Friday, May 2, 2008

Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer

Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer Era Acoustics Design 4 loudspeaker & SUB10 subwoofer HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

The first time I attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, in January 1986, I didn't get there until the second day of the Show. Still, by the beginning of the fourth and final day I'd managed to visit every high-end audio exhibit, and still had time to go back for seconds to the rooms that had sounded the best. Twenty years later, CES has grown so much that it's impossible for a single writer to visit even a quarter of the exhibits in which he might be interested. And even with the sort of team reporting Stereophile now practices, covering the Show has become an exercise in applied logistics for the busy journalist: "Should I wait for the free shuttle bus? Should I get a taxi—though I might get caught in Las Vegas's increasing traffic jams, or even just get stuck at the city's interminable traffic lights? Or should I take the new monorail—though that goes nowhere near the hotel in which [insert name of hot company] is demming its products?"

During the four days of the 2006 CES, I estimated I spent eight hours in taxis, buses, and their respective queues. But I did make the effort to visit the Signal Path International suite at the Mirage Hotel, because the Musical Fidelity distributor was introducing its own new brand of speakers, Era Acoustics, designed by Jim Spainhour and David Solomon, engineered by Aerial Acoustics' Michael Kelly, and manufactured in China.

I was particularly struck by the Era Design 4, selling for just $600/pair. Driven, naturally, by Musical Fidelity amplification, a pair of these tiny two-way speakers produced a much bigger sound in the hotel suite than they had any right to. Yes, they were benefiting from some boundary reinforcement, but this was definitely a loudspeaker that punched above its weight. I asked for a pair for review, along with a pair of Era's SUB10 powered subwoofers. Bob Reina shouldn't get to review all the affordable speakers, right?

The Design 4
This little speaker stands just short of 10" tall, its front baffle almost completely occupied by its two drive-units. These are both rabbeted into the baffle and securely mounted with Allen-head wood screws. The tweeter appears to be a conventional design: its 1" silk-dome tweeter is set back within a shallow flare in the front plate, and its woofer, constructed on a diecast 4" frame, uses a 3"-diameter Kevlar/fiber-composite cone and a substantially sized magnet. The woofer is reflex-loaded with a small, deep port on the rear of the wood-veneered cabinet. This is flared on both ends to minimize wind noise, and below the port are two rubber-grommet–covered keyholes to allow the speaker to be mounted on a wall.

Electrical connection is via a single pair of good-quality, plastic-shrouded terminals mounted on a panel inset below the port. These will take both spade lugs and banana plugs. The crossover is carried on a small printed circuit board behind the terminals. The cabinet is braced and filled with fiber of two different densities; its sidewalls are gently curved, and the overall visual impression is of a speaker considerably more expensive than $600/pair.

My room and its furnishings are not conducive to placing speakers close to the wall behind them. I ended up with the Design 4s about 48" out into the room but just 12" from the sidewalls, which would give some boundary reinforcement at low frequencies. The speakers were mounted on 24" Celestion stands whose central pillars were mass-loaded with a mixture of dry sand and lead shot.

My first impression, other than noting that the Eras' low frequencies did not sound lean, was of the enormous yet stable soundstage they threw. I had no sense of sound emanating from the actual physical positions of the Design 4s. Instead, they allowed a window to be opened onto the stereo stage of each recording I played. This was particularly noticeable with my own recordings: Whether it was the spacious acoustic of Sioux Falls' Washington Pavilion on Cantus' There Lies the Home (CD, Cantus CTS-1206); the more anonymous modern hall at Utah's Weber State University on Variations (CD, Stereophile STPH017-2); the reverberant ambience of Santa Fe's Loretto Chapel on Duet (CD, Stereophile STPH012-2); the small-church acoustic of Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas, on Mosaic (CD, Stereophile STPH015-2); or the small Santa Monica recital hall I used to record all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas (CD, OrpheumMasters RSP830), there was virtually no sense that the speakers were imposing their own interpretation on the original venues' sizes and shapes.

Moreover, those acoustics seemed wider and deeper, more tangible, than I'd been used to with the last two speakers I'd used, the Revel Ultima Studio and the Snell LCR7XL. The members of the backing choir on Stanford's "Outward Bound" (from There Lies the Home) stood unambiguously behind and around the baritone soloist, and the piano back a bit farther still, just as they had at the original sessions. Some speakers achieve a wide soundstage but leave the center of the stage a little unstable, images tending to pull to the sides. That was not the case with the Era Design 4s; the image of the dual-mono pink-noise track on Editor's Choice (Stereophile STPH016-2) remained well defined at the center of the image.

And this enormous, stable soundstage had not been achieved—at least not obviously so—by the Design 4s throwing the necessary recorded treble detail forward at the listener so that the sonic clues to image depth could be more easily decoded. Tonally, yes, the Era's low treble was a little exaggerated in absolute terms, but this didn't flatten the image. What it did do was make the speaker rather intolerant of poor source quality. A favorite CD of mine, of orchestral works by Delius, is La Calinda (CD, EMI CDM 7 69534 2), a collection of recordings from 1962 through 1977. Not only was the analog tape hiss on the older transfers very audible through the Design 4s, so were tape compression and distortion. But with more modern recordings, such as Richard Hickox and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performing Gerald Finzi's Intimations of Immortality (CD, EMI CDC 7 49913 2), the speaker's top two octaves sounded smooth and grain-free.

The Design 4's lower midrange sounded a little reticent and lacking in ultimate definition. This was particularly noticeable on Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," from the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2). I had balanced Harris' acoustic bass guitar quite low in the mix. Had I monitored with the Eras when I mastered this album, I would have brought the bass-guitar level up a tad. The low and midbass were missing in action, of course, the half-step–spaced tonebursts on Editor's Choice sounding audibly threadbare below 80Hz. However, there was a degree of upper-bass bloom that sounded not unpleasant. This also contributed to the illusion that the Design 4 was producing more bass than it actually was, and also subjectively balanced its slight excess of mid-treble energy.

With a woofer having a radiating diameter of just 3", the Design 4 necessarily had a limited dynamic range. At levels approaching 90dB, the upper midrange started to sound rather thickened. The men's voices on Peter Schickele's "Jonah's Song," from There Lies the Home, sounded a little "intermoddy" when they changed from singing in octaves to parallel fifths.

With the Sub 10
For the remainder of my listening sessions, I set up the two Era SUB10 subwoofers about a fifth of the way into the room from the wall behind the speakers (Signal Path recommends a third of the way, which wasn't possible in my room), with one each against the left and right walls. I continued to run the Design 4s full-range, driven by the Halcro dm38 stereo amplifier, but took a second set of interconnects from the Mark Levinson No.326S preamp's unbalanced outputs to the SUB10s' RCA inputs.

The SUB10 ($1000 each) is a hefty sealed unit weighing 65 lbs and standing almost 19" high on its spiked feet, by 14.2" wide and 12.5" deep. Finished in the same choice of real-wood veneers as the Design 4, it is a fine piece of furniture in its own right, though the blue LEDs on its front and back faces when it comes out of standby are a mite garish. It uses a 300W amplifier to drive a downward-firing, 10" mineral-loaded polymer-cone woofer. Left and right High (speaker) and Low (line) level inputs are provided, along with passthrough outputs. Both low-pass filter frequency and level are adjustable with continuous rotary controls, and a polarity switch allows selection of 0° or 180° for optimal matching to the satellites. The low-pass filter can be bypassed to allow an A/V receiver's crossover to be used instead, and boundary EQ can be switched into circuit to optimize the SUB10's performance when used on its side—in, for example, a custom-install setup.

After some experimentation, I ended up with the SUB10s' low-pass filters set to 100Hz and the polarity to 180°. I set their level by ear, and, as you can see from the "Measurements" sidebar, I was a bit generous. The effect of adding the SUB10s was to turn the Design 4s into genuine full-range speakers. I had resisted the urge to play classical orchestral recordings through the Design 4s alone, but with the lower octaves fleshed out by the SUB10s, such large-scale favorites as Sir Adrian Boult's 1969 performance with the London Philharmonic of Elgar's oratorio The Kingdom (CD, EMI CMS 7 64209 2) were reproduced with impressive sweep, though the ultimate dynamics were still rather restricted.

As is usual with satellite-subwoofer systems, the Design 4s and SUB10s never achieved the sense of leading-edge definition you get from a true full-range loudspeaker like the Revel Studio, the Eras' low bass always lagging slightly behind the musical pulse and sounding a bit "woofy." This wasn't much of an issue with the Elgar. But with well-recorded rock, such as No Quarter: Unledded, the DVD-V of Jimmy Page's and Robert Plant's 1994 MTV performance (Warner Video R2 970324), I got the weight of the kick drum and bass guitar but not the timing. Nevertheless, provided I didn't play the music too loud, the effect was agreeable, and not even close to the "one-note bass" too often heard from satellite-subwoofer systems. And Robert Silverman's Steinway on Variations sounded simply real!

Literally days before I finished writing this review, I recorded Attention Screen, the "collaborative jazz" quartet led by keyboardist and Stereophile writer Bob Reina, live at Otto's Shrunken Head Club on Manhattan's East 14th Street. Because of the very limited time for setup and load-out, I used a single ORTF pair of DPA cardioid mikes feeding a Metric Halo ULN-2 two-channel preamp and A/D converter. The 24-bit/88.2kHz-sampled data were stored on my laptop's hard drive, connected to the ULN-2 via FireWire. Back home, I burned the stereo AIF files for the group's five collective improvisations to a DVD-A, using Minnetonka's DiscWelder Bronze program. Playing the DVD-A on the Classé player with the 88.2kHz AES/EBU data decoded by the Levinson No.30.6 DAC, I was struck again by the Design 4s' abilities to both completely delocalize the sounds from the speaker positions and maximally present the image depth captured by the purist recording technique.

Drummer Mark Flynn's cymbals, in particular, were reproduced with their top-octave delicacy intact, while his kick drum had the necessary weight and impact. This Era system may cost just $2600 including the stereo subwoofers, but it's capable of true high-end sound quality.

Summing Up
Yes, you need to add one or two $1000 SUB10s to get full-range response, but even without the subwoofers, the Era Design 4s offered much better sound quality than you have a right to expect for just $600/pair. Their extraordinary stereo imaging, grain-free treble, and clean, detailed midrange deserve to be heard by those wanting to spend more than this on a pair of floorstanders. No, this is not a speaker that will blow people out of a room with party-level sound, but for the audiophile with a small room, or who is setting up a high-quality desktop system, the Design 4 is definitely a speaker to check out.

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