The Great Speaker Hunt
by Darryl Lindberg
Guess what? If I want to upgrade my system, I know I’ll actually have to slap leather, just like 99% of the audiophile world. I point out this irrefutable factoid, because I occasionally read comments of “professional” reviewers to the effect that, “unlike you, I don’t have to choose” because, parenthetically, the reviewer is listening to short or long-term loaners—usually of the mucho-bucko variety—that obviate the need to sully their hands by maxing out their credit card or raiding their bank account, IRA, or children’s college fund. Please forgive me while I gag at such condescension.
But consider my case: I think I’m like most “non-professional” audiophiles in that I don’t change equipment very often, because the reality is that I have to choose where and whether or not to spend my hard-earned oof. So I put a good deal of thought and effort into finding stuff that suits me—sonically and financially. Or at least I’d like to think I do. You see, I want gear that I can live with long-term, so I can spend my time listening to music. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Let’s face it: changing equipment is a real pain in the keister, even if the new gear is (hopefully) a major improvement versus the old stuff. And, in my experience, the components that are most challenging to change are speakers. That’s because speakers, of all the components in the audio chain (along with the room itself), probably contribute the most to a system’s sound. Speakers are the last components a signal encounters before it leaps out of the electronic realm and into the outside world and ultimately reaches our ears. In short, speakers represent the punctuation at the end of the audio equipment sentence. Whether they’re an exclamation point, a stolid period, a question mark, or an ellipsis trailing off into bleak uncertainty, depends on how wisely a speaker is chosen in the first place.
Like all components in a system, speakers abound with intrinsic peculiarities. One of these peculiarities and probably the most obvious is that speakers typically have distortions that dwarf those of the upstream electronics, to the tune of an order—or usually orders—of magnitude greater than those of the electrical chain. Then there’s the speaker’s efficiency, characteristic impedance and the concomitant interaction with the amplifier they’re connected to. When you also consider that many speaker designs have crossovers that slice and dice the signal into bite sized chunks suitable for the frequency ranges of the drivers employed, the potential for sonic mayhem is clear.
And it’s not just the speaker per se, the fact that speakers are intimately connected to the space in which they’re parked just compounds the “fiddliness.” Far more so than a source component, amplifier, or cable, where it’s generally a matter of merely disconnecting the old and reconnecting the new, speakers require careful consideration of where, exactly, they’ll fit in the space-time continuum of the listening room. While it’s certainly true that changing speakers requires disconnecting the old and reconnecting the new, that’s just the beginning! Speakers must be positioned properly to maximize their performance. That means speakers with spectacular potential can sound mediocre or downright putrid if improperly positioned, while more modest speakers can be made to shine when ideally positioned. If you’ve ever attended an audio show, I’m sure you’ve noticed that some systems with critically lauded speakers don’t seem to cut it, while other less than grade A sirloin speakers are stars. What’s more, even with optimized positioning, there are speakers that will just never be compatible with certain rooms. Sometimes it’s enough to throw you off your feed.
So why would anyone bother to change a pair of speakers that are currently satisfying? Wouldn’t it be more efficient and effective to just leave well enough alone or look to other areas for potential improvement? Well, that’s been essentially my approach over the years. Now it might sound that I have speaker phobia, but that’s not the case; it’s just that my system’s always been anchored by speakers that age well, so to speak(er). And, as I said, I’d just rather be listening to music than consciously—or subconsciously—always looking for the next big thing in the speaker department. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t confess that my rather laid-back view of speaker replacement is also a function of a bit of indolence. However, there comes a point when it’s simply time to move on. How did I come to that conclusion? Read on . . .
Or: How I convinced myself that my speakers were due for replacement
Given what I’ve said, it probably won’t surprise you that during my foray into serious audio I’ve had exactly two main speakers: Sound Lab A3s (13 years) and Avalon Eidolons (16 years). The A3s travelled around the world with me, but it got to the point that I couldn’t be sure what type of listening space I would be allocated in whatever abode in which we happened to be ensconced. It’s not an easy task accommodating over six feet of fairly wide speaker in the best of situations and there were times when the space was not just sub-optimal, it was sub-sub-optimal. And yet, because there’s something indefinably magical about the sound of a good electrostatic speaker, I soldiered on. Single driver, no crossover, and, in the case of the A3s, large enough to be pretty much full range, they were hard to let go. However, all that could be spared in our next-to-last home was a small unused bedroom, which wasn’t especially A3 compatible.
Enter the Avalon Eidolons . . . The Eidolons were a wonderful solution to that age old question, “where the hell can I set up my speakers?” These speakers were, for all intents and purposes, full range, transparent as all get-out, a relatively benign load, not especially enormous or unwieldy, and beautiful to boot. And the fact that the Eidolons were compatible with a wider variety of rooms made the decision to say goodbye to A3s a lot easier. In many ways, the Eidolons are speakers that could easily qualify as the “happily ever after” component of any system. That assumes, of course, that the universe and everything in it is in stasis. But we’re talking about real life here, right? Not only that, but we’re talking about audio, too, which never stands still, thanks to the passionate efforts of talented designers and manufacturers.
Speaking of the variability of real life, I decided to retire and, for once, we were able to choose the place we wanted to live, so we decided to move to Santa Fe. After checking things out, we figured that buying a house and remodeling it into something that would suit our needs would probably be as inconvenient and as expensive as starting from scratch (almost true, but that’s another story). We also decided to build a house because it was likely to be our last permanent abode, given that I’d retired and it was extremely unlikely we’d be moving again in the foreseeable future—other than into that great listening room in the sky. And since we were building a house, it was logical to include a room dedicated to my hobby. The long-suffering St. Catherine reckoned that any incremental cost incurred in creating my listening room would be minimal, given that I’d take over a room anyway.
Knowing that I’d been bestowed an astounding boon, I didn’t go too gonzo. Instead, I just tried to get some of the listening room’s basics covered. Dimensionally, it’s what’s known as a “golden ratio”, which, I’m told, helps reduce standing waves. The room also has four dedicated 20 amp lines, is double studded with cocoon insulation, and has lots of shelves (but, of course, not enough!). In addition, I had a conduit made between the listening room and the adjacent master bedroom closet to discretely run the cables from the Rockport turntable’s compressor (housed in a master bedroom closet) into the listening room. Ideal? Who knows, but it certainly beat every other room I parked my gear and sorry butt. There was plenty of space to really optimize the Eidolon’s positioning and the location of the rest of system’s componentry. The result was that my system sounded better than it ever had in the repurposed spaces of yore.
After the financial dust associated with building the house had settled, I began to contemplate the possibility of replacing the Eidolons with something larger and truly final. Not that the Eidolons were in any way dissatisfying, it’s just that I knew my room could accommodate a pair of muy significante speakers in terms of performance and physical mass without worrying about whether they’ll fit into the space (within reason), décor issues, or many of the other concerns that crop up when “respeakering.” In addition, I couldn’t help but notice that speaker design and performance had significantly advanced over the years. I mulled these issues over for a bit: we moved into the house twelve years ago, so I sure gave it time! But I knew, at least in theory, a speaker upgrade was “needed.” Of course, whether the theoretical decision to upgrade would actually be financially—and matrimonially—practical was another matter.
The decision (finally)
As it happened, a confluence of events—an unbelievably understanding and encouraging significant other, a reasonable improvement in my financial outlook, favorable currency rates, a really dedicated dealer, a strong recommendation from my friend Fred, and just a touch of insanity—conspired to overcome my natural inertia and parsimoniousness. In addition, not to be morbid, but I couldn’t help but consider that, at my age (63), my listening days are moving inexorably toward the point where my ability to truly appreciate my system will fade; after all, hearing eventually declines (not too much yet, luckily!), along with a lot of other bodily functions that need not be discussed here. And even though I knew it would clearly be an unjustifiable excess, I figured at a rate of about one pair of speakers every fifteen years or so the average annual outlay for a pair of über-speakers wouldn’t be that extravagant. Some rationalization, eh? So I thought that it’s now or never.
Well, not quite “now,” in that I wanted hear as many of the potential contenders as possible. And I wasn’t really in that much of a hurry to drain my resources. So I listened. And spoke with manufacturers, dealers, friends, unknown passersby, and combed the fount of all wisdom—the internet. In the end, I bit the bullet—or should I say howitzer shell?—and ordered a pair of Acapella Apollon speakers. Why these particular speakers? Well, even though there are (surprisingly) plenty of speakers in the general vicinity of the price of the Apollons, none of them had the tonal, visceral, and musical gestalt of the various Acapella speakers I’d heard over the years. There’s just something about their sound I’ve always found compelling to the point that I simply couldn’t get it out of my head—and I didn’t want to!
I had discussed the possibility of getting my hands on a pair of Acapellas with Neli and Mike Davis of Audio Federation on and off over many months. Being familiar with my room, current setup, approximate budget, as well as being an Acapella dealer for over twenty years, Neli could advise me on the compatibility of the various Acapella models with my system; hence, the Apollons. The ordering part was downright easy in that I only had to pick a color for the midrange horn and determine whether I wanted the cabinet in black or white acrylic. Although I appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of some of the speaker cabinets out there (the Eidolons come to mind), the primary function of a pair of speakers is to accurately reproduce the signal; after all, the utility of speakers as fine furniture is essentially nil. And the Apollons could never masquerade as anything other than a pair of very large speakers.
Neli said the lead-time was about twelve weeks and she was pretty much spot on. Here’s a shot of my Apollons in Germany prior to shipment.
The only hitch in the delivery was a bit of misdirection: even though the factory clearly labelled the crates with my name, address, and phone numbers, and the customs broker called both Neli and me to confirm the details, somehow the my Apollons were routed to the wilds of North Carolina. The mistake was caught, but it wasn’t until the truck hit Columbus, Ohio that the reroute was effected. A three thousand mile detour in total, but luckily, given all the extra handling, the crates arrived in perfect shape.
The big day arrived and the Apollons finally found their way to their new home. Luckily, Neli and Mike Davis of Audio Federation were there to supervise.
I’ll say right now the Apollons are probably not for the faint of heart (or wallet), spatially constrained, or casually committed. Or for that matter, the weak-limbed: the total shipping weight came to 1,643 pounds, about the weight of your average adult Asian water buffalo. Or a few of the sopranos and heldentenors I’ve seen at the opera. Just take a look at them in their crates:
Some Assembly Required
As you might have guessed from the number of crates, the Apollons require on-site assembly. Even though each speaker consists of two not particularly large sections, they’re both very heavy: the bottom section of each side weighs in at about 440 lbs., while the top section is a svelte 150 lbs. When you add in the midrange horn (75 lbs.) and the side panels for the upper section (50 lbs.), the assembled speaker is, shall we say, in the dreadnaught class. But hey, on a dollar-per-pound basis, these speakers are a steal!
Clearly, hauling the monsters in from their temporary roost in the garage was a job that was beyond Neli, Mike and me—as was the initial stacking phase of the assembly. So I had the foresight to hire three very strong men to carefully grunt the various speaker sections into the listening room as well as to lift the upper sections on to the lowers.
Even after the very heavy lifting was completed, it was a three-person job for Neli, Mike, and me to finish the assembly, which was basically fitting the midrange horn unit, attaching the four side panels to the upper sections, and moving the speakers into their initial position. Or, more accurately, a two-and-a-half-person job, given my general cluelessness—but I certainly did my best to add height and some muscle when required. Once that task was completed the carpet was unrolled and amps were brought back into position. And if the Apollons are imposing in the crate, well, take a look at them in all their glory.
Depending on your point-of-view, the Apollons are either somewhat elegant or vaguely reminiscent of the human-munching alien plants in Day of the Triffids. And they are large with a capital “L”. There’s no question that these are speakers that probably require a dedicated listening room—or an incredibly good excuse for their being in the living/family room.
A (very) little bit of tech-talk
Hermann Winter doesn’t provide a great deal of technical information about Acapella’s speakers, so neither will I. I suppose he believes his products are sufficiently sonically persuasive to render questions about materials, construction techniques, etc. essentially moot once you’ve listened to a well set up pair. And if that’s the case, I can attest to the effectiveness of that approach, because it was the unique and engaging sound of Acapellas in various setups that ultimately tipped me in favor of springing for the Apollons.
There are two things that distinguish most Acapella speakers: horns and plasma tweeters. Of course, the most intriguing drivers in the Apollon—and in most of the Acapella line—are those plasma tweeters. If you’ve ever heard plasma tweeters, you know that there’s no driver that approaches their sound: extended—yet never strident—pure, and dynamic. Electro-mechanical tweeters, of whatever provenance, are based on a moving mass, which has, well, mass. Conversely, the plasma tweeter has essentially no mass; it’s simply a ball of (hot) plasma that’s modulated by the signal. A perfect transducer, no?
But, as we all know, there’s no free lunch: it’s a plasma tweeter, for goodness sake, and there’s the rest of the audio frequency spectrum to address. So how do you match a plasma tweeter’s phenomenal performance to that of the massy drivers needed to reproduce the remainder of the audio spectrum? The bottom line is that you can’t; in fact, all the virtues of a plasma tweeter—essentially massless, instant response, practically zero inertia—also present the biggest challenges when it comes to integrating it with other intrinsically slower, and far more massive drivers. However, that’s where engineering skill and listening expertise come into the picture.
Acapella’s solution to this design challenge is worth talking about. Rather than maximizing the range of the plasma driver by implementing a low crossover point, Acapella uses it as a true tweeter/super-tweeter, cutting it in at 6 kHz. Herr Winter apparently believes that limiting the lower range of the plasma driver and complementing it with an extremely low mass, agile reproducer is the way to go. So, in the case of the Apollons, he uses a horn loaded 2” driver for most of the frequency range (350-6 kHz), leaving the lower midrange and bass to be covered by six 10” drivers (two of which are isobarically mounted) in a sealed enclosure.
Why horns? Well, it’s hard to find a reproducer more agile, dynamic, and direct than a horn. If carefully designed, the dreaded “cupped hands” signature can be pretty much eliminated, as evinced by the profusion of excellent new horn designs over the last decade or two. The Apollon uses what Acapella calls a “hyperspherical” horn geometry for the midrange combined with horn loading for the plasma tweeter. I’m certainly not an audio engineer, so I’m just guessing here, but the fact that most of the frequency range (six octaves plus) is generated via horn-loaded drivers probably contributes to the Apollon’s outstanding coherence.
Finally, you should know that the Apollons are really a semi-active design; but instead of the usual powered bass, it’s the tweeter that’s powered. In order to produce the plasma that’s tweeted, the tweeter is fired up via a self-contained tube powered unit. And yes, when I say “fired up,” I mean it literally: the plasma’s essentially a burning ball of hot gas. I generally don’t like the idea of something aflame—other than audio tubes and light bulbs—loitering in the listening room, but I’ve been reassured that the Apollons aren’t likely set off a conflagration and are perfectly safe.
Time to Listen—finally
The start of my Apollon experience was not encouraging: the left ion tweeter promptly died on the initial fire-up. A quick fuse change by Neli resulted in another tweeter death and another blown fuse—a different fuse this time (there are three). The diagnosis was that, even though the speakers were monumentally crated, one or more of the tubes that drive the tweeter was damaged, not a frequent, but also not an unheard of occurrence.
We did listen to the speakers for a bit with the left tweeter disconnected. My initial impression was that the speakers were somewhat laid-back, a bit unfocused, and lacked dynamic oomph. However, the speakers hadn’t undergone any position adjustments, so we were starting with the speakers at Neli’s best initial guess. Additionally, even though the speakers are burned in for a week at the factory, the drivers—especially the bass drivers—require a couple hundred hours of further break-in. In any event, I believe it’s a waste of time to tweak a system that’s not functioning properly, so we ended the first day’s listening.
The next day, Neli changed a tube in the misbehaving unit and the tweeter lit up as it was supposed to. Now the task was to optimize the Apollons’ positioning, which took place over a number of sessions. The final position was achieved via tiny increments in width, toe-in, and the position of the listening chair. This effort was rewarded: the Apollons produced an enormous soundstage and surprisingly—at least I was surprised—precise imaging.
However, in a very short period of time it became evident that something else was amiss with that pesky left tweeter, because the signal sensing circuit (turns on immediately on sensing high frequency content; turns off after twenty minutes) seemed to have a developed a mind of its own. Although the tweeter functioned magnificently once ignited, the sensing circuit sometimes didn’t turn the unit on or off as it should. Neli did her best to fix it, but the darned thing just refused to play ball. In the end, it was decided to replace both tweeters. Even though only the left channel unit was misbehaving, it was clear that, for consistency—among other considerations—replacing both was the only option. New tweeters were duly ordered and arrived without mishap.
Time to Listen—The Sequel
With the new tweeters installed and operating in hunky-dory fashion, I began some serious disc spinning. Now the Apollons are big speakers and, as you might expect, they do “big” really well. Large orchestral works aren’t stinted in any way: dynamics, frequency range, imaging, overall impact, what have you. But one of the characteristics of the Apollons that I found immediately compelling and remains amazing is their ability to reproduce the small, whether it’s a single instrument or voice, a small group, or simply the very quietest passages of orchestral works—what might be termed the subtleties of a recording. And key to that ability is the realistic reproduction of the dynamics of very low-level information. Notice that I’m not talking about low-level information per se, which the Apollons reproduce magnificently, I’m referring to preserving the dynamic envelop of even the softest recorded sounds. A revelation to me, that’s for sure.
Similarly, Handel’s Concerto for Harp and Lute and Concerto for Harp (L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60013, early “London” label), each of which contrasts delicate solo instruments against a baroque orchestra, really highlighted the Apollon’s ability to simultaneously reproduce the grand and the subtle aspects of a recording.
As you might not necessarily expect, smaller scale works were simply gorgeous. Charles Dollé’s and Antoine Forqueray’s trios and suites are gem-like paeans to the once-popular viola da gamba, which has a soft and plangent tone. The Kuijken brothers (Wieland and Sigiswald) along with harpsichordist Robert Kohnen traverse a number of these works on an Accent LP form 1978 (Accent ACC 7808). The lovely La Du Vaucel movement is marked “très tendrement”, and that’s just how the Apollons reproduced it: very tenderly—and realistically.
I usually try to avoid the temptation of picking up reissues of records I already own and are in good shape. It’s more a matter of space than thriftiness, as I am loath to shell out money that could be allocated to discs of interesting music I don’t have in stock. But, since that’s not a rule that’s written in stone—or even in Jell-O—I picked up my first Original Recording Group LP at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival, the incidental music from Grieg’s Peer Gynt (ORG 110). Now I have the London blueback version of this disc (CS 6049), which is outstanding; however, the ORG simply trounces it. The Apollons’ reproduction of the startling dynamics and clarity that have always been a hallmark of this performance was absolutely astounding. I’m of the opinion that some of some of the reissue’s improvements are of function of fact that the ORG runs at 45 r.p.m., but I’m sure the obvious care that went into the pressing and overall production contributed to the amazing sound—as did the Apollons.
That’s only a smattering of the stuff I’ve played so far, but I think you get the idea.
Some Semi-final Thoughts
Here’re a few random last-minute random observations . . .
- Power: Although the Apollons’ efficiency is specified as 99 dB, the system isn’t averse to a bit of power. In fact, the Jadis JA200 amps’ 160 class A watts are just the ticket to get those seven-and-a-half-foot plus monoliths to really sing. I’m sure that these speakers could actually accommodate a great deal more power, but I’m not about to experiment at the moment.
- Bi-wiring: The Apollons have two sets of excellent sturdy binding posts and are delivered with quite heavy solid silver jumpers, so you’d think that single wiring would be the way to go. However, the significant difference between single wiring and bi-wiring was quite unexpected; in fact, I’d say that bi-wiring is the preferred set-up, based on my admittedly limited experience with these speakers and my own gear.
- Positioning: The Apollons finally came to rest about 9 ½ feet apart, 5 feet from the front of the speakers to the back wall, 3 ½ feet from the side walls to the center of the speakers, and positioned fifteen feet from the listening chair (room size: 26’D x 16’W x 10’H). Because the Apollons use a sealed bass alignment, the distance from the back wall is not quite as critical as it would be with a ported speaker—especially a rear-ported speaker. For comparison, the Eidolons were closer to a traditional “thirds” placement: much further out in the room, closer together, and closer to the listening chair.
In case I haven’t made it clear, Neli and Mike made this entire odyssey a pleasure. Their attention to detail, communications, responsiveness, and overall attitude were exemplary. And speaking of attention to detail, Mike took most of the photographs in this piece, but these represent only a few of all the pictures he took. You see, he wasn’t interested in my happy, smiling face; he wanted to carefully and thoroughly document—in detail—the positioning of the equipment in the crates, the various stages of assembly, etc. Both Mike and Neli are a bit obsessive about the equipment they sell because they want to ensure that they’re able to cover their customers long-term. And that certainly suits me and my approach to my system.
Before anyone says, “sure, their service ought to be exemplary, given the amount of dosh you laid out,” allow me to admit that it’s the minimum that I myself expected. And my experience is pretty much that dealer attentiveness is the norm, whatever the cash outlay. However, I had a few head-scratchers even during my investigation of speakers that require a such a substantial outlay. Just to give you an example, I wanted to listen to a pair of speakers that are in the same price range as the Apollons. The dealer and I had a couple of discussions via e-mail and phone, which ended with our agreement that he’d get back to me when he’d made arrangements, so I could synch up my travel with his schedule. The result: I never heard a dickie-bird. Not a phone call, not an e-mail, no flowers, nothing. Perhaps business was so good that a pair of $100K+ speakers wasn’t a big enough deal to stay in touch with a potential customer. However, I was the potential customer and I can tell you $100K+ was and is a big deal to me. And I wasn’t about to chase someone for the privilege of spending my own money! Again, there were only a few instances of this type of behavior, but it does make you appreciate folks like Neli and Mike.
All I can wrap up with is to say that I’m absolutely delighted with the Apollons. It’s the kind of purchase that I’ll only make once, so if I weren’t happy, it’d be tough luck. Are there other speakers that could have filled the (large) bill? Of course. But for my tastes, these beasts are it—and have to be.
per the Acapella website: www.acapella.de
Overall Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 40 kHz
- Bass: 20 Hz – 350 Hz with 6 x 10 “drivers
- Midrange: 350 Hz – 6000 Hz with 780 mm hyper spherical Horn MT
- High Frequency: 6000 Hz – 40 kHz with TW1
- Bass: bass modules with 6 x 10 “drivers drive
- Midrange: hyper spherical Horn with 780 mm diameter and 2 “driver with perfect phase relationship, and omnidirectional
- Tweeter: ion with spherical horn tweeter
Efficiency: ~ 99 dB / 1 W / 1 m
Power consumption: 15 watts
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD) with horn: 2300 mm (92”) x 780 mm (31 ¼”) x 1000 mm (40”)
Weight: ~ 320 kg (704 lbs.)/side
Pre-amp: Jadis JP200 MC
Amplifiers: Jadis JA200
Turntables: Rockport II Sirius LE, VPI HW-19 Mk. IV (various upgrades)
Arms: Rockport (integrated with turntable), SME V
Cartridges: Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, Allaerts MC-1B Mk. II, Ikeda 9CIII
CD Transport: Mark Levinson 31.5
Digital Processor: Mark Levinson 30.6
Speaker cables: Nordost Odin—bi-wire and Acapella Lamusica
Interconnects (all single ended)
- Preamp-amps: Purist Audio 25th Anniversary Luminist
- Turntable-preamp: Custom, one-off MIT (Rockport); Kimber KC-TG (VPI)
- DAC-Preamp: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference
Power Cords: Jena Laboratories Two
Equipment rack: Gingko Platformula (Cloud 10 platforms for preamps)
Amp stands: Target
About the Author
Audio being a hobby (this is the Part-Time Audiophile, right?), Darryl spends much of his non-listening time volunteering for various worthy—depending on your point of view—organizations. In addition, he hosts a weekly program, “Tuesday Night at the Opera,” on Santa Fe’s public radio station, KSFR (7:00-10:00p.m. Mountain Time; streaming live on www.ksfr.org). Further background may be obtained from his parole officer.
Financial Interests: none.