room; they’re just too obtrusive, plus they might just try to hit on my wife. Of course, your own experiences and preferences may differ.
The primary difference between the two Pendragon versions (besides overall size) is that the version under review here uses a pair of SEAS eight-inch bass/midrange drivers per side as opposed to the un-named 12-inch drivers found in the original Pendragons. Both versions are offered at $2500. Further comparisons may be found at the Tekton Design website (www.tektondesign.com); I’ll focus more specifically here on the SEAS version I have in-house. A quick run-down of the specifications shows that these speakers sport dimensions of 50 inches (height) by 10 inches (width) by 13 inches (depth), a four ohm average impedance, and a stated sensitivity of 95 dB at one watt at one meter. The frequency response is given as 30 Hz to 30 kHz with a maximum power handling of 200 watts per channel. My review samples came in a classy matte black finish, but other custom finishes are also available along with crossover capacitor upgrades.
Looking dead-on at the speakers, one notes the pair of eight-inch SEAS drivers flanking a linear array of three tweeters in a classic D’Appolito configuration. The tweeters are said to be OEM units specially manufactured for Tekton Design. Upon closer inspection, each tweeter unit sports at its center a conical protuberance resembling a phase plug of sorts. On the rear of each speaker, we find a pair of goodly sized ports along with a single pair of quality binding posts which I found to easily accommodate both spade lugs and banana terminations. No grilles were supplied, though the speakers came with detachable rectangular bases to which spikes were threaded for coupling the speakers to the floor.
With regard to set up, I ultimately settled on the speakers placed well out into my room, about seven and a half feet apart, and about eight feet from my listening position with just a bit of toe-in. Users should be prepared to play around a bit here to get the best center fill and imaging effects.
Listening Impressions and Comparisons
There’s no real debate about whether or not size matters … at least not when it comes to loudspeakers. Big speakers sound different from small speakers, and that’s all there is to it. That’s not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, as each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Relatively speaking, I’ve been treading of late in the “small speaker” camp. Not tiny, mind you, as in BBC LS3/5a territory, but small, as in stand mounted monitors. My current favorites are Spendor SP1s from the vintage domain and ATC SCM19, version 2 monitors representing the modern set. Both are stand-mounted and small, at least relative to the Pendragons. I’m beguiled and won over by the precision of these smaller speakers, as well as by their ability to throw a huge soundstage and give a lovely illusion of aural space. Focusing on the more modern ATCs, I also get a wonderful sense of speed and x-ray resolution, but without a loss in overall musicality. These ATCs I could listen to all day at reasonable volume with essentially no sense of listening fatigue. I also didn’t break my back or pull a muscle trying to hump them up to my third floor listening room. Of course, there are the obvious shortcomings of smaller speakers, such as lack of scale and frequency extension into the lowest octaves.
As our goodly editor Scot Hull helped me load the Pendragons into my car, he suggested that I put a good 100 watts per channel to them to really get them singing. I’m sure that with their rated sensitivity of 95 dB, one could probably get away with less power, especially if it’s coming from a good vacuum tube amp. But I heeded Scot’s advice and initially tried out my two more powerful amplifiers: a REDGUM RGi60 ENR integrated and a pair of Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks. The REDGUM is a warm sounding class A/B design rated at just over 100 watts per channel while the Merrill Thor is a slightly more neutral sounding design of the class D variety rated at 200 watts per channel. In both cases these measurements apply to eight ohm loads. Of course, both amps increase their wattage into the average four ohm load presented by the Pendragons, with the Merrills doubling down to 400 watts per side.
What I discovered is that the Tektons really like power, and a lot of it.
I started out using the REDGUM amp, which I thought would be an excellent match to the Pendragons. After few days of critical (and not so critical) listening, I came away feeling that something important was missing. The overall presentation was certainly warm and engaging, exactly as I expected from the REDGUM, but I found myself yearning for more detail and resolution than I was getting. The sound seemed muffled at low levels, making me want to crank up the volume, which certainly did help to a certain extent. Even so, I couldn’t quite get to the level of enjoyment that I sensed these speakers were capable of providing. All of this got me to thinking that maybe a bit more power might actually help, even though the REDGUM should have been giving me more than enough to get the speakers firing on all cylinders. I don’t think that the REDGUM itself was just too warm and unresolving, as it has performed very well on a wide variety of other speakers I have paired it with, so perhaps an impedance mis-match might be to blame.
The next obvious option to try was the much more powerful Merrill Thor monoblocks, which presumably provide an average 400 watts per channel to the four-ohm Tektons. I was a bit concerned about doubling the maximum power recommendation for the speakers, but what the heck. I knew the Merrills were capable of providing good clean power which probably wouldn’t harm the speakers.
Now things began to get interesting. With the Merrill Thor running the show, it was like a wholly new and different pair of speakers had somehow snuck into my room. Resolution and detail were suddenly there, both at low and high volumes, though not quite to the extent provided via my ATC SCM19 monitors. I now had that big speaker sound that was somehow eluding me before, along with a nice glimpse of the delicacy and transparency that might be expected from a smaller speaker. While the Pendragons beg to be played at high volume, being able to perform at lower volumes is a requirement in most real-world listening environments. After all, most of us live in smaller homes surrounded by other people. Our loved ones may not remain so for ever if we are constantly blasting them out of our immediate existence. Besides, my wife is a light sleeper.
In the present configuration, I can say I’ve pushed a lot of music through the SEAS Pendragons in the last few weeks, and I can report that they are a thoroughly modern sounding design that should appeal to a wide array of contemporary listeners. Firstly, they do everything well that you would expect such a speaker to do well. They convey a real sense of scale and slam to music, especially symphonic, grand opera, and stadium rock. Fans of these genres will probably want large speakers that make an attempt to bring the recording venue into their living rooms, and here is where the Pendragons excel. Also, with sufficient power (I sort of question the provided sensitivity rating), these speakers give a good sense of macrodynamics. They can get quite loud without missing a beat, but still manage to provide that sense of lilting delicacy at lower volumes when the performance calls for it.
I mentioned that I consider these Tektons to be truly modern speakers. Allow me to expand a bit more upon that statement here. I’ve wanted for a long time to hear a classic BBC type monitor, the nearly antique Spendor BC1, as I’d heard that its midrange reproduction can be magical; even better than my SP1s according to some reports. Finally a pair made it into my listening room and rudely plopped down a couple of feet in front of the Pendragons. Yes, this classic design has a number of immediate and obvious shortcomings when compared to a well-implemented speaker of today, but that midrange does indeed get something right, and in my opinion, something that most of today’s speakers lack. That quality, folks, is an almost luminous sense of harmonic realism and texture that seems to have been designed out of modern speakers in leu of absolute accuracy and resolution. No, I wouldn’t want BC1s to be my only speakers, but I could happily live with them for a long time based solely on that exquisite midrange, along with a few other qualities I find particularly satisfying. For string and voice reproduction at low to middling volume, these damn boxes can sound like the real thing!
After being distracted for a few days by the Spendors, I got myself back to the task of evaluating the Tekton Pendragons. How did they compare in the area of midrange texture where the BC1s rule? Not that badly, I’m glad to report. Indeed, the Pendragons do lack some of that wonderful organic woody character and body that the BC1s lent to string reproduction — I could almost sense the rosin dripping off the bows of the violins and cellos! Not to worry though, as I still got a healthy dose of harmonic texture and timbre from the Tekton speakers. No speaker will do everything perfectly, nor should it be expected to. It’s just that the Pendragon, like the vast majority of audiophile quality full-range speakers designed today, tends to strive for overall tonal accuracy as well as extension at both frequency extremes; nothing seems overdone or unduly emphasized. As an amplifier analogy, I’d say the Spendor BC1 is a lot like a classic low-powered single ended vacuum tube amp beaming with second order harmonic distortion, whereas the Pendragon is more akin to a clean, powerful and modern solid state design. We all know that second order harmonic distortion is a coloration, but sometimes I’m just in the mood for it, dammit! Hence, it looks like the BC1s will be hanging around these parts for awhile to satisfy my crazy inclinations when the mood strikes.
On well recorded source material, I was pleased with the SEAS Pendragons’ ability to get out of the way in a spatial sense. I somehow expected speakers this large to have trouble excusing themselves from the aural soundstage, but this was indeed not the case. Listening to discs such as Bill Frisell’s album Blues Dream, I found that I could close my eyes and actually get the speakers to more or less step out of the way (note that I didn’t say “disappear”). Instruments readily filled the space between the speakers, and I got a good sense of the soundstage projecting behind and beyond them as well. Image specificity was good also, with each instrument placed within the soundstage with reasonable precision. Again, I was expecting far less satisfactory performance in these areas from such a large and reasonably priced speaker.
Detail and overall resolution were also very good, as exemplified by a few digital needle drops I did in order to digitally archive some recent thrift store vinyl finds. I did a couple of these when the Spendor BC1s were in the system and was rewarded with what appeared to be nearly perfect, noiseless recordings. Once I put the Pendragons back in the system and listened to my recordings again, I heard numerous click and crackle artifacts that my filtering software missed that were not audible via the BC1s. Perhaps the Pendragons were emphasizing (or at least not suppressing) the frequency regions in which these artifacts reside, but I’m banking on the increased resolution of the Tektons making the biggest difference here, thus giving me a better overall view of what was really on the recording. As another example, Frisell and his ensemble were a joy to listen to, as I got plenty of resolving power and detail, from the occasional slap of a hand on the guitar body to the delicacy of the lightly tapped hi-hat cymbal. Oh, and I really do keep coming back to the scale of reproduction, both in dynamic and presence, that only a speaker of this magnitude can provide. In many ways, these qualities do go a long way toward bringing the listener closer to the actual venue, and I know this is something that a lot of music lovers strive to achieve in their playback. Here the SEAS Pendragon won’t disappoint, though I’d say it’s not quite world-class in this regard. For example, I’ve heard a well-amplified set of Wilson Audio MAXX speakers trump the Pendragons on this count ( … of course, there’s a small difference in price here… but anyway); I’d say the Wilsons were both better resolving and also extended to subsonic frequencies which allow that last bit of hall acoustic to come alive.
Wanna crank it up? No problem! The SEAS Pendragons like to go loud, though I got limited opportunity to explore this realm of performance. Grab a little stadium rock such as Yes: Live at Montreux 2003 (download, HDTracks). Turn it up a bit and sit back and enjoy. Try, for instance, a cut such as “The Fish” which highlights Chris Squires’ electric bass as both rhythm and solo instrument. This version of the song is a real tour-de-force that should get any amateur guitarist, bassist or not, strumming away at the air instrument. Through the Pendragons I could really get a feel for the impact, slam, and depth of tone of Squires’ bass. Attack and decay were quite good, with the bass never seeming to become overly sloppy or bloated. I could say the same about the reproduction of the drum kit as well, especially noting the lack of overhang in the kick drum. I further found that the interplay between the band and audience was effectively reproduced, with the clapping, hooting, and whistling coming from the rear of the soundscape, well behind the band. Likewise, I found the crowd noise to be highly realistic and natural sounding, which is often hard for transducers to accomplish in my experience.
One component pairing I wanted to try remained: using the Rogue Audio Sphinx integrated amp ($1295 — reviewed here) to power the SEAS Pendragons, as this could represent a wonderful coupling for the audiophile on a budget who wants a full-range audio system. And the news on this front is all good: I heard much of the punch and precision offered by the more powerful Merrill Thor, but with a small but healthy helping of tube-like fluidity, presumably from the vacuum tube preamp section of the Rogue amp. In fact, I’m kicking myself for not spending more time with this combination, as I found it so pleasing. I’d even go so far as saying that the soundstage is even more three-dimensional, with individual instruments taking on a bit of “glow” yet keeping appropriate space or distance amongst themselves. A softer, more textured and laid back presentation is on offer perhaps, but one that I think many listeners would warm to and appreciate. About the only negatives I could conjure up would be a little loss of air on the top end and loss of dynamic, but this seems a small price to pay for the remainder of the sonic presentation. Re-listening to Bill Frisell’s “Blues Dream” brought these points to the forefront immediately, as the presentation was softer, gentler, and I dare say a tad more musical. Take home message: the Tekton SEAS Pendragon and the Rogue Sphinx amplifier are a match well worth exploring.
When all is said and done, I found the SEAS Pendragon to be a capable full-range speaker, especially at its price point. While not perfect (what is?), I believe it effectively carries out the goals for which it was designed. A quick post-mortem comparison against my reference ATC SCM19 monitors powered by the Thor monoblocks highlights a few of its ultimate shortcomings. Keep in mind that I’m nitpicking here, and it’s not my goal to take the Pendragons apart sonically.
Firstly, the Pendragons seemed a tad slow and less resolving in comparison to the ATC monitors, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Pendragon is a large, ported design with an active cabinet while the SCM19 sports a smaller, sealed, less-resonant box and a studio monitor heritage. Further, while the bass obviously doesn’t go as deep with the ATCs; what is there is somewhat cleaner, quicker, and better defined, which again is easily explained by the two speakers’ design differences. Again, not surprisingly, the SCM19s do a more convincing disappearing act within the audible soundstage while throwing a wider and deeper illusion of the soundscape. Both speakers, however, boast a slightly warm tonal character with plenty of harmonic information to keep the listener engaged, though neither speaker can quite match the harmonic midrange richness and natural timbre of the classic Spendor BC1, or to a slightly lesser extent, the Spendor SP1. These latter speakers, of course, cannot realistically compete with either the Tektons or the ATCs in other areas such as overall dynamics, accuracy and extension at the frequency extremes, or in overall loudness and power handling.
Of course, the previous observations are really apples to oranges comparisons, given the difference in size and design of the speakers compared. However, they go to show that no one speaker is going to do everything perfectly all the time, and that each design will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Potential buyers should have a good idea of what factors and performance characteristics are most important to them and gravitate toward the speakers that best satisfy these while coupling effectively to a given listening environment. Better yet, the completist could own several sets of speakers and rotate them in or out of the system depending on mood or type of music being played. Oh wait … this is probably what a lot of us are already doing.
I feel that I’ve spent too much of this review trying to nitpick the Tekton SEAS Pendragons to death, but this has never been my intention. I’d now like to emphasize as my take home message what’s right about them, and that is their ability to play a wide range of music in a convincing and thoughtful manner. Within the constraints of what they are, which is a very large but also very reasonably priced audiophile speaker, they perform amazingly well. Forget about audiophile minutiae for a moment and realize that these Pendragons reproduce real music, and with a good dose of scale, slam, and panache, thank you very much. I don’t think Led Zeppelin or Yes ever sounded so real and “there” in my room before!
For buyers looking for the type of speaker that the Pendragons are, I’m not sure you could do any better for $2500 (though, perhaps you can — they’re currently on sale for 30% off). Now, I’ve not heard anywhere near all of the competing speakers at that price point, but I’ve heard enough to say that the Tekton effort is right up there. Just be prepared to give them some good source material and enough high quality amplification to get them running to their full potential.
Highly recommended, and another winning product from Eric Alexander and Tekton Design!
About the Author
John Richardson has been interested in music and audio since his early teen years, or stated another way, as long as he can remember. He has been involved in the audio community in one way or another for around 20 years and for the last five has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Stereomojo. There, he has been the resident computer audio guy and “value conscious audiophile” (aka “cheap bastard”).
John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear. He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies. John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.
Financial Interests: Writing for Part-Time Audiophile is his sole intersection with audio’s high-end.