Apogee introduce a new three-way system
Ken Kessler asks, is it a gift with ribbons on the inside?
Upsetting the downward spiral, apogee have followed their least expensive all-ribbon speaker with a model for the upper reaches of the price list. the spiral went: Full-Range (original) Apogee, Scintilla, Duetta and then Caliper; those waiting for a budget Apogee were hoping that Speaker No. 5 would have been the long-awaited 'affordable' model. It's still on the cards, but for the moment the company is happy to produce a speaker, which fits size- and price-wise between the Scintilla and the original.
A number of details, size aside, distinguish the Diva from the Scintilla. For openers, this is a three-way system with the mid and treble ribbons physically separated rather than overlapping as per Scintilla. Although the speaker cannot be tri-amped or tri-wired, the connections from the external crossover box are direct to each of the three sets of ribbons. It's this outboard unit, which is the most apparent 'thematic' difference, taking the circuitry out of the enclosure and adding 'fine-tuning' controls as per the Duetta II.
The box is a 17x 13 x 5in (wdh) passive unit, which sits between the feet at the back of the Diva. At the front are three sets of Monster Cable binding posts that connect to short lengths of cable protruding from the bottom of the speaker. The back edge bears two sets of binding posts for either bi-wiring or bi-amplification; I used the former method. Four toggles allow the user to tailor the sound for a given installation.
As each channel has its own box, the user with a 'sonically asymmetrical' room (e.g. one side heavily-curtained) can account to some degree for left/right tonal imbalances. Although most users will perform adjustments by ear, the more numerate may prefer to work with SPL meters, test tones and other measurement paraphernalia, so it helps to know that the woofer-to-mid crossover point is 550Hz and the mid-to-tweeter transition occurs at 12kHz. Crossover slopes are mild, at 6dB per octave; impedances remain low at 3.9-4.5ohms for the woofer/mid assembly and 2.7-4.0ohms for the tweeter, for a nominal 3ohms overall.
While not the biggest speaker to emerge from this company - the original holds that distinction - the 10st 10lb Diva is still 73in tall. The Diva dominates a room, but the slim profile, its width a mere 31 in, deems it an elegant bit of sculpture. Available in shades of grey or taupe (a light beige), these slabs have one Achilles' heel in that the grilles cannot stop a wayward thumb, cats' or dogs' claw or hyperactive brats. When moving them, you're ever-conscious of not touching the grille areas, and the sweat on the brow only stops when you've sited them for keeps. (When queried about damage in the field, Apogee said that more damage happened in the shops than in homes. Something to do with curious customers who just have to touch the ribbons.) The ribbons are aluminium with a Kapton backing, so they're not to blame for the weight. Neither could the company lessen the mass of the steel frame or shave the enclosure, which leaves the rows of ceramic magnets. What about going to Neodymium types I asked? The answer was that the rare-earth wonders, while saving some weight and space, would push the price through the ceiling.
Once out of the box, aluminium frames are fitted which support the speaker in an absolutely vertical manner, the feet accepting large threaded spikes to aid in levelling. Once you've moved them to a standing position, you emulate Sister Kate, and I'd advise you to leave the spikes in the little plastic bag until the speakers are in situ.
The 20-page owner's manual makes it quite clear where you should position the Divas, and the instructions were spot on; no more messing about with a micrometer as per the Scintilla. With a listening position approximately 12ft from the speakers, depending on room size, the Divas should lie located 4-5ft apart, with toe-in limited to 0-3/8in and no tilting, Apogee's Jason Bloom has been more specific, citing 82-84in as the ideal inner spacing, but room size and distance from the speakers will influence the final positioning. Either way, I found these speakers a breeze to position compared to the Scintillas, and was pleased to find that they delivered 90% of their performance when I had them shoved right up against the wall, the depth of the black box determining the distance.
More illustrative are the findings in other installations, I've now heard Divas in friends' homes, twice at Apogee's own demonstrations at hi-fi shows, and in others' rooms at shows. Thus I have had very intense listening sessions in at least five environments other than my own, with only the Apogee show demos having exactly the same ancillary equipment, What I learned prior to setting them up in my own room is that (1) the Diva does offer leeway in positioning (2) the settings on the crossover box are entirely dependent on the room and the equipment, thus precluding any general advice for their usage; and (3) these speakers are far less amp-restrictive than the Scintillas, While each demonstration used Krell amplifiers, other amplifiers have been heard through these with great success.
I'd love to be able to tell you what settings I used on the crossover box, but that would only serve to confuse. I say that because no two Diva systems I've heard elsewhere had exactly the same settings. And when you think about the number of combinations-two 2-way and two 3-way switches per side - I came up with something absurd, like 1296 if you also vary the settings for left-and-right. (Mind you, my maths are weaker than a barfly's bladder.) Whatever, your room is not my room. So telling you something like flat on the mid and upper-mid, cut on the bass and cut on the tweeter will not help you one bit. All I can say is start at 'Normal' and have a friend switch the toggles while you stay in the hot seat. You'll soon get the hang of it, despite the subtlety of each flick. The changes are audible, and can yield a reward akin to upgrading from, say, solid-core to real cables.
Which brings us to the impedance: I have now heard the Divas with four different Krell models, the Beard 200W monoblock tube amplifiers, the Primare 928s, the Nestorovic tubes amps, Mondial's Aragon 4004 and the smallest Sumo. Every single one of the non-Krell amplifiers drove these to satisfactory levels in a 7.1 X 7.4 meter room. Now I'm not saying that they're all ideal choices, because the wee Sumo (under £600, too) could easily turn grainy and nasty and run hot with sustained usage or high level demands; I only tried it out of a sense of duty and it increased my admiration for that amplifier.
I spent most of my Diva-time with the Aragon (partly because the reviewing sessions ran in tandem), the Alphason Sonata/Ortofon MC 3000 front-end, preamps from Sumo, Primare, Vacuum State and Rose, and a train of CD players and cassette decks. Listening time prior to sitting down and writing was well over 250 hours.
Let's face it: I knew these were truly grand products before they were hooked up, at least two of the demonstrations I heard bordering on satori. A blast of Persuasions at the October Stereophile Show from an LP I know inside-out - provided among the most life-like vocals I've ever heard from a hi-fi. Another sonic Q-Tip was some vintage Ella, which I used when helping a friend, set up his Divas in a room, which was prior to refitting, less than ideal for such a large dipole. In both cases, I heard yet more and better music from known recordings, and that to me is the definition of progress in audio, It is the only justification for upgrading, for pursuing hi-fi excellence beyond initial acquisition. Indeed, I've had more of those jolts of reality (as identified by J Gordon Holt) courtesy of the Divas than through any other speakers yet in my own system. Two main characteristics are especially noteworthy, either in terms of the standards attained by the Scintilla or any other high-end designs I've used one-on-two. The first is the speaker's uncanny ability to provide impact, slam if you will, without sounding oppressive. All of the energy and power of a performance is there for the listener to behold, yet at no time does it seem like you're being beaten over the head with the music. The latter occurs with a lot of large systems, regardless of playback levels, and it grows tiresome after the initial breathtaking thrill. Hey, it's simply great if you're a dealer A/B'ing speakers in the shop and want to make a quicker sale, but such relentless behaviour is a sure-fire recipe for listener fatigue, With the Diva, it comes out as control, command, authority, without approaching the dictatorial. Best of all, it's not at the expense of dynamic range, and everything is preserved.
The other trait which rattled my senses is a seamlessness not just in the sonic terrain but in the spatial. I don't remember which perceptive journalist first postulated this particular condition, but he pointed out that it's possible to have 3-D portrayal without each individual instrument/performer being 3-D within itself, The marvellous illustration for this state of affairs involved likening the sound to that of the images obtained when looking through a Viewmaster 3-D viewer. Depth of field is there aplenty, but each image is like 2-D paper cut-out. That in itself is bad enough, but what compounds it is a feeling that each instrument is in its own recording venue, let alone its own space. With the Divas, the spatial characteristics, the image location, the depth and the relative location of each sound to another were perfectly reproduced, yet the sounds blended by just the right 'Amount to enable the listener to experience them as being of a whole'. Some may prefer a much more discrete, soldiers-in-a-row sensation, but no live performance I've ever attended - classical, jazz, rock or otherwise - ever presented less than a wall of sound. Instruments can be located within, but they don't stand entirely alone.
This doesn't mean that there's so much bleed-through from one instrument to another that shape and individual identity are lost. This is not an apology for some form of smearing. I can only liken it to two drawings in, which one has the subjects painted only with the colours to define the shapes and forms, while the other has black lines around each shape to overemphasise each section. The latter may be more vivid, but it's less life-like. As for the stage in which everything is placed, the Divas are just what you'd expect from a company with an official listener who places stage height, width and depth near the top of the priorities list. Wider than the Scintilla's stage, similar depth not a speaker for agoraphobes.
The bass performance of the Diva is unlike that of the Scintilla as it's more predictable, with less tendency toward the overpowering. Extension is greater, yet the quantitative balance between the lowest octaves and the mid/treble is tipped the other way. The Scintilla, if not positioned just so and matched with exactly the right equipment, can sound fat and rich from the lower midrange on down; positioning and cable and amp selection will tighten things up to the right degree, With the Diva, at the preferred 4ft from the wall, the bass is more controlled and natural straight out of the box.
What may disappoint some about the bass is the very characteristic I prefer. I have at present a pair of TDL's top speakers, the Reference Monitors, and they have a super clean, tight-as-a-drum character down below which I can appreciate as wooing a number of followers. This tautness is lacking in the Divas (and just about every other panel I've tried), and may be a characteristic which will find favour with those who place great importance on exceptional bass transients. Which is more accurate depends on your worldview, and if you listen to a lot of synthesiser-sourced bass or drums, you'll probably prefer the TDL approach. (And it is seductive as hell) On the other hand, the softer approach favours decay rather than transients, and provides a more natural sense of ambience on acoustic bass. Matters of degree are such that either speaker will cope with natural and synthetic bass. so this will not be a deciding factor except for some with hearing which only works in the lowest registers. Listen to Willy DeVille's 'Assassin of Love', any recent reggae and some truly powerful classical on the Diva… then on speakers like the TDL’s or KEF 107s for a bold illustration of an otherwise subtle effect.
Where the Diva also veers from the Scintilla is its upper-to-lower balance. The similarities are such that you'll hear an immediate family resemblance, in that both are open and sweet, with no gross colorations, but the emphasis differs. The Scintilla is slightly recessed in the midband, and the audible effect is that of the players being either in the plane of the speakers or behind them. With the Diva, the players move closer to the listener, but without landing in one's lap. This spatial variance, akin to changing rows in the audience, is interesting but not of prime concern unless you are the type who would have a coronary if moved from Row D to Row E. What's more likely to cause one to prefer the Diva over the Scintilla (or vice versa) is the former's more prominent top end relative to its midband.
There is only one negative aspect of this more energetic treble region - and that's a less graceful manner in handling sibilance. Keep in mind that I'm describing this as relative to the Scintilla; compared with it number of its competitors the Diva is as well-behaved as a Boy Scout. (Well, one of yore.) My pet tracks for inducing edge are Juice Newton's ‘Queen Of Hearts’ and Poco's ‘Keep On Tryin’; the Scintilla is the only speaker I've used which reproduces those tracks with all of the treble intact but with the spit kept at bay. The Diva's performance with those tracks included minor sizzling on 'S' sounds, only ameliorated by setting the upper mid and treble toggles in the low position.
Which rather undermines my criticisms. Because these are minor, and most fall within the province of the crossover box settings or cable selection. It's easy for the user to factor out these slight irritations. What will not change is the overall character, that of a speaker able to convey power and scope as per dynamic systems, while offering the openness and transparency, the detail and authority I've come to expect of planar systems. What they fail to provide is the artificial excitement I so deplore in other exotics which appear to have been designed around recordings of thunderstorms.
But are they eight grand's worth'? If I say 'Yes', I'll be pilloried for praising a costly product. But if I say 'No', I'll be lying. And my nose is big enough without emulating Pinocchio.
MANUFACTURER'S SPECIFICATION APOGEE DIVA
Frequency response * 25Hz - 25kHz
Crossover points 550Hz. 12kHz
Impedance (nominal) 3 ohms
Amplifier requirement 200W into 4ohms
Maximum SPL 115dB at 4m
Dimensions (whd) 31 x73x3in
Weight 150lb each
Typical price inc VAT £8000
* no limits quoted
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