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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000, Benz Micro MC Silver, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS cartridges
Digital source: Pioneer DV-535 DVD player/ Bel Canto DAC2
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre6
Power Amp: Bryston 7B ST, Art Audio Carissa
Speakers: Horning Perikles, ACI Sapphire XL
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, DH Labs D-75 digital
Power Cords: JPS Labs Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords, ZCable Heavys & Black Lightnings
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Heavy Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & Heavy ZSleeves, Auric Illuminator
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: $2,495

I must confess that up until I read fellow moonie Michael Lavorgna's treatment of the muRata ES103A, I was pretty much ignorant of what super tweeters were all about. I agreed do a follow-up on the muRata because I wanted to hear what would happen when I added a little sparkle to the top end of the ACI Sapphire XL loudspeaker, an inexpensive monitor that performs beyond its class and one that could be made better -- or so I thought -- through the addition of just a little more resolution and life through the treble. What naiveté. The resultant investigation was a little slow getting off the ground but it quickly became both exciting and revelatory.

As I removed the ES103As from their flight case, I observed that Michael Lavorgna did not exaggerate his claims for their build quality, fit, finish or panache. For sure the ES103As are not cheap but they will grace any speaker they are chosen to augment - aesthetically speaking. The included length of compliant wire, terminated with spades on one end and bananas on the other, are equally well made and make introduction of the ES103As to a system a breeze. Additionally, the (for their size) weighty ES103As offer a small amount of cushioning on the base, providing both protection for your speaker's finish as well as traction. Only an act of extreme stupidity would result in the displacement of the muRata to the floor.

I started by placing the ES103As on top of the Sapphire XLs, just slightly offset to the outside of the tweeter's center to follow the extended line connecting the center of the speaker's woofer and tweeter. I also did my best to align the ES103A with the XLs tweeter to preserve, as much as I could, the system's time alignment. Then I sat back for some listening.

Well, sat back isn't exactly the best way to describe it. What followed was a lot of jumping up, sitting back down, connecting and disconnecting the muRatas with a lot of listening in between. For the next few hours, I tried CD after CD after CD and while I was pretty sure I could hear subtle differences (and always for the better), nothing I heard could easily justify the expenditure for the ES103As. Neither was I willing to bet that what I was hearing would stand up to blind testing. However, as naive as I was, I did understand that Redbook CD uses a brickwall filter that precluded output past 21kHz or so. So it was time for a format change.

Larry Carlton's "High Steppin'" from his Alone But Never Alone LP [MCA5689] provided some evidence that super tweeters can indeed provide substantial finesse and detail throughout the treble region. Hi-hats and cymbals had greater vibrancy and energy and along with them came a much more highly resolved sustain - the detail retrieved as they faded to black was excellent. They also occupied a much more focused and highly palpable point in space, which
was both more visual and physical than it had ever been before. Rather than hearing a metallic splash, I sensed a 3-D metallic object being struck. The cymbal work on "Mountain Dance" from the GRP Live, In Session [GRP A-102] LP proved to benefit greatly as well. Sure, Carlos Vega's drums and cymbals both incurred the same sense of vivid thereness but there was so much more. Microdynamics went through the roof as the entire recording also became stunningly energetic. Transient snap was greatly increased - and without any sense of undue edge or untoward effect.

Do not equate the muRata's use with a rotation on the treble control. There was no increased brightness or hardness. Record noise (clicks and pops) did take on a slight change in timbre but they didn't become any more prominent. Nevertheless, those who have played with a graphic EQ probably know that if you remove the treble, bass and percussion instruments both suffer tremendously as you shear off the top of their harmonic structure. Bass sounds lethargic, drums sound bloated, dull and muted. The ES103A provides just the opposite effect and with absolutely no downside.

"That Voice Again" from Peter Gabriel's So LP [GHS 24088] has a strong bass line that has always sounded somewhat blunted and slow - a little overbearing. The ES103As just about blew my mind as they transformed the song to something completely different. Bass was both tighter and much more tuneful and articulate. I'm serious. This just about blew my mind. It was then that I wrote Michael about my discovery and he forwarded to me links from all over the net by people who'd observed the exact same thing. A super tweeter that transformed bass response? Believe it. It was one of my most consistently observed benefits of the ES103A.

One afternoon Al Stewart's Year Of The Cat LP [JSX 7022] found its way onto my turntable. It's been a while since I've listened to this one and the recording quality is, shall way say, somewhat lacking. Very soft overall and bereft of any kind of focus. The addition of the ES103As changed much of that. As a matter of fact, this recording benefited in an across-the-board way more than any other I had spun. Suddenly Stewart's vocals came from a much more focused point in space. Space between instruments was much more easily perceived. Those two words transient snap that had appeared over and over in my notes already... they leapt to mind once more. Over and over I was amazed at the microdynamic life that the muRatas were bringing to the music and in the end, I found this one of their more engaging qualities.

The first SACD I tried completely changed my perception of the muRata ES103A. It was Belafonte At Carnegie Hall [74321894852] and man-o-man did the ES103A make an impact. First, the soundstage not only became wider and deeper but it grew much more palpable. It took much less effort on my part to suspend disbelief. Second and to no less an extent, Belafonte's vocals were transformed to something much more present in front of me. Focus increased as well as detail. The muRata ES103As removed several veils from his voice revealing greater life, intimacy and texture. Suddenly there was a musically significant edge to his voice that had previously been blurred. This both signaled the real thing and created a dimensional delineation between him and the orchestra that just oozed three-dimensionality. Removing the ES103As from the system now produced a genuine feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia as the music suddenly imploded, its dimensionality and transparency significantly diminished.

The effect was exactly the same as when you take a pretty good photo into Photoshop and apply just the right amount of sharpening. Suddenly the photo takes on new life and even colors seem more vibrant as they are more highly differentiated from the other colors. Detail that you didn't even think was retrievable appears before your eyes. While the photo may have looked pretty good before, there is no going back now.

The second SACD I tried was Billy Joel's The Stranger [Columbia CS69384] where I learned that the muRatas ain't miracle workers. One of the most disappointing SACDs in my collection, even the muRata could not turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. I suspect there's something really wrong with this recording - remastered from a CD which itself was the product of a poor mastering job? That's my theory. In any case, if it's not on the program material, the ES103As can't dig it out. David Johansen and the Harry Smith's SACD [Chesky SACD 225] is an excellent sounding album and didn't benefit much from the muRata either. Go figure. However, James Taylor's Hourglass SACD [Columbia ACS 67912] is both pretty good sounding and benefited from the muRata's magic in much the same way as the Belafonte disc. Intimacy and transparency were both greatly enhanced and I could almost see into the recording studio. Bass became more taut (try the drums on "Gia" which became tighter and more highly focused in space) and Taylor's voice was sufficiently cleaned up that I could almost envision him in the room.

Eventually the 98dB-efficient Horning Perikles made their way into the room. On paper, these looked to be a poor match with the muRata ES103As because of the mismatch in their sensitivities. How could the 90dB efficient muRata be expected to keep pace with these hornloaded speakers? In some ways, they probably didn't. In others, they certainly did. First, it was a little more difficult to get the tweeters to gel with the Hornings. This meant I had to play a lot more with their positioning on top of the speakers. Once properly sited, they didn't produce the eye-opening revelations as on the ACI speakers but there were two meaningful improvements. First, the ES103As had the now anticipated effect on the bass, which improved considerably in the areas of tightness and tonality. Second, there was also a slight -- but meaningful-- cleaning up of the midrange; the removing of yet another veil that I wasn't even aware was there.

The muRata ES103A super tweeters won't be for everyone. If you already have a budget-priced system, the price of the ES103As will look rather steep. There's no getting around that. You have to have a rather significant investment in your system before these things start looking attractive on paper. If your system is CD only, you may enjoy a modicum of benefit from these ES103As but you won't even hear a hint of their promise. However, if you spin a fair amount of
vinyl, you need to at least hear what these things can do. In my system, I found that they elevated the sound of LPs to such an extent that they easily surpassed the realism and dynamics of CDs in my system - a first in my experience. And if you listen to both LPs and SACDs, you probably have enough of a library that will benefit from the muRata to easily justify their price.

In the end, if you can justify their price and you have speakers which the muRata ES103As' 90dB sensitivity is compatible with, you must check them out. While mature and highly tuned systems will see gains, the more modest your system, the greater it will likely benefit. These add-on tweeters easily made the Sapphire XLs competitive with speakers three times their price. Yes, there's an increase in vibrancy and detail that they bring to the treble as you would expect. But that's only the beginning of their story. Cleaner, more sharply defined and more articulate bass is what will amaze you and an easily perceived bump in midrange articulation may just astound you. And just see if you can keep your feet still as you enjoy greatly improved transient snap, microdynamics and drive. In terms of midrange transparency, liquidity and intimacy, the muRata ES103As transformed the presentation from my 500wpc Bryston 7B STs to something much more akin to that of my Art Audio Carissa SET amplifier. It's something I verified near the end of the evaluation process by swapping in the Art
Audio amp. If you don't think that makes the muRata super tweeters worth their asking price, you either haven't discovered the wonders of SET amplification yet or you probably need to find another hobby. Just as subwoofers aren't merely about better bass, super tweeters aren't just about better treble. Check out the muRata ES103A and hear how much they really can affect for yourself.
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