APOGEE STAGE LOUDSPEAKER
Two-way all-"ribbon" dipole. Frequency range: 35Hz-20kHz. Nominal impedance: 3 ohms. Minimum amplifier power: 50W. Maximum sound-pressure level: 107dB peak (C weighting) at 4 meters using a 50W amplifier. Dimensions: 36" H by 26" W by 2' D. Weight: 60 pounds each. Finish: Taupe or black with mahogany trim. Price: $1995/pair. Approximate number of dealers: 86. Manufacturer: Apogee Acoustics, Inc., 35 York Industrial Park, Randolph, MA 02368. Tel: (617) 963-0124.
The Case of the Shrinking Apogee
As LA (that's Laura Atkinson) shuffled into my listening room one evening, she spied the Stage loudspeakers tucked away in the corner. "Hey, Dick, those look like Apogees, but they're kind of small." Rising to the occasion, I responded with: "Honey I shrunk the Apogees." At roughly 3' tall by 2' wide, the Stage is far from intimidating; it even feels more compact and is certainly much cuter looking than the old Quad ESL. Yet junior's resemblance to the rest of the Apogee family is unmistakable. The canted baffle, the vertical tweeter /midrange along the inside edge of the baffle, and the pleated aluminum-foil woofer clearly bear the imprint of the larger Caliper and Duetta models. It's almost as though Apogee started shrinking the Duetta until the price tag shrank below two kilobucks. But just because it's the baby in the line and their currently most affordable all -ribbon speaker, it would be a mistake to regard the Stage as a budget model. The level of finish is superb; no corners were cut. And surprisingly, the sound quality does not take a back seat to its more expensive relatives, which should be incredibly good news to most audiophiles.
Ribbons: to rib or not to Rib
The strict classical definition of a ribbon involves a metallic foil which is freely suspended in the primary field of a magnet. Apogee's tweeter/midrange ribbon obviously qualifies as a "ribbon," therefore. The metal conductors are supported only at top and bottom and hang between the opposed North and South poles of two arrays of magnets. There has been some controversy over the exact technical definition of the Apogee woofer, however. Is it really a ribbon? No, in the strict sense of the word. But in the jargon of the '80s, it clearly qualifies as such. Modern ribbons usually consist of a thin aluminum conductor deposited on a plastic substrate which is then placed in the leakage field of a magnet. The conductor is adjacent to a sheet of magnets, but is never between the north -south poles of the magnetic circuit where the flux lines are strongest.
Like a Magneplanar, but unlike an Eminent Technology push-pull Ribbon, the Stage woofer is a single-ended design. There is a single array of magnets on the back side to provide the driving force. Theoretically, a push-pull design is superior because it eliminates driving- force non-linearities. For single-ended operation, the driving force becomes nonlinear as the ribbon is displaced farther and farther from the magnets. The non-linearity, however, only becomes serious as the ribbon's excursion becomes large. And certainly the proof is in the listening. Both Apogee and Magneplanar have produced eminently listenable speakers over the years.
The crossover frequency is around 800Hz. The cutoff slope of the network is a constant voltage 6dB/octave, gradually increasing to 12dB/octave, while a rear switch, labeled "HI" and "NORMAL," allows the treble balance to be adjusted. Two pairs of five-way binding posts allow the Stage to be bi-wired, if so desired. The radiation pattern is dipole or figure-eight-with the main lobes to the front and back and little radiation to the sides. I personally like the controlled dispersion of a dipole because of the reduction of early sidewall reflections. Reflections arriving within an 8-10ms window of the first wavefront are most troublesome, as they color instrumental, timbres and, depending on their intensity, also serve to diffuse image specificity. The real issue for a dipole, then, has to do with the backwave. What do you do with it? Surely, to place a dipole very close to the back wall is to court sonic disaster. Unless the back wall is a sonic "black hole:' there will be many early reflections. One school of thought prescribes a breathing space of, say, four to five feet from the back wall. The logic behind this is that back- wall reflections will now be delayed at least 8ms and thus will offer only minimal interference with the direct sound. As a bonus, the argument goes, the late reflections will enhance the spaciousness and perceived depth of the soundstage. There is no doubt that this approach works, and that in some rooms it works well even without any acoustical treatment of the back wall; for example, the Sound-Lab A-3s in JGH's old listening room in Santa Fe. Here, even with a bare concrete back wall, the A-3 did very well as long as it was kept at least 5' out in the room. In general, however, I'm dubious that such an approach will work in most rooms without some acoustical damping of the back wall.
Miracle at the Sands
Apogee's Jason Bloom is not one to bury his head in the sand. But during the 1990 Winter CES, I found him holding court at the Sands, one of the Strips's old-guard hotels. That's where 1 got my first glimpse of the Stage. Positioned 4' from a bare wall and listening in the far field, the Stage produced magnificent sound. I remember thinking to myself, Jason has done it again-best sound at the show. The soundstage was utterly transparent from the most delicate treble detail to the bowels of the bass octaves. The veiling that afflicts an appalling number of other loudspeakers by obscuring detail and robbing the music of a sense of immediacy had evaporated. That, coupled with exceptional speed, clarity, good dynamic range, and a strong sense of spatial coherence, made the reproduction transcend mere hi-fi. The Stage elicited my immediate respect. It was a magical moment that facilitated a closer link to the experience of live music. Of course, we were listening to Jason's hand-picked CDs, with which I was not familiar, and no, I was not sure that timbres were right-on. The voicing of the speaker was a bit on the cool side of reality. But, just the same, what a dramatic entrance. If the world is a stage, the Stage had to be a world of a loudspeaker. Naturally, I was interested in a review. I'm not sure if it was my reaction that did it, but Jason promised to send a pair to Santa Fe for review.
Santa Fe: first impressions
As it turned out, I received the same pair of loudspeakers I'd heard in Las Vegas. The accompanying Owner's Manual was very specific in detailing Apogee's thoughts on what constitutes the optimum setup geometry, including the requirement to locate the speaker precisely 4' from the rear wall. I had resolved to undertake a spring cleanup of Stereophile's listening room, to reduce the clutter and free up the front of the room so that the Stage could be afforded just the right performance environment. In the meantime, it seemed worthwhile to experiment with the Stage in what is normally the minimonitor position in the room about a third of the way into the room from the front wall.
To be perfectly honest, I was a bit apprehensive about the Stages prospects. What came to mind was the scenario involving the Caliper. Having been blown away by their performance in Chicago in the Summer of '86, I eagerly awaited their arrival in Santa Fe. Yet JA was unable to coax them into the level of magical performance I remembered so well. He tried and tried, but they never came alive here the way they had in Chicago. Was this to be a case of déja vu?
Another reason for concern was Jason's repeated statements to the effect that the Stage a priori needed a live room for proper tonal balance. The implication being that an unattenuated back wave is important for the Stage's upper-octave balance and that the speaker sounds best in the far field. Well, at least the latter point turned out to be true in my room. From basic principles, I'm uneasy about letting the room into the tonal-balance equation in the middle and upper octaves. Ordinary room surfaces emphasize certain frequency bands by absorbing some frequencies more strongly than others. The end result is iffy at best; the room is given the chance to impose its sonic impression or signature on the music. If at all possible, I'd much rather squelch the contribution of the room by using absorptive materials, or at least balance out the room response with the use of diffusers.
A basic and apparently chronic problem of the Apogee line has been its tonal balance: too much bass and not enough treble. That's how the Caliper sounded. And if you examine the Diva's frequency response (see AB's review, Vol.11 No.8), you can clearly see that the lower mids and the deep bass are emphasized in relation to the upper mids and treble. The response begins to droop at 400Hz and is down a full 5dB from 3kHz to 15kHz.
My initial listen to the Stage did nothing to dispel this impression. The clarity and transparency I remembered from Las Vegas were not diminished, but there was too much bass, and the range from the upper mids through the presence region was dull-sounding. At least the promise of greatness was there, however, and I was far from discouraged. It was clear even then that the speaker was something very special. The tonal balance wasn't quite right, but this speaker's transparency, speed, and cohesiveness argued persuasively that here was a transducer that could come dangerously close to sounding live. By that I mean that it sounded less obviously canned than most other speakers when listened to from outside the listening room. For example, while taking a leak in the bathroom, not really concentrating on the music, a message filtered from my subconscious mind: hey, these speakers really do sound live.
I'm sure that most of you have been in the situation of strolling down a street and catching a puff of music leaking from an open window or doorway. At that moment, have you ever had any trouble instinctively telling the difference between live and canned? I should think not. A piece of cake, right? If you've ever failed this test, do not pass go; proceed directly to jail with a lifetime subscription to Stereo Review. It's not so easy to analyse the factors that contribute to at least the audiophile's ability to so effortlessly make this sort of distinction. A key factor to my mind is that canned music is unable to communicate the dynamics, tension, and drama of live music. The Stage impressed me early on with its abilities in these areas provided that one is willing to cater to its needs.
I started this catering business with a full complement of absorptive material in the room and with the Stage anchored well away from the front wall. After several tries at different tiltback angles, or what Apogee calls the rake angle, I was still unsatisfied with the resultant balance. Contrary to Apogee's instructions, I also experimented with the toe in angle; Apogee recommends no toe-in at all. A slight toe-in proved beneficial in providing more uppermidrange energy. But there was still too much bass, and I toyed with the idea of elevating the Stage about 8" off the floor in order to reduce some of the bass energy. At this point, however, I decided to let matters rest until I could organize my listening room in the service of the Stage and also to await the arrival of Classé Audio electronics and Jason in Santa Fe. Because of Jason's strong recommendation, I arranged to borrow a pair of DR-8 power amps and a DR-6 preamp, and these were used for most of the listening tests. Also, Jason expressed the desire to assist me in the initial setup. Eventually, the stage was set for the Stage, complete with the energetic Jason Bloom.
Jason in Santa Fe
For the first couple of hours I felt like a queen bee. Here I was sitting passively in the listening scat, with Jason moving energetically around the room tweaking this and that, listening to the results, then tweaking again. The commotion had to do with moving the speakers about and slowly adding more and more absorptive material. He started with no fiberglass panels behind the speakers, but the large bay window behind the speakers caused problems. The imaging refused to gel into a tight spatial focus. A tight central image and precise soundstage localization could not be achieved until much of the rear wall was covered with fiberglass. All I could do was smile internally, nodding my head in approval as the imaging gradually improved to the point of respectability. The final position for the speakers ended up at 4' from the rear wall, a lateral separation of 70" from inside edge to inside edge, and with no toe -in. With the listening seat about 12' back from the plane of the speakers, the tweeter wasn't really that far off axis. With all of the absorptive material behind the Stage, the balance proved to be more correct with the tweeter control set to HI.
The final configuration was clearly unorthodox by Apogee's standards, but I'm sure Jason would argue that the window necessitated the actions taken. Jason proved not only a practicing pragmatist, but also to possess a keen ear. The key during the setup process proved to be lots of patience; odds are the Stage will not work right out of the box. But the patient audiophile will be rewarded with a soundstage that is quite remarkable in some respects.
To fill in the rest of the details, the DR-8s were bridged and operated in a balanced mode, with a 30' run of AudioQuest's Lapis Hyperlitz interconnect back to the preamp. The Stage was bi-wired with SYMO speaker cable. This is a relatively inexpensive cable that Apogee imports from Switzerland. It is made available to dealers, but Apogee does not actively promote the product. According to Jason, SYMO works very well with the Apogee line; much better, in fact, (he says) than some other highly touted cables. Because I found that hard to believe, and because I just happened to have a modest collection of cables on hand, we decided to conduct a quickie cable evaluation. The results proved to be quite shocking. The SYMO worked well, while TARA Labs Space & Time TFA/Return and Temporal Continuum, Cardas Hexlink, and Weber Wire all failed miserably
The basic problem was that the sound became either steely or bright. J. S. Bachs "Komm, Jesu, Komm" chorale (track 12 of the Fine Arts CD by Grundig, MD&GL 3322) was used heavily during the setup process. With the other cables, the sweetness of the soprano's upper registers evaporated to steeliness. And while the SYMO managed to preserve a sense of drama in the mids, the other cables did not. The exhalation of breath by the singers was propelled outward at warp speed by the SYMO. The others failed to reproduce the power and majesty of the mids to the same degree.
I'm not suggesting that all of the other cables are no good. Clearly, the Stage is quite sensitive to the choice of speaker cable, and in other contexts with other loads, the SYMO's competition will do very well. As you know, I've lived with Space & Time TFA /Return for a long time, and have found it to be an exceptional performer with a variety of speaker loads. This was the first instance in which it significantly failed to measure up. Just when you think you've discovered a universal cable, a counter -example presents itself. It seems to me that dealers and audiophiles had better relisten to the Apogee line with the SYMO cable in the chain.
At this point, Jason was quite pleased with the setup. He declared it to be one of the best sounds he'd ever extracted from the Stage, and if he could bottle it, he would take it with him.
Clearly, there was much to be pleased with. The addition of Theta's latest DS Pro Basic digital processor to the system brought forth the best CD sound I've ever experienced anywhere. Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei (Max Bruch: Collected Works for Cello and Orchestra, EBS 6060)* I was reproduced with startling transparency. The sensation of being able to reach out and touch someone was very strong. The upper mids were reasonably sweet, and the harmonic envelope of the cello sounded utterly cohesive. Bass detail and lack of bass coloration were far superior to any bass reproduction I've heard out of a box speaker. Bass lines were utterly clean and tightly defined. The body and extension of the cello were superbly retrieved without the colorful resonances we've grown more or less accustomed to with boxes. Instrumental outlines were naturally sketched within the soundstage, neither bloated nor collapsed to a point source as some minimonitors are apt to do. (The rising highend response typical of many minimonitors, which etches treble transients, coupled with a lack of lower-midrange energy and upperbass body, combine to collapse the apparent image size to artificial smallness.)
* The EBS fine, as well as the Fine Arts CD and other small European Libels, am available from Audio Advancements, PO. Box 100, Lincoln Park, NJ 070 3 5, Tel: (201) 633 - 1151.
The realistic reproduction of image size was consistently one of the Stage's most likable attributes. Its ability to reproduce the power and size of a cello was absolutely frightening, and in this respect it came very close to capturing the Gestalt of live music. Here's an experiment you can do quite cheaply without even having to go to a concert hall. Have some one sing in front of you, preferably in your listening room. Now, close your eyes and visualize a mental picture of the singer's outlines. You should be able to differentiate and localize the throat and chest of the singer. What you will discover, however, is that the overall outlines of the sound source appear quite large and that the sound appears to bloom and expand as the volume level is modulated. While you can at any time point unequivocally toward the spatial outlines and the center of mass of the sound, there is never the impression that the sound is emanating from a point. The Stage appeared to possess the innate ability to mimic this characteristic of live music. Staying with the cello for the moment, try Jacques Offenbach's Suite pour deux violoncelles, Op.54 (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901043). Through the Stage, the spatial outlines of the cellos were unmistakable. I would go so far as to say that the image outlines were precisely localized in the sense that one could mentally trace their spatial outlines, but each cello occupied quite a bit of space within the soundstage. The sensation of concert-hall spaciousness was captured realistically.
One aspect of the soundstage that was not reproduced nearly as well was that of depth perspective. With the Ensemble Reference that I reviewed in June, I've experienced a level of image palpability that the Stage clearly could not match. This 3-D effect was achieved with the use of the Air Tight amplifier, which of course is not the ideal amp for the Stage. It appears reasonable, therefore, to consider the Stages' soundstage depth compression an artifact of the solid-state electronics in the chain.
Reproduction of the proper tonality of a harpsichord gives many speakers a tough time. The average speaker tends to err in the direction of too clangy and overbright a tonal quality. Not the Stage. Take for example J. S. Bach's Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BVW 1027-1029 (Simax PSC- 10242).* The recording was made in the Gample Aker Church in Oslo using two B&K omnis for the harpsichord and a pair of Schoeps for the viola, all feeding a Sony F1 processor This is lovely stuff. The sensation of being within a church acoustic is very believable, and the Stage had no difficulty in recreating a clean picture of the hall sound. The attack and decay of the harpsichord transients were very clean without any perceptible smearing. The Stage released energy quickly, with impressive risetime and controlled decay. There was, however, a residual artificiality in the treble-sort of a zippy aftertaste-that again I was inclined to attribute to the electronics or possibly even the SYMO cable. This wasn't in the nature of an active irritant; it's just that the highs sounded a bit hi-fiish. Another example of this was Therese Juel's sibilants on track 1 of the Opus 3 Test Record 1. These were very well-defined, without the sizzle that often accompanies her voice. But the texture of the treble was not entirely convincing, being a lad grainy.
* Simax, a small Norwegian label, is distributed in the US by Ensemble/Graham Engineering.
Despite being the baby of the Apogee family, the Stage, as Jason puts it, Can "boogie." It can move from soft to loud, as the program material demands, with the speed and impact of a photon torpedo. Relistening to familiar program material through the Stage can prove to be a startling experience. Most of you should be familiar with Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla - the Philips recording with Jose Carreras (Philips 420 955-2). Larry Archibald has accused this performance of lacking a suitable degree of primal savagery. That may very well be, as this production highlights the lyrical aspects of the music The smooth, detailed mids were cleanly reproduced by the Stage, but this performance does pack a punch. And the drama and dynamic range of the music were not slighted, as was the case with the weight and authority of Carreras's timbre. The Stage could cover the dynamic range from soft to loud effortlessly. It did start to sound stressed, however, during very loud peaks around the mid-90s spls. This coincided with visibly gross excursions of the treble/midrange ribbon.
Next came the Lesley Test, which for me is the most revealing test of midrange and lowertreble timbral accuracy. Timbral deviations that may otherwise take me hours to pinpoint become obvious very quickly with the help of my wife Lesley's voice. The presentation was strikingly transparent, with an appealing image size and commendable solidity. There was a slightly grainy and dry quality through Lesley's upper octaves. Her lower registers were just fine, without any resonant colorations. The middle registers were smooth, but the upper registers were somewhat dull and lacking in sheen. Lesley's vibrato was slightly dry-sounding and lacking textural richness, as if the upper mids were recessed. Transients were reproduced amazingly fast, and with excellent control. The bottom-line impression was that the upper mids were lacking sheen and sunshine.
More cables, amps, and preamps
Although I was by now quite pleased with the Stage's level of performance, I was not yet convinced that I had realized its full potential. It seemed reasonable to me to try to improve matters further in the areas of extreme treble smoothness, soundstage depth, and tonal balance. Toward that end I undertook additional listening tests with several other amps and preamps and a remarkable set of cables that had just arrived on my doorstep.
First, the cable. As good as the SYMO was, and certainly at its asking price it's unbeatable, 1 still had an inkling that it might not be the optimum speaker cable money could buy for the Stage. According to Jason, Sumiko's OCOS cable also works very well with the Stage. But what did arrive in time to include in the testing was the Lindsay-Geyer cable. This is a cable I'll have a lot more to say about very shortly; a full review is forthcoming. It's a bizarre cable in that it breaks convention by using a magnetic conductor- traditionally considered a no-no for HF conduction. While others try to minimize the skin effect, David Lindsay tries to maximize it. Because of its high resistance, it is better suited for interconnect applications. Even with six strands per leg, the Lindsay speaker cable still comes in at around an ohm DC resistance for short lengths. At the time I only had a pair of 6' lengths of the speaker cable, so in the bi-wire mode 1 was only able to substitute the Lindsay for either the tweeter or woofer runs.
With the treble connection via the Lindsay cable, it was immediately obvious that the treble was smoother. More detail was apparent through the upper octaves, and the extreme top was more natural -sounding. Still, the upper mids were drier-sounding than the SYMO. With the Lindsay feeding the woofer, there wasn't much of a benefit in the treble, while the quality of the bass deteriorated. The bass octaves lost their tightness and control. To evaluate the SYMO and Lindsay one-on-one, I had to return to a single- wire connection of the Stage. With the SYMO completely out of the signal path, the spatial impression became more solid and palpable-more 3-D, if you will. But, again, the bass suffered, being more loosely defined than before. The final possibility was to shotgun or parallel the SYMO and Lindsay for each channel, and this turned out to be the best of both worlds. The upper mids became slightly more alive and sweeter, while the bass stayed tightly defined with all of the heft and impact of the all-SYMO connection.
With the success evidenced by the Lindsay speaker cable, I moved on to their interconnect. The first change was from the Kimber KCAG to 2 meters of the Lindsay between the Theta DS Pro and the Classé DR-6 preamp. The sound became smoother, yet with cleaner and more delicate textures. Image outlines became tighter in space. More information was resolved. Massed voices were better delineated, and soprano upper registers were more natural sounding. Next to be replaced was the 30' run of AudioQuest Lapis Hyperlitz from the preamp to the amp with a 25' run of Lindsay. The presentation grew even more relaxed and better-focused. The sense of cohesiveness was greatly enhanced-as though the Lindsay was able to align treble transients with the rest of the harmonic envelope and thus reduce spatial smear. This stuff really works! The cable is stiff, behaves like an oversized slinky, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But it was able to push the performance level of the Stage to a higher plateau: more natural highs, improved soundstage focus and palpability, and a slightly better balance through the upper mids. But I was still not happy with the recessed tonality of the upper mids.
I compared the line-level section of the Classé DR-6 with those of the Threshold FET10/e and the Air Tight ATC-1 preamps. If anything, the FET-10/e was even more detailed, but its upper registers were not as smooth. The treble did not soar and bloom nearly as well, and the DR-6, on the basis of being slightly warmer and sweeter in the midrange, proved a much better match for the Stage. The Air Tight sacrifices detail in favor of a softer presentation that, in the tradition of tubes, was also lusher and warmer than that of the DR-6. The bass was a weakness, though, being less extended and not as well- delineated. Late in the evaluation, I received a sample of the Cary Audio 5500 analog CD processor. My first impression was that this is one hell of a processor. It carried the Stage and the entire system to new heights (a full review is forthcoming). The areas of transduction in which the Stage already excelled became even stronger: soundstage transparency and the clarity and ease of the presentation were noticeably increased. And as a bonus, the mids became more liquid and suave, while the sense of depth increased as you would expect from a tubed unit. It also appeared that one reason for its success was the excellence of its line-level section. The Stage needs a bit of tube sound to smooth the highs and liquefy the mids, and the Cary proved to be a most accommodating partner.
A combination that worked quite well during analog playback was the FET-10/e phono stage feeding the Air Tight ATC-1 line-level stage. The DR-6 was more dynamic, but failed to reproduce depth perspective as well.
Several amps were auditioned in the hopes of finding an even more synergistic match than the Classé Audio DR-8s. The Threshold 12/e amps came in for a brief audition, more out of curiosity than anything else. With a price tag at well over 10 kilobucks, they're not likely to partner a $2000/pair speaker. But you don't have to worry: though the sound was very smooth and the treble was better controlled, with less fizz, than that of the DR-8s, it never came alive. The drama and musical tension that the DR-8 generated failed to materialize with the Threshold.
The Mark Levinson No.29 dual-monaural amp was next, proving smooth and very detailed with the Stage. It had no problem at all resolving the audience participation on the "Goodnight Irene" cut of the Weavers album (Vanguard VSD-2150). The treble was not as extended or as airy And the mids, while exceptionally liquid for a solid-state amp, were in general laid-back. That's precisely what the Stage did not need. Itzhak Perlman's violin tone (Bruch's Violin Concerto 1, EMI ASD- 2926) was not as sweet as it should have been. After a while I also began to notice a reduction in dynamic contrasts. A switch back to the DR-8 enhanced the sweetness of the upper mids and also enabled the Stage to go from loud to very loud much more convincingly. It was as though the Apogee came alive with the DR-8. The sense of excitement returned in spades.
Taj Mahal's Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff (Columbia 31605) brimmed with raw energy. Listen to "SweetHome Chicago" with the young Pointer sisters in the background to see what 1 mean. It has to do with immediacy; the music communicated more readily with the DR-8.
The final contestant was the Muse Electronics 100W stereo amp. I was interested in it because it was reasonably priced at around $1200, and rumor had it that it was a fine match for the Stage. Well, it was like a flashback to the '60s. The darn thing sounded so much like an Ampzilla that I had to verify the date to assure myself 1 had not fallen into a timewarp. The Muse sounded pretty good, but far from good enough to extract the Stage's full potential. The Stage revealed the Muse's shortcomings easily enough. The sound was pleasant enough with strong bass, but there were losses in the areas of transparency and detail resolution. The highs were closed-in and lacking in air, textures were slightly grainy and hard- not what the doctor ordered for the Stage.
The final tweak
With all of the speaker cable and interconnect changes described so far, the Stage had gained tighter image focus and enhanced transparency Textures were cleaner so that inner detail was easier to resolve, and the upper mids had picked up a measure of sweetness so that this range was now just slightly dull and lackluster. Pilar Lorengar as Princess Pamina (The Magic Flute, London OSA- 1397) was beginning to sound much more correct tonally. it was time for one final tweak.
I tried a modest toe- in of 5" as measured from the outside edge of the frame relative to the original straight-out position. This placed the tweeter/midrange ribbon on the listening axis, as opposed to being about 10 to 15 degrees off-axis before. Before too long, I had to return the tweeter control to the Normal position to cut the lower treble by about 2dB. But the overall tonal-balance transformation was astounding! The laid-back character of the Stage I had attributed to an upper-midrange recession disappeared. Female voice, including Lesley's, was almost right-on in timbral accuracy
Take a look at fig.1, which shows the in-room response of the Stage at 2 meters, on-axis with the tweeter. Here the tweeter control is in the HI position. Fig.2 shows the in-room response at the same location with the tweeter in the Normal position. The strong deep- bass emphasis in the range from 40 to 50Hz is clearly evident. But above 200Hz, the response is quite uniform (each division represents 2dB). There is certainly no evidence of a midrange recession. Let's move the mike to the listening position and look at what happens in fig. 3. Here, with the mike off-axis in relation to the tweeter, a midrange recession is quite obvious from 500Hz to about 2kHz. Look at the energy output at 2kHz relative to that at 5kHz and 300Hz. This is a significant and broad valley that you'd better believe is audible. Finally, in fig.4, the measurement of fig.3 is repeated- but with the speaker toed- in 5" toward the listening seat. The midrange response is much more uniform now, resembling that at 2 meters, and the midrange recession has vanished. What all of this means is that setting up the Stage is a bit tricky and requires experimentation with not only the rake angle and distance to the wall, but also with toe- in. Based on my experience so far, the Stage's sweet spot is quite narrow. Venture more than slightly off-axis and the tonal balance changes.
Fig1 to Fig.3
JA adds some measurements
After Dick delivered the review copy to me, Tom Norton and I quickly carried out a set of measurements to see if the Stage had any other idiosyncrasies other than the ones Dick had uncovered. Looking first at the speaker's impedance as measured with Stereophile's Audio Precision System One, fig.5 shows the impedance with the HF control set to NORMAL, fig.6 with it set to HI. Both average around 3 ohms, with a slight rise at 400Hz due to the crossover. A comparison of the shapes of the two curves suggests that the HI position is the natural output of the ribbon drive-unit, the NORMAL position applying a degree of EQ. Note the slight wrinkles in the bass in both phase and magnitude plots in figs.5 and 6. These reveal the woofer panel's "drumskin- resonance" tuning, which appears to lie at two discrete frequencies, 47Hz and 37Hz.
Turning to the time domain, as assessed using the DRA Labs MLSSA FFT analyzer, the Stage's impulse response (with the speaker raised some 24" to push reflections of the pulse from the floor back in time) can be seen in fig.7. Examination of the individual drive-units reveals that though the mid/HF ribbon is connected with the correct polarity, the woofer is actually inverted, a positive-going pulse producing a negative-going acoustic output, indicating a second-order crossover. The MLSSA system allows you to window just the portion of the impulse response that is free from room reflections; carrying out a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) on that windowed section gives the speaker's anechoic frequency response (with a frequency resolution inversely proportional to the length of the window; i.e., a 5ms time window equates to 200Hz resolution). Fig.8 shows the individual responses of the two ribbons, taken at a 48" measuring distance midway up the treble ribbon axis. Level matching between the two on this graph can only be approximate, but it can be seen that the treble ribbon handles pretty much everything above 500Hz. The woofer ribbon seems remarkably free of breakup problems above its crossover point, this undoubtedly contributing to the speaker's clean midband reproduction. A slight bit of woofer nonsense can be seen just above 3kHz, but as this is 25dB down, it should be inconsequential. The treble ribbon, however, seems a little lively in the mid-treble, with then a gradual rolloff above 15kHz on this axis. (The HF control was set to NORMAL for this and the next measurements.)
With all of the midrange and treble handled by the narrow, 5/8" -wide ribbon, it is not surprising that the Stage offers basically good horizontal dispersion. Fig.9 shows five anechoic responses (taken at a 48" distance) ranging from 15° off the ribbon axis on the treble side (front) to 15° off the ribbon axis on the woofer side (rear). The central response is on the ribbon axis. Note that the smoothest response through the treble, or at least the one without a significant suckout, is obtained offaxis on the woofer side. This will tend to make positioning of the Stages rather critical if the listening room's sidewalls are either too close or too reflective. Looking at the off-axis response on the treble-ribbon side, it can be seen that the 15° off-axis response-what a listener would hear with the speakers firing straight ahead-can have its exact mid-treble to high-treble balance adjusted by toeing the speakers in slightly. But toe them in too much, so that the listener is facing the ribbon, and, as DO found, the highs become a little excessive in level, even with the switch set to NORMAL.
The Stage has a much narrower dispersion in the vertical plane, as can be seen in fig.10. The central curve is the same on -axis response at 48" as in fig.9. The frontmost curve, however, was taken with the microphone still at a 48" distance but now some 8" above the top of the baffle, this axis approximately representing a standing listener at the back of a typical listening room. The treble ribbon shelves down by a severe 12dB or so on this axis: it is essential, therefore, for Stage owners to be seated so that their ears are level with the midpoint of the ribbon if they are to get a full measure of treble. The rearmost curve in fig.10 shows the effect of switching the HF control to HI, the entire region above 8kHz then lifting by 2dB or so.
Fig.4 to Fig.10
To get an idea of how the Stage would sound in a room, I averaged the five curves in fig.9 to give the speaker's overall anechoic response in the 30° window encompassing a typical listener, resulting in the curve to the right of fig.11. To the left of fig. 11 is the Stage's bass response measured in the nearfield, with the microphone almost touching the protective mesh over the diaphragm. Above the dramatic rise in the bass, the speaker's sound can be seen to be characterized by a gently sloping trend from around 80Hz to 8kHz. Beautifully smooth, this will contribute both to the speaker's slightly mellow tonality and to its seamless presentation of midrange sounds. It's a matter of conjecture how the woofer's highish-Q drumskin resonance, which leads to the 17dB boost at 45Hz, will be perceived subjectively On smallscale chamber-music and human-voice recordings, it is unlikely that it will be directly excited, allowing the speaker's smooth, uncolored midrange to be perceived in all its glory. But on full-scale orchestral recordings and rock music, it will add majesty in the first instance but a ponderous quality in the second. It will also make the Stage intolerant both of amplifiers lacking control in the bass and of cables that themselves are rather "slow," subjectively.
In the treble, the Stage has some measured liveliness that will add a degree of treble brashness: DO did note - a residual artificiality in the treble-sort of a zippy aftertaste." Listening to the Stages myself, this character was definitely noticeable and reminded me, though to a lesser degree, of the treble featured by the ribbons of both the Celestion 3000 (reviewed in May) and the Carver Amazing loudspeaker (reviewed in February), where a basically uncolored treble was overlaid with added brightness due to high -frequency ribbon resonances. (I know it's unwise to stretch analogies too far, but I can't help thinking of this character as a kind of "crinkly" noise that one associates with aluminium foil.) The cumulative spectral-decay plot for the Stage on the ribbon axis (fig.12 - ignore the ridge at 15.75kHz, which is due to the microphone picking up the computer- monitor line whistle), though featuring a clean initial drop of the impulse, also shows some residual hashiness between 3kHz and 10kHz. I understand that the degree of this treble hash is proportional both to the mass of the ribbon and to the degree of its self-damping-it is therefore naive to think, as I once did, that a ribbon is inherently resonance-free. This slight treble hashiness will also make the speaker less tolerant than some of ancillary cables and amplifiers with a similar tonal signature.
With one exception, there are no real surprises in these measurements. The exception, however, is important in that though the midrange measures as being commendably smooth, if a little downtilted, nothing prepared me for the degree of tonal versimilitude -read musical accuracy-with which the pair of Stages, optimally set up, reproduced recordings with which I was familiar. - John Atkinson
It's good-looking, with excellent bass extension and definition. In terms of soundstage transparency it rivals any loudspeaker money can buy. It's capable of resolving low-level nuances and deftly reproducing transients with considerable speed and control. Dynamic contrasts from soft to loud are reproduced with ease and no sense of compression. Its ability to portray instrumental outlines with realistic spaciousness and bloom is nothing short of amazing. In terms of clarity and transparency, the Stage is without peer at its asking price. It possesses the innate ability to communicate the music's essentials at a level that comes very close to capturing the feeling of live music.
Ron Cox, a good friend of mine, also happens to be a Buddhist monk and a lifelong audiophile. He has pretty much managed to curb his appetite for material things in keeping with the teachings of Zen. Well ... with the exception of a lust for tube amps and the like. He has argued that the art of Zen is essential for transcending the crude limitations of one's system. Being bound to the visual reality of big boxes and heaps of electronics makes it difficult to accept and communicate with the music. Thus Zen can assist in shedding the technical facade of a system and transport you to a state where the music can touch the heart and the soul. With the Stage, one would require very little help from Zen in accepting the message. It is pure and lifelike.
Yet, having said all that, if Lord Darth Vader were to grasp me by the throat and demand a recommendation for the world's best small loudspeaker, I would hesitate to recommend the Stage. Why? Well, what if his Lordship does not own Classé Audio electronics or SYMO cable? And if he did, would he have the patience to tweak and cater to the speakers? The Stage is very sensitive to the amplifier/cable interface. In the context of the right electronics and cable, it is clearly Class A in the small-speaker category. Thus, I hesitate to recommend it outside of a well-defined system context. If you already own all of the "wrong" electronics, then the Stage is not for you. If you're unwilling to devote floorspace to the Stage, then look elsewhere. Room treatment is also a possible requirement, as it is with most speakers worth owning.
The Stage's most immediate competition is really the Martin-Logan Sequel II. Despite the fact that the Sequel is more expensive, this is what it takes to approach the Stage's performance capabilities. While the Sequel favors the upper octaves, the Stage emphasizes the bass and midrange. The Stage has to be considered better integrated top to bottom, and blows the Sequel away in the bass registers. The Sequel is brighter by comparison and more delicate in its voicing of treble detail. The Stage is more cohesive and, ultimately, to my ears more convincing musically
By now, you should realize that the Stage is a steal at the asking price. You owe it to yourself to own a pair, but, like Morris the cat, be prepared to feed it exactly what it wants.
Stereophile - Vol. 13, No. 8
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