I’ve made a concerted effort not to dwell on the country of origin of many of my review components over the last year or so. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen reviewers go a little overboard, comparing Japanese gear to eating sushi, or finishing a review of a pair of French speakers with “Oo laa laa!” or anything else that seems remarkably tone deaf in this day and age. But I do think that the country of origin can provide a meaningful discussion IF the country in question isn’t necessarily known for high-end audio. Take the Aretai Contra 100S loudspeakers from Latvia, for instance.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
Aretai is the first high-end audio manufacturer I’ve encountered from one of the Baltic states, even though some of the Audio Note UK gear I’ve recently reviewed sports a “built in Lithuania” label on the back panel. My interest in Latvia as a base for manufacturing, however, has more to do with my observations about some of the latest hot spots for high-end audio innovation. I’ve mentioned Poland numerous times, and Latvia isn’t that far away. Poland is the home of Ferrum, J. Sikora, Popori Acoustics and more, and the high-end show in Warsaw is becoming very popular in this industry. Poland, along with Greece, is a great place to be an audiophile.
Poland isn’t Latvia, of course. In fact, you could also make an argument for Scandinavian influences since those countries have been heavy into audio for many decades. But Latvia is interesting to me for the simple reason that Aretai, a new loudspeaker company headed by a man named Janis Irbe, has certainly hit the ground running with three new speaker models in the Contra line. Perhaps Latvian audio is about to become a thing.
I first encountered the $9,000/pr Aretai Contra 100s, the smallest model from Aretai, at AXPONA 2022. I thought it sounded fantastic. It seems like I’ve listened to Aretai at every single show since then. The only time I didn’t quite get enough seat time with the Contra 100s monitor was at this year’s Munich show, where Aretai was located in one of those tiny and crowded little pod rooms. Remember how I joked that some of those pods were so small that you could sit in the sweet spot and still reach out and touch both speakers? That was Aretai. (Janis Irbe informed me that Aretai will have a bigger “Soundkabin,” as they are called, next year.)
But I’ll add that I was disappointed that I didn’t get to spend time with the Aretai Contra 100s monitors at that show. I missed them. At the same time, I knew I was getting close to receiving a pair for review. The Contras, in fact, are the very first speaker I’ve set up in my new listening room at my new house. I’ve been looking forward to this review for some time.
Inside the Aretai Contra 100S
What makes the Aretai Contra 100S monitors so special? I could make a simple argument for those white waveguides around the dome tweeters, which give the Aretai a bit of a compression horn countenance. When I imagined the Aretais in my mind’s eye, I thought of that distinctive waveguide. But there’s obviously more to the Contras than that.
The Aretai Contra 100S monitors may be relatively small, but they can sound crazy-big under the right circumstances. The low frequency performance of this speaker is impressive, with tight and clear bass that tends to dive beneath the floor in more dynamic moments. The Aretai also plays very loud–much louder than you’d expect. I’ve moved away from the apartment in the city, with too many neighbors on all sides, to a house in the middle of nowhere where I can play “Chocolate Chip Trip” all hours of the day in a very large room. If I’m gonna start off my new listening space with a small bookshelf monitor, it’s gotta be one that has plenty of gumption.
Notice how I haven’t used “two-way” in my description of the Aretai Contra 100s loudspeakers yet? That’s because it has two 6″ woofers, one on the front and one on the back, making this a 2.5 way design. The Contra 100s is also a sealed design, so Aretai ensures that this design solution provides deep bass down to 30 Hz. As the website explains:
“The unique and innovative filter design, bi-pole radiation pattern and the closed type enclosure enables Contra 100S two 6” drivers to deliver a surprisingly deep and well-textured bass combined with a coherent midbass and treble balance.
“The bass response of this 2.5-way speaker extends down to 30Hz. To eliminate shifted phase summation typical for ported systems of similar size we deliberately designed a sealed enclosure to keep the bass perfectly tight.”
The neodymium tweeter has been coupled to the unique waveguide, which ensures the Aretai Contra 100s also extends up to 25kHz. That’s a pretty wide frequency response for such a small speaker (40 by 21 by 25 cm), although Aretai states that the 100s is designed for small-to-medium rooms. Perhaps that explains why this speaker was situated in such a small space at Munich, but I’ll tell you a secret. At one of the other shows during this year, I heard the Contra 100s playing in a larger room, far away from the walls, and that’s when I noticed the Aretais were particularly impressive in going loud and deep without losing their sense of clarity and focus.
The enclosure itself features a sort of matte black finish in its standard configuration–which is why I’ve had such problems with taking decent photographs of it in my show coverage. (Options include gloss finishes and veneers and glossy veneers.) Up close, however, the Aretai Contra 100s speakers have excellent build quality and are quite attractive. I was temporarily thrown by the dimple in the middle of the dome of the tweeter, and I had flashbacks to the days when I tried to be a proper audiophile with two toddlers running around and I had my share of disasters with dome tweeters that were pushed in and I had to fix with a pair of double-sided tape.
Janis Irbe elaborates:
“This tweeter type is called a ‘ring radiator’. The tip of most dome tweeters start expressing an anti-phase movement due to counterpressure of air when played very loud thus creating non-linearities in upper HF range. Ring radiator’s tip is fixed in space (you can touch and feel it) and thus able to withstand child curiosity-driven will to press against it without damage. For this type of tweeter the air movement is initiated by the wide ring between the tip and the suspension. For domes without waveguides indirect HF radiation typically starts to fall above 8kHz, for domes with in waveguides above 10-12kHz. In contrary, Contra 100S’s dispersion is nearly constant up to 15kHz thanks to its custom designed shape combined with the ring radiator tweeter. It contributes to soundstage coherence, higher upper frequency limit and correct speaker-room-listener interaction, especially in more reflective rooms. It might be the first waveguide-loaded implementation of this type of tweeter in the industry.”
On the Aretai website, the Contra 100s were listed with an efficiency of 85 dB with a 4 ohm impedance, and 100wpc was offered as an ideal amount of amplifier juice. I had plenty of power in the form of the Audio-gd Master 10 Mk. 2 integrated amplifier, which delivers 500wpc into 4 ohms. Janis Irbe noted, however, that those specs have changed:
“At some point we made minor changes in the crossover raising sensitivity to 87dB at same 4 Ohms impedance. The lowest impedance value is 3.90 Ohms at 100Hz reaching a few dozen Ohms at the midrange providing an easy, low-distortion load mode for most amplifiers.
“While 70-100 Watts might be a good start, it is a bonus to have amp of at least twice the nominal power of these speakers. We liked them with Benchmark AHB2 capable of 480W at 6 Ohms bridged. Turned out it was also stable with 4 Ohms. The peaks were exceptionally clean. Same observations with 120 tube watts of Convergent Audio Technology JL5.”
I used the ArgentPur Ag 12 speaker cables with the Contras, perhaps for the lone reason that these cables seem optimized to bring out additional size and depth to small monitors. (I explore that further in the ArgentPur review.)
I placed the Aretai Contra 100s on the Acora Acoustics SRS-G granite stands, which tend to offer clear benefits for every bookshelf speakers placed upon them. Since each Aretai Contra 100s weighs a hefty 15 kilos, I knew the SRS-Gs would provide a stable platform without any wobbling–especially considering the thick carpeting in my new listening room. When I first set the Aretais on the stands, however, I was worried about the unexpected backward tilt. I’m not quite trusting the floors of my new listening room yet, as I’ve found they’re not quite level. (Yes, I’m planning to get the floor jacked up from underneath so I can host some of those big, heavy speakers I couldn’t review while I was in Portland.)
That’s when I noticed the base that’s attached to the bottom of the Contras is wedge-shaped and the backwards tilt is intentional. This base is described by Aretai as a vibration coupling pad, but I’m sure this feature also provides correct time alignment for the drivers. Janis Irbe confirmed this: “You are correct about time alignment. The tilt also lessens floor bounce reflection and provides higher soundstage position. This 2.3 degree tilt indeed makes some difference.”
The rest of the system is noteworthy because it represents the inaugural system in my new digs–so I needed to spend a little extra time in determining what the Aretai Contra 100s brought to the party vs. everything else that was new. As a result, I had multiple speakers for comparison–the Piega Coax 411s, the Gershman Acoustics Studio XdBs, the Falcon Acoustics M10s and my reference Brigadier Audio (now Serhan/Swift) BA2 monitors. Sources included a lot of digital–the Antipodes Oladra music server, the Innuos Pulsar network streamer and the Merason DAC-1 Mk. 2 DAC. Analog was covered by the Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard turntable with Cornet 2 arm, the Luxman LMC-5 cartridge and the Allnic Audio H-6500 phono stage. Power management was provided by an AudioQuest Niagara 3000, with the remainder of the cabling courtesy of Furutech NCF.
Aretai Contra 100S Sound
At first, I felt that the Aretai Contra 100s speakers sounded quite different than they did at the various audio shows–as they should. Instead of a bold and slightly forward but incredibly clear sound, the Contras presented an incredibly deep soundstage with most of the action happening well behind my system. But even in this big room, with the Contras at least five or six feet from the back walls, that superb balance in the low frequencies was still very much intact. Even with small scale jazz trios, the Aretais managed a visceral edge to transients that I could feel in my chest.
Initially, the soundstage width didn’t quite match the incredible soundstage depth. I thought this might be a feature of the new room, but the Piega Coax 411s flourished in this respect with the same exact positioning. Then I remembered that the rear-firing woofer makes this a bi-pole design, which means that toe-in becomes important. I increased the toe-in, and the soundstage generously spread to the edges of the room.
Then I remembered that the positioning of the Aretais at trade shows were usually minimal with the baffles facing straight out. That’s not my favorite way to go, mostly because I think it introduces center-fill issues while making me feel a tad wall-eyed at the same time. No toe-in angle was preferable to my first, usual positioning for monitors, but not quite as natural and spacious as my eventual setting with more toe-in. Again, I’m feeling my way around this room and its irregular dimensions–you’ll just need to spend a little more time figuring out the best position for you and your earholes. With rear-firing drivers and even ports, this will always be the case.
Again, Janis Irbe:
“Right. In smaller rooms with speakers being closer to walls the lesser toe-in allows for phantom images to appear half-way to the walls making soundstage wider. I larger rooms I also prefer more toe-in like you did it.”
Remember how I mentioned “Chocolate Chip Trip” earlier in this review? Since I have both the Antipodes Oladra music server and the Merason DAC-1 Mk.2 on hand, my first listening session involved plenty of that demo track. (A reader just asked me to write an article explaining why CCT is such an outstanding demo track–the truth is, I just wanted people at shows to stop asking me what I wanted to hear.) Since my initial impressions of the Aretai Contra 100s loudspeakers were based on its enormous power and sonic presence, I had a hunch that it would excel with Tool–and it did. I stopped thinking of the Aretai as loud and clear and deep, and I started thinking about how well it handled dynamic shifts. (If CCT is anything, it’s dynamic as all get-out.)
But an audiophile can’t live on Danny Carey’s long-limbed, feverish drumming alone. I have two new titles in from 2L Recordings, Trio Mediaeval’s An Old Hall Ladymass and The Trondheim Concertos, performed by Baroque Ensemble of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. The former title is quite simple, just three voices and Catalina Vicens on organetto, all recorded in a big spacious church. The Aretai Contra 100s speakers added something quite valuable to its repertoire of pure power–the ability to breath an amazing amount of air along specific points within the soundstage. (I know, that sounds like I’m discussing imaging, but this is more about the distance between the images.)
The Trondheim Concertos turned out to be a pure gift for someone like me, someone who discovered classical music back in college and started with small baroque ensembles. This album focuses on the 18th century, when the city of Trondheim grew into an economic center after the end the Great Nordic War. These nine musicians cover pieces from Joseph Meck, Johan Berlin and Vivaldi, music that is a part of the old Trondheim traditions as a center for contemporary music. For me, this music packs a pure emotional wallop with its specific imagery and its melodic beauty–this is music that will cause you to melt in your listening chair until you become nothing more than a gooey, satiated lump.
Evidently I’m circling back to the whole Latvian thing, especially because there isn’t a lot of distance between Norway and the Baltic States, but that’s the reason why I found the Aretai Contra 100s speakers so attractive–I could feel the bond between gear and Nordic music while plundering my vast collection of 2L, and I rediscovered many gems from the last decade that have so much meaning and beauty. These are speakers that convey an emotional context better than most small monitors at this price point, thanks to their ability to properly balance the ebb and flow of the musical energy with the rhythmic underpinnings that spring from the finer details.
The Aretai Contra 100s is extremely adept at going low for a speaker of this size. While it seemed that a few dB were shaved off the lowest bass synthesizer notes during the title track from Radiohead’s Kid A, that test has tripped up even some of the large floorstanders I’ve had in for review. This is synthesized bass, after all, plumped up and pushed aggressively and artificially downward, but I also believe the Contra 100s were giving me a full, honest account of the music. (I did consider that this is where the size of my big new listening room might’ve been a factor.) Despite this, the soundstage opened up on this strange and beautiful song to the point where I was hearing new little electronic bits as well as a clearer delivery of the synthesized vocals. Those were the truly magic moments with the Aretais, the moments where the music expanded in every direction and covered an amazing amount of real estate in front of my listening chair.
Aretai Contra 100S Conclusions
This is starting to happen on a yearly basis–I see a monitor from a small, previously unknown company, I predict it’s something I will really like, and I find out my intuition is the real deal when they finally arrive for a review. Last year it was the FinkTeam Kim, and this year it’s the Aretai Contra 100s.
The Contra is the perfect small monitor for those with fairly small rooms who still want an extra helping of fire and visceral joy in their musical delivery system. A compact 2.5 way speaker that can hit 30 Hz with some ease? Count me in. Despite the fact that the Aretais might have been the ideal loudspeaker back when I was in an apartment, offering the best of both worlds, I have to admit that they performed well in my new, much larger room, and they quit sounding like a bookshelf speaker once the Chocolate Chip Trip train left the station.
Are you ready to take a chance with a new brand of loudspeakers from halfway around the world? That’s your business, of course. But I can also tell the difference between a new company that seems to be on shaky ground, and a mature endeavor such as Aretai that offers a confident vision that will last well into the future. Highly recommended.