This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
Reviewer: Stephen Marsh
Digital 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, VTV silver foil/oil output coupling caps)
Analog Source: Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable with 10" Anna tonearm, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
Preamp: Hovland HP-100 MC tube preamplifier, all updates except for recent power supply improvement about which I just learned
Power Amp: Red Rose Model 2A Silver Signature tube amplifier (Mullard EL34s, RCA black plate 12AT7WAs for gain/inverter and Tung Sol black plate 12AT7s for driver
Speakers: Audio Physic Anniversary (SLE) Step speakers, Audio Physic Luna active subwoofer
Cables: Music Metre Fidelis digital interconnect, Harmony Audio interconnect, Stealth CWS interconnect, homemade twisted pair of mil-spec silver cladded multistrand speaker cables
Power Cords: Analysis Plus Power Oval (amp), PS Audio Mini Lab (preamp)
Equipment Rack: Michael Green Justarack
Sundry Accessories: Steel-shot loading in Audio Physic Step stands, Audio Point coupling discs under Step stands
Power Line Conditioning: PS Audio P300
Room Size: 29' long x 16' wide x 10' high (sunken living room with open floor plan, listening across width of room)
Review Component Retail: $7,800/pair
I waited patiently for a number of years for the designer of my beloved Audio Physic Step SLE speakers to bring a new line of speakers to market. Joachim Gerhard had made quite a splash in the audio world with his original line of Audio Physic speakers, with designs noted not only for excellent sound but also for fine, elegant cabinetry. Joachim departed Audio Physic in 2005 and the very successful Virgo II was his last design for that company.
For my money, the Step SLEs have set standards for a purity of sound that rivals the vaunted single-driver designs (no wonder since it has no crossover on the mid/woofer), along with imaging that rivals the best from Wilson. When I initially auditioned most of the Audio Physic line at a dealer friend on Long Island, I was most impressed with the Step SLE and bought a pair.
While I could have just called the former Audio Physic importer Allen Perkins of Immedia to find out what was going on with Joachim Gerhard, I instead mucked about and waited for the information to fall into my lap. Well, it finally did when I saw that Immedia was now the importer for Joachim Gerhard's new line of speakers called Sonics.
As Jonathan Josephs, National Sales Manager for Immedia, so aptly put it, when a great chef goes to a different restaurant, people follow him there. So it goes with Joachim Gerhard's move from Audio Physic to Sonics. My inclination was to try and review the Sonics Anima speaker since it appeared to be designed as the successor to my Step. However, the Anima already had a fine review in Stereophile and Allen was keener to have me review the Allegra, a four-driver three-way floorstander. The Allegra could roughly be thought of as an Anima on top of a bass box à la Wilson WATT/Puppy (and so many others). The head unit of the Allegra though is not identical to the Anima and uses a different midrange driver.
The German Sonics website did not have the speaker description in English at the time of this writing. Allen is working on cleaning up the English translation and hopes to have it up soon. He relayed my inquiry per email to Joachim Gerhard to obtain the pertinent technical and design information. According to Allen, the Sonics line was introduced in the German market around the spring of 2004. About six months later, he became the U.S. importer for the line, having ended his relationship with Audio Physic. Below is the text Joachim forwarded to me:
"The Allegra was first introduced to the German market in February 2005. It won a High Light award from Stereoplay magazine in August 2005. The Allegra now is the sole speaker used by all their 5 reviewers as a working tool to assess new media like 7-channel Blue Ray and High Def DVD. In fact, Stereoplay uses 3 Allegra in the front and 4 Anima in the back.
"The drive units are all from SEAS in Norway. I have worked with SEAS for over 20 years, in fact longer than most of their employees. I work directly with the lab and as a beta tester. The woofer has a very stiff anodized aluminum cone and a long throw. The midrange has a classic hand-coated paper cone and is optimized as a midrange with a short voice coil to reduce mass and a particularly strong magnet to get better sensitivity. This driver has an 8-ohm impedance and is the same sensitivity as the two paralleled woofers. No resistors are used in the midrange crossover.
"The tweeter is built as a ring radiator. The inner membrane is made from aluminum and magnesium and the wide surround is made from a stable cloth material. The small inner membrane has a very high breakup frequency of over 40kHz without using exotic materials. The wide surround extends the response in the lower frequency range. I am particular happy with the crossover design. The crossover is assembled in Germany from one of the leading suppliers. I use high-quality polypropylene capacitors wherever space allows. The coils are wound to very close tolerances and the resistors are high power and non-inductive.
"We use cable of our own design (OFC copper) also made in Germany. The crossover uses a second-order Linkwitz algorithm between bass and midrange and a fourth-order Linkwitz between midrange and tweeter. Crossover frequencies are chosen for low interference and low distortion. The Linkwitz crossovers keep the drivers in phase over the whole working range and optimize the 3-dimensional radiation pattern. Now it is possible to measure on a lot of frontal angles and always get the same response. In tandem with the very slim cabinet for low diffraction, this creates very good imaging and soundstaging in my experience."
The specs are as follows:
Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms
Crossover frequencies: 280 Hz, 2.7 kHz
Frequency response: 30Hz - 30kHz (-3dB), 200Hz 20kHz (+/-2.5dB).
Upon unpacking the speakers, I was relieved to find that the head unit was permanently and solidly affixed to the bass box. There's no fiddling with coupling discs or spikes between the head unit and bass box nor any fidgeting about the proper setback from the front of the cabinet. Let me reassure readers that the fine cabinetry for which Audio Physic was known has not diminished one iota. The Birdseye maple veneer application was flawless and stunning.
My Red Rose 2A Silver Signature amp was already set on the 4-ohm taps for the Steps so no adjustments of the amp's internal impedance and feedback settings were needed to match the amp to the Allegras. My initial listening was done with the speakers 110 inches apart (tweeter to tweeter) and 144 inches from tweeter to ear, speakers pointing straight ahead. There appeared to be some forwardness to the sound so listening off-axis a bit seemed advisable. It helped but as the speakers loosened up again, they smoothed out and I found I could toe them in about 10° to good effect to fill in the soundstage further. Through the course of my listening, I occasionally switched the speakers between straight ahead and a slight toe-in and found very little beaming-induced change in the frequency response. What I did find was a difference in imaging. Firing straight ahead gave the speakers a more expansive soundstage, with more projection of the images to the outside of the speakers. The slight toe-in gave up some soundstage width but provided additional focus to the center stage.
I also began my listening with the speakers' wood bases placed directly on my hardwood floor, i.e. without the supplied spikes installed. For the next week, I just played music, casually noting the speakers' performance but not doing any critical listening. It was not that I had to break in this pair as they were travelling demonstrators. However, I wanted to get adjusted to their sound and let their sonic signature sink in by osmosis first.
Since I get most of my 'new' music from estate/tag sales, I have an almost constant supply of fresh records to try. The previous week's estate sale pickings were slim. The owner must have been a Columbia Records Club subscriber since every record in the stack was Columbia. Out of desperation, I picked up the six-eye Benny Goodman's Benny In Brussels Vol. 1, [Columbia CS 8075] mainly because the subtitle said "featuring Jimmy Rushing'. I finally found Jimmy on the cut "Brussels Blues". He really must have wrinkled the starch in Benny Goodman's collar with this number. The Brussels (1958 World's Fair) crowd reacted with huge applause, far exceeding that for Benny's previous numbers. Jimmy's vocal sounded spot on and I was surprised by the relatively good recording quality since live jazz recordings in a large venue can often be disappointing. The Allegras did justice to conveying the excitement of the crowd as well as allowing me to hear all of the tonal color of Benny's lead clarinet.
Switching to Mose Allison's Seventh Son [Prestige 10052], I noted a slight woody coloration or thickening on the lower range of his piano playing. The piano did not have the alacrity that I hear live or through my Step speakers. I began wondering if this was a cabinet resonance coloration, one that might be alleviated by using the provided spikes. I popped an email to Allen Perkins to ask if the spikes were strongly recommended. His reply was: "I find that the improvement provided by either coupling or de-coupling is very hard to predict and I can't make a blanket recommendation. Much depends on the floor itself and of course how it all mates with the rest of the room."
Allen suggested that he could send me some Finite Elemente coupling devices which Immedia imports as well. The recommended model was the Cerapuc. In the meantime, out came the supplied package of Sonics spikes and my own Audio Points coupling discs that I use under the Audio Physic dedicated stands for the Step SLEs. The next record was War's self-titled album on United Artists UAS-5508. On the first cut, "Sun Oh Son", the Allegras seemed to have gained an octave of bass extension, with B.B. Dickerson's bass line going very deep on this cut. Also, the focus of the instruments improved. There was still some minor woodiness but it was definitely much improved. The spikes were staying.
Next on the platter was a standard, Copland's Appalachian Spring [RCA Living Stereo, LSC-2401]. It quickly became apparent that the Allegras really shine on orchestral music. String tone was excellent, which lent itself to an overall sense of ease and warmth of presentation. In fact and over time, I began to feel that tonal balance may be the number one strong suit of the Allegras. In my book, this is no faint praise. As J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile fame insisted, if the tonal balance is not right, it is difficult to fall in love with a speaker.
The Allegras also allow the full harmonic structure of the instruments to be heard, which is a strong suit of the Steps too. Forget about any thin sound or bleached-out harmonics. If the rest of your system can supply it, the Allegras will let you hear it. Moving on to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 [Mercury Living Presence SR90279], the grandeur of this performance was wonderfully conveyed. In the movement "Moderato con anima", the drama of the frenetic interplay between tympani, strings and horns (practically the entire orchestra) was magnificent. The speakers have a way of maintaining their composure through the most difficult passages.
|The RCA shaded dog LP Mendelssohn, Italian and Reformation Symphonies [RCA LSC-2221], reinforced my impressions. On Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, the violins were smooth and without a trace of edginess. However, in the lower registers there was still some of the thickening and clouding earlier mentioned with the Mose Allison LP.
At this point, I felt that soundstaging was more precise and transparent with my Audio Physic Steps. I decided to put further listening on hold, awaiting the arrival of the Cerapucs from Immedia. In mid December, the Cerapucs arrived and I switched from four spikes/discs to three (the bottom of the Allegra cabinet allows for a four or three spike configuration), with two in back and one in front. I used the Cerapucs with the rubber disc inserted and that side down. The disc provides a better grip to the floor and probably aided in vibration control.
I decided to return to some classical albums and see what benefit the Cerapucs wrought for that genre. With Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring [Mercury 434 301-2], I sensed that the Cerapucs had improved the focus and stability of the soundstage considerably over the Audio Point coupling discs. This was no surprise since the Audio Point coupling discs are much smaller in size and mass.
On track 14 "Celebration" (after Billy's capture), the transparency was substantially better. The depth on this recording is excellent and now I was finally beginning to hear what the speakers could do. The quiet passages in the beginning of track 17 portrayed the horns in the rear stage beautifully and spread out the instruments across the stage with just the right balance between separation and the orchestral whole.
My CD collection is woeful in comparison to my vinyl collection, purposely I might add since I greatly prefer vinyl playback. Unfortunately, at this point in the review I determined that my Roksan Shiraz was beginning to give up the ghost (it is 3.5 years old and has seen plenty of use). So I sent the Shiraz off to May Audio Marketing for a rebuild/retip and was forced to complete the review with CD as my sole source.
Given the far fewer CDs I own compared to several thousand LPs, I tend to resort to certain warhorses in my CD collection. The 6moons CES 2004 Volume 1 compilation Srajan put together is one of these. I know every track on this CD very well. While using new or obscure music in a review may impress readers with the taste and breadth of a reviewer's music collection, it is the time-worn discs that still tell me the most about a review component.
With each track, I began to realize that the Cerapucs had transformed the performance of the Allegra speakers in my room. They addressed each of the main criticisms I had about the speakers prior to installing them. Leading edges were cleaner and more distinct (but still not quite to the level of the Steps), the lower midrange/upper bass blurring was almost entirely gone and the dynamics had improved significantly.
Apparently, some detrimental resonance had developed earlier due to less than ideal coupling of the speakers to my floor. While I am not sure what aspect of the Cerapucs' design was providing this substantial improvement, I did notice that the rubber disc in the bottom of the Cerapuc really gripped the floor and prevented the speaker from moving even subliminally. Whatever the case, the Cerapucs have proven crucial to ameliorating the harmful cabinet resonance I was hearing. Perhaps Allen Perkins will have something to say about this in a post-review comments. In any case, I would strongly recommend that potential purchasers of the Allegras audition them with the Cerapucs (or an equally good coupling device if you know of one).
As any jazz lover knows, supporting your local jazz club (if you are fortunate enough to have one) is imperative. My nearby jazz club in New Haven is called Firehouse 12. It has a recording/performance venue with world-class acoustics. If you are ever in the area, be sure to check out their Friday night jazz performance series. They specialize in avantgarde free-form jazz so if you're looking for bebop, you won't find it here.
Recently, I saw the Michael Musillami Trio with Mark Feldman there. I bought their latest CD The Treatment [Playscape Recordings PSR#050607] after the performance. The cut "Mezz Money" is a more conventional jazz piece, with Joe Fonda providing the bass line upon which Michael on guitar and Mark Feldman on violin build a melody with alternating solos and duets. With the Cerapucs in place, the woofers boogied along with the standup bass quite handily. There was no excess overhang or blurriness as before. The timbre of the violin was just right and without edginess. In fact, the upper midrange of the Allegras proved so benign that I could throw at it any brash or bright brass or violin recording and it would play back in a way that was more listenable than many speakers. In short, these speakers have a forgiving quality.
|Part of this forgiving quality must be attributed to Allegra's novel SEAS ring radiator. In an email reply from Joachim Gerhard, he stated that he is one of only two manufacturers using this tweeter in a commercial product. While I don't know which aspect of this tweeter's design contributes to its smooth response, one can surmise that the radiating cloth surround, in addition to providing lower frequency extension, is also providing excellent damping to the standing waves/resonances of the metal diaphragm. There has been almost universal praise of the VIFA (now Peerless) and ScanSpeak ring radiator tweeters but the combination of metal diaphragm and cloth ring materials in this SEAS tweeter may be a notable advance. Time will tell. To my ears, this tweeter combines the best of metal and soft dome technologies, with the airiness,|
|detail and transparency of metal domes mated to the smoothness of soft domes.
|This is an interesting direction for metal dome tweeter design and bears close scrutiny for its reception in the marketplace. I never did detect any harshness or undue prominence from this tweeter. Plus, it blended seamlessly with the midrange. Overall, I can't recall hearing any multi-driver speakers better integrated from top to bottom, with absolutely no sense of a particular frequency range calling undue attention to itself. The tonal balance, power response and coherence across the frequency range are almost beyond reproach.
|On the Billie Holiday compilation CD Compact Jazz, [Verve 831 371-2], it was apparent that the Allegras' ability to portray female vocals is another strength. My Audio Physic Step SLEs will occasionally sound somewhat edgy|
|there, particularly with those singers who have a slightly nasal quality to their voice. Not so with the Allegras. Billie's voice was limpid and expressive. I have never heard her sound better on any speakers. Harry 'Sweets' Edison's trumpet accompaniment on Billie's "I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues" was rendered just perfectly. Again, it is the Allegras' ultra-smooth upper midrange that just reaches out and strokes you like a hand on a purring cat.
My only reservations about the Allegras are in the areas of dynamics and transient definition. However, this criticism is relative to only the best in these performance areas. (Note: I did try a 200wpc Marsh Sound solid-state amp to see if they simply needed more juice but it was not so.). Ironically, these observations are readily apparent by comparison to Joachim Gerhard's earlier design, the Audio Physic Step SLE. These little speakers continue to amaze me with the incredible amount of information they reveal and the razor-sharp leading edges that pop with an alacrity that makes listening to them downright addictive.
You're probably asking how the Steps, with only a 4-inch midbass driver, could possibly be more dynamic than the Allegras with their 6-inch midrange driver and twin woofers. First off, I am not talking about maximum-excursion bass dynamics where the Steps cannot compete but rather the liveliness of the speaker over the majority of the frequency range. The Steps provide this liveliness in spades and have kept me using them for longer than any other speaker I have owned. I am aware of the Steps' weaknesses too like any speaker and thus not saying that the Step SLEs are a better speaker than the Allegras.
|My own supposition is that the greater number of parts (inductors, capacitors) in the fourth-order crossover between Allegra midrange and tweeter is robbing the music slightly in these performance areas. The absence of crossover parts on the Step SLE's midbass drivers (and in single driver or widebander speaker designs such as by Zu, Studio Electric, PHY, Solovox, Bastanis etc.) seems to better preserve the dynamics and transient information I find gives the music more excitement.
Of course, there could be other design parameters in the Step SLEs to give it this liveliness. Perhaps a more powerful midbass magnet, a smaller lighter cone, a more compliant surround, a less lossy cabinet... I wish I knew. On the other hand, you can clearly hear how Joachim Gerhard has advanced his speaker designs. His attention to phase integrity between Allegra drivers may be one of the most improved areas, leading to the total ease and evenness of their performance up and down the frequency range.
The claimed bass extension of -3dB at 30Hz seemed accurate in my room. The bass frequency warble tones on the 1990 Stereophile CD [STPH 002-2] supported this spec. I heard what appeared to be a drop of loudness in half when going from the 40Hz to the 31.5Hz warble tone. With music, I had no complaints about the bass. If you hear any such problems, you either have a negative room interaction or you may need to anchor these bases better to your floor.
The Allegras do not carve out a soundstage with the precision and depth of the Steps or other soundstaging champs like the much more expensive Wilson WATT/Puppy speakers. However, they are still very good at imaging and disappear easily. I don't see this as an issue for prospective buyers unless they are soundstaging freaks.
The real strength of the Allegras is their uncanny tonal balance and the seamless integration of drivers. This is the hallmark of a talented and experienced speaker designer. Many speakers at and well above this price range cannot approach the Allegras in this regard. For example, I have always found the tweeter in Wilson speakers to stand out from the other drivers. It calls attention to itself. (However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in the WATT/Puppy 8, David Wilson seems to have addressed this.)
|After installing the Cerapucs, I found my time with the Allegras to be eminently satisfying. They provide fatigue-free listening, full-range performance and are easy to drive with moderately powered (i.e. 40wpc) tube amplifiers. Their tonal purity and even-handedness with all types of music make them standout performers and a tribute to the continued excellence of speaker design by Joachim Gerhard.|
Quality of packing: Excellent but I received a demo pair that I believe had some one-off packaging and was not the standard factory job. The outer boxes were high quality, sturdy cardboard. Inside, the speaker was wrapped in heavy plastic and supported at several points along their length and at the bottom and top with polyurethane foam padding custom fit to cradle the speakers.
Reusability of packing: Completely reusable and durable.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: As easy as can be expected given the size of the speakers and need for proper protection. I unpacked them by myself but two people would make it much easier.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Complete, with grills (not used) and spikes provided.
Quality of owner's manual: None provided, awaiting translation of German PDF file which is naturally available on the manufacturer's website.
Website comments: Lovely music plays while you browse the site. Most of the product descriptions still need translation from German to English at time of this writing.
Warranty: The speakers are warranted against manufacturer defects for 5 years.
Human interactions: Polite and prompt.
|Stephen attributed the "woodiness" in his system to a cabinet resonance and managed to ameliorate it with the Cerapuc. We have measured and tested the cabinet and do not believe a resonance problem exists. In the review Stephen mentions my comments regarding the unpredictable effects of spikes or other isolation devices on the sound of the system. I believe his experience illustrates my point.
|Speakers drive the entire room (floors, walls, ceiling) including the air in it. So there is both mechanical and pneumatic energy produced which is reflected back into the|
|system, including the speakers. It is possible, for example, for reflected energy to move the floor thus shaking the cabinet and causing a detrimental tonal change. Cerapucs can reduce or eliminate this. It is also possible to put Cerapucs under speakers and reduce the energy entering the floor, which can cause detrimental effects on the electronics or turntable. So, putting Cerpucs on the Alegra changed the final sound not by altering the speakers but by changing their interaction with other components through the room interface.
This is a phenomenon I have experienced many times, or I should say, every time I change the system interfaces including the room itself. It is the reason many people point to the room as perhaps the most important and most overlooked aspect of a stereo system. Because manufacturers do not know the variables of the customer's room, it is impossible to know what interactions will occur. This is why I always tell people I can't predict the results of room or component tuning devices.
Generally we find adding more Cerapucs to a system results in cumulative improvement. I would be glad to offer Stephen more samples if he is interested in reporting on his experience.