by John Richardson
It should come as no surprise to anyone who frequents this e-mag that I ended up with yet another pair of speakers from John “Fritz” Heiler, founder of Fritz Speakers. Perhaps I gravitate toward things I think I’ll like, or perhaps they just gravitate toward me. Either way, here we go again. On a recent trip to Scot Hull’s place, I happened to notice a pair of nondescript (in the typical understated Fritz way) pair of speakers off in a corner. Scot must have seen me peeking at them, as he asked right off if I’d like to give them a go. Once I found out they were yet another product from Mr. Heiler’s workshop, I accepted the challenge. What I brought home with me that evening was a pair of Fritz’s top of the line Carrera 7 Be speakers, retailing at $3500 per pair. Judging from my past experience with Fritz’s designs, my expectations were set high: I fully expected these transducer boxes to compete readily with designs costing considerably more.
I feel as if I have a pretty solid starting point for evaluating these speakers, as I’ve spent considerable time with others in the Fritz pantheon (the original Carbon 7, the Carbon 7 SE, which I presently own, and both the REV 5 and REV 7, both now discontinued), so it only seems natural to spend some time with a top-level offering out of the Fritz Speakers shop. Heh heh.
One thing most folks who have experienced Fritz’s speaker designs agree on is their inherently musical nature, as evidenced by myriad show reports and owner testimonies. Even so, Fritz himself has a way of flying under the radar; he has essentially no advertising budget, preferring exposure at consumer audio shows and word-of-mouth to peddle his product. And that’s probably just as well, since Fritz Speakers is a one-man operation. Frankly, I have a hard time envisioning it as anything else, and that’s a good thing. Sort of like the wonky (but very cool) First Watt amplifiers from Nelson Pass’ stable, where you know not only who designed and tested the gadget, you also know who sourced the parts and built it!
As a quick tour of the Fritz way of doing things, when a customer buys a pair of speakers, he or she will receive carefully tested top-notch (and sometimes quite esoteric and expensive) drivers loaded into a hand-built and finished box. I’ve commented on this before, but it bears saying again: I really like the finish on the veneers that Fritz uses. It’s obviously hand-applied, and the wood itself sometimes shows those characteristics that tell us that someone hand-crafted the cabinet. To keep things streamlined, Fritz uses a box of standard dimensions and fits appropriate drivers to them. Typically utilized are 7-inch midrange/bass units along with a variety of possible tweeters resulting in a simple two-way speaker design. Crossovers are invariably of the “series” variety, which Fritz claims are simpler and thus better sounding than comparable parallel designs. Why? Well, fewer components in the signal path, of course! Fritz recently told me that he continues to run with the series crossover due to its superior sound, in spite of the difficulties that go along with using it. These include lack of effective computer modeling, which means that putting together such a crossover requires a lot of trial and error testing, both with lab measurement equipment and the final tuning done by ear. It’s worth noting that Fritz is a musician, so I’ve come to trust his seal of approval on the final product.
As with most speaker manufacturers, Fritz’s designs have a family resemblance in their sound, but with minor variations on a theme. As I said before, all of the speakers from this company that I have encountered have exhibited far better than average musicality. For example, I listened a few years ago to the REV 7 and its little brother, the REV 5 (now both discontinued). I found both of these speakers to be exceedingly fast and accurate, but a bit thin over the long haul. On the other side of the Fritz spectrum, the Carbon 7 series is not quite as responsive transient-wise, but it is endowed with some welcome (in my opinion) midband warmth and texture. While the REV 7 sounded more to me like a classic studio monitor, the Carbon 7 struck me as a music lover’s speaker. I recall being bowled over by the sonic beauty of the original Carbon 7 sound a number of years ago when a buddy acquired a pair for review and I helped him set them up. Needless to say, I spent many an hour enjoying my favorite music through those speakers both at his home, and occasionally at my own when he let me borrow them.
Looking a bit more specifically at Fritz’s Carrera Be design, I immediately noted that the 7-inch ScanSpeak Revelator paper cone midrange/bass driver was used. Wasn’t this the same part used on the original REV 7 design I reviewed some time back? I was a bit concerned, as I felt that this driver contributed somewhat to the slightly sterile long-term quality of the REV 7. A quick phone discussion with Fritz cleared the issue up: indeed he did use the Revelator driver, but this time in the 8-ohm version as opposed to the 4-ohm one used in the REV 7. Not only does this make the Carrera easier to drive, but also helps to warm the sound up a bit, said Fritz. That’s good news.
Another difference between the Carrera and other Fritz designs I’ve spent time with is the choice of tweeter. What makes the Carrera special is its use of Transducer Labs’ N28BER beryllium dome tweeter. My antenna immediately went up, as I figured I’d be staring down yet another aggressive, screeching metal dome tweeter. Again, Fritz allayed my fears, as he explained that the tweeter really consists of a very thin layer of beryllium metal vapor deposited on a thin polymeric substrate. It’s fast and detailed, but supposedly very natural sounding, not at all peaky. The domes themselves are protected by fairly substantial screens, suggesting that they are indeed quite light, thin, and fragile.
Of course, these aforementioned drivers are carefully packed into those lovely veneered Fritz cabinets (here, a dark walnut) measuring 16x9x12 inches, making for an attractively sized pair of stand mounted monitors that look oh-so-right sitting up on my heavy, four pillar 24-inch Target stands. Around back are decent quality binding posts along with the normal large, plastic horn-like ports found on all of Fritz’s speakers.
Published specifications looked quite nice as well. Impedance is specified as 8 ohms, though Fritz says that the minimum value dips very briefly down to around 6 ohms and rises to low double digits over most of the frequency spectrum. This impedance range, coupled with the reported efficiency of 87 dB (measured at 1 watt, 2.83 V at 1 meter) suggests that the Carrera should be a relatively easy speaker to drive using a variety of amplifiers. The frequency range is given as 35 Hz to 40 kHz, down 3 dB at each limit. My previous experience with Fritz Speakers products is that they really do go quite low in the bass in real-world setups, so I find the lower range cutoff to be fairly believable.
All in all, a pretty impressive design on paper, especially considering the asking price of $3500 for a hand-crafted product using such esoteric and expensive drivers. Of course, all bets are off until I’ve put the speakers through their paces in the system.
So let’s get started.
Setup and Sonic Impressions
I spent the first week or so running the speakers in using the superb Benchmark AHB2 stereo amplifier. A few words about this amplifier are in order, as I found it to be an impressive performer. Fast and lithe, the AHB2 was perhaps the most resolving, quietest, and least distorted amplifier I’ve ever heard in my system. Compared to others in the stable such as the First Watt F7 and the Merrill Thor mono amps, the Benchmark was a tad more neutral (as in slightly less warm) while also managing to sound satisfyingly “correct” if you catch my drift. Unfortunately, the amp had to head home shortly after I received the Carrera speakers, but I snuck in as much time with this pairing as I could. As the Carreras were adjusting to my room and ears, I didn’t make any detailed listening notes, but I can report that the pairing with the AHB2 was very satisfactory, as I heard all of the desirable attributes of the Benchmark amp shining through. To be sure, this initial setup served to allay my concerns that the metal-domed Fritz speakers might be overly aggressive in the highs; rather, the music sounded quite natural and well-balanced, in spite (or perhaps partially because of…) the Benchmark amplifier’s decidedly neutral flavor.
Once serious listening sessions ensued, I used two amplifier setups, each driven by my regular Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC. The first setup included the First Watt F7 (reviewed here earlier) amplifier driven by a Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL2.0 headphone amp serving as a line stage preamplifier. The second setup was my pair of Merrill Audio Thor monoblock amplifiers, driven directly by the Zodiac DAC.
Enter First Watt & LTA, stage left
Given the reasonable efficiency (87 dB) and relatively tame impedance characteristics of the Carreras, I suspected that the First Watt F7 might be an excellent amplifier match. Even though this amp only puts out 20 watts per channel into 8 ohm loads, I had previously found it to be the “little amp that could” when it perfectly drove my 84 dB efficient ATC SCM 19 (version 2) speakers to musically satisfying volume levels. The trick with the F7 is to keep the impedance of the speakers benignly high across the majority of the audio band, and the listener will most likely get very good results.
And so it went with the F7 working its magic with the Fritz Carreras. What a treat it was to hear the album The Art of Gerry Mulligan: The Final Recordings, (cd, Telarc), a compilation of recordings made of the famed baritone saxophonist between 1993 and 1995, prior to his death in early 1996. These are lovely recordings indeed, showcasing the warmth of Mulligan’s horn, as well as the lovely tone of his band. They also demonstrate that Mulligan, even in his last few years, was still at the top of his game. Through the Carreras, the sound was laid back and warm, yet exceptionally engaging. I wanted to keep listening… and listening. It was hard to make listening notes, as I just wanted to close my eyes and let my ears and brain just take it all in. Arrayed before me were Gerry and his peeps, floating in nearly perfect three-dimensional space above, behind, between, and around the speakers themselves. Focusing on bells and cymbals, the treble in this recording was extended enough, but still seemed about as laid back as it could possibly be without me thinking that something important was missing. It wasn’t. For me, recorded piano is often a bugaboo, especially in jazz recordings. Here, the piano was portrayed in a totally natural way that sounded quite real in scale and tone, without being brought to the forefront and sounding “toylike” as it often does. I could easily tell that Gerry and his horn were in front of the piano and string bass, though there was a nice sense of integration of these instruments, along with the drum kit. Oh, and the burnished warmth of tone of that baritone sax, well that was something to cherish.
As I listened, it struck me that there was something about this system that reminded me of those times when I’ve had the pleasure of hearing music reproduced through very high quality vacuum tube gear. I’ve always been more of a solid-state guy myself, but I fully appreciate what a really good tube amp, when coupled with the right pair of speakers, can do. There’s something about how the LTA MicroZOTL2.0 preamp (which is tubed) couples with the solid-state, Class A, Nelson Pass designed F7 amp to drive these Carrera speakers. It’s a sense of touch, texture, and dimensionality that a lot of other setups just don’t achieve. I’m finding that it’s easy to forget that these speakers have beryllium dome tweeters after all. Well, that is if you expect (like I did) that such tweeters should sound “metallic.”
Moving on to another genre of music, I equally enjoyed listening to the jazz fusion/prog rock band Oregon’s album Crossing, which I picked up on vinyl this past summer (LP, ECM, digitally archived). This album sports a nice mix of acoustic, electric, and synthesized instruments, and is recorded in the detailed, slightly dry acoustic typically found on the ECM label. I find the tunes first-rate, expertly played, and still musically quite fresh. This is also a highly dimensional album, and texturally complex, with sounds seemingly coming at the listener from all directions. Listening to the cut “Amaryllis” made me appreciate the Carreras’ ability to dig deep in the bass, fleshing out nicely the synthesized electronic low-frequency tones. OK, it didn’t slam my chest or make the room vibrate, but I heard it loud and clear enough to get the picture and enjoy it nonetheless. Also captured are the delicacy and immediacy of the acoustic guitar arising from the low synthesized pedal tones of the background, eventually joined by the piercing pungency of Paul McCandless’ soprano saxophone. Taken together, the Fritz Carrera served up a satisfying aural smorgasbord of sonic goodness with this cut, as well as the others on this album. I felt an almost sad sense of longing, even more than usual, as I listened to the familiar closing title cut of the album. Bittersweet as always, but definitely worth hearing via the Carreras, which really bring home the emotional associations of the song for me.
Changing gears over to something perhaps a bit more classical (perhaps), I cued up an interesting recording of modernist composer Donald Erb called Music for Instruments and Electronic Sounds, (LP, Nonesuch, digitally archived), which was recorded back in 1968, when synthesized electronic sounds were all the new rage in modern composition. Erb’s compositions are interesting in that they integrate these electronic noises with a piano/string/percussion ensemble, making for a fascinating listening experience indeed. I almost didn’t listen to this album when I got it as part of a collection gifted to me by a retired music scholar, thinking it would be beyond boring. I’m glad I did, as it turned out to be a nearly hypnotic blend of classical instrumentation and almost modernly profane electronica provided by a pair of Moog synthesizers. Not only is it a lot of fun to hear, but it also is full of interesting sonic cues that burst in and out of the soundstage like fireflies blinking away on a hot summer night. Anyone who is thrilled by neat imaging and soundstaging effects would probably like this album a lot. I really enjoy the first side of the album, which contains a work called “Reconnaissance,” which truly highlights the Fritz Carreras‘ ability to disappear into the aural soundstage. I enjoyed closing my eyes and “watching” the sounds zing in and out and across the soundscape produced by the Carreras. The speakers really do seem to take their leave as the music dances freely about the room. Such performance comes as no surprise to me, as all of the other Fritz Speakers products have performed at an equally high level, often causing visiting listeners to comment on their tendency to “get out of the way.”
Ultimately, the Fritz Carrera monitors proved an excellent match to the First Watt F7. I got sufficient power and headroom at my normal listening levels while never feeling like I was stressing the system in any way. My reward was superb sound in all areas of evaluation, including precise soundstaging/imaging, tonal purity across the audible band, and a really nice sense of pace and rhythmic drive. This matchup proved to be an engaging one indeed.
Enter Merrill, stage right
At 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms, my Merrill Audio Thor amplifiers represent the high-end power-wise recommended by Fritz to drive his speaker designs. If the First Watt F7 is enough power, the Merrill monoblocks perhaps represent overkill of sorts for many users. Even so, they are exceptional amplifiers and are well worth auditioning with the Carrera speakers. At $4800 per pair, they also match reasonably well price-wise with the speakers.
The Fritz Carrera speakers are transparent enough that I was able to easily discern the audible differences between the F7 and the Thor amplifiers. Via the Carreras, the Thor was the darker sounding of the two, providing a bit less forward and texturally vibrant midrange than did the First Watt amp. Even so, there was a solid feeling of extension and solidity at both frequency extremes noted with the Thor, especially in the lower regions of the spectrum. Bass notes had a foundational solidity exhibited both in terms of control and extension; perhaps this is one of the advantages of having heaps of excess power at one’s fingertips. In short, bass fiends who opt for the Carrera would probably do well to pick up a more powerful amplifier that can really drive those Revelator woofers to their limits. For example, on Oregon’s “Crossing” album, I could really feel the weight and attack of the electric bass as well as the extension of synthesized low-frequency tones. I also got the distinct impression that the Carreras could play more loudly without strain or distortion when pushed by the Thors.
As in the case of the F7, the Carreras nicely conveyed the inherent resolution and detail offered up by the Merrill monoblock amps. Piano and other percussion instruments demonstrated a fine sense of harmonic attack and decay, allowing a quick peek though an open window into the recording session. Perhaps though, the F7 garnered a slight advantage in terms of its ability to cast some added luminosity onto those important midrange and lower treble tones.
The Merrill Thor amps in conjunction with the Carreras gave an excellent and engaging listen with Donald Erb’s “Reconnaissance.” Here, the combination lent a deep sense of gravitas to the performance, which benefited from the woofer control and more serious tonal nature offered up by the Thors.
Again, a lovely combination for those listeners who desire deep, controlled bass, magisterial midrange, and extended, yet sweet, treble.
I have on hand two pairs of similar stand-mount monitor speakers that bracket the Fritz Carreras in price: Fritz’s own Carbon 7 SE ($2500 per pair) and my reference ATC SCM 19 (version 2) monitors ($4300 per pair). I’m quite familiar with the relative sonic characteristics of both models, so I was interested to see how the Carreras would hold up in comparison. Let me begin by saying that both sets of speakers offer excellent performance and value for their respective asking prices (I wouldn’t own them if they didn’t…). In fact, the ATCs have been my go-to speakers for reviewing audio gear for several years now. Comparisons were made driving the speakers using the Merrill Thor amps, as they were what was hooked up to the Carreras when I finished my evaluation of them.
Let’s start with the Fritz Speakers Carbon 7 SE, which employs the same cabinet, similar crossover, but different drivers from the Carrera. A pair of the Carbon 7s will also set you back a grand less than a pair of Carreras. As I’ve said before, the Carbon 7s score really high for me on the musicality meter, as they do a great job of capturing the tonal essence and emotion of any musical performance. Listening to Erb’s “Reconnaissance,” I noted excellent dimensionality to the sound, pretty much on par with what the Carreras offer. The Carbon 7s also add a bit of sweetness and extra texture to the midrange, along with a hint of “thickness” to the lower mids and bass. These characteristics don’t really detract from the musical experience, and I only note them in comparison to the clean and exceptionally lithe nature of the Revelator driver used in the Carrera design. If I had to sum up this small difference, I’d say it’s an added dose of sophistication and nuance that tips the balance ever so slightly in favor of the Carrera. It’s just a slightly leaner, cleaner, more buttoned down overall sound that some listeners, especially those who crave detail and resolution, will most likely prefer. Treble was a bit harder for me to get a grip on, as both speaker designs have a nicely extended, yet easy-on-the-ears presentation there. Again, the Carrera’s tweeter might be metal, but it sure doesn’t sound like it in the traditional sense.
Moving on to the ATC SCM 19 monitors, I found the differences to converge even more. The Fritz Carreras sounded a lot like the ATCs, as both designs shared pretty much the same set of strengths in my book. On paper, the Carreras extend maybe 10 – 15 Hz lower in the bass than the ‘19s, but in reality, I’m not sure I perceived much of a difference when listening to real program material. Both speaker designs offer up some seriously controlled and tuneful bass, which sounded amazingly similar when one considers that the Carrera is ported while the ATC is a sealed box design. Both sets of speakers also have that lovely midrange character that is just warm and textured enough without becoming slow, lumpy, or otherwise ponderous. And the highs in both cases are of comparable impeccability. I’d really be splitting hairs here to try to find any really noteworthy differences in sound between the two designs. Cosmetically, the Carreras are clearly hand-built and look like it, with their minor imperfections previously noted. In contrast, the ATC speakers are the picture of mass-manufacturing perfection, sporting absolutely exquisite edges and corners, veneer matching, and finish. Such differences might be more meaningful to some potential owners than others, so I think it’s worth mentioning. Sonically, though, I’d call it a dead heat.
Like several of Mr. Heiler’s other designs, the Carrera 7 Be hits a home run (or maybe even a grand slam) when it comes to value for the buck. I consider my ATC SCM 19 speakers to be and excellent value at their asking price of $4300 for the pair. In fact, I just saw in my latest edition of Stereophile’s “Recommended Components” that the ATCs were among the lowest priced speakers to earn the coveted “Class A” recommendation. I’m telling you that the Fritz Carreras will get you into the same sonic territory for 8 Benjamins less. If that’s not a deal, I don’t know what is.
I’d declare that the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Normally, when I evaluate a pair of speakers, I spend my time with them, tweak them out in terms of placement, probe their strengths and weaknesses, and generally enjoy them. However, at the end of the day (or month…), I’m usually hankering to get my ATC monitors back into the system, as they fit there like a pair of well-worn and comfortable sneakers. In the case of Fritz’s Carreras, I have to admit I was in no hurry whatsoever to make the swap. Please, please, don’t pass this information on to my ATCs, lest they feel a bit of sibling speaker rivalry!
In the end, Fritz Heiler has yet again done what he does best: deliver to the high-end community an exceptionally cost-effective and highly enjoyable speaker design that will delight lots of enthusiasts for a long time to come.
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 a professor of analytical chemistry and a 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.
John is also a contributor to Stereo Mojo.