There’s a myth surrounding loudspeakers that needs tearing apart. It’s that Japanese audio manufacturers aren’t as good as making loudspeakers as their British or American counterparts. Generally, this is nonsense, and comes about in part because of Japanese collectors and their passion for classic BBC and Tannoy designs, and in part because a lot of the best products made in Japan, stay in Japan. TAD is one of the rare exceptions – the high-end audio arm of a larger company that has a truly international outlook, and as a consequence its loudspeakers have commanded extraordinarily high respect in the audiophile community.
TAD’s loudspeakers have also commanded an extraordinarily high price. The TAD Compact Evolution 1 is an attempt to address those lofty tags; it’s still not a cheap loudspeaker in any sense of the term, but TAD is not a cheap brand. This standmount loudspeaker represents everything TAD can put in a standmount loudspeaker without it either costing as much as a new E-Class Mercedes, or having it sacrificing what TAD represents in sonic terms.
First seen as a concept at last year’s Munich High End, then in final form at CES 2015 this year, something of a buzz went around the Venetian Tower that TAD was making a sound from a standmount that shouldn’t be happening – they were filling a big room with the kind of sound you might expect from a larger floorstander and the sort of transparency you could hear from an electrostatic design. A similar result occurred at Munich 2015 and a similar result occurs every time people sit in front of them – including when I sat in front of them.
These are three way loudspeakers with a 35mm coaxial beryllium dome tweeter sitting in the acoustic centre of the 140mm midrange cone, and a 180mm MACS (multi-layered aramid composite shell) woofer sitting beneath that. These loudspeaker units are made by TAD for TAD and are recognised for being virtually unbreakable in normal use. Or even abnormal abuse: basically unless you take a chisel to them or connect the speakers to an arc welding generator in place of an amplifier, nothing you can throw at them will trouble the CE1 drivers.
The signature bit of deep-clever in the Compact Evolution 1 is its port. Make that ‘ports’; there are two vertical slits built into the enclosure’s side panels, and the aluminium plate that covers these side panels effectively creates a flared port extension to the front and rear of each loudspeaker. This means the port fires simultaneously to the left and right sides of the front and the rear of the loudspeaker. You could almost think this a port with a loudspeaker attached to its centre. What this unique BiDirectional ADS (Aero-Dynamic Slot) port arrangement does is help overcome the physical placement issues that surround a rear-firing port as well as the ‘chuffing’ effect from a front-firing port, but also helps reduce internal standing waves within the cabinet. In the last throws of a show, when the visitor numbers begin to dwindle and the engineers go walkabout, I know of many loudspeaker designers who took a very close look at this port design with a combination of professional respect, personal envy, and corporate espionage on their mind. Doubtless within a couple of years, we’ll see a lot more loudspeaker companies ‘discovering’ this innovation.
TAD rates the loudspeaker with a sensitivity of 85dB, a nominal impedance of four ohms and a maximum power input of 200W, which suggests you need a powerful amp, but not a power-house amp, to drive the CE1 comfortably. Naturally, a lot of those amps are also likely to come from TAD’s own stable, and this is what we used. But this is not mandatory, and at Munich this year, the CE1s were also sounding excellent hanging off the end of some new Audio Alchemy electronics.
TAD’s website suggests the Compact Evolution 1 to produce an “Overwhelmingly massive sound from a compact cabinet.” Which would be an overwhelmingly pompous thing for a company to say, were it not for one little detail – it just happens to be true. It does make a truly massive sound, one that just can’t come out of a cabinet that small – and I’m used to “it’s bigger on the inside” loudspeakers like the Wilson Duette 2 and the KEF Reference 1.
This is one of those rare speakers that redefines what is possible from a standmount. Every thread of King Curtis’ ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ [Live at Fillmore West, ATCO] is played out with harmonic structure fully intact, not just faux richness or depth. This is a complex, slow-build live cut that starts with a bass guitar and ends with a whole funk band playing at full tilt, and as a consequence needs to be able to be as convincing when it’s just one musician playing and when there are a dozen people on stage without underplaying the former or blurring the latter. This is normally the acid test of smaller loudspeakers, because they can do the opening parts but fall over by the time the Memphis Horns kick in. By way of comparison, most bigger loudspeakers are fine with the full brass section, but tend to make Jerry Jemmott’s bass lines sound a little too big for their own good. The CE1 is one of the few exceptions that can cope with both equally well.
This track tells you a lot more about the CE1. You can hear voices in the crowd picked out with ease, but not undermining the sound of the audience as a whole. You can hear the picking dynamics of Cornell Dupree’s signature Fender Telecaster playing change during the repeated riff, even when his playing is pushed back in the mix as more and more musicians are playing. All those threads are clearly defined: even Pancho Morales’ congas – which can get lost in the mix – are easier to pick out and follow than through many other loudspeakers.
Moving over to solo piano (Martha Argerich playing Chopin Preludes on DG) there is a sense of physicality and weight to the sound, like you get to hear on a real piano in a live event: not just in the midrange, but extending up to the far left hand and down to the far right. In a way, this is what a BBC loudspeaker is supposed to sound like, rather than exaggerating the slightly softened bottom octave and the very slightly ‘shiny’ upper mids.
But it was playing ‘Chameleon’, by Trentemøller [The Last Resort, Poker Flat] that really showed what these speakers are capable of. I’ve used this track to determine low-end performance of a system for some time, but there are little demi-semiquaver pre-beat beats that I’ve not heard before. The track takes on a malevolence even more menacing than before, as it should: the track can do atavistic things to you. At its best, this track shouldn’t sound like it was played, programmed, or recorded; it should sound as if it was squeezed out through the ovipositor of something very big, very sticky, and very scary that was best locked away in H.P. Lovecraft’s, H.R. Geiger’s, or Hieronymus Bosch’s imagination. That usually only happens if you are playing the track through big full-range loudspeakers at ‘naughty’ levels. But this happened here, even played at normal levels. Impressive doesn’t even cut it.
Imaging too is exceptional, with bass integration that fits the room, not just the loudspeaker. Which all sets a standard you’ll struggle to replicate from a loudspeaker at this size, price, or performance.
If there’s a deviation from absolute honesty, the CE1s adds a mild warmth to the overall presentation. This adds to the listening pleasure, rather than masking fine detail, but it’s this that sets it apart from its far bigger Reference models. In its peer group though, it simply trades blows with the best of them.
I began this review by trying to unseat a meme. I’m going to end the same way. TAD’s Compact Evolution 1 is an outstanding loudspeaker. Not just a loudspeaker to make big sounds in small rooms. And it’s not just the first choice for TAD users. This is a cogent loudspeaker system in its own right, for people who have no plans to buy any other TAD equipment. Yes, it sounds great in context, but the TAD Compact Evolution 1 loudspeaker sounds great with a number of different amps in a wide variety of locations because it’s a great loudspeaker. Strongly recommended.
- Type: Three-way bass reflex standmount loudspeaker
- Driver configuration: 35mm dome tweeter coaxially mounted within 140mm cone midrange. 180mm woofer
- Frequency response: 34Hz–100kHz
- Crossover frequencies: 250 Hz, 2kHz
- Maximum input: 200W
- Nominal impedance: 4Ω
- Sensitivity: 85dB (1m, 2.83V)
- Dimensions (W×H×D): 29× 52.4×44.6cm
- Weight: 30 kg
- Price: £16,495 per pair (£17,995 with stands)
- Manufactured by: TAD
Distributed by: Nu Nu Distribution
Tel: +(0)203 544 2338