by John Richardson
I’ve gotten to thinking lately about how audio reviews are initiated. Strange thing to wonder, you say, especially coming from an audio reviewer, right?
My thoughts evolved from a reader here who sort of accused me of overly liking everything I hear, as if I’m unable to give a bad review. My initial response had something to do with how I’ve been blessed so far to hear gear that I like since there is far more good stuff than bad, and I left it at that. Another reader also chimed in, offering that maybe I only review gear that I’m interested in and will probably like. It’s this suggestion that got me thinking — maybe there really is some truth to it.
So then, how do reviews come about? Sometimes I really am interested in a particular component and want to hear it in my system, so I initiate the review process. Other times, I’m assigned gear by my editor, but I’m guessing he is going to go to some length to try to make sure it’s a piece I’m interested in and thinks will mesh well with my system. Occasionally, I’ll get cold-called directly by a manufacturer asking if I’d be willing to review component this-or-that. These can sometimes be the most dangerous situations, as I sometimes have little or no preconceived notion of what the component is all about or how well it might work in my system. I tread carefully in these instances, because quite frankly, no reviewer wants to write a negative review. If you haven’t done so recently, now might be a good time to go check out our review policies for a brief re-cap of how we do business with manufacturers and distributors if issues do arise.
The reach-out situation is sort of how the present review of the Fritz Speakers Carbon 7 SE monitors got started, but not quite. I was indeed called directly by John “Fritz” Heiler, the father and founder of Fritz Speakers. So here’s my disclaimer to the naysayers, right up front. I have had plenty of experience with Fritz’s designs. I’ve reviewed several of his speakers previously, heard others at shows and at friends’ houses, and I’ve even owned a pair of Fritz’s REV 7 monitors, which are no longer in production. And here’s the bombshell: I like Mr. Heiler’s designs. A lot. There, I’ve said it; disclaimer over.
Back to our regularly scheduled audio review
Re-capping, the subject of this review invitation was the somewhat new Carbon 7 SE (special edition) monitor speaker, which Fritz feels is a marked improvement over his critically acclaimed original Carbon 7. Time marches on, and so do prices, with Fritz selling these new upgraded models at $2500 per pair, as opposed to $1895 for the old Carbon 7. I never formally reviewed the older Carbon 7 speakers, but I did get to hear them in several different venues and even got to borrow a pair from a fellow reviewer for several weeks, all some time ago.
My recollection of these speakers is that they were quintessential music makers, transducers that could “speak to” both audiophiles and music lovers alike on many levels while providing a deep sense of value and enjoyment. Like most all speakers, there were minor quibbles. For instance, I found the upper bass to be a tad bit thick and muddy (maybe “overripe” might be a better descriptor) compared to the rest of the audible spectrum. But what they did well, they did exceptionally well. I recall a vivid, velvety, and colorful midrange with a good dose of tonal lushness coupled to a reasonably deep and well-defined bass and detailed, but easy-on-the-ears treble. These midrange qualities are especially valued by me and remind me of the performance of my vintage Spendor SP1 and BC1 speakers. As a side note, a couple of musically accomplished friends of mine recently asked me why I keep these positively “ancient” speakers around the house when I have ready access to much more modern designs. Here’s my answer: the Spendors are speakers that ground me musically, as they have a certain tonal rightness to their presentation, especially in the all-important midrange. I like to put them in the system for a week or so every couple of months to reset my audio baseline, as it were.
The Carbon 7 SE
Back to the specifics of the Carbon 7 SE. These are small-ish, stand mounted speakers housed in what I like to call the “generic Fritz box.” Mr. Heiler is a woodworker (among other things) and constructs his own speaker cabinets in his shop near the sea in Southern California. What I have found is that he has a certain sized stand-mount box he likes to work with into which he fits different crossovers and drivers. This box seems to me to be the same size as the one he used for the previous Carbon 7 as well as the REV 7 speakers I owned. The size and geometry seem to work quite well for the various 7-inch woofer/midrange drivers and 1-inch tweeters he implements in his designs; the boxes are also generously ported on their rear panels and fitted with high quality binding posts.
Besides the hand crafted and finished cabinets, I’ve always been impressed with the quality of the drivers chosen: these are not cheap off-the-shelf generic units. Referencing Fritz’s website, I found that the Carbon 7 SE employs a “7-inch carbon graphite/paper pulp composite cone with non-resonant butyl rubber surround and Kapton voice coil…” as well as the expensive “Scan Speak Illuminator D3004/662000 tweeter” which is a highly sophisticated soft-dome unit.
Of course, stuffing expensive drivers into a box does not necessarily a great speaker make. There’s much more to the whole recipe, including good crossover design and proper integration of the drivers into their new-found home. So how is this design different from the original Carbon 7? The short answer lies in the combined changes consisting of a lighter, more responsive woofer/midrange driver, a more extended tweeter with improved dispersion characteristics, and a wholly different crossover design. While the speaker looks a lot like the classic Carbon 7, it’s really an entirely different animal under the hood.
There’s one other thing to emphasize about the Carbon 7 SE and other Fritz Speakers products I’ve experienced first hand: they are hand-built and finished. What this means is that someone, Mr. Heiler in this case, took the time to construct and veneer the cabinets, take them to a hand-rubbed finish, wire up the crossovers, and mount the drivers and other features. They’re not absolutely perfect in appearance, unlike my ATC SCM 19 Version 2 monitors, whose cabinets are obviously machine-made. You might occasionally note slightly bubbled veneer here and there, and maybe a slight variation in finish. These imperfections go hand-in-hand with such construction and merely add one-off character to the products, reminding me more of my old-time Spendors than my ATCs. I mean this only in the best possible way as a complement to Fritz and his construction techniques, as the speakers exude pride of ownership. Though I chose not to use the grilles, these were also expertly constructed, and I appreciate the hidden magnets which fasten them into place on the baffles. I think most audio perfectionists will be quite happy with the overall appearance of these speakers.
The Carbon 7 SE monitors are said to have a frequency range (-3 dB) extending from 38 Hz up to 30,000 Hz and are 88 dB efficient, making them an easier load than some of Fritz’s earlier designs. A quick look at the impedance curve shows a minimum of 6 ohms at 200 Hz along with mild phase differences along the whole of the spectrum, again suggesting that these speakers should be easy to drive. I wouldn’t exactly call these guys full range, but I can attest to the fact that they can go satisfyingly low in the bass.
My initial listening impressions were sort of nondescript. I recall being immediately taken aback by the original Carbon 7 monitors, which had a very distinctive, but not quite neutral presentation. They sounded pretty and were easy on the ears, the kind of speakers you could listen to all day. They left me feeling all warm and happy on the inside. Mild but sensuous colorations such as these tend to grab the listener, and he falls in love, but maybe not for the long haul. Such speakers sometimes can be more like short-term flings as opposed to spousal material, and they also tend to jump up and down while screaming “pick me, pick me!” during listening shoot-outs. In contrast, the Carbon 7 SEs just sounded neutral. Not un-involving, mind you, but not immediately interesting. I could tell that time was going to be the final arbiter here: either these were going to grow on me or not last long in the system.
As it turns out, chance played some role in the ultimate outcome of this little adventure. I just wasn’t initially feeling the vibe between my Class D Merrill Thor monoblocks and the Fritzes and was about to go back to my ATC SCM 19 version 2 monitors for a sanity check when Scot Hull asked if I’d like to have a go at the new Pass Labs X250.8 stereo amplifier ($9600). Having splashed around in the Class D waters for a while now, I figured a foray back into the world of really good Class A/AB designs might be warranted. I got the Pass amp humped up to my listening room and realized the thing was stone cold new. Lots of run-in was going to be required, so I thought what the heck, let’s burn this guy in using the Fritz speakers. Let me tell you, after a couple of months doing just that, I’m convinced that I’ve finally figured out how to get these little Carbon 7 SE speakers singing like a bird. Now keep in mind that the Pass amp is total overkill at 250 watts per side, so I’m thinking that a somewhat smaller, less expensive, and less powerful amp will probably work fine. Just keep it heavily biased into Class A for best results. I’m wondering, for instance, how one of Nelson’s more affordable First Watt designs might sound with the Carbon 7 SE.
I like to spend a lot of time with components that I review, and I’m grateful to my editor and the manufacturers for granting this wish. I think it’s terrifically important to live with a component for extended time to really get a feel for how it’s going to ultimately mesh with my system and my ears. In the case of the Fritz Carbon 7 SE, I’m especially glad that I wasn’t impatient and that I took my time with them as I was ultimately rewarded, and in a big way. Maybe the speakers themselves weren’t fully run in when I got them, or maybe it just took the right amp to get them going, but I’m exceptionally pleased with the final result.
As I’ve emphasized previously, the Fritz Carbon 7 SE is a neutral speaker, though perhaps slightly smoother and prettier in presentation than the discontinued REV 7, which I happily lived with for over a year. In ultimate terms of balance, I think this is Fritz’s best stand mount monitor yet, and that’s really saying something in my book. Tonality is there, accuracy is there, soundstaging and imaging are sometimes scary lifelike with well recorded music, and the speakers don’t lag in the nether regions. It’s really a nice hybrid of the old Carbon 7 and the newer, faster REV 7, somehow keeping the best aspects of each design intact while filtering out the inadequacies of each. Of course, in high-end audio we all know it’s “different strokes for different folks,” but I think Mr. Heiler hit the nail on the head here.
No, the speakers don’t do absolute scale, slam, and dynamic like the huge Tekton Pendragons I had awhile back, but they don’t exactly sound small either. Symphonic works are quite listenable, with a decent sense of realism. As long as the speakers weren’t pushed too hard, I was pleased. For example, the Scherzo part of “Scherzo and Cortege from Julius Caesar” from John Ireland’s Film Scores, Volume 4 (Lyrita LP, digitally archived) was rollicking and exciting, with piercing low and high brass delivered with pinpoint imaging. Dynamic contrasts maybe weren’t as profound as I’ve heard with larger speakers, but satisfying nonetheless. Orchestral tone was appropriately lush without going over the top, and timpani and low brass had the extension and punch I expect from good audio reproduction. Just don’t expect dynamic contrasts that are the sonic equivalent of being hit by a Mack Truck.
Perhaps a more strenuous test is the old digital recording of Eduard Tubin’s Third Symphony (BIS cd) as performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. The work is intense and brooding, with a long and almost martial first movement that leaves me emotionally spent by its end. This is not music for the faint of heart, nor is it meant as background listening. Heady stuff, this, which demands one’s full attention. Starting with a nearly inaudible opening, the movement slowly builds to a thrashing climax featuring deep-digging low brass and strings, timpani, and an especially piercing piccolo. I found the piece when reproduced through the Fritz speakers to be appropriately bracing and exciting. Sufficient impact was there to convey the mood of the work, and I thought that damned piccolo was exceptionally ferreted out, both in terms of timbre and presence.
Changing gears a bit, I recently received Mosaic Records’ box set of the complete studio recordings of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s years with Atlantic Records. This is an all CD set that I was happy to get due to the excellent mastering work done by the good folks at Mosaic. I have some of the original Atlantic MJQ records from this era, but there were still considerable gaps in the collection, making this set a worthwhile purchase. Besides, I really can’t argue with the excellence of the sound, especially given the age of some of the master tapes. I’ve always enjoyed the MJQ’s precise, nearly clock-like playing, which is textbook good throughout the set (though probably not as much appreciated by those who crave the freer, more improvisational aspects of jazz). A favorite album of mine which is included is “Pyramid,” recorded as an early stereo outing in 1958. As always I tend to focus in on Milt Jackson’s vibraharp, an instrument that is insanely difficult to both record and reproduce well. Here, it is quite well done, and not a bit too closely mic’d. Via the Fritz Carbon 7 SE pair, the vibes sound amazingly real, as if captured with a true sense of what it must have been like to have been at that studio session. The title track, for instance, sports Jackson’s instrument just behind the right channel speaker, reproduced with all of the suave sparkle and tonal color I could hope for, but without becoming overblown or excessively ringy (a pet peeve of mine). It’s important to catch the subtle overtones of the vibraharp, and the Pass Labs/Fritz combo does it to near perfection, and with a lovely smoothness to boot.
For comparison, I wanted to get a clear idea of how well the Fritz Carbon 7 SE stacked up against my ATC SCM 19 Version 2 speakers ($4299). Both are stand mount monitors of comparable size using somewhat exotic, high quality drivers. The primary difference between the two is that the Carbon 7 is ported while the SCM 19 is a sealed box design. Powered by the Pass Labs X250.8 amplifier, the speakers shared more common traits than differences. I found both to be exceptionally accurate, detailed, smoothly expressive through the midrange, and capable of disappearing into the soundstage. Treble performance from both was extended, smooth, and musical, with no hint of metallic glare. With the ported design of the Fritz speaker, I felt that I heard a bit more bass extension, but at minimal expense to speed or definition. The ATC design has almost no sense of bass overhang or bloat and comes off as lightning-fast in the all-important mid-bass region, but probably does not provide the last word in extension in the populated world of stand mount speakers. Perhaps the Carbon 7 SE was a bit rounder in the bass, which goes hand-in-hand with extension, but again, I never felt that the response was compromised in terms of agility. The slight bit of added resolution in the mid-bass gave the SCM 19 a bit more incisive feel overall, but whether the critical listener prefers this quality or not will remain up for debate. I really love the ATC monitors and have no intention of replacing them, but I was a bit surprised by how well the Carbon 7 SE performed against them, especially given the nearly $2000 price differential.
Certain that the speakers were fully run in and sounding their best, I wanted to try driving them again with my Merrill Thor monoblocks. I’ve been very pleased with the Thor overall, as it represents for me what can be done with modern Class D technology at a still reasonable price point. That the Thor replaced a very well-regarded Nelson Pass Threshold design in my system is really saying something.
I’m starting to think that the Fritz speakers needed a bit more running in when I first hooked them up to the Thors, as I got an entirely different and much more engaging presentation on this later attempt. Scads of detail, yet warm, warm, warm! Maybe I’m not getting quite the ultimate luminosity provided by the big Pass Labs amp, but this setup is really working for me. There’s more soundstage depth with the Thors in place, but I’m sensing a bit narrower soundscape that doesn’t quite extend as far beyond the speakers. Even so, I’m more than happy basking in the warm glow of Milt Jackson’s vibes as provided by this speaker/amp combo.
The good news here is that the Carbon 7 SE speakers respond really well to good amplification. They will readily let you hear what’s going on upstream in your system, and if you make upgrades there, the speakers will let you reap the benefits.
And now we go full circle
Fritz had heard that I had my hands on a Rogue Audio Sphinx integrated amplifier ($1300), and he wanted to know how well it might work with his Carbon 7 SE speakers, especially since some of his potential customers had asked about the pairing. In an effort to answer his question, I took the opportunity to spend a weekend listening to exactly this combo just before returning the Rogue amp to Scot Hull. Unfortunately, this swap happened early in the review session, so I’m reasonably sure the speakers were not yet fully run in. What follows is my assessment, made and written at that time, of the pairing.
I’d have to say that the Rogue Sphinx is a real workhorse of an amp, mainly because it seems to pair well to so many speakers. It was no surprise to me, then, when I found that the Sphinx drove the Carbon 7 SE monitors exceedingly well. While I had been running in the speakers using my $4800 Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks, there seemed to be an immediate jump factor when I hooked them up to the unassuming Sphinx. There does seem to be some magic in that vacuum tube/class D amplification combo Rogue Audio uses in the Sphinx that speakers just seem to love. Maybe it’s that little bit of added three dimensionality and burnished tone, but whatever it was, it just kept begging me to turn up the volume a bit and enjoy the listening session. Which is exactly what I did when I cued up Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth (24/96 download, HDTracks.com). Saxophone, trumpet, and flute all took on plenty of tonal texture and air, and the drum kit sounded like an entity unto itself, nicely separated from the rest of the instrumentation. Piano and string bass were just a bit hooded, distant, and muddled, which is fairly typical I’m finding of Van Gelder jazz recordings of the period, and not necessarily an issue with the playback system itself.
Moving on to Vivaldi’s Music for Flute and Mandolin (LP, Hyperion, digitally archived), I was pleased with the Rogue/Fritz combo’s ability to get out-of-the-way of the music, which is quite elegantly and intricately performed. I’m normally not that interested in Vivaldi’s music (remember, he’s the guy who supposedly wrote once and then recycled the very same concerto for every instrument known during his time…), but this recording is really quite breathtaking, and the music is equally alluring. I was even more surprised when I realized that this was an early digital recording pressed to vinyl. Anyone who says that early digital sounds uniformly bad and should to be relegated to the scrap heap of history is missing out on a real jewel here. I was easily able to pick out the differences between the mandolin and the soprano lute and fully appreciate the technical superiority and delicate touch of the plucked strings of both instruments. Here, front-side speed and attack are important to getting the timing of such instruments right, and the Sphinx didn’t disappoint, pushing the Carbon 7 SEs right along. Also impressive was the realistic tone of the midrange, which reminded me of why I liked the original Carbon 7s so much. They got the midrange right, with just the correct amount of detail balanced against tonal texture, just like their present day siblings.
If you can spring for the Special Edition Carbon 7s, but need to possibly scrimp a bit for amplification, then I can’t recommend the Rogue Sphinx/Carbon 7 SE combination highly enough. Even if you can ante up for a much more expensive amplifier, think about it a bit and maybe save the difference for a nice vacation instead, or possibly a one-time infusion into your retirement account or kids’ 529 college accounts. Trust me, you’ll probably be better off in the end.
I can’t say for certain that the Rogue might not be too much of a good thing warmth-wise when coupled to the fully run-in Carbon 7 SEs, but I distinctly remember the “aha” moment I had when I first hooked them up. I therefore stand by my initial assessment that the Rogue Sphinx is an excellent and cost-effective match to the Fritz monitors, especially for those folks perhaps looking for a bit more texture and warmth in their musical playback.
Well, it looks like Fritz Heiler has done it again. Another day, another great monitor speaker. This one, though, is really special in that it strikes a superb balance between musicality and resolution, as well as between speed and a warm, comfortable languidness. It’s like a sunny day that’s just the right temperature; you don’t want it to end, but it’s all okay when you down that last sip as the sun sets. That’s pretty much how I’ll feel when I got my last listen in before boxing these babies up and sending them on to their next destination.
Oh, and at $2500 for the pair, these speakers represent superb value if I forgot to mention it earlier. Just remember to give them some time to really strut their stuff before you make a final decision. And rest assured that Fritz is one of the really good guys in the industry. He cares about customer satisfaction above all else.
- Amplifiers: Pass Labs X250.8, Merrill Audio Thor, Rogue Sphinx
- Digital Source: Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC powered by a custom linear power supply by YFS (Your Final System); Sound Devices USBPre2 audio interface serving as a usb to S/PDIF converter, also with custom YFS linear supply; Mac Mini with Channel D Pure Music Audio Engine.
- Power Conditioner: Spiritual Audio VX-9
- Cables/interconnects: Darwin Cables, Tel-wire, Harmonic Technology
- Power cables: Core Audio Technology, Tel-wire, Merrill Audio
- Speaker stands: Sound Anchors
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.