In recent years, it seems that a number of audio manufacturers have made the decision to expand their product lines well beyond whatever it was that put them on the map in the first place. Such a move is bold, but can also be dangerous. In the high-end arena, this has proved to not always be a great idea, this shift to becoming “everything to everybody.” I’ll, therefore, admit to a bit of concern when the editor asked me to review the Raven Audio CeLest’ loudspeakers, a well-known manufacturer — but of hand-built tubed audio amplifiers. However, as I quickly learned, our own Eric Franklin Shook had not only heard these very speakers, Raven Audio’s new entry-level floor-standers, but had also sung their praises. Per Eric: “Coherence and imaging are scary good, while tunefulness is measured and seemingly dialed in for accuracy. There is nothing entry-level about these towers.” Color me curious.
Looking at Raven Audio’s ad copy, we see that the CeLest’ is meant to be the company’s entry-level speaker offering, as well as its “fun” transducer option. A hook maybe? Perhaps…
I’ve had a bit of email back-and-forth with Raven’s speaker design guy, James Connell. According to Mr. Connell, the design goal was all about providing excellent value for the buyer. In his own words, “the primary consideration… was to create a speaker at the $5000 price range that had as many characteristics as possible from our reference tower which sells for $15,000.” An ambitious goal, yes?
I’ll have to say that I think Raven Audio made a smart move when they decided to bring on a seasoned designer like Connell. He has spent many years as a professional musician, recording engineer, and speaker designer. If customers expect high quality and performance from the amplifier line, they have every right to expect an equal level of goodness from Raven’s other offerings.
Design and Implementation
On the surface, CeLest’ looks like a pretty conventional modern floor-standing speaker. Standing just over 3.5 feet high, it has a narrow-profile 7.7-inch baffle. James Connell calls CeLest’ a 2.5-way design, suggesting two midrange/woofer drivers and a single ring-dome tweeter. Here, the tweeter is mounted above the two lower-frequency drivers. While not a particularly large speaker, the frequency response is an impressive 40 Hz – 20 kHz, up or down 2 dB. Sensitivity is 90 dB, while the nominal impedance is a somewhat lowish 4 ohms. Raven Audio suggests a power range between 20 and 500 watts per channel.
Cabinet construction is MDF and seems particularly solid. The finish is an impressively executed high-gloss black, supposedly applied by Steinway-trained artisans. The rear panel is dual-ported and sports a single pair of five-way binding posts.
I asked James Connell to highlight several of the noteworthy design features of CeLest’. Three points of interest bubbled to the top: the waveguided tweeter, the custom crossover, and port-tuning frequency.
Taking each of these features independently, we’ll start with the waveguide. I almost missed this one, as the foam waveguides were packaged separately from the speakers and need to be installed by the user. The waveguide is proprietary in design- it is purported to help control edge diffraction and also minimize high-frequency room interactions, which James says results in greater accuracy and less smear.
James also takes a great deal of pride in the crossover design, which we all know to be the heart of a good multi-driver speaker design. Here, his goal was to obtain a flat response across the frequency spectrum, which is apparently quite difficult to do with a 2.5 speaker design. He chose to throw everything short of the kitchen sink at the design, including use of sophisticated design software, consulting from outside designers, and lots of tweaking by ear. Much emphasis was placed on the critical midrange, where most human voice and acoustic instrument tonality lie. James is a violinist, so he’s especially sensitive to naturally reproduced tonal accuracy. He reports that he’s quite satisfied with the overall tonal response of the midrange, and my own evaluation tells me that he’s pretty much nailed it with the CeLest’!
Finally, the last big ingredient is the port tuning frequency. James Connell claims that many speakers sound bad because their cabinets are tuned to too low a frequency in search of increased bass extension. The result is sloppy, tuneless bass response. Yep, we all know this slip-up when we hear it, right? The trick is to tune the cabinet to right around 40 Hz, as this represents the lowest frequency found in 99% of the music we routinely enjoy. Sure, some recordings go lower, but I think we can agree that clean, tight, and tuneful bass response is what most of us ultimately crave. I’ve found that capturing that last bit of extension is incredibly difficult and technically challenging (not to mention expensive), so why worry about it? I’ll be honest here: I stopped chasing 20 Hz a long time ago.
I chose to keep the system setup simple for this review. All music was digitally streamed, either from my own external hard drive, or via Qobuz or Tidal. Bits were fed via USB from my Mac Mini directly to my Crane Song Solaris Quantum digital to analog converter. Volume control was handled from the front panel of the Solaris (yes, I had to get up from my chair…), with analog signal going directly to my chosen amplifier. Amps used were the tubed Linear Tube Audio ZOTL10 (reviewed here), as well as solid-state offerings such as the First Watt F7 (reviewed here) and my Pass Labs X250.8 (reviewed here).
Tubes or Solid State?
Given Raven Audio’s firm position in the vacuum tube amp market, one might expect their speaker designs to mate preferentially with that type of amplifier. However, when I received the CeLest’ speakers, the Raven folks told me to go ahead and try any and all types of amps I might have on hand.
Since CeLest’ comes in with an efficiency of 90 dB, I was eager to try my favorite flea-watt amps with them. These include the LTA ZOTL10, as well as the First Watt F7 and SIT-3 line-up, all of which supply 30 watts per channel or less.
I cycled through these amps during the speakers’ break-in process and came away feeling that tubes sounded better. No surprise here, as I’m sure that James Connell voiced his speakers with Raven amps. While not part of the formal evaluation process, I actually spent a lot of my initial time with the CeLest’s powered by one of Dennis Had’s Inspire Triode amps, a wonderfully expressive thing with an old soul. And quite forgiving. The Inspire made break-in not only bearable, but also enjoyable.
However, after a few weeks of heavy use, I found myself wanting more in the way of resolution and heft. Thus began my real evaluation of CeLest’!
Getting down to business
Once through the “getting to know you” and break-in phases, it was finally time to put CeLest’ through its paces.
One thing that really registered with me throughout the evaluation period was how even-tempered CeLest’ was when faced with amplifiers of differing design and power output. Was she finicky? Not in the least, and that’s going to be good news for a lot of listeners.
As I said before, I did a lot of listening during the initial phases with tubed amplification, as I just felt it to better integrate with CeLest’. However, I soon felt the urge to circle back around to my fave First Watt F7 (30 watts per channel into 4 ohms, according to designer Nelson Pass). I’ve loved this amp ever since first hearing it, in part due to its sweet, honest sound and versatility. The F7 demonstrated convincingly that CeLest’ doesn’t need a great deal of power to really shine, as shine it did!
The sound I got from the broken-in CelLest’s driven by the F7 pretty much sums up my overall and long-standing feelings for the speakers. In short, these speakers offer up some killer value at $3995!
Allow me to elaborate.
James Connell claims that CeLest’ are Raven Audio’s “fun” speakers, and he’s not lying! In my new listening room, these speakers serve up a heap of tonal truthfulness with an extra serving of punch (maybe even spiked a bit). I really appreciate (and need) truth of timbre, but it’s the punchiness and whip-like transient speed that make these things so addictive.
Balance across the audible frequency spectrum is also spot-on. I think James made a great choice in tuning the ported cabinets to 40 Hz- the bass is wonderfully deep, yet tonally correct and lightning fast in transient response. With hard-driving techno rock, synthesized bass notes slap me in the chest but don’t linger. While bass is nicely reproduced with the lower-powered amps like the First Watt F7, you’ll really want to hear CeLest’ with some real power reserves, as from my Pass Labs X250.8 stereo amp (More on this coupling later…).
Another area in which CeLest’ strides out ahead of the competition is in image and soundstage precision. OK, so I’ve stacked the decks here by using the Crane Song Solaris D/A converter (reviewed here), which lets me view into the three-dimensional soundstage of a recording like perhaps no other DAC. This thing is a true precision instrument made for the mastering engineer who really needs to hear what’s going on inside a recording. It also lets me hear exactly what a properly amplified pair of speakers is truly capable of offering.
The CeLest’s cast a deep and wide soundstage that is on par with some of the best small monitor speakers I’ve encountered. Instrumental images can be scary real, popping in and out of the soundstage like palpably-present phantom wraiths. Yet another level of audio fun if you ask me…
And so the beat continues.
No matter what amplifier I chose to use with Raven Audio’s CeLest’ speakers, I got wonderfully musical and satisfying results. These speakers are just unflappable. Running with the tubed LTA ZOTL10 amp, I got much the same result as with the solid-state F7. Sonics were crisp, dimensional, and fast, but with stellar accuracy of tone. Thanks in part to the highish pro-audio gain settings on the Crane Song DAC, there was plenty of headroom for the little Linear Tube Audio amp to show off its 10 watts of output in the best possible light. I was able to listen at high enough volume to be entirely satisfied, all with no sense of distortion or strain.
Happy as I was with both the First Watt F7 and the LTA ZOTL10 amps, James Connell kept urging me to spend some time with the Pass Labs X250.8 behind the wheel. I’ll admit I was reticent to do so, as I’ve found that “big iron” often doesn’t mate so well with efficient speakers. What I often get is a hint of muddling in the midrange that leads to an overall lack of transparency and refinement. Color me shocked when I heard none of this when I did finally get around to hooking up the big Pass amp to the CeLest’s. Man, that combo sure does rock! Besides the retention of clarity and resolution, I got an added dose of subterranean bass slam. I had no idea that CeLest’ to go so satisfyingly low while holding the whole show together. Now I didn’t just hear the bass- I could also feel it.
Try some hard-driving techno-jazz and you’ll see. Listening to the album “Gravity Zero” by Laurent Coulondre (24/88.2 kHz FLAC, streamed via Qobuz), I wanted to turn up the volume and “feel” the slam. From the deep synth bass lines to the aggressively driving drum kit, CeLest’ delivered the goods big-time. Everything sounded phenomenal, but the complex bass lines were the most fun! And don’t be tempted to think that CeLest’ is tame or dynamically challenged… They aren’t. These speakers can turn from soft to loud on a dime and satisfy the most ardent hard rocker in the process. Yeah, fun!
Summing up: the value proposition
Going back and looking at Eric Franklin Shook’s synoptic assessment of Raven Audio’s CeLest’ speakers, I feel that he summarized their performance perfectly. The part I agree with most, however, is when he stated that “there is nothing entry-level about these towers.” In terms of accuracy, soundstaging ability, and density of tone and image, these speakers serve up a good dose of “reference” performance at the almost insanely low price of $3995. In the world of high-end, that’s peanuts, seeing as my latest copy of Stereophile had an ad touting a high-end dealer’s “million-dollar system.”
I’d feel hard-pressed to come up with a speaker in the super-competitive $5000 and under category that bests CeLest’ in all categories tested. Considering Raven Audio’s plan to offer a package deal, which includes a pair of CeLest’ along with Raven’s acclaimed Nighthawk amplifier, all coupled with the company’s cabling, for $6995, and you’ve got yourself a heck of a deal. Just add source, and you should be off to a world of musical bliss.
Note to Scot: I’m nominating Raven Audio’s CeLest’ tower speakers for my favorite (and most important) PTA award: the Julia. This one’s all about high performance for the dollar, and that’s what it’s all about in my world.
Congratulations James Connell and the rest of the Raven Audio gang!
Raven Audio CeLest’ Speakers ($3995). For more information, visit them at http://ravenaudio.com.