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Messenger’s Masterpieces

Messenger’s Masterpieces

I might be well stuck in the past myself, but I am not entirely unaware of the devices that today’s youthful consumers use for music listening. The £70 Frankenspiel FS-1 is just such a device. It’s incredibly tiny, looks very cute, comes with rechargeable battery amplification (via USB), and operates wirelessly via Bluetooth. Best of all, a pair only cost £140 (and will automatically operate as a stereo pair!).

Assuming your Bluetooth is up to it (my MacBook Pro lap-top is a real problem here, but the Apple iPad tablet works very well), these little speakers incorporate some very clever BMR (balanced mode radiator) drive units that deliver a fine tonal balance alongside decent off-axis dispersion.

Such a small loudspeaker is bound to have serious bass limitations, and a measured rolloff of 10dB per decade below 200Hz seemed to tie in pretty well with their perceived sonic behaviour. In other words, the bass is severely restricted, but the importance of this will always depend on the material being played: bass-heavy stuff is severely compromised, of course, but speech sounds very good indeed. They will certainly go loud enough, though I did find the means of controlling them a trifle unpredictable, and I reckon taming them will take a bit more practice.

The pocket Bluetooth speaker system has become something of a minor revolution in very low cost home audio. The Frankenspiel goes some way to explain why, even to a curmudgeonly old audiophile.

I normally run a conventional and largely analogue hi-fi system, but I am increasingly finding it necessary to accommodate various digital sources, such as the computer, the hard drive, and the TV display. Many alternative strategies can be adopted to deal with this situation. One can of course use a different DAC for each source, but that tends to mean using up too many analogue inputs. Nearly all CD players incorporate a DAC, but only the more recent examples provide the socketry and switching to provide external access to it.

What one really needs is a digital pre-amplifier, which is where Arcam’s £400 irDAC comes into its own. It has plenty of digital inputs, including USB, and S/PDIF on electrical or optical, a remote handset to select between them, plus a stereo analogue output pair. If the feature roster sounds just right, the good news is that the sound quality is pretty good too. It is of course possible to spend much more on a DAC, but this little Arcam device does a very decent job in sound quality terms, as well as only needing to use one input on the main analogue pre-amp. The only bad news seems to be that it uses a switch-mode plug-top power supply, though this didn’t seem to cause any interference with my main system.

 

It might cost £3,000, but Rega’s RP10 is actually a real bargain, and the extra £600 for an Apheta 2 moving-coil cartridge is money well spent too. The RP10 might be costly by Rega standards, but it’s considerably less than most other ‘high end’ turntables, and can more than rival their performance too.

Construction is quite unusual, though entirely logical, consisting of a ‘sandwich’ construction subchassis that sits independently on the normal support shelf, deliberately separate from the conventional plinth and cover. The subchassis is actually a rather complex shape, but its main function is to link the main turntable bearing with the base of an RB2000 tonearm, a link which is further reinforced by a strip of aluminium oxide – the same exceptionally stiff material as that used for the platter. A complex external power supply is tuned to the specific example of synchronous motor sample used.

The bottom line, of course, is that the RP10/Apheta 2 sounds quite wonderful, with the fine dynamic expression and timing that makes vinyl replay so marvellous, alongside a notably low noise floor. Its ability to deliver clean audio from a vinyl source is very impressive indeed.

The £3,000 Existence Euphoric comes from Finland and is a curious loudspeaker by most standards. I couldn’t say that it’s particularly fine value for money, but because it is made from a selection of different and contrasting colour woods, it does look absolutely delightful, as does its partnering (£750) stand.

This speaker has a single full range drive unit, based on a Taiwanese Tang Band design. It is a fine example of the type, delivering the superior coherence that comes automatically with such a design, along with a tonal balance that’s significantly more neutral than the norm. Most single-driver speakers tend to over-emphasise the upper mid and roll off the treble, but the Euphoric minimises this effect: my far-field in-room averaged trace registered ±3dB . The only problem with this relatively large stand-mount seems to lie in its bass alignment, specifically the tuning of the reflex port, so some care will be needed to position the speakers carefully in the right room and site therein.

PMC’s £15,000 IB2 SE came as quite a surprise, as I’d been using its IB2i predecessor as a reference speaker for some years, and immediately found that this SE version was quite a lot better in several respects. It’s partly a result of work done at the National Physical Laboratory to improve the behaviour of the 75mm dome midrange that is this speaker’s piece de resistance (largely I suspect because that dome is driven from a huge 220mm magnet).

A lot of the improvement also comes from additional work done to improve the performance of the enclosure. This might benefit from the various partitions used to create a transmission line, but the panels here are also large. (Skinflints will no doubt notice that a similar looking but much less costly IB2S is available from the company’s professional range, but should also note that it’s actually a very different speaker in many respects, including that midrange driver.)

The bass and treble here are fine, and I have to add I’ve always found bass more convincing when it comes from a drive unit with space underneath (ie a stand-mount, like this PMC). Furthermore, because the IB2SE has plenty of bass, I find it works best when decoupled from my suspended wooden floor, either using Townshend Seismic Corners or a couple of Sonaris platforms. But it’s the midband that really sets this speaker apart. Despite its relatively modest diaphragm dimensions, it has real grip and drama, thanks, I suspect, to that huge magnet which drives the dome of the PMC75 midrange driver.

 

No question, the Kaiser Kawero! Classic loudspeaker is a very costly proposition, especially if the prices of numerous optional extras is added to the base of £41,000 (my review samples actually just topped 50 grand!), but it also unquestionably delivers the sonic goods.

The Kaiser Kawero! is a reasonably compact floorstander, is usually attractively veneered, and features slightly curved panels throughout in order to avoid parallel faces. It feels exceptionally strong and weighs a hefty 99kg, largely because it’s constructed from panzerholtz (tankwood) – a form of plywood that has been heavily impregnated with resin under high temperature and pressure, to the extent that it now sinks in water. As tough as metal, it retains its fibrous nature and so provides useful damping.

A 250mm bass driver has a Rohacell sandwich cone. A front-mounted bass/mid driver with a 120mm polymer cone operates and loads a rear-mounted 180mm ABR. The tweeter is a legendary RAAL ribbon (widely regarded as the world’s finest), and this is mounted in its own little enclosure, introducing some decoupling and allowing fore’n’aft movement for accurate time-alignment.

The fact that the speaker is also well filled with Vertex AQ components and techniques is probably another reason (over and beyond the tankwood) why it has such an obviously low noise floor and a wide dynamic range. The result is certainly able to deliver excellent detail and fine timing, irrespective of whether it’s playing quietly or delivering music at a high level. Indeed, its ability to hang together when playing at a high level is particularly impressive, and more than compensates for its mild lack of strict neutrality. In fact, the ever-expanding array of Vertex AQ equipment could also be considered for inclusion in a list like this, as well.

Finally, my ‘wild card’ choice from outside the hi-fi industry has got to be my local farm shop. Macknade is actually 13 miles away, situated just off the A2 near Faversham in north Kent, and it invariably refreshes the tastebuds our various supermarket chains ignore in their quest for cosmetic perfection. I make the pilgrimage every other week, in order to stock up on its wonderful selection of cheeses, breads, cold meats, chicken liver pate, Italian butter, pesto, scotch eggs, kohl rabi, and so on –  I am just grateful that such an emporium exists.

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By Paul Messenger

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