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|As the old saying goes: Once I thought I knew life's answers, someone changed the questions. So it was that Mark & Daniel changed some for me. Most listeners acknowledge that the larger and more full-range a speaker, the more difficult it becomes to set up. Large speakers capable of big and deep bass can be very difficult to get right if one is to achieve smooth boom-free bass and good imaging and soundstaging. But when I first parked the Apollo IIs in my room, it took all of 5 minutes of moving them around to get them to sing. When I removed them for the first part of this review, the Maximus Minis, I didn't mark the floor. I completely took my good fortune for granted. When it came time to bring the Apollo IIs back for final evaluation, I wasn't so lucky.
I was reminded of a silly conversation I had recently with some proponents of ABX blind testing. About how one's mental acuity is of paramount importance when dealing with any of this stuff. As a guitar player of some thirty years, I can tell you of days when I can't even tune the darn thing. Some days I'm just not in the mood -- particularly when someone's waiting for me -- to hear the way I have to in order to tune it by ear. I can't imagine being subjected to an ABX test and trying to hear in the same way I do when I'm relaxed and at ease. Anyway, on this day, things just weren't working for the Apollos and me. I just couldn't get them working. I couldn't get them to gel. Surprisingly, it wasn't the bass I was having problems with. Within reason, the bass was the easiest thing to get right. No matter where I placed the speakers, the bass was deep, powerful and articulate. It was the rest of the spectrum. Eventually I gave up. When I returned a couple of days later, I had the speakers singing within minutes.
The best news is that when you get the Apollo IIs dialed, you know. Anything less than a smooth yet powerful presentation with solid imaging and superb focus and there's some more experimentation to do. The almost equally good news is that the speakers really aren't difficult to set up - unless you're just in the wrong state of mind. The single most important criteria is, I think, to leave enough breathing room between listening seat and speaker for the Dreams 3 driver to integrate with the woofer. In my room I had to place the speakers a bit closer to the front wall than is my norm. Still further good news is that, somehow, the bass still worked extremely well this way.
|The Apollo II's bass is truly extraordinary. I've been reading for some time about various Mark & Daniel monitors that produce strong bass well in excess of what one can reasonably expect from small monitors. As I outlined earlier in the intro, the big Apollo II utilizes a single 10-inch SX10-1.2 'Super Xmas Woofer' with a 48mm long magnetic gap, which yields a 1.2-inch linear excursion. That's subwoofer territory which most subs won't match. The Apollo II produces foundation-rattling power of the most controlled and articulate sort. That makes setting the speakers up much easier than expected because they never sounded on the verge of losing control. Setting up large full-range speakers often is all about balancing bass tightness with power and definition but when reasonably placed, the Apollo IIs were always quick to strike that balance.
|You'll know if you're too close to the Apollo IIs. The tonal balance will be centered around that woofer to sound as though the treble was absent. That's what I heard the first time. It was literally a matter of about 3 inches that restored a natural balance where everything just clicked. The next time they entered the room, I eventually discovered what was confusing my ear - the output of the Dreams 2 driver located at the very top of the speaker; the Omni Harmonizer as Mark & Daniel call it. The driver faces up to fire into a conical dispersion lens to radiate into the room at 360°. I was having a difficult time getting the speakers to really focus and eventually discovered why. When you're suffering a slight image shift toward the right speaker, ordinarily it's because that speaker is slightly closer. The remedy, more often than not, is to move the speaker backward. Once both speakers are equidistant, the image snaps into focus.|
With the Apollo II, the further I moved the speaker back, the odder the issue of image focus became. As I moved the speaker away, I was increasing the amount of reflected information from the Omni Harmonizer and front wall. Within its operating range, this increased the output of the speaker I was trying to attenuate. The farther back I placed the speaker, the more prominent its high frequencies became because of shorter reflection times. Ordinarily, such reflected data doesn't skew imaging because it arrives at the ear outside the summation window of direct and reflected sound. The closer to the wall behind it I pushed the speaker, the closer the arrival times between direct and reflected sound got. Things were weird until I realized the issue and turned down the omni tweeters' output to minimum. Presto. Situating the speakers was a snap now and I returned the omni attenuators to preferred levels afterwards.
|The Harmonizers worked a little different than expected. Don't think tone control. Increasing or decreasing their output did not alter the tonal balance of the speaker significantly. Their effect worked solely within the domain of imaging and soundstaging. It was easiest to hear on Classical music. Turn down the output of the Omni Harmonizers and sense of space diminishes - slightly, but specificity increases as does focus. Turned to max, sense of space increases but the image blurred somewhat. No question, with the Harmonizers advanced to maximum output, what I got from my classical music sounded far more like what I get in the concert hall. Most listeners are aware that live music doesn't image with nearly the sharp acuity our systems do. I make no apologies for my appetite for delineated imaging because when I'm seated in the audience, I can see the musicians. I don't have to imagine them in my mind's eye. Sharp supernatural imaging helps with the illusion. If you disagree, use the Omni Harmonizer to dial in the degree of focus that suits your needs. And, you can change that as you move between musical genres because Mark & Daniel rely on an attenuator for +/- 6dBs from null. I should reiterate this again - don't confuse this with adjusting the level of an ordinary tweeter. It never worked that way for me. It didn't affect tonal balance, just soundstage presentation.
|It was far from the first thing I played on the Apollo IIs but Dorian's Peter Richard Conte recording at the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at the Lord and Taylor in Philadelphia [Dorian xCD-90308] was certainly one of the most fun albums I spun. With powerful bass down to 25Hz, you just know it's gonna be good. It was. So much so|
|that I played it twice. The only problem was that the deep bass from these puppies had me chasing down rattles and buzzes I'd never before excited. It was the best bass presentation I've ever heard in my home from a single speaker without a powered subwoofer. I'm always impressed by a really great speaker that can produce massive amounts of bass without unduly pressurizing my ears. Deep bass should be felt in the seat of your pants, not at the ear. If you feel discomfort at the ear, something's wrong. What you're probably hearing is distortion. The biggest and most accomplished speakers I've ever heard could reproduce unbelievable amounts of bass that seemed to travel through the floor to sneak up into the listening chair in exactly the same way you experience deep organ notes in church. Now, it often takes a speaker the size of the Infinity IRS to recreate that type of bass response. The Apollo II isn't going to measure up to speakers of that sort and cost. But within their class, the Apollos do better than most. They produce ample bass weight but more importantly, they produce the texture of the bass. It doesn't sound like an amorphous rumble. Rather, you can almost count the cycles. A well-known byproduct of deep bass of course is enhanced ambient retrieval as it pertains to conveying the sense of venue. This disc places the listener well back in the hall and the word cavernous doesn't even hint at the depth of the hall.
One of the discs I've been using to evaluate bass performance is Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick [EMI CDP 7 48075 2]. Its bass doesn't plumb the depths like big pipe organ but it's full-bodied and rich in transient attack - just like the Apollo IIs. It's bass with speed. If I don't get that sense of sharp leading edge supported by rich power and clean note dissipation, something's wrong. The Mark & Daniels didn't disappoint. In the least. From the opening electric bass lines through the bass percussion, this is what I heard on "Airhead". Low frequencies were powerful and full-bodied with no hint of overhang, coming across with an excellent sense of speed and agility. Some speakers achieve speed by cheating on harmonics and body. Not these. The amount of insight into string bass on "Hot Sauce" was nearly shocking as those details came through amidst so much billowing power. The pounding bass on "The Ability To Swing" impressed in the same way and close inspection revealed that there are actually two very closely tuned bass drums being alternated. Or perhaps, the Apollo IIs were just differentiating the actual locations of the strikes on the drum head? In any case, I could go on and on. It's just flat-out fun when you get this kind of bass power and detail together, at once.
Of course, the Apollo IIs aren't just about bass power. They do everything else with varying degrees of success. As with all speakers, your take on them will vary with your tastes. In terms of tonal balance, I personally shy away from bright and forward speakers. They are just too fatiguing over the long term. Yet I don't want a speaker so smooth and refined that it can't get down and dirty from time to time. Polite and listenable is fine but a steely distorted guitar and a close-miked trumpet can get crude and rude and I want to hear it that way when it does. In this regard, the Apollo IIs strike just the right balance for me. They're neither bright nor particularly forward. But neither are they so sweet that they can't get excited on occasion. There's a lot of snappy high percussion on the Dolby disc and it was reproduced with just the right amount of snap and sizzle. Not so much as to become fatiguing but with enough energy to sound alive. "Loisaida" from Joe Jackson's Body And Soul [A&M CD 5000] uses two cymbals at various parts of the song, one of which is heard in each speaker. I remember well the first time I realized they were not the same cymbal but of two different sonic signatures. For years I've been listening to this piece and enjoying the two different timbres but once I heard them over the Apollo IIs, I realized that they differ in more ways than just timbre. The two cymbals have very different textures and decay characteristics. I've been playing this piece for 23 years and it's been an on-again/off-again reviewing staple so you can imagine my surprise. The cymbal on the left is clearly tuned lower. It has greater body and texture. It has deeper sustain as it rings slightly longer and its tonal signature changes as it does. The Apollos further did a wonderful job with not only Jackson's piano but with the articulation of its reverberations throughout the hall. Whether the result of the Dreams 3's articulation or maybe the continuity of a crossover-less upper midrange, I can't say. I suspect both. The fact remains that these speakers are extremely resolving but in a way that never inflicts damage to music's gestalt. They never seem to put the smaller details before the importance of the whole. They never exaggerate artifacts of the recording process. Detail is nice but if it doesn't prioritize, it just detracts. Somehow, the Apollo IIs' fine detail does not.
In my room, this speaker seemed to have limitless dynamics. They were so weighty and full-bodied in the nether regions that they remained relatively so at low volume levels yet seemed made to be cranked in larger rooms, too. They are conspicuously less strained sounding when run full bore than what I know to be the norm. In my room, they are more than capable of producing the scale of a large orchestra from only a few rows back. When it comes time to rock out, I say uncle long before they do.
In terms of microdynamics - again, there's a little bit of a paradox at work. They won't impress in the same way a good hornloaded single-driver speaker will. Microdynamically speaking, they're not that overt. But I never got the feeling that they were slow or sluggish either. Maybe the biggest difference here is that I've never heard one of these single-driver speakers with anywhere near the amount of bass and tonal saturation as the Apollo IIs deliver. I'm not backtracking and downgrading an excellent example of the genre such as the RL Acoustique Lamhorn 1.8s with AER MK-1 drivers. They are wonderful at what they do. But these two speakers won't appeal to the same audience and the Lamhorn doesn't convey anywhere near the same degree of tonal saturation and upper or lower bass heft. When you strip that from a speaker, it will naturally sound leaner, meaner and more agile. The trick is to load all of that back onto a speaker without bogging it down and making it slow or lumbering. Mark & Daniel have achieved this goal very nicely.
Perhaps the Apollo II's icing on the cake is its presentation of treble. It doesn't stand out in any way. More than that, it never rains on the parade. The Apollo has one of those trebles that don't leave much of a mark on the listener unless one upgrades from a vastly inferior experience. It's there and it's good, it just doesn't try to make a case for itself. It doesn't sparkle and it doesn't gleam. It just plays music. Linearity and coherence make this so and the treble just seems to melt away into the upper midrange. Through this region, the Apollo IIs are smooth and articulate and to a degree, polite in that the only time they bite is when required to by the program.
With the speakers situated such that I could see much of the inside panels -- i.e. with only a little toe-in -- tonal balance was indeed slightly on the polite side. Toe them in more and they'll get a little hotter on top. While the tonal balance may have been polite, the personality of the speaker was anything but. Bass and overall dynamics combine for a presentation that is anything but laid back or reticent. In fact, it's energetic as hell.
The Very Best Of Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops [Telarc CD-80401] is a sonic spectacular I usually drag out when using or testing subwoofers because it contains cuts with infrasonic bass frequencies. It's a lot of fun but, generally speaking, I go for the bass cuts and omit the rest just because I've had the disc so long and listened to it so many times. Right off I was impressed by the clarity and articulation of the brass on "Rawhide" so I sat through it and enjoyed it. I usually sit through the fist half of cut #2, the introduction to "Also Sprach Zarathustra", then hit 'skip' when it fades into "The Main Theme From Star Trek". But on this day, there was something oddly inviting about it. Lots of strings, chimes and triangles sounded as delicate as they did present within my room. When the brass kicked in with some high-octane energy, the Apollo IIs just came into their own with that smooth articulation and sense of ease and grace.
Speed and dynamic articulation? I've owned this disc since 1994 and played it a hundred times. The overture from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom Of The Opera starts out with cracks of thunder which are, well, thunderous - literally. I did jump in my chair this time. That damned thunder actually came out of the speakers and went right through me as it engulfed the whole room. I played it again and again and again. It came from the front of the room right at me as I'd never heard it do before. See what I mean about fun? If you're paying this much for a pair of speakers, they certainly should be fun. The CD is also encoded with what Telarc calls Spatializer. This creates surround information from a two-channel source. It worked spectacularly well over the Apollo IIs. After the thunder subsided, there was a pulsating heartbeat emanating from the left rear corner of my room followed by foot steps across the front of the room, doors slamming, a woman screaming and, finally, a big pipe organ that filled the room with floor-shaking energy and wall-to-wall pleasure.
Everything I've already said about the bass pertained here again. It wasn't until the music started that the Apollos hit their stride again - more of that brass that just sounded so good, so strong and so present. The Apollo IIs created a presence within the room as convincing as it was entertaining. Mancini's theme from The Pink Panther was spectacular. It starts with triangles from well back at the rear of the stage behind the snare drums. Then comes in the saxophone at the center of the stage, rich in texture, tonally saturated and reverberating across the front of my room - er, hall. Then the full brass section enters and the piece swells with power, presence and scale. I've always enjoyed this piece. It's light and whimsical. But today it was not quite so whimsical but instead, big and dense and with a gravitas it never had before. It was so vividly there. Then the pièce de résistance: "Jurassic Lunch".
|We begin by being surrounded by the serene sounds of a rain forest but what's that in the distance? It sounds like the distant thumps of a T-Rex! If you're familiar with the flapping of a speaker's woofers in syncopation with a record playing and foot stomps across the room, you can envision what the Apollo IIs woofers are doing here. They're flapping around at frequencies far too low to hear. Telarc specifies frequencies as low at 5Hz. As the dinosaur gets closer, the woofers gain control again and the foot falls rise in frequency capable of shaking everything in the room. Truth be told, I've experienced all this before and I've heard the audible bass go lower in frequency. But I've never sensed the same degree of cohesion as here. Perhaps the subwoofers never handed off to the much smaller speakers with which I paired them with the same degree of success. Perhaps there were timing issues I was unaware of at the time? In any case, while some of the deepest power may have been absent, the Apollo's energy and bass punch has never been surpassed and never been so visceral, quick and so positively explosive before. And never did the Apollos sound as rude as when reproducing the bone-crunching dinosaur lunch treat. Rude indeed!
I realize I've spent a great deal of energy trying to convey how much fun I've had with the Mark & Daniel Apollo IIs - but I hope my message won't be misconstrued. These are not merely about hedonistic pleasures. They are in fact intensely musical speakers. They simply do bring to mind former Stereophile reviewer Corey Greenberg who found the vast majority of audiophile-approved speakers weak and prissy. He wanted a speaker that could convey musicality but also display the he-man qualities he found so important in the reproduction of rock music. His speaker of choice was the NHT 3.3, a speaker I once owned and there indeed are certain similarities here. Both speakers do bass like few remotely affordable speakers do. Both play loud without strain. Both are great with rhythm and pace. Both are fairly large and heavy. But the M&D Apollo II is much more refined. It's a far more neutral and sophisticated performer. It's in fact a very distinguished speakers. At the same time, the Mark & Daniels make most other speakers I've used sound prissy. Most can't stand up to the M&Ds in the bass nor can they play as loudly without strain. These speakers appear to be absolutely bullet-proof.
The Apollo II hits all the usual marks very well as no matter their way with bombast, they'd fail as musical transducers otherwise. They do not fail in that regard. I've played a great number of different types of music over them and haven't found anything they cannot do. Without a doubt, these belong among the top few speakers I've ever had in my home.
I've now evaluated the tiniest speakers from the Mark & Daniel stable as well as the largest one I'd want to handle, the Apollo II. While there's no comparing the overall presentation of these two, there are common threads. I'll say it one last time: both these Mark & Daniels are fun to listen to. They're exciting despite a smooth and non-aggressive tonal balance because they've got the timing of it all down and they are surprisingly dynamic. They image like gangbusters and throw up a huge soundstage as the speakers disappear into the room. And, build quality is amazing. Though the Apollo II weighs 170 lbs, I enjoyed pushing it around my room like no other just because it feels so solid. What can I say? I'm really impressed with both these models. Mark & Daniel have been designing speakers for a whopping 3 years and already built an extensive line of very mature products. I can't wait to hear what they come up with next.
Quality of packing: Both speakers were very new with prototype packaging that won't be representative of what customers see. Missing was form-fitting cradles of foam but it was all functional.
Reusability of packing: Again, final packaging was not used.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: The Minis were extremely easy to handle. The large Apollo IIs are difficult to handle at 170 lbs. As always, I did unpack them myself but suggest that it's a two-man job.
Condition of component received: One of the Minis didn't make it though customs inspection. The cabinet was damaged and the speaker was DOA. The other speaker of the pair was in perfect condition, as was the replacement and so were the Apollo IIs.
Completeness of delivery: Very complete.
Quality of owner's manual: Didn't receive as much an owner's manual as a complete full-color product catalog with information on the entire line.
Warranty: 1 year
Human interactions: Always excellent