Before we start with the Charney Maestro X, regular PTA readers may recall my fairly recent review of the Charney Maestro floor-standing loudspeaker. This was a neat little speaker, offering many of the advantages and thrills of a horn-loaded, single driver transducer. Regular readers might also note that I am somewhat parsimonious about doling out awards for audio products. While the Maestro showed a lot of promise in my room, I opted not to single it out for any award. Why not, you ask?
Well, as I described in the review, the original Charney Maestro didn’t quite jive with my room. Not that this was the speaker’s fault in any way, but the dang things just needed to be backed into corners in a small room to come alive, especially in the bass department. Not a possibility in my world and workspace, unfortunately.
Fortunately, Brian Charney had quite the comeback. When I met up with him to return the original Maestros, he motioned to the back of his vehicle and muttered about having something in there with my name on it. Given Brian’s New Jersey pedigree, maybe I should have been worried: cement boots or a lead pipe perhaps? But what Brian produced was a new pair of cabinets, this time for a new prototype of the Charney Audio Maestro, since dubbed the Maestro X, which is short for “extreme.”
Mr. Charney seemed pleased with his new creation and promised me that it would ameliorate
the issues I had in my largish listening space with the original Maestros.
Charney Maestro X, You Ask?
Rather than being rotund in the lateral direction, this new Charney Maestro X is deeper by six inches compared to the the original, as in front to back–kind of like comparing my present “thickness” to what it was thirty years ago.
Outside of the difference in dimension, this speaker can be had in any of the same configurations of the original Charney Maestro. Bamboo cabinets are quite attractive, but one can also opt for multi-ply Baltic birch with or without veneer. Oh, and drivers are also on the menu, with plenty of choices ranging from the affordable (e.g., a custom option from Chinese manufacturer Lii) all the way up to super-svelte Voxativ AC 2.6.
In fact, Brian says that you can slot pretty much any 8-inch driver into the hole. That’s a cool feature for those who want to “tweak” the performance of their speakers, or better yet, move up the line as finances permit without having to replace the cabinets. Since we had settled on the Voxativ AC 2.6 for my original Charney Maestro review pair, we chose to keep that variable constant with my new “X-factor” pair.
Regarding room placement, Brian let me know that while these new Maestros don’t need corners, they do like to be placed with their rear-ends close to the wall.
Since my Charney Maestro X speakers are a prototype, they came to me as a pair of unfinished Baltic birch cabinets. No matter; what I wanted to know was how they were going to perform in my largish listening room. Could they really overcome the barriers faced by the “skinny” Maestros?
Charney Maestro, Cue the Music!
Another big advantage of the “X” is that it shares the same 101 dB sensitivity as its little brother. This is great news indeed for all of us who love wandering about in the world of flea-watt amplification. You can light these things up with something like the 45 triode output tube, which puts out less than two watts on a sunny day when chased downhill by a hungry bear, as Boss Hull would say.
I got the original Charney Maestro to sound pretty good with a wide range of refined low-powered amps, both tubed and solid state. What eluded me was bass; well, that was until the uber-expensive BorderPatrol SE300B EXD amp made its appearance with its “way-cool” overbuilt power supply.
Finally, some bass, but still probably not enough to satisfy most listeners in my room. Enter the Charney Maestro X.
OK, I’ll admit it right now: Brian Charney was right about the “X.” They do real bass in my room, and without being shoved into a corner. They also sound fantastic with lots of different amps. Moving from amp to amp with these speakers was a real pleasure, as opposed to a burdensome challenge to try to get the things sounding good.
I’ve spent considerable time listening critically to the Charney Maestro X powered by the following amplifiers: Border Patrol SE300B EXD, First Watt SIT 3, ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B, and LTA ZOTL 10. I may have missed one or two. Nonetheless, the “X” speakers sounded fleshed out and fantastically tactile with all of these amp choices: not a dog among them! I thought the speakers were transparent enough to let the true character of each of the aforementioned amplifiers come through, unfettered and clear. Each, in its own way, led to a transcendent and worthwhile listening experience.
Let’s Amp It Up!
Brian Charney runs his demos with his own hand-built 300B amplifiers, which are loosely based on an Audio Note kit design. Given his penchant for this popular output tube, I did most of my critical listening with amps utilizing it: the Border Patrol SE300B EXD and the new ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B. The Charney Maestro X really does take a liking to a good 300B amplifier, as should be no surprise to anyone.
I was also quite impressed with how the First Watt SIT 3 sounded with the Charney Maestro speakers. This is one of my very favorite solid state amps, and it did some things with the Maestro X speakers that I’d never really picked up on before when using it with multi-driver transducers.
The rest of the system remained pretty much constant. My digital source was normally the wonderful sounding BorderPatrol SE DAC, with my trusty LTA MicroZOTL 2.0 doing preamp duty. I normally don’t mention cables in my reviews, but I will in this case. With these single-driver speakers, I’ve gravitated toward a very simple copper speaker cable sourced from Sparkler Audio in Japan. Anything else I’ve tried seems to rob the music of its speed and immediacy.
Listening Impressions of the Charney Maestro X
I want to give a quick re-iteration of what we have here with the Charney Maestro X speakers, since this will have a direct bearing on the listening impressions I’m about to lay out.
Like other Charney Audio designs, this one is both incredibly simple and complex. It’s simple in the sense that the speaker consists of a single, full-range driver housed in a cabinet. No crossover; no nothing. The complexity comes in the cabinet design and execution: what we have here is a carefully implemented horn-loaded cabinet based on tractrix theory. In many ways, these things are about as close to an old gramophone as you can get: an electrical-to-acoustic transducer (the driver) coupled to a horn for mechanical amplification of certain frequencies via constructive building up of sound waves. Groovy, huh? To me, this approach is sonic purity in its most elegant form.
Let’s start with my impressions of the speakers driven by the gorgeous ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300 amplifier. This no-holds-barred perfectionist 300B amplifier really brings out plenty of the expected (and appealing) properties of a speaker design such as the Charney Maestro X. Here are a few, listed in no particular order…
- Speed and attack. The “X” is lightning fast in fleshing out leading-edge transients and attack.
Just listen to a good acoustic guitar recording and experience the sound of fingers moving
across the strings and the accompanying “squeaks.” It’s almost as if the listener is standing just in front of the performer and not several rows back in the audience. Even really resolving multi-driver speakers with superb amplifiers ahead of them don’t quite provide this level of litheness and resolution. The most evanescent details of the recording are captured with aplomb.
- Wide soundstage and imaging precision. Since single full-range drivers can act as a point source of sound, speakers employing them often provide almost spookily organic images of instruments and performers. A saxophone or trumpet will suddenly materialize in front of the listener, suspended in three-dimensional space, but with textural body and lots of space around it. The floor-standing Charney speakers can produce such magic on the level of only a handful of well-set up and executed mini-monitors I’ve had in my room. In short, the boxes just disappear when my eyes are closed.
- Harmonic truth. With simplicity and care of design comes truth in tone. Part of this observation may well come back to my argument in point #1: speed and resolution. Tonal integrity is easier to preserve if our sonics are coherent and not overly muddled by the time the wave fronts reach our ears. This is one reason why I think panels such as classic Quads do tonality so naturally. Anyway, when you hear a properly reproduced human voice through speakers such as the “X,” you will know that our world hasn’t gone totally to hell in a handbag.
- Honest bass. This is a tough one to properly describe. Most of us audiophiles love deep, thick bass. It hits us in the chest and makes things in the room rattle. In contrast, bass from a speaker such as the Maestro X is a little more refined and thoughtful. In fact, it may well sound anemic or over-damped in comparison to other speakers. But it’s honest. You won’t hear any “one note” bass here, nor will you experience bloating or overhang. Somehow, the bass never “lags” in the mids and trebles; everything gets to the listener at the same time. Further, the bass is tight and fast, but entirely natural in tone. In short, it just happens. I suppose it would be fine to augment the speakers’ bottom end with a fast subwoofer if the dinosaurs aren’t laying down big enough tracks, but that would be your problem and not mine!
Right now, I’m listening to the live performance album “Don’t Explain” by German saxophonist Heinz Sauer (16/44.1 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz). Man, when I sit in the sweet spot, that sax is right there in front of me, suspended in full-on 3-D glory. Of equal note is how well the harmonic complexities of the horn, as well as the close-mic’d piano are captured. What is really presented here is the “rawness” of the performance. The instruments are tonally correct, but not syrupy or even slightly thick in character. I’d classify the sound as naturally euphonic, but exceptionally lithe at the same time.
Just As It Should Be…
I’d mentioned a bit earlier that I wanted to share some thoughts on a solid state amp, specifically the First Watt SIT 3 driving the Charney Maestro X speakers. To that end, let’s just say that a fancy 300B vacuum tube amp need not be the only game in town.
Maybe you should SIT down…
This little First Watt amp is a real doozy if you have efficient enough speakers to accommodate it. Notes just blossom out of it in a way that sounds so right, thanks in part to a triode-like transfer function and a bit of intentionally added second harmonic order distortion.
What I get from the SIT 3 through the Charney Maestro X speakers is red-meat tonal density (well, such that a speaker like this can deliver) and real dimensionality. In fact, I’ve never heard the SIT 3 sound so three dimensional before. The sound is more weighty than I hear with the ToolShed 300B amp, but maybe not quite as illuminated from within or resolved.
Listening to Ulf Wakenius’ album “A Taste of Honey” (24/96 kHz flac, streamed via Qobuz) lays bare the differences between amps. Ulf’s guitar has more meat on its bones via the SIT 3, but I don’t hear as clearly the intimate immediacy of the fingers against strings that I mentioned earlier with the 300B amp. But I’d have to say that the overall sound from Mr. Pass’ design is prettier, as in more dimensional, fleshed out, and euphonic. Which presentation I prefer honestly depends on my mood. I can’t say one is objectively “better” than the other; they are just mildly different.
Is It All Rainbows and Unicorns with the Charney Maestro X?
If it seems that I’m pretty taken with the Charney Audio Maestro X, it’s because I am. Is it the
“perfect” speaker? Well, maybe not…for some listeners.
As with any piece of audio gear, there will be perceived shortcomings. Here, I don’t necessarily mean to imply that these are actual technical issues, but rather traits that may put some listeners off. These “differences” will be better excused by some listeners than others, and they are brought to the forefront when I shift my ears toward my other system, which normally consists of a Pass Labs X250.8 amplifier driving a pair of ATC SCM100 passive monitors.
In no particular order:
- The Charney speakers, because of their speed, coherence, and resolution, can sound somewhat “lightweight” from a tonal perspective. Certain folks will prefer a weightier or more substantial presentation since it gives the effect of better tonal integration and perceived “heft.” This observation is especially true regarding bass.
- Partly due to my observations in point #1 above, I tend to limit my listening more to simpler acoustic choices involving natural instrument tone and human voice. Think small jazz ensembles. Loud, dense material with lots of synthesized effects just doesn’t have the impact some listeners might demand. However, well-recorded percussion can be magical with the “X” speakers if ultimate dynamics aren’t too important. Which brings us to…
- Macro-dynamics aren’t quite as bombastic as with my other system, though the Charney speakers can rev up micro-dynamically like none other (well, maybe besides a good electrostatic panel). The lack of large-scale dynamics can make large symphonic and choral works a bit less exciting and involving.
Let me be clear here. Within their intended design parameters, and with appropriate amplification, these new Maestro X speakers can really get you there. Some of the other stuff (see items 1-3 above) can be had if one moves up the Charney Audio line into larger cabinets. I know, because I have heard them.
So, yeah… The Maestro X speakers really do it for me in my room. The gains I hear from the upper bass region downward when compared to the original Maestros really trip my trigger. These are some great examples of full-range drivers coupled into a sophisticated cabinet that will work well in a wide range of listening environments. I also expect them to play nicely with lots of available amplification choices, from single-ended tube designs to solid state.
OK, it’s now award time. I sincerely nominate the Charney Maestro X speakers for a well-deserved Reviewers Choice Award.
(Price: $3800-$8000 based on driver choice and cabinet finish.)