Whenever I see a pair of two-way monitors with a high price tag such as the Stenheim Alumine 2 loudspeakers from Switzerland, I’m immediately intrigued and I immediately want to sit down and listen to them. That’s not the normal reaction for audiophiles or consumers in general, I know, and I’ve talked to countless people in the industry who confirm that expensive stand-mounted boxes are a particularly tough sell to customers who still believe that bigger is better when it comes to transducers. Heck, as an importer I tried to bring a new bookshelf speaker from Australia into the US, the $12,000/pair Brigadier Audio BA-2, and I’m still the only person in the US with a pair. (It’s selling well in the rest of the world, by the way.)
Premium two-way monitors are a relatively new thing in high-end audio. I can still remember the outrage when speakers such as the Acoustic Energy AE-1 and the Celestion SL700 and 700SE appeared. How much are those? Really? For a mini-monitor?
This myopia takes me back to my first visit to a high-end audio store, back when I was still a teenager. I had noticed a pair of small Rogers monitors in the showroom that sported a price tag, still in the three-figure range, that was significantly more than some of the larger speakers in the room. “Why are those so expensive?” I asked the salesman, and I just barely caught his eye-roll. It was the first stupid thing I’ve said as an audiophile, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
When I first heard of the original Stenheim Alumine loudspeakers, at least a decade ago, much was made over the fact that these small monitors were over $12,000 per pair. As a lover of great two-way loudspeaker designs, I knew two things. First, I noticed that the Stenheims had an aluminum enclosure, and I knew it wasn’t cheap to do that. Second, I knew that a high-quality two-way monitor can do certain things better than larger speakers—particularly when it comes to imaging and overall coherence.
A few years ago, I finally managed some seat time with the Stenheim Alumine loudspeakers when I visited Walter Swanbon at Fidelis AV in New Hampshire. When I saw the Stenheims, I immediately asked if I could hear them since I had known of them for quite some time. They were hooked up to a Unison Research Unico Secondo integrated amplifier that had a pair of RCA “clear-top” NOS 12AX7s swapped in. I still remember how great they sounded, full of heart and soul. Since then, I’ve always visited Stenheim rooms at high-end audio shows because I know I’m going to enjoy what I hear. Usually it’s a pair of the larger Stenheims—the Alumine 3 or the Alumine 5—but once in a while I get to hear the Alumine 2s in all their precise glory.
For more than a year I bugged Walter to send me a pair for review. I met Stenheim’s Jean-Pascal Panchard at the Munich show last year, and again once or twice after that. I told him to bug Walter to send me a pair for review. When I returned the Palmer 2.5i turntable and Audio Origami PU7 tonearm to Walter, he had a pair of Alumine 2s waiting for me. I went home and quickly set them up.
Stenheim Alumine 2
The Stenheim Alumine 2 is a slightly different speaker than that original Alumine. You’ll notice the differences right away when you look at the front baffle—there’s now a seamless blend between the drivers and the cabinet, with no fasteners visible anywhere. The cabinet itself still looks the same, with its black baffle and aluminum sides.
The Alumine 2 is a front-ported bass reflex design with a 6.5” cellulose fiber woofer cone that has been “impregnated” on both sides with resin, and a 1” fabric-dome tweeter. I was a little surprised by this—I halfway expected the drivers in the Stenheim to be aluminum as well, like with YG Acoustics. Nope. Perhaps this is why the Stenheims possess a sound that is warmer and more musical than you expect—it’s not a metal-on-metal loudspeaker sound. More on that later.
The frequency response of the Stenheim Alumine 2 is 45 Hz to 25kHz. Walter gave me a couple of set-up tips with the Stenheims to extract the best performance from them. He said that bringing them away from the back wall certainly created a stunning and deeply layered soundstage, but moving them closer to the side walls would also bring the deepest bass into focus.
Here’s a more interesting spec, at least to me—the Stenheim Alumine 2s are very efficient at 93 dB with an 8 ohm impedance. Most of the premium two-way monitors I’ve used are nowhere that easy to drive—the Brigadiers are 85 dB at 5 ohms, for instance. That means you can use the Stenheims with just about any amplifier you want, including SETs.
Parts quality inside the Stenheim is, of course, superb—air core inductors, polypropylene caps and metal film resistors. You can also get the Alumine 2 in a special edition with upgraded wiring, crossovers and connectors for around $15K. The Alumine 2s are available in a number of finishes, which I found surprising since I’ve only seen Stenheims with the “light shiny grey” that my review pair sported. You can also get dark shiny grey, black, dark red or caramel leather, Ferrari red, raw aluminum and a number of wood veneers such as Macassar ebony and walnut. (The “etc.” in the promotional materials suggest you can get almost anything you want for a price.)
Surprisingly, the MSRP of the Stenheim Alumine 2s hasn’t gone up significantly in the last few years—my pair retailed for $11,900/pair, and the matching aluminum 28” stands cost an additional $1700/pair. (An even more substantial stand is also available for $2900.) That might have been controversial a dozen years ago, but in 2020 I can think of at least ten monitors that are much smaller and much more expensive. (The Alumines are far from tiny, and they weigh 37 pounds each.) So this marks the last time I will need to mention the price of the Stenheim Alumine 2. It’s no longer a vital part of the story.
I used two amplifiers with the Stenheim Alumine 2 loudspeakers—the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated, which showers love and adoration on every speaker it meets, and the Pureaudio Duo 2. Both were hooked up with Cardas Clear cabling. The Pureaudio seemed like a perfect match since you can set it to operate at 25wpc pure class A. I’m not sure I could pick which amp I preferred since they were relatively close in comparison, but I did like the pairing with the Pureaudio because it has a similar sonic signature to the Stenheims—just warm enough without sacrificing detail.
Despite Walter’s tips for positioning, I started off with the Stenheim Alumine 2s in the “normal” spot in my listening room. While I always play around with speaker positioning during the review process, I usually wind up with most speakers within a couple inches of that magic spot in my listening room. Right out of the box—Walter said this pair had a few hours on them—everything sounded incredible, nearly perfect. The Alumines do convey an incredible amount of information in a well-balanced way. Not once did they sound analytical or sterile. My only real criticism was yes, the low bass energy could be increased just a tad.
This was the minority opinion, however. Colleen doesn’t come into the listening room very often. Despite her considerable experience as an audiophile, it’s a rare occasion when she feels compelled to walk in and ask what’s going on in the system and why it sounds so awesome. I was playing the FIM hi-rez CD copy of the Jacques Lossier Trio’s Play Bach, a sonic blockbuster, and Colleen said “I think this is the best sound I’ve ever heard in this room.” She commented favorably on the bass performance of the Stenheims, saying that it was perfectly balanced for the space. Hmmmm.
Over time, I moved the Stenheim Alumine 2 loudspeakers closer and closer to the side walls. Yes, the bass energy filled out. Yes, my opinion started to align with Colleen’s observations. Utterly fantastic sound. It’s like meeting your perfect mate and thinking, “I just wish they were a little taller.” Then, after you fall head over heels in love, you start thinking that they’re the perfect height and you were just being stupid and shallow.
In my review of the Fern and Roby Montrose turntable, I mentioned an unusually rewarding listening session I had with the MoFi reissues of Dire Straits’ Making Movies and Love Over Gold. The Stenheim Alumine 2, of course, was a huge part of that memorable experience. I drew the conclusion that in the nearly 40 years that I’ve considered “Private Investigations” one of my favorite demo tracks, I’ve never heard it sound better. You can refer to that review for more details.
As I evaluated the Alumines, I slowly realized just how perfectly they were balanced, as Colleen remarked, and how they were such an exciting and willing partner with my medium-sized listening room. I’m not just talking about the low frequencies, which were tight and visceral when they needed to be. I’m not just talking about the soundstage and imaging, which took a wrecking ball to side and back walls. I’m talking about a certain confidence in the way the Stenheims made music, the way they simply declared that THIS is the way this track is supposed to sound.
The Stenheims didn’t give up on me when I upped the ante and played some big, dynamic music. As you might know from my Vinyl Anachronist music reviews, I spend a lot of time with new big band jazz recordings, so much so that I’ve been passive-aggressive in continuing to review every single title I get. With the Stenheims, I was surprised at how well these large ensembles were reproduced, how it was easy to locate each of the 15 to 20 musicians during any point in a song.
For example, the Stenheims were adept at illuminating the relief between Seth Weaver’s trombone from the rest of his big band on his new album Truth. This wasn’t accomplished by isolating the trombone from the rest of the crew, as if they were recorded at different times in different spaces. Instead, the size of the performers in relation to each other was utterly preserved, and Seth Allen carves his performance out of mere invention and talent. This proves that the Stenheims excelled at dynamic contrasts and were able to make clear sense of complex performances with an ease uncommon to two-way monitors.
Throughout this review, I’ve mentioned the idea of premium two-ways and how much I enjoy listening to them. I’ve slated several pairs of excellent two-way speakers for review over the next few months including models from Joseph Audio, Acora Acoustics and Vimberg. There’s a reason for that—by the time you read this review, I will have moved from Western New York to Portland, Oregon.
We’re sticking with our usual strategy of renting a place first and then start looking for a permanent home if we decide to stay. (The experts say not to buy unless you plan on spending at least five years.) So it looks like I might become an apartment dweller for the next year—but I will shop carefully with my new listening room in mind.
I suppose that’s why I gravitated toward 2-way monitors in the first place. In my journeyman years as an audiophile, I lived in apartments and it was always my goal to have terrific sound that wouldn’t get me evicted. That’s when I discovered the magic of British monitors like Spendor and Harbeth. I didn’t own a pair of floorstanders until I bought my first house many years later.
The Stenheim Alumine 2 loudspeakers are an entirely different kind of transducer than those classic BBC designs. In the right room, these will sound like full-range speakers. They are not polite and cautious and intended for low volume listening sessions spent worrying about that impending knock on the door from a frustrated neighbor. I’m sure there’s a point where the room can get too large and the Alumine 2s will start to falter—a perfect reason to move up to the floor-standing Alumine 3s or the Alumine 5s, or at least the addition of an Alumine subwoofer.
In my return to the exciting world of the two-way monitor, I found that the Stenheim Alumine 2s set the bar preternaturally high. I’ve listened to a lot of speakers over the last couple of years that I could buy and enjoy for the rest of my life. But the Stenheims go deeper than that. Not only do they provide sublime sound, but they resonate with my life as an audiophile. They capture all of the qualities I’ve pursued over the last 40 years, and I highly recommend them.