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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Digital Source: Musical Fidelity A5 CD, Accuphase DP55, Sound Quest SQ12 [on loan]
Amplifier: Musical Fidelity A5, McIntosh MA2275, Onix SP3
Speakers: FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a
Headphone related: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Gede, Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA, Zu Varial RCA and XLR [in for review]
Power Cords: Cobalt Ultimate, Zu Bok & Mother [in for review]
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics and speakers, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' opening to 3 other rooms. Short wall setup
Review component retail: $4,500/pr

Unless you are a regular member on Audio Circle or have come across one of the rare reviews published, you may not have heard of Nomad Audio before. It's a relatively new and small company born from the energy and original ideas of Paul Hilgeman. Paul has some very clear and determined opinions on how a speaker should be designed to sound its best and over the past few years has labored to
make those concepts come to life, gathering as he went a fair amount of supporters through the Internet rumor mill (not always a bad thing).

From that venture the Ronin family of speakers was born - first the fully passive Ronin, then the Ronin A with internal bass amplifier and finally the Ronin D, a digital version using DEQX technology to optimize time, phase and frequency response prior to amplification. A smaller speaker called the Sentinel [on stands above] followed still embodying the same design principals and finally the Niagara class D amplifier to provide clean and uncompressed power for Hilgeman's speakers.

And lastly... well, not quite. While this review won't be on any of the above speakers or amplifiers but the brand-new RPD, a new option in the Ronin line, the designer does not necessarily regard it as a outright improvement over the original passive Ronin but rather, one more sonic flavor to broaden the choices offered to his customers.

The core Ronin principle is the use of dipole midrange and treble. That in itself isn't new -- Carl Marchisotto for example has championed it ever since Dahlquist and later Alon, then Nola -- and the benefits are well known, the main one being that dipole drivers radiate the same level of energy forward and backward whereas a closed-box design either absorbs the rear wave in the enclosure (which can lead to undesirable resonance) or reflects it through the driver diaphragm for offsets in time to smear the signal. A dipole's active rear radiation energizes the in-room ambient field to more closely approximate how live sounds spread and interact in the recording venue. Out-of-phase cancellation in the bass due to the figure 8 dispersion pattern operative there tends to restrict most dipoles to the mid/treble bands but full-range OBs or open baffles like electrostats and planar magnetics and dynamic variants like Emerald Physics most certainly exist.

The Ronin novelty is the use of dipole coaxial drivers: "Choosing a driver arrangement like this solves many of the problems that speaker designers have struggled with for years. No matter what steps are taken, when one driver is high-passed (the tweeter) and one driver is low-passed (the midrange), there is a small band of frequencies where both drivers must play together to maintain an even frequency response. Unfortunately the midrange and tweeter are located in different places and therefore the shared frequency band is not reproduced properly at all frequencies and across the full dispersion. While a speaker will sum to a flat frequency response directly on-axis, the path length differences will cause severe dips and peaks at various off-axis degrees in the frequency response. This plays a large part in the overall sound you'll hear. Not only are you listening to the direct sound from the speaker but to literally hundreds of reflections bouncing off every surface in your room - and most of these reflections are off-axis of the speaker, so you do indeed hear these peaks and dips. This can be generally summed up as power response, the measure of a speaker that accounts for its entire in-room radiation pattern. Locating the tweeter at the center of the midrange mitigates these problems. The sound radiated at all angles travels the same distance from both drivers to eliminate off-axis differentials for more natural in-room playback."

About limited tweeter dispersion from the waveguide effect imposed by situating a tweeter in the throat of a bigger driver, Paul comments: "Consider most speakers where the tweeter is placed alone on the front baffle and the midrange is crossing over to the tweeter - at most typical crossover points, the radiation pattern of the midrange has begun to narrow due to the size of the driver (larger drivers beam more at high frequencies than smaller drivers do). Then at a frequency slightly higher, the tweeter has fully taken over. Due to its small size, it has very wide dispersion just above the crossover region. This causes an overall imbalance in the power response. Our design places the tweeter inside of the midrange. This gives the tweeter a wave guide that is approximately 155 degrees wide. This controls the dispersion at the low end of the tweeter's frequency spectrum and provides for a better balance of off-axis energy between midrange and tweeter."

The Ronin's enclosure is made of bamboo. Beyond the fact that bamboo is a tropical grass with a tremendous productivity that will make poplar or eucalyptus look like snail-paced growth species by comparison (some bamboo variants will grow by a foot per day under ideal conditions), it is quickly renewable and more importantly, can be produced with limited emissions and environmental impact (assuming one doesn't destroy century-old forests to grow said bamboo). In addition, the specific type of bamboo Ply Paul Hilgeman uses is non-toxic and as close to formaldehyde-free as possible unlike competing materials including MDF and thus complies with the US Green Building Council's standards.

Unfortunately, the fact that the Ronin enclosure is produced with reduced environmental impact and won't release toxic fumes should their house incinerate will be lost on all but the most eco-conscious buyers (count me in that latter group) if it does not translate into clear sonic and aesthetic benefits. There too the Ronin scores.

Due to any Ply's typical cross fiber layers, the Ronin's bamboo fibers run vertically on the faces of the speaker and horizontally at the panel cores. A multitude of glue joints adds further to enclosure stiffness for a remarkably sturdy while reasonably light speaker that weighs about 75lb
and is a lot easier to move around than I expected. The lack of upper 'box' actually provides a strong and convenient place to hold and lift.

Whenever one talks about construction materials for speakers, in the end only one voice counts - that of our beloved interior designer and better half. Mine stepped into the room after a particularly demanding two hours at a doctor's office where our 3-year old daughter stubbornly refused to have her blood pressure checked; not the ideal welcome I had anticipated for the Ronins' sake. Nonetheless, she spontaneously exclaimed "hey, they look really nice!". Coming from the lady who found the FJ OMs a little too large, that's as good as a guarantee that WAF will be off the scales with the Ronins. One word of caution though. Unless ordered in piano black or wood veneer, the Ronin will show the grain and structure of the bamboo ply beneath the lacquer, certainly different from the fine furniture finish available on Sonus Faber or GamuT for example. It's a bit more rustic. With not two speakers looking exactly alike, it's an absolute success chez Beudot's but it may not be to everybody's liking - nothing one of the optional finishes couldn't address.

Speaking of options, Ronins come standard with one pair of binding posts but bi-wiring can be had for $140 extra, tri-wiring for $280. This latter option will be necessary if you want the external crossover, a 45lb per side affair in high quality damped enclosures that will cost you an extra $400/pr, a screaming bargain when you consider what Audio Note UK bills for such privileges.

Since all the above design elements above apply to both the original and new Ronins, what has really changed? First and foremost, Paul went from metal to paper for both the midrange and bass units. If you're biased in favor of midrange density and glory as I am, that solitary sentence probably got your attention more than anything else penned thus far.

This change of driver material, in addition to moving from a silver to a dark grey midrange, also triggered a nomenclature tweak. The original Ronin henceforth is called RMD (Ronin Magnesium Dipole, referring to the magnesium midrange unit) and the new Ronin is known as the RPD (Ronin Paper Dipole).

Just like the Magnesium driver, this new coated paper driver is sourced from Seas and part of their Excel line. One of the claimed benefits of this paper driver is its curvilinear profile which creates both a stiffer cone and superior tweeter waveguide for the unchanged tweeter for "an on- and off-axis response that is more even through the top octave".

The change of midrange driver necessitated a retuned crossover, yielding a slightly higher impedance and higher power handling in the upper midrange, making the RPD a little tube friendlier although the RMD is not a tremendously difficult load to start with.

Thanks to the paper driver's greater flex in its upper range (to induce the distortion its supporters love and detractors hate), Paul was able to high-pass the tweeter higher than in his RMD and reduce treble distortion yet further.

The aluminum woofer became a new coated paper Peerless unit from Denmark, picked for its low distortion and extension yet the F3 of the RPD raises a skoch to 39Hz (up by 3 cycles over the RMD) but this might facilitate bass integration in smaller rooms. Since Paul never rests, those changes weren't all. He also set on a quest to identify the best-sounding terminals, replacing the previous Furutech posts with Edison Price pure copper unit. To be honest, I can't say I love these new posts. Color identification for positive and negative is barely visible through the side of the plastic casing and they are not very finger friendly either [and because pure copper is soft, these particular posts can be stripped if over-tightened with pliers - one should use a coin in the slot and hand-tighten only - Ed]. But if the designer says they sound better, I'll bow to his choice as he's obviously spared no effort to optimize his design.

Because I have never heard the original Ronin, I once more will have to rely on the designer's notes to give you an idea of what the paper changes entail in terms of sonics: "The RMD using the Seas Excel Magnesium cone midrange has a very similar sound to many other speakers using this driver, especially those that use a low crossover point to the tweeter. The sound is very precise and very clear and open, resolving or neutral some would say, and very easy to listen to.

"The RPD offers a different sound. Where the RMD is a transparent window to the music, equipment and such, the RPD is more of an instrument that plays music. It has some color and character of its own. It still exudes all of the detail and sense of openness and clarity of the RMD but adds tone or body of its own."

That sounded promising. After a few months' patience while Paul tweaked the last RPD details, one of the very first production pairs finally arrived at my home and the speakers have since been extracted from their 50lb/ea. shipping crates, a $750 option I can't recommend enough to folks like me who are familiar with frequent overseas or cross-continental moves. (Nomad Audio gives a $650 refund on purchased crates that are returned empty, cheap insurance in my mind against the usual mistreatments transporters impose on most traveling equipment). I have screwed the new plinths to the bottom of the speakers (an easy exercise, merely two bolts per speaker since these plinths serve no musical purpose and simply aim to provide a more elegant finishing touch) and positioned the RPDs in my main listening room hooked to the 4-ohm tap of the MA2275 with Zu Libtec speaker wires.