Let’s start with an old warhorse from just about every hifi show since Noah invented the stereo pair: Hugh Masekela and ‘Stimela’ from Hope [Analogue Productions, SACD]; this was in every meaningful sense a most convincing account: solid, secure imaging, believable vocal and instrumental timbres and textures, and a superb sense of atmosphere and presence. The live recording, the audience response, and the way Masekela builds that sense of anger and injustice through his phrasing and cadence, all portrayed to unexpected levels by these diminutive boxes. It’s very, very easy to get drawn into the narrative and carried along; it’s a 10-minute track, but it felt much shorter. These speakers do that small-box disappearing act supremely well, largely failing to draw attention to themselves, and just letting the music spill forth. It’s a familiar Amphion trait, they don’t impress by being impressive, they just let the music speak for itself. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who by fire’ from Live in London [Sony Music] was another case in point, no obvious source of sound here, just tight, natural images on a convincing and lifesized soundstage. And here comes that slightly diminutive elephant in the room; the thing that everybody will tell you about small box loudspeakers. We can’t talk about Laughing Lennie without mentioning bass, can we?
So let’s talk a bit about the bass performance. Like the Argon LS7, the 3S uses a sealed cabinet and ABR rather than the more familiar (and probably less costly) reflex port. As far as bass is concerned, it’s more about quality than quantity. Which is emphatically not to say it doesn’t do bass, there’s much more on offer in that regard than in those BBC monitor designs, for example, but the numbers don’t tell the full story. There are small standmounters whose measurements will tell you they go deeper, and louder, and perhaps they do. But what the Argon 3S gives you is tight, tuneful, convincing and, more importantly, properly focussed bass that securely underpins the music and propels it along, not woofly grumblings that rattle the rafters but don’t seem to belong to anybody in the band. Leonard Cohen’s vocals might, through the 3Ss, go more lightly on that famous subterranean bottom octave, but he sounds like a real person, performing to a real audience in a real event, because all the harmonics in his voice are happening at the same time, as they would in life. ‘Killer’ from Seal’s debut album Seal [ZTT] relies on a deep, solid, driving bass riff and the Argon 3S gave a much more satisfying rendition of that than some of those ported standmounters can, precisely because the bass traded a little depth for a lot more impact. The leading edges of the bass notes are cleanly defined, the timbre is more solid and refined, the pitch is more tuneful, and the timing of its delivery is absolutely on the money. There’s also great depth to the image and lovely, natural vocal textures. And here’s a thing, yes the same track through the Argon LS7 might go deeper and harder, but the Argon 3S feels slightly more immediate and present, lighter on its feet with a corresponding slightly better sense of bounce.
Much of this tradeoff depends on context, of course. My fairly modest, squareish, 4m room necessitates relatively nearfield listening, the floorstanders will offer more scope in larger spaces. They also scale up a little better, the NDR Big Band with Abdullah Ibrahim on Ekapa Lodumo [Enja] is given its head more through the LS7, the 3S works hard and does well, but ultimately has to concede in matters of scale to its larger sibling. But, perhaps because there’s a little less bass energy, the interplay between Ibrahim’s piano and the big band is easier to discern via the 3S, you sense his contribution more and the smaller speaker disappears more readily; so ultimately you pays your money and makes your choice. And actually, it’s quite shocking how little the smaller speaker concedes to the larger model when it comes to resolving a convincing and satisfying musical experience. The key touchpoints of timing, energy delivery, resolution and timbral detail are very evenly matched.
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