Fern and Roby Raven III Loudspeakers | REVIEW







It was some time ago, just before the pandemic, that Christopher Hildebrand of Fern and Roby first told me of his plans for an even larger speaker in his Raven line, possibly even a three-way. For a speaker designer who has made his mark with single-driver full-range speakers made from solid wood cabinets, it seemed strange that Christopher would go off in such a different direction. Then again, if you’ve ever visited Tektonics Design Group in Richmond, Virginia, you’ve probably seen those older custom designs and prototypes scattered around the offices, loudspeakers that look nothing like the Fern & Roby Raven and Raven IIs. Perhaps the Fern and Roby Raven III, if that’s what Christopher would call it, was going to be a melding of those two very different design approaches.

A few months later Christopher announced a new loudspeaker model, indeed with the Fern and Roby Raven III moniker, and I said to myself yeah, I know all about this already. But when I saw the first images of the new speakers, I immediately looked for the tweeter and mid-band drivers. I didn’t see them. The Raven IIIs looked very similar to the Raven and Raven II—same American walnut enclosures, albeit it with different dimensions and proportions, and a single 8” full-range driver. When Eric Franklin Shook and Dave McNair visited Tektonics a few months ago, they reported that yes, this is definitely a Raven. Looks like the other ones pretty much. Definitely not a three-way.

As I looked over their photographs for the article, I confirmed those observations. I did notice that the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs seemed a lot taller than the other two models, and that the driver was placed far higher from the floor than before. That should be interesting, I thought. There’s something distinctive about the way the first two Raven designs tilted the soundstage down a bit, enough to give the impression of being in balcony seats for a handful of classical recordings. I never considered it an issue, because the overall sound is so natural and relaxed that you adapt to that slight shift in perspective rather quickly.

That would be my first question during the review process, anyway. Would I now be looking straight out at the stage, as with more ordinary loudspeakers? That way I could point out that it’s probably due to the full-range driver being closer to ear level.

From the photographs, the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs had a commanding appearance, and I assumed they were the new flagship of the line. I asked Eric about the final MSRP, and he said $8,500 per pair. That’s about halfway between the price of the Raven and the Raven II, so it didn’t make sense to me at first. I asked Eric, “Why not more?”

“Because Christopher said he wanted to sell a ton of them,” Eric replied. At first that made me think of loss leaders, a bold move in high-end audio but not unheard of, but then the speakers arrived at my front door and all of my questions were answered. At first glance, the Fern and Roby Raven III seems to be a slight variation on the other Ravens with their overall size fitting right in between. The price suddenly made perfect sense.

Catching Up With the Raven Family

When I compared the Fern and Roby Raven IIs to the original, larger Raven, I was surprised at their almost identical tone. The two pairs of speakers differ in the way they react to their placement, however—the Ravens needed lots of air and space to really expand and deliver satisfying low frequencies but deliver they did. (This also has a lot to do with the Ravens being ported and the Raven IIs being sealed, by the way.)

The Raven IIs, however, were very unfussy about placement and could be plonked down just about anywhere, and they still captured that easy, relaxed and detailed Raven sound. But they had smaller enclosures and just couldn’t move the same air as their big brothers no matter the positioning.

In some ways, the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs are a perfect visual compromise between the two siblings. The Raven is short and wide and tilted back, which suggests the dimensions of old Quad ESL-57s. The wooden legs of the speaker, perhaps my favorite visual detail, are very mid-century in all the best and most refined ways.

The Raven IIs, on the other hand, were originally designed as bookshelf speakers that could sound great on an actual bookshelf, but Christopher later designed a small wedge-like wooden stand, not much bigger than your average boomerang, that echoed another historic allusion to the Klipsch Cornwall and Heresy. This stand tilted the speaker back, and it worked quite well, but it does look like you’re listening to little bookshelf speakers that are on the ground, ‘70s style, even if they still sound quite amazing that way.

I have yet to try them on regular stands or on bookshelves–in retrospect that sounds like something I should have tried while I had them. In fact, the Raven IIs were designed to sound best that way, and the wedge was a solution for owners who were already placing them on the floor.

The Fern and Roby Raven III, in turn, has more ideal proportions, ones that are conventionally appealing to the eye. It’s about as wide as the Raven II, which is narrow in comparison to the stout Raven. But the height, as well as that elevated driver placement, seems more conventional for a small two-way floorstanding design–even if, overall, the IIIs are still relatively short in the grand scheme of high-end audio things.

The Raven IIIs are also tilted back. But instead of a little wedge/stand, Fern and Roby came up with simple block of wood, finished the same as the speaker enclosure, that screws onto the bottom of the speaker. The cross-section of the wooden bar is rectangular, which allows you to adjust the back-tilt of the entire speaker. (Tilting the speaker back further helps to integrate the Raven’s sound in smaller spaces, or when the listening chair is moved up.) Christopher even thought to engrave the Fern and Roby logo on the wood, which is a typically classy detail from this company.

Speaking of finishes, the American walnut boxes had even more color, depth and texture in the grain than I remembered with the other two pairs. There are honey-brown highlights in this wood grain that are stunning, and I couldn’t imagine selecting a more beautiful solid-wood enclosure to grace the inside of my listening room. Christopher said he was still using the same source for the walnut, but there will still be differences from tree to tree. This tree, however, must have been glorious in its time.

There’s just one more thing about the wood on the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs. When you touch it, it isn’t perfectly smooth and glossy and hand-rubbed with 44 layers of lacquer. When I said texture, I meant it. You can feel the wood, the grain, the nearly imperceptible heat and energy that comes off the surface. That gives the Raven III a slightly rustic air to it, but it’s rustic like a ranch in Telluride is rustic. It’s rustic opulence, which is a wonderful thing and that’s why these Raven speakers form such a quick personal connection with me.

One more thing. When I opened the boxes for the first time, I smelled wood. It was like a hello kiss on the cheek.

What’s Different About the Fern and Roby Raven III?

At this point in the review, we need to ask ourselves this question. So far, it seems like we’re on our third variation of the same musical piece, and I’ll need to come up with different words to describe that relaxed, comfortable sound that I know and like well. But then something happened. I plugged the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs into my system, and they didn’t sound just like the other two models.

Yes, the soundstage was lifted up a little, like I predicted, but there was something else going on. The Fern and Roby Raven IIIs, right out of the box, sounded cleaner and more transparent than before. There must be a lot of new technology on the inside, where we can’t see it. That was my first guess, anyway, so I called Christopher to get the scoop. I told him about the stunning finish, the altitude of the driver and even how I liked the little wooden tilt bar underneath. I asked Christopher a question about new features of the Raven III and I said something about the similar cabinet construction and the same wondrous SEAS Exotic full-range driver and—

“Oh no, that’s a new driver,” Christopher explained. As he explains on the Fern and Roby website:

“Over the past year we worked with SEAS to develop our own Full-Range single driver solution, tailored to deliver the seamless beauty of a single driver with no crossover and satisfying, coherent bass down below 40 Hz. In this design we wanted to deliver something well suited to modern life, and raise the bar in sound quality.”

While that original SEAS Exotic driver impressed the heck out of me when I first heard it—I haven’t heard a more successful full-range driver than that one until now—I suspect that Christopher kept refining the design because he never stops trying to make things better and he’s constantly solving problems. Even though I didn’t even realize this was a completely different driver (which is kind of absurd since the older SEAS cones are white and this new driver cone is black), it differs in important ways, such as the material used to coat the cone, and the use of a larger Ferrite magnet instead of the Alnico magnet in the SEAS.

As Christopher explains:

“It isn’t just an OEM driver with a different color cone, we stripped it down to the chassis and kept the whizzer cone and then explored all the options to get the performance we wanted through exhaustive trial and error.

“My role in the process was limited to and focused on the trials and tests of the different configurations of prototype drivers that I had SEAS make for me. The parameters in the design were: different materials for the cone, different coatings on the cone, selection and treatment of the surround, coil specs, magnet selection. In many ways we deviated from what was considered the best result in a proven design to explore performance in the driver in the ported enclosure where we wanted to emphasize a specific region of frequency response without compromising the rest. It was more like experimental chemistry than anything else I could think of. Each little change in spec affected the rest of the performance and personality of the design, so this was only possible with a trial-and-error approach to design that proves or fails each concept out through rigorous listening.

“I put them all into different enclosures, used them in different settings, drove them with a wide variety of amps, and listened to a crazy amount of music from different genres. After working through this for several months, I made the decision on what was the best result, then proceeded to refine the enclosure design while I waited for our production run of drivers to arrive.

“While I love building things up from scratch, sometimes it is just really nice to have an expert manufacturer do their phenomenal work for you. SEAS is amazing to work with on this basis and I couldn’t be happier with the results. I have always been a collaborative designer and builder and just really enjoy working with others to make the best thing possible.”

That explains a lot about this new speaker and how its sound has evolved, I realized. It does sound better to my ears. It’s exciting to see the Raven III stay true to its roots, while making subtle changes that truly impact the realism and immediacy of the sound, that wonderful single-driver sound.

Fern and Roby Raven III Set-Up

When I connected the Fern and Roby Raven III loudspeakers to my system, I instantly thought, “Too bad I don’t have any LTA amplifiers this time.” When I reviewed the other Ravens, I had Linear Tube Audio amplifiers. It’s a synergistic match, which is why LTA and Fern and Roby often work together on projects and why Christopher sells LTA in the Fern and Roby showroom.

Before I started building a system around the Raven IIIs, I remembered one thing. When I paired the diminutive Raven IIs with about $35,000 worth of exquisite hand-built Japanese amplification from Mactone, the Raven II started to sound like the much larger Ravens. Once again, I have to mention that the Mactone stuff costs ten times the LTA stuff. But it shows that the Ravens are friendly to all types of amplifiers despite their high efficiency (94 dB with an 8-ohm impedance), and you’ll never know unless you try.

The Fern and Roby Raven III was matched up with four very different types of amplifiers. First up was the AVM Ovation CS 6.3 all-in-one (integrated amp, DAC, headphone amp, CD player and much more). The German-built AVM features a 500wpc solid-state power amplifier section, class D, that nevertheless sounds wonderful with the high-sensitivity Raven IIIs. After futzing all last year with analog rigs and DACs and digital clocks and external power supplies, it was a delight to hook up the AVM and the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs with a pair of speaker cables and just take it easy for a spell.

Next was the Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 monoblocks, which just won our Best Value of the Year Award for 2021, accompanied by the AVA DVA digital preamplifier. So far, four PTA reviewers have fallen in love with these amazing little 225wpc boxes, and I wanted to hear the sheer amount of AVA-style detail and energy through the Raven IIIs. That’s when I started to notice just how much top-to-bottom detail this full-range driver could produce.

Next was the Naim SuperNAIT 3 integrated amplifier, 80 watts per channel, high-current and an overall stunning match with the Raven IIIs. But I saved what I felt was the ideal match for last—my Pureaudio Duo2 power amplifier, which can be configured to deliver 25 watts per channel of pure class A. I was correct about this pairing and conducted most of the review with this combination. The Duo2 tilted the Raven III’s balance toward warmth, which I always tend to prefer.

Fern and Roby Raven III—Sound and Listening

Here’s the thing about the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs, as well as the rest of the line. You look at the speaker, the relative simplicity of its single-driver design, and instantly think you know how it’s going to sound. Probably funky, somewhat near the fringe, but undoubtedly fun like a flea-watt SET with a horn-loaded transducer or maybe even that Quad ESL-57. Then you start listening to music and you’re surprised by the sound, which doesn’t seem so different after all. It sounds like what you really want from a speaker like this—intimacy and realism and all the other things audiophiles require.

I’ve felt that sensation each time I’ve listened to a Raven model for the very first time, but the Raven III takes an extra step toward something that embraces neutrality, if you think you want that, as well as sharper transient edges. I’ve you’ve heard these Raven speakers demonstrated before, you’ll know they deliver lots of extension at the frequencies, probably far more than you’ve heard from other single-driver designs. You get that here, which was one of Christopher’s goals with this model, to reach 40 Hz with a relatively small, ported enclosure. You also get a nicely extended and sweet treble—and from a whizzer cone at that. I heard plenty of air and space and delicacy at the top.

I also sensed that the soundstage and imaging of the Fern and Roby Raven III was far more focused and precise than the models with the older SEAS Exotic driver, which perhaps why this new driver is now used for the little Raven IIs. (That means, of course, that the little bookshelf Raven may require a re-evaluation sometime in the future.) I remember the big Raven always created a huge three-dimensional soundstage that was impressively deep. The Raven III’s biggest strength, however, is sharper images within that space.

On Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh’s Expedition, a thrilling combination of jazz rhythms and ethereal electronica, the Fern and Roby Raven IIIs did an exceptional job of revealing this recordings’ secret, that the synthesizers and electronic effects were all captured on a real stage, in real time. The Raven IIIs were able to navigate this precarious landscape by easily outlining the differences between acoustic and electronic noises, as well as electronic noises reproduced in an acoustic space.

I had the same feeling of bigness and precision with Kane Mathis’ Geminus and Imaginary Archipelago from Adam Rudolph, Ralph M. Jones and Hamid Drake. These are all-acoustic recordings, but they’re busy and dynamic and tell me a lot about my system. The Fern and Roby Raven IIIs did an outstanding job of revealing each little sound and how it related to the whole. With some single driver designs I’ve heard, this type of music can sound muddy and smudged, but the Raven IIIs could sort out and incredible amount of information and still make it sound seductive and natural and wonderfully rhythmic.

Conclusion

As you might have deduced, this review of the Fern and Roby Raven III made me think constantly about the other two models in the line, and for good reason. All three loudspeakers have won my heart, but those courtships differed in duration and intensity.

I might have fallen in love with the original Raven the first time I saw a photo of it on some audio website. I want to hear that, I said almost immediately. I was worried that the sound wouldn’t match the gorgeous look, and I was so relieved that they sounded fantastic right out of the box. The Raven IIs were a tad aloof when they first arrived, sounding a lot like the Ravens with slightly less zoom at the bottom. It was simply a matter of break-in—when you have a loudspeaker that’s made with solid wood, it’s going to keep improving with age indefinitely as that wood ages.

The Fern and Roby Raven III had a more direct approach to my heart. It makes an extraordinary argument for single driver speakers. It’s nicely proportioned and looks fantastic in my listening room. It made friends with every amp it met, which isn’t always the case with high-efficiency transducers. Best of all, it did what the other two Ravens did—I connected with them so deeply that I started thinking about all the things they would add to my life if I went in this direction rather than a more conventional high-end audio path.

Because I can imagine that life so easily, with these friends always nearby, the Fern and Roby Raven III is highly recommended.