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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Rotel RCD-971 as transport, Audio Zone DAC-1, Cullen Circuits modified PS Audio DL III DAC [in for review], Pro-Ject RPM 5 turntable, Pro-Ject Speed Box, Ortofon Rondo Blue cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Shrimp, Audio Zone AMP-1, Rotel RX-940AX receiver, Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage
Amp: Manley Labs Mahi monoblocks
Speakers: Green Mountain Audio Callisto (on sand filled Skylan stands), Hornshoppe Horns, (2) REL Q108 Mk II subwoofers
Cables: Audience Maestro interconnects & speaker cables, DH Labs Q-10 speaker cable, Stereovox XV2 digital
Power Cables: Audience, GutWire, Harmonic Technology, DH Labs
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier rack
Powerline Conditioning: BPT Pure Power Center w/Wattgate 381 outlets, Bybee Quantum Purifiers and ERS cloth, GutWire MaxCon, Blue Circle BC86
Sundry Accessories: Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Herbie's Way Excellent II Turntable Mat, Herbie's Black Hole CD Mat, Isoclean fuses, Caig Pro Gold, Auric Illuminator, Audio Magic/Quantum Physics Noise Disruptors, dedicated AC line with Wattgate 381 outlet, Echo Busters acoustic room treatments.
Room Size: 11' x 18' x 8', long wall setup, hardwood floors with large area rug.
Review Component Retail: $1995/pr
|How much would you expect to pay for a 3-way floorstander equipped with planar magnetic drivers and an onboard 350-watt 8" sub, all packaged in a handsome Rosewood veneer finish? $4,000? $6,000? How does $1,995 per pair strike you? Too good to be true? They must be some crap White Van boom boxes. Far from it. The AV123 Strata Minis are the real deal and offer outstanding value. Always on the hunt for cheap yet cheerful gear, I was keen to get a pair in for review when I first heard of the Strata Mini.
Some of you might recall AV123's top gun Mark Schifter from his Audio Alchemy days. Now there was a firm that offered audio tight wads like me good-sounding hifi on the cheap. AA sadly is no more but AV123 picked up where they left off and offers a growing range of equipment at very attractive prices. With hefty savings realized by manufacturing in the developing world and selling direct to customers -- plus a generous 30-day in home money back (less shipping) trial -- the customer wins. Big time.
According to AV123, the Strata Mini is a 3.5-way loudspeaker. Driver complement includes a 1" circular planar magnetic tweeter, an 8" planar magnetic midrange, a 5.25" multi-layer Atohm dynamic midbass coupler and a rear mounted 8" mass-loaded paper woofer driven from its own 350-watt class A/B amp. Frequency range is 27Hz-35kHz (± 3dB), nominal impedance 8 ohms and sensitivity is rated at 86dB @1watt/1meter. The crossover point for the 8" subwoofer is user definable from 30Hz to 150Hz. The Atohm 5.25" midbass coupler located in its own critically damped chamber kicks in at 80Hz, which in turn crosses over to the 8" planar magnetic midrange driver at 650Hz. At 4100Hz, the 1" planar magnetic tweeter takes over up to 35kHz. Overall dimensions are 47" H x 17.5" D x 11.5" W. Weighing in at 94 lbs, each pair ships in pallet mounted crates for a grand total of 315 lbs. The gently curved front panel is veneered in a lovely real-wood South American Rosewood. For an additional cost, a high-gloss piano black finish is available in limited quantities. The Mini sits on a quartet of serious looking solid brass cones. Also included are brass cups to prevent the speakers from punching holes through your floor. At 94 lbs each, they most assuredly would.
While the front baffle is sloped back enough to suggest driver time alignment, the Strata is not a time-coherent design. It cannot be due to the time delays caused by the 2nd-order networks. Time aligning the drivers with this crossover network will only move the time delays to different frequencies which may subjectively sound better than mounting the drivers in an upright baffle. However, I did notice a considerable change in the speakers' presentation when I altered the tilt-back angle via the cones.
|On the back panel, there is a large heat sink, IEC receptacle and rotary dials for crossover, level and phase for the subwoofer and several hi/low-level connections. The plethora of connections is a little daunting at first but the manual will guide you and also offers plenty of info for optimal subwoofer settings. It's not difficult at all. You just need a little patience. While you can run interconnects from your preamp to the sub input on each speaker, AV123 recommends running the subwoofer inputs from the speaker connections via the supplied banana terminated jumpers. I tried both methods and preferred the latter connection because the sound was more seamless.
With the Strata Mini, you better be a believer in break-in because initially, this speaker did not impress. At all. In fact, it took a few hundred hours before I could get a handle on the Strata. At first, music was flat and muddy, the highs were MIA and I could hear each driver chugging away on its own. A quick email to AV123 confirmed that my loaners were hot off-the-line new so I relocated them to the family room for several weeks of TV and DVD action. Every couple of weeks, I'd schlep them back into my listening room for a day or two. Actually, I did this three times before I thought the speakers were broken in.
During that time, several family members and friends heard the Minis and pretty much noted the same discombobulated presentation. But I kept the faith knowing how speakers -- especially those with several dissimilar drivers and complex crossovers -- can take a while to gel. Then after about two months, everything seemed to click. Gone was the muddy shut-in soundscape and missing treble. Initially one of the naysayers, my wife came around and quite liked them. Therefore, beware of quick A/B sessions or speaker shootouts. If the Strata initially comes across as muddy and lacking in focus, they need further break in or possibly the sub crossover/level settings are too high. Ease back the throttle a bit and they'll open up. Tilting the speakers forward or back via the included cones will also affect tonal balance and focus. In fact, the manual suggests installing only the rear spikes for low seating. I preferred all spikes installed with just a tad of forward tilt.
|In our home, the Strata were easy to integrate in two different rooms and setups. Once dialed in, the subs delivered plenty of bottom end grunt. No wimpy mini-monitor bass here. Bass was fluid and well defined and not at all boomy or bloated. The subs|
|didn't slow down the timing or call attention to themselves. I could of course get bloat and boom by cranking up the subs' volume and crossover settings to ridiculous levels.
With their 86dB sensitivity, the Strata were easier to drive than expected. I had little difficulty in driving them to high levels with my relatively low-power Manley Labs Mahi monos, Audio Zone AMP-1 and even an old Rotel receiver. I just had to turn up the wick a little further than I do with my more sensitive GMA Callistos or Hornshoppe Horns.
While endowed with planar magnetic drivers generally highly regarded for speed and detail, the overall tonal balance of the Strata leaned toward the warmer end of the spectrum, with a soft pleasant if slightly veiled top end. However, I did notice a touch of excessive sibilance on esses and tees on occasion. Still, the overall presentation was one of a forgiving nature. No sign of the vivisectionist approach with this speaker, probably a good thing since I suspect many potential Strata owners will pair them with modest components. Better to hide shortcomings in the signal chain than shine a spotlight on them.
The Strata's presentation was also rich and full-bodied, with decent portrayal of soundstage dimensionality. Depth perspective was mid to rear hall. Instrumental and vocal timbre was better than acceptable. Imaging was good if not great. Image outlines were a little vague and did not offer the layering and precision of my Callistos which are damn near holographic and crystalline in their clarity. But by themselves, it was difficult to fault the Strata Minis.
|While the Strata's presentation was fairly cohesive, I was aware from time to time of the individual drivers and crossover points. As a result, I wasn't drawn into musical performances the same way I am with my GMA Callistos or a good single driver speaker. I don't want to seem overly bitchy but this was audible. Retailed the speakers for $6,000, I'd be far bitchier. On the other hand, the Callistos don't possess anything like the deep powerful bass of the Strata and if you paired them with a cheap receiver, you'd hear it. The Strata are far more forgiving in that regard.
Since they are probably targeted at those with modest systems and budgets, I connected the Strata to an old Rotel RX-940AX receiver that my son uses in his bedroom iMod/Hornshoppe Horn system. The Rotel was a fine match. It possesses a slightly warm forgiving balance and with the two together, I wasn't missing too much. This pairing didn't approach what I normally listen to but put into proper context considering costs, there really was nothing wrong with this setup. For many listeners, the Strata paired with a decent receiver might be ideal.
|With their adjustable subwoofers, the Strata excelled in a home theater environment. Dialogue was clear and present with plenty of vocal intonation. With the subs, I could really get into action film soundtracks with their arsenal of bottom-end pyrotechnics. The entire family was quite miffed whenever I dragged the Strata into my music room. For my 10-year old son, his Transformers DVD just wasn't the same without the big Strata Minis.
I also admit to missing them whether it was a film, a sporting event or even the evening news. It was surprising just how much an effect sound quality had on my enjoyment of what primarily is a visual medium. My wife, normally the voice of reason when it comes to audio purchases, is quite keen on keeping the Strata in our -- or should I say, her -- TV room.
Since Christmas is rapidly approaching and I've yet to buy gifts, the Strata Minis are going under the tree. Besides, this will save me from frantically running around the local mall on Christmas Eve along with every other married bloke in town. The Strata will also give me a little more system flexibility and open up more options for future reviews, perhaps even a flat panel HDTV or Blu-Ray player. Who says 6moons has to be strictly audio?
|The Strata Mini gets my top recommendation for those looking for an affordable full-range speaker with onboard subs. It offers a pleasing, full-bodied, slightly warm tonal balance with all the visceral bottom end you'll ever need, all wrapped up in an attractive room and wallet-friendly package. And it won't jam ice picks through your ears with that hyped-up treble that typifies so many of today's speakers. Sounding bright, edgy or analytical is simply not in the Strata's job description. As far as I can tell, the Strata Mini has no competition at this|
|price point. If you are looking for a full-range speaker that will integrate in a wide range of rooms and systems and is equally at home in 2-channel audio as well as home theater, then by all means, put the Strata Mini on your list.
Quality of packing: Excellent. Speakers are individually covered with a soft cotton sleeve and packaged in wooden crates on a pallet. Cotton gloves, spikes plus floor protectors are also included.
Reusability of packing: Appears to be reusable several times.
Quality of owner's manual: Easy to read and comprehensive. Lots of diagrams and pictures.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Website comments: Informative with good quality pictures and pricing info. Manuals for each model are also online.
Warranty: Three years parts & labor. 30-day home trial, 100% refundable less shipping costs.
Human interactions: Quick, professional, helpful and friendly.
Pricing: A freakin' bargain!
Final comments & suggestions: These speakers are quite heavy and awkward to move so if you're a girlie man, get someone to help.
Regarding my comments about the Strata's tilt back angle, AV123 Product Manager Sean Parque wrote: "To keep everything in phase and therefore coherent at standard listening heights, the network was built such that if you are sitting at tweeter level or above, you get a very flat response. After all, you're typically either sitting or standing. If you listen below tweeter level, the midrange and tweeter no longer maintain perfect phase coherence. Again, we figured you would be sitting or standing. That said, for shorties like myself, you may find yourself sitting a little below tweeter on some low couches, hence the note in the manual about spiking the back only. BTW - thank you for actually reading the manual."