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Reviewer: Steve Marsh
Downstairs system - Source: Vecteur D-2 CD Transport; Audio Note DAC Kit 1.2 with upgrades (ps choke, tantalum resistors, Black Gate caps, copper grounding bars on digital chips wired to central ground)
Preamp: Hovland HP-100 MC tube preamplifier, fully updated
Power amp: Red Rose Model 2A Silver Signature tube amplifier
Speakers: Audio Physic Anniversary Step speakers; Audio Physic Luna active subwoofer
Analogue Interconnects: Harmony Audio, Stealth Audio CWS
Digital Interconnect: Music Metre Fidelis
Speaker Wire: homemade twisted pair of mil-spec silver cladded multistrand copper
Power Cords: Analysis Plus Power Oval, PS Audio Mini Lab
Power Conditioner: PS Audio P300
Resonance control: Michael Green equipment rack
Room: 29' long x 16' wide x 10' high (sunken living room with open floor plan, listening across width of room)

Upstairs system - Source: Thorens TD-125 Mk.II turntable with SME 3009 tonearm, Garrot P77 mm cartridge, Cotter Verion phono cable; NAD 5000 CD player
Preamp: Juicy Music BlueBerry tube preamplifier [on review]
Power amps: Pilot SA-260 tube amplifier, fully restored; Leak TL-12+ tube monoblocks; Leak ST-20 tube amp
Speakers: JBL Century L-100 speakers
Interconnects: Baton
Speaker Wire: Baton, homemade twisted pair of mil-spec silver cladded multistrand copper, TARA Labs Phase II
Power line conditioning: Adcom ACE-515 AC Enhancer
Equipment support: Vintage racks
Room: 22' long x 17' wide x 10' high with eaves

Review component retail: $7,499/pr

Since I am an admirer and collector of mid-century modern furniture, my first reaction to the retro/sculptural cabinets of the FAB Audio Model 1 speakers was immediate attraction. Drawing me in even more, their introductory writeup expresses their desire to capture "the high efficiency and remarkable transient response found in the better loudspeaker systems of the 1940s and 50s..." while taking these performance attributes to a "new level of refinement by the application of modern material, design and measurement technologies."

Jim Fabian, the owner of FAB Audio, had recently contacted Srajan seeking a review. A very revealing high efficiency speaker would be a good reviewing tool for my future vintage amp reviews so I thought to check them out. After all, this is a major perk of being a reviewer. I opted for their flagship Model 1 since this would give me the most full-range performance.

The Model 1 retails for $7,499/pr. It is a floorstanding 2 .5-way 3-driver system with bass reflex slot loading. The beveled supporting column of the speaker serves as part of the cabinet's internal volume. Beyma of Spain supplies all the drivers. I am only aware of one other consumer loudspeaker company using Beyma drivers - Hørning Hybrids where they are used as rear-firing woofers.

FAB doesn't state which Beyma drivers but snooping around the Spanish website, it would appear to be the 102Nd/N midbass driver. This is a very high efficiency 10-inch high Q driver with a neodymium magnet and heavy molded paper cone on an accordion cloth surround. Shades of the 1950s indeed. Altec or Jensen, anyone? The tweeter looks to be the 1.25" aluminum dome T2030 from the Studio series. It sports a cast aluminum front plate and a phase plug with slight horn loading. The rear-firing woofer looks to be another 102Nd/N. Please note that FAB Audio modifies the drivers somewhat. At the risk of sounding cynical, I believe every speaker manufacturer says they modify their OEM drivers. How unimaginative it would be to say one used stock drivers! I asked Jim in an email some basic questions about the crossover (type, slope, frequency compensation) but he stated that he is unwilling to reveal more specific information about the design due to -- unsuccessful so far -- efforts by a competitor to clone FAB designs.

What I can say from their website and the Tech Stuff sheet that arrived with the speakers is that the midbass driver crosses over to the tweeter at 2.2 kHz and to the rear-firing woofer at 80Hz. The nominal impedance of the speaker is 6 ohms. All in all, these are very efficient speakers (claimed 97dB/w/m). Jim assures me that the speakers present an easy load for the amplifier. The recommended minimum amplifier power is a trifling 3.5 watts.

The speakers arrived by private shipper. Packaging was very good, with both speakers sturdily boxed, lying side-by-side on a wooden pallet. Removing the speakers from their boxes was not difficult and I was able to do it myself although I would recommend a helper. The One weighs 110 lbs each, carefully pared down from the original 150 pounds stated on their outdated website. The finish quality is excellent. FAB Audio offers a number of standard paint colors for the Model 1 and recommends a satin finish. Custom colors and finishes are available on request. Four aluminum pointed feet easily screw to the base of each speaker.

No owner's manual though. Assuming that these Canadian needed some break-in, I proceeded to play the speakers for the first week or so mainly for background music, checking on the sound periodically. Not noticing any significant changes in the sound, I decided to contact FAB Audio about break-in time. To my surprise, Jim said that all of their drivers were broken-in prior to shipping. The only remaining elements that needed conditioning were the crossover and internal hookup wire. The improvements there would be a small increase in smoothness. What he did say, though, was that the speakers need about an hour to sound their best each time you turn them on. I was careful to avoid critical listening during the first hour and can confirm that the sound does improve markedly after an hour. All electro-mechanical devices seem to benefit from warm-up but one hour is more than any other speakers I've ever owned.

The first LP on the Nottingham's platter was the 1990 smooth jazz release Dream Come True by Gerald Albright [Atlantic A1-82087]. Albright is a multi-talented jazz musician who performs numerous instruments:alto sax, tenor sax, soprano sax, synthesizer, bass guitar and vocals, all of which appear on this album. The music is a straightforward, funky, R&B-influenced mix with a powerful bass guitar line underpinning Gerald's soulful sax. Through the FABs, the bass had excellent pitch definition but not the weight I am used to getting from my Audio Physic Luna subwoofer. In a later conversation with Jim Fabian, he commented on the Model 1's bass by saying he designed it to have accurate bass. He further elaborated that the bass was not overblown just to impress. I have no argument with that and would posit that your own take on the bass quantity here would be a matter of taste. There was never a sense of any sluggishness or sloppiness and I think it would pass anyone's PRaT test. Gerald's saxophone was a bit of a different story, though. It came across as more forward than I'm used to hearing. This forwardness seemed to be emanating mainly from the tweeter.

As I've stated elsewhere, I like to play a range of quality of recordings through a component and not just favored audiophile labels. For example,
the late 1980s were an era when digital was young and much of the vinyl released was digitally recorded. Vinyl buyers were warned to watch out for album jackets with the bar code on the back, meaning digitally recorded. One such album is the 1986 LP by World Party, Private Revolution [Chrysalis BFV 41552]. I listened to this album recently on my Audio Physic Step SLE speakers. While the vocals aren't particularly well recorded, the overall mix is tonally balanced. Through the FAB Model 1s, the good time energy of the title cut came through well but the bass drive was not as fulfilling, again. On the other hand, the forwardness was not as noticeable.

My audiophile friend Rich Brown was visiting from Portland/Oregon and I enlisted his help to carry the speakers into my upstairs listening room, thinking they might find that room more favorable. This upstairs room is 22 feet long and 17 feet wide, with ceiling eaves on each end. I listen down the length of the room. For the initial speaker placement, my natural tendency was to want to get further back from the FAB speakers and see if the tweeter would integrate better.

When I first moved into my house in 1999, I spent the first couple of years moving my stereo between three different areas: the two ends of the downstairs living room and finally upstairs. This upstairs room provided good sound with a variety of speakers (European Holophone System Sopranos, ADS L810, Altec Valencias, Tannoy Cornettas, NHT Super Ones) but I ran into a serious RF-induced hum problem that was prohibitive for phono and slightly audible on line level sources. After a lot of hair-pulling and visits by several technical friends, we decided that the problem was coming from a radio station nearby that had recently been taken over by our friends at Clear Channel Communications. They must have been broadcasting outside of their FCC permit. I had to abandon the room. The good news is that the problem has now gone away. I assume the FCC caught up to them and brought them to heel.

With this fortuitous development, I moved a lot of my vintage gear into the room and set up my JBL Century L-100s (original version) as my workhorse vintage speaker for now. I've also decided to listen to all reviewed speakers in both my downstairs and upstairs rooms in order to provide two different acoustic environments. My last reviewed speakers, the Hyperion HPS-938s, spent most of their time in this upstairs room.

The initial listening setup now had the front of the speakers about 13 feet away from my ears, 7.5 feet apart (mid-cone to mid-cone) and slightly toed in. The back of the speaker was about 3.5 feet from the front wall. I switched between two amps, a Leak ST20 and a push-pull 6B4G triode amp made by my friend, Charlie King. The Leak is known for being a sweet and punchy amp - a favorite among vintage lovers. The 6B4G amp is built on a Dynaco ST70 chassis, utilizing the original Dynaco iron but converting the output stage to use the 6B4G triode tube based on a circuit developed by tube god Harvey Rosenberg's old company. Charlie then installed a differential input stage using four 6DJ8s and changed the rectifier to a 5R4 to drop the B+ rail voltage a bit. There are other tweaks, but suffice to say that this amp is one of the smoothest and most detailed push-pull amps I've heard.

A relatively new arrival in my upstairs system is the Slagle transformer volume control (TVC). Dave Slagle sells the autoformers and rotary control switch as a kit (you provide the box, wire, knobs and RCA jacks) for $200. Such autoformer designs do not suffer the impedance matching difficulties that can arise with traditional resistive pot attenuators. (See Srajan's preview of the Audio Zone PRE-T1 for an excellent primer on how TVCs work). All who have heard the Slagle TVC have been very favorably impressed. Passive attenuators (EVS, Purist Audio, homebrew units based on various potentiometers or stepped attenuators such as Daven, Noble, Alps etc.) have in the past exhibited some loss of bass impact and overall dynamics and sometimes an overall thinning of the sound, a lack of body compared to a good active preamp. TVCs like the Slagle are designed to avoid impedance-matching damage to the signal.

The Slagle is the best passive preamp I've had in my system. Still, I have not heard the premium First Sound units in my system nor a growing number of TVCs that have sprung up lately. I have heard the Slagle against the Audio Zone and preferred the former.

Speaker wire and interconnects were Baton. To remind you, these are specially terminated copper hyperlitz cables that were made by John Taylor of former Yankee Audio. The other speaker wire was Radio Shack Mega-Cable. The JBL Century L-100s have small-diameter pinhole connections and the Mega-Cable is the only cable I own that will connect securely to them. I've twisted and soldered the ends into a solid pin shape that fits snugly. I opted for a good mechanical connection over cobbling a high-end cable to the speakers with jumper wire or some other folderol.

With either the Slagle/Leak ST20 amp or the 6B4G amp, the FABs still sounded forward. I moved the speakers towards the front wall gradually, thinking they might need further bass reinforcement, but to no avail. I moved them forward to the limits of my speaker wire length without moving the equipment rack and also found no improvement. I decided to give them some more break-in time, thinking that perhaps Jim Fabian was being overly optimistic about their pre-installation driver break-in. Rather than burn tubes during the break-in, I pulled a vintage McIntosh MA5100 solid state integrated amp off my shelf and pressed it into service. Away it ran for the next four or five days during waking hours.

A week later, there was still no marked change in the sound so Srajan suggested I contact Jim Fabian by email for any suggestions on equipment matching or placement. Rather than offer suggestions by email, Jim responded by saying he would drive down from the Toronto with his chief technical assistant, Michael Thompson. He wanted to eliminate the possibility that any speaker damage had occurred in shipping or that any assembly errors had occurred. Considering it turned out to be a ten-hour drive, I have to give Jim and Michael a lot of credit for dedication to their product. Of course they are a little-known company here in the U.S. so this extra effort did make perfect sense.