Better living through chemistry
As a practicing chemist (or rather, “purveyor of chemical knowledge”), I’m quite keen on all things chemistry. My interest was piqued, therefore, several years ago when I first noticed the offerings of the Finnish company Amphion. As far as I could tell, the operation crafted speakers for both the pro audio and high-end consumer communities, and more importantly, they named their home audio products after chemical elements!
Yes, lots of companies do this sort of thing. Haven’t we all seen the “silver, gold, or platinum” edition of this product or that? But Amphion took it one step further: their products are named after the less-well-known noble (or inert) gases. I’m talking about those boring elements like helium, neon, argon, and xenon… That is, the ones that don’t react with anything.
I figured that there must be some method to Amphion’s madness, or at least a sense of humor. As I got to know the speakers sent to me for review, specifically the stand-mounted Argon 3S monitors, it all started to make some sense. Let me briefly interpret…
When we speak of a noble gas as being inert, we really mean that it doesn’t like to react with any chemical agents with which it comes into contact. Or, as I like to tell my students, it’s already “happy” and doesn’t need a mate. As I spend more time with these Argons, I find that they are indeed “happy” speakers; at least they make me happy! One could also argue that they are inert: a firm knuckle rap on the thick, heavy MDF cabinets tells me that they are pretty solid indeed.
But, if we dig a little deeper, I think there’s a more hidden meaning. Amphion goes to great extents to optimize sound dispersion in their designs. These efforts lead to speakers that tend to take the listening environment out of the equation, thus letting the speakers shine on their own. In other words, they are designed to not “react” with the listening room. That’s pretty much the definition of “inert” is it not?
So, what do we have here?
The Amphion Argon 3S speakers came to me carefully packaged in compact cardboard boxes. I greatly appreciated this gesture, as I was able to tuck one box under each arm and transport the speakers up to my third-floor listening area with minimal hassle.
Upon opening the boxes, I gazed upon two lovely white cabinets. This outcome was certainly different, as I’m accustomed to natural wood finishes. The speakers aren’t physically large, but they are considerably heavier than they look; I took this as a good omen regarding their apparent build quality.
Focusing on the drivers, my impression was that there’s a lot of metal here. Woofers are 6.5-inch aluminum cones, custom sourced from SEAS. Tweeters consist of 1-inch titanium domes, designed by Amphion and specially built in France. On the rear panel reside a single aluminum passive radiator as well as a pair of unique black tube-like composite binding posts from Argento in Denmark. These posts took me a little while to figure out, but once I did, I found them to be an elegant solution for both spade and banana terminations.
The crossover is set to an unusually low-frequency of 1600 Hz (discussed in more detail below). The sensitivity is rated at an intermediate 87 dB, while the nominal impedance is 8 ohms. Frequency response is reported as 38-25,000 Hz, 6 dB down at each extreme.
While I don’t think there’s any real ground-breaking technology here, I do feel that the overall design is especially well-sorted, as I’ll describe next.
Highlight one: the Amphion waveguide tweeter
In all Amphion designs, the titanium tweeter resides at the bottom a dish-like waveguide, carefully machined out of a solid piece of MDF (the waveguides on the more expensive pro audio speakers are actually made of Corian). The purpose of this little do-dad is two-fold. First, it sets the tweeter on the same plane as the core of the woofer cone, leading to precise time alignment for all frequencies. Second, the waveguide provides for vastly improved sound dispersion, reportedly leading to more directional and even high-frequency response both on and off-axis.
Highlight two: the passive radiator
Looking around the back of the speaker, one immediately notices what looks like another aluminum driver. What we have here in actuality is a passive radiator, which is essentially a driver without a motor that is free to resonate within the cabinet. Its purpose mirrors that of a port in a bass reflex design: it allows the cabinet to shake off excess energy such that internal vibrations and reflections are avoided. It also serves to set the resonant frequency of the cabinet to a specific value to enhance bass response.
Passive radiators are old-school. I had a pair of three-way speakers from Shahinian Acoustics for many years that used them, and I recall that the sound was exceptionally natural, yet full, especially at the lower frequencies.
The supposed advantage of the passive radiator is that it allows the cabinet to release excess energy without contributing unwanted colorations such as chuffing or hooting, as one might expect from a ported design. In short, it can offer a more natural sounding solution.
Highlight three: that funky crossover frequency
As I mentioned above, the woofer crosses over to the tweeter at an unusually low 1600 Hz. The designer’s goal here was to avoid placing the crossover frequency in the segment of the spectrum where our ears are naturally most sensitive. Further, a lower crossover frequency helps to integrate the drivers as a single point source, thus making the sound more coherent in that critical region. Here’s the argument: if the wavelength at the crossover frequency is greater than or equal to the distance between the center points of the drivers, then our ears perceive the sound as emanating from a single point. Hence, we don’t hear a “woofer” or “tweeter”, but just well-integrated sound, with no boundaries whatsoever.
Amphion Argon 3S: initial listening impressions
Being quite small and portable, the Amphion Argon 3S speakers made the crawl across pretty much every system I have in the house. They took up residence in both attic systems, as well as back downstairs in the living room system, powered by the excellent 40-watt per channel Naim Uniti Atom integrated amplifier (review here). Here, the passive radiators were well appreciated, as the speakers themselves were shoved almost up against the wall.
The beauty of the design elements and focused dispersion I mentioned earlier is that these speakers are happy pretty much anywhere one chooses to place them. They were just as resolving and spacious sounding up against the wall in the living room as they were on stands well away from room boundaries up in the attic listening area. Indeed, this should be great news for folks who demand good sound but are limited to placement options in real-world living situations.
My immediate impressions upon hearing the Argon 3S monitors is that they are full, focused, and fun. There’s a fullness of tonality, top to bottom, that involves me and draws me right in to the listening experience. Focus refers to the care taken to get near perfect time alignment and dispersion characteristics that let me hear the speaker and the music, and not the room and its anomalies. Oh, and the fun part should speak for itself! If everything is working as it should, then my mind lets go, I stop thinking so critically and analytically about the gear, and listening becomes fun, not work.
OK, stop the fun; let’s get critical
When I first took note of those metallic drivers, I was a bit put off. My brain tells me that metal drivers ought to sound metallic, as in possessing an excessive silvery sheen and glare. I should know better by now not to go down that road. It’s imperative in this business to trust the ears over the eyes.
And trust my ears I did. Nothing at all hinted of any metallic-sounding artifacts whatsoever. All I heard was fast, natural, and lovely sound. The treble, for example, was deliciously natural and extended, with no hint of sheen or glare whatsoever.
These Argon 3S speakers put me in mind of all the great things I recall hearing from a similarly priced speaker I reviewed some years ago, the ATC SCM 11 Version 2 ($2500 today). The ATC speakers were revolutionary to me, as I’d never before heard anything quite like them. The clarity, speed, lack of distortion, and overall musicality were almost overwhelming. Since that time, I’ve become an ATC fan boy of sorts, owning first the SCM 19 version 2, and presently, the mighty SCM 100 passive studio monitors. That the Amphion and ATC speakers put me in a similar frame of mind should come as no surprise given that each company has a foot solidly planted in both the home audio and pro audio camps.
Even so, there are differences. My long-term impression of my SCM 100 speakers is that they are precision tools for the professional mastering or post-production engineer. They are ruler-flat across the audio spectrum, shining no spotlight on any one part of it or another. They are also insanely clean-sounding and resolving, while still remaining musical over the long haul.
In contrast, the Amphion Argon 3S are more expressive and colorful. They are a bit less refined in the midrange (not necessarily a bad thing…) than the big ATCs, and the upper bass is more pronounced. The ATCs go lower (of course), but do so in an almost self-effacing way, whereas the little Argons want you to know they are there and in charge. Plucky little fellas they are!
Besides their involving sound and ease of placement, perhaps what I appreciate most about the Amphion Argon 3S speakers is their versatility. Basically, they tend to sound fantastic when hooked up to about every amp I have in the house. While lovely downstairs with the Naim Uniti Atom, I was hankering to get the Argons back into the attic systems.
I started out playing with low-powered amps, namely the First Watt F7 (review here) and my Dennis Had Inspire single-ended triode tube amp. The F7 does 20 watts per channel into 8-ohm loads, while the Inspire provides, well, a few at best. I didn’t really expect much out of either amp, but I found that the Amphion speakers just sang when powered by both! Of course, I didn’t listen at crazy high volumes. All the audiophile attributes were there: touch, tonality, dimensionality, and dynamic impact. Nothing seemed to me to be missing. The Argons love being played at low to moderate volume, which is where most of us operate most of the time anyway. I sensed no loss of resolution or emotional impact at such playback levels.
I got more or less the same results with the wonderful First Watt SIT-3 amplifier. Listening to vocalist Jacob Collier’s new album Djesse (Decca, 24/96 flac file, streamed via Qobuz), I was astounded by the presence and impact of the low bass synth notes, as well as the naturalness of Collier’s gently crooning voice. These little Amphion speakers sound a lot bigger than they actually are. If I didn’t know better, I might have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a decent sized full-range speaker.
More power to you
While I had a great deal of success driving the Argons with low-powered amps, I’d read that other users had had very good results with more power. I therefore opted to try out the powerhouse Pass Labs X250.8 (review here), which I figured would be a propitious matchup. I was correct.
With gobs of excess power running the show (250 watts per channel, to be exact), the Argon 3S monitors took on yet another dimension of awesome. All the touch, tonal vividness and involvement were still there, but now with a firmer foundation from bottom to top. If perhaps the bass didn’t go lower, it seemed to take on greater shape and authority. Firm up that bass, and everything else just falls into place, just like constructing a building on a solid rock foundation. As much as I love running these speakers with the lower powered amps, I can see why people like the big iron.
Focusing in on Sun Ra’s masterpiece album The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 (ESP Disk, 44.1 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz), the big Pass Labs amp coupled to the diminutive Argon 3S speakers served up some impressive fare indeed. This is a highly percussive, almost orchestral album at times, and the combo did a fantastic job of demonstrating the dynamics of the intense, out-of-nowhere timpani thwacks and brass outbursts that accompany Ra’s arrhythmic and somewhat otherworldly writing. I think I was rudely stirred from the edge of sleep on an occasion or two while listening to this album.
It’s worth noting here as well that these Argon 3S speakers really disappear in the soundstage, just as smaller stand-mounted speakers should. With my eyes closed, I couldn’t detect sound coming from the speakers themselves, but rather emanating from in front of, behind, between, and outside of the cabinets themselves. The stereophonic image was also very well-defined in three-dimensional space, with no wandering or warbling whatsoever. Want your sonic space? The Argon 3S monitors deliver.
Amphion Argon 3S: a few more words
The Argon 3S will appeal most to folks like me who gravitate toward accurate honesty coupled with plenty of resolution. If you prefer more than a splash of added honey and romance, there may be better choices in the same price range. The Fritz Carbon 7 SE and Sonus Faber’s Sonetto II speakers are good options that come to mind.
If not overly romantic, the Argon 3S is most certainly vivid. By this, I mean the speakers offer up sufficient tonal color (not coloration…) required to engage me on an emotional level with the music. Tonally flat and un-involving these speakers are not. It’s as if they are living, breathing entities, leading me by the hand into a realm of sonic bliss. I find that listening to these Amphions has become somewhat addictive, much to the detriment of my wife and the other work I need to get done!
All in all, the Amphion Argon 3S is well-thought-out piece of speaker engineering.
Very highly recommended!
Amphion Argon 3S (website): $2690 per pair.