Friday, May 2, 2008

Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker

Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
Peak Consult El Diablo loudspeaker 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

The devil's in the details, so here's one detail you should know going in: The El Diablo, a deceptively modest-looking, casket-like, compact, three-way loudspeaker from Danish firm Peak Consult, will cost you a penny less than $65,000/pair. Why? Yes, the dollar's continued slide has alarmingly driven up the price of imported audio gear, but even so...

The Details
Though it's only 44.5" tall, 11.8" wide, and 21.5" deep, the Diablo weighs a hefty 188 lbs. Clearly, a great deal of something has been packed into its relatively small cabinet, and it's not lead.

The hand-built enclosure is a glued sandwich of various thicknesses (1.5–3") of high-density fiberboard (HDF), with specially designed resonance suppressors at key spots. Encasing that is a 1"-thick skin of solid, hand-selected Italian walnut. Despite the speaker's outwardly rectangular shape, no two of its interior walls are parallel, to avoid standing waves. This is one well-put-together cabinet that I feel absolutely confident will pass John Atkinson's accelerometer test with ease.

The front baffle's slant and back-tilt are said to align both the phase and the arrival times of the outputs of the tweeter, midrange, and woofers. Though often promised by speaker makers, this is rarely delivered—as anyone who pays attention to JA's "Measurements" sections knows.

Adding to the Diablo's weight are its top-shelf drivers. The 1" tweeter, made by Scan-Speak (another Danish company), is a low-compression design that does without ferrofluid cooling or a phase plug. It has an neodymium motor, and its nonresonant backwave chamber and machined faceplate are both made of aluminum.

The 5" midrange unit and two 9" woofers (which feature "huge" magnets, per Peak Consult) are custom-built to the designer's specifications by AudioTechnology, yet another Danish company, which was cofounded by Ejvind Skaaning (and his son), who also founded Vifa/Scan-Speak and Dynaudio. AT drivers are used by Rockport Technologies and Sonus Faber, among other brands that don't blush at selling expensive loudspeakers.

The Diablo's second-order crossovers, set at 200Hz and 4.8kHz, are hardwired with silver solder and use cost-no-object electrical components chosen for their sonic characteristics. The network is sealed at the cabinet bottom to eliminate microphonics and to shield it from electrical and magnetic radiation. Internal wiring is from Stereovox, an American company owned by Peak Consult importer Signals SuperFi. The biwire terminals comprise two pairs of WBT Platinum Signature binding posts.

Designer Per Kristoffersen claims the Diablo is easy to drive, with a gentle, low-current-drawing phase angle, a sensitivity of 94dB/W/m, and a load of close to 7 ohms across its entire claimed in-room response of 20Hz–45kHz, –3dB.

Clearly, its build and parts qualities are high, but to really appreciate the Diablo's workmanship and exquisite finish—and its price—you need to see it close up and run your hands across the stunning woodwork. Photos just don't do it justice. With its leather-clad front and rear panels, its cravat-shaped mid/tweeter grille cover (which I left off for my auditioning), and its angled front baffle, the Diablo shares some of its appearance with speakers from other brands. But while it lacks the visual allure of, say, the Sonus Faber Stradivari Homage, and some other dramatically sculpted speakers, not everyone, especially of the wifely variety—I'm a realist, not a sexist—is looking to make a loudspeaker fashion statement in the living room. The Diablo can blend in like the finely finished piece of furniture that it is, and its size and footprint would seem to make it an ideal candidate for the city sophisticate's drawing room.

Positioning the Diablos was easy. They sounded best in my room where almost every other pair of speakers has: where RPG's computer program said they would, based on the room's dimensions and the physics of wave propagation. And I sat where I always do: where the program tells me to, about 11' from the front wall and 8' from the speakers.

RPG's program takes into account the height, size, and location (front, side, or rear) of a speaker's woofer(s). While variations in these factors will affect the results to a small degree, there's been a remarkable consistency of speaker positions throughout the years I've used the program to review speakers in this room. Almost all of them, El Diablos included, end up about 9' apart, a bit more than 2' from the front wall, and toed-in, with the corners of their rear baffles about 3' from the sidewalls. The Diablos sounded best with their tweeters firing directly on axis.

The understated and meticulous sensibility informing the Diablo's appearance has also been applied to its sound. And like my first look, my first listen to them, with the importer in the room, was definitely underwhelming. Going directly from the Wilson Audio MAXX Series 2s to the Diablos was like going from fluorescent bulbs to candles—or, to be less subject to misinterpretation, like stepping out of a Ferrari and into a high-performance Bentley coupe. It took me some time to appreciate what the Diablo could do. While definitely full of surprises, it drew me in rather than bowled me over—but it was never "polite" or "reserved."

The Diablos produced a stable, exceptionally well-proportioned, clearly defined, and especially tactile aural picture, and excelled at re-creating front-to-back depth in great relief. The front of the stage developed well in front of the speaker baffles, and rear-wall information from familiar live recordings appeared from what seemed like the side yard, beyond the walls of my listening room. If you're into imaging and soundstaging, the Diablos won't disappoint. In fact, they may redefine those terms for you in terms of bubble-like cohesiveness, if not in terms of grandiosity.

The Diablos' image specificity rivaled that of the Vandersteen Quatros, which is about as good as I've heard. Stage height was somewhat restricted compared to what I've grown used to from the MAXX 2s, producing, with symphonic recordings, a sensation of listening from the lower balcony rather than from the main floor—an adjustment easy for the ear to make. Most important, the picture never appeared to be generated from the baffle surfaces.

Every loudspeaker has an overall character and specific colorations, and some are easier to identify than others. In my experience, the best speakers try to maintain that character throughout the audioband in order to provide a seamless illusion of musical reality. For instance, you wouldn't want to mate a sparkly tweeter with an underdamped, boomy woofer. Conversely, you wouldn't want to pair a silky-sounding ribbon tweeter with an overdamped, lean-sounding woofer.

Per Kristoffersen has effectively matched the tweeter's character—pleasingly airy, somewhat soft and forgiving yet finely detailed—with the woofers' by slightly underdamping the latters' tuning. But that's not to suggest that the Diablo's top is dull or muted, or that its bass is slow, woolly, or sloppy. The Diablo was extended and supple at both frequency extremes, providing exceptionally natural instrumental textures that were free of edge, brightness, or grain on top without sounding dull or uninvolving, while the low frequencies were sufficiently well controlled to sound nimble and firm but never thumpy. The extension into the low bass from the two 9" woofers was deep, full, and satisfying.

When the Diablo was called on to deliver the low organ-pedal notes in the second movement of Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3, from a 1987 LP with Marek Janowski conducting the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi HMC 5197), those notes appeared as very deep, distant, well-controlled, compacted thunder—just as they had earlier that same evening, during a live performance at Avery Fisher Hall. Never mind that Avery Fisher doesn't have an organ, and that those notes were generated electronically via a pair of tractor-trailer–sized subwoofers placed against the back of the stage.

The pedal notes on the Janowski recording had authority, weight, and a velvety texture that avoided sounding canned or one-notey, or even as if they were emanating from the speakers. Low bass may be omnidirectional, but some speakers that go very low also produce an audible mechanical backlash that is directional. The Diablo didn't.

The Diablo handled electric and acoustic bass equally well, convincingly reproducing both the harder attack of the former and the softer attack of the latter. Lovers of hard rock and orchestral music will be thrilled with the Diablo's low-frequency performance in terms of both extension and dynamics. With live recordings taped in large venues, the pair of them easily produced an illusion of enormous space. The speakers' response was subjectively smooth, and extended down into the 30Hz region in my room. The Diablo didn't produce the Wilson MAXX 2's slam, but that would not have meshed with the rest of the speaker's sonic personality.

Kristoffersen asks the Diablo's 5" midrange driver to handle an unusually wide bandwidth: 200Hz all the way up to 4800Hz, or 2kHz higher than in most two- and three-way designs, which usually cross over at 2.7kHz or so. The advantages of extending the midrange's bandwidth so high are tonal and phase continuity in a critical musical frequency range. For instance, fundamental violin frequencies range from just below 200Hz up to just above 3.1kHz, and a concert grand piano is capable of fundamentals from around 28Hz up to almost 4.2kHz. The overtones, of course, go much higher, but having a single driver reproduce the key instrumental fundamentals, in addition to many of the resulting harmonics, should result in a strong sense of musical continuity. Indeed, I found that just such a continuity was one of the Diablo's key strengths. It gushed forth a sense of smooth musical flow while suppressing the discontinuities that afflict some multi-driver designs.

But in any speaker, piling so much on the midrange driver's plate will result in tradeoffs. One of these is that, as the frequencies reproduced by the cone rise, so does its directivity, which leads to "beaming" at the higher frequencies within the driver's bandpass. As the frequencies rise, the amount of cone area used to reproduce those frequencies decreases and becomes concentrated toward its recessed center, where it attaches to the voice-coil. However, rather than being heard as excessive brightness, the result is usually an overly polite sound—the driver can't produce enough off-axis output at the higher frequencies to provide adequate frequency and power response to fill the room.

Another potential problem created by extending a relatively large cone's response is the nonlinearity caused by the cone's flexure. However, the Diablo's smoothness leads me to suspect that AudioTechnology's expertise has tackled that problem, just as Peak Consult's Per Kristoffersen has successfully navigated the off-axis response issue.

Which is not to say that Kristofferson's choice was inaudible. The Diablo had a slightly mellow overall sound, with less sparkle and life than some might wish, as well as a very slight, easily ignored coloration that I heard as just a touch of compression or congestion—what JA likes to call "hootiness"—in the upper mids and lower treble. In fact, this was the first thing I heard when the Diablos were first fired up in my room—but, as it has with all great speakers, my ear/brain system quickly made peace with this coloration, which quickly blended into the musical flow and disappeared. (And if you think your favorite speaker is without colorations, think again.)

When I encountered—in an enormous room—another pair of El Diablos at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, I immediately heard that same minor coloration. Yet despite the venue's size, which should have exacerbated the off-axis response problem, those Diablos sounded remarkably similar to the pair in my listening room at home.

However, despite what I believe JA's measurements will reveal about its slightly mellow character, the Diablo's overall presentation never seemed starved for air, and never sounded soft, bland, or boring—nor, of course, did it ever sound bright, etchy, grainy, or harsh, unless the recording itself was grossly so. Trumpets, flutes, xylophones, and brass all sounded sufficiently airy and metallic. Cymbals rang convincingly, and overall, throughout the months I listened to the Diablos, I wanted for nothing in terms of high-frequency or transient response.

But most important, and perhaps because of that high crossover frequency, instrumental harmonic structures, and especially the human voice, were exceptionally lifelike and coherent. I can't think of a loudspeaker that better reproduces instrumental and vocal touches and textures. I could consistently rely on the Diablos to provide long evenings' worth of entertainment without producing boredom or fatigue. They always invited me in and never pushed me away.

The Diablo's tonal balance was as self-effacing as its looks and, on closer inspection, equally and understatedly spectacular. The speaker never sounded too bright unless the recording was, nor did it sound polite—unless the recording was. From top to bottom, the Diablo never sounded mechanical, never showed any aural seams. The bass extension was deep, full, and satisfying without being overwhelming. While the overall balance was clearly tipped downward ever so slightly on top, this was never to the point that the Diablo sounded soft or rolled off. It was just slightly reserved. Some might wish for a more open sound, but I think the Diablo's balance would be more welcome over the long haul. It was among the best-balanced loudspeakers I've heard here—its designer has managed to maintain a single sonic personality throughout the entire audioband.

Unlike speakers that require high SPLs to work effectively, the Diablo, despite its slightly laid-back character, never failed to engage me. Even at very low SPLs it maintained impressive macrodynamic authority, sounding relaxed and unrestrained in my smallish room—like a high-powered amplifier just loafing along. Conversely, when cranked, the Diablo never sounded compressed, never lost its tonal or dynamic composure. I couldn't come close to exposing its dynamic or SPL limitations.

How loud will the Diablos play? Very, as I discovered at CES, where they filled a large space with ease. The Diablo sounded equally magnificent driven by Musical Fidelity's mammoth kW monoblocks and by the 100Wpc Music Reference RM-200 tube amp. With the RM-200 the Diablos weren't as tight or as controlled on bottom, or as dynamically authoritative—but at 94dB claimed sensitivity, they still got plenty loud.

The Peak Consult El Diablo is a very large-sounding loudspeaker in a surprisingly small package. It's comfortable playing softly or loudly in a small or a large room, whether reproducing chamber music, large orchestral pieces, solo voice, hard rock, metal, acoustic jazz, or anything else you might throw at it. Its highly refined, slightly mellow personality won't appeal to all, but I suspect it will to most, regardless of musical tastes.

But while very capable, the Diablo is very expensive at $65,000/pair. Although its value will be in the eye, ear, and wallet of the beholder, you may wonder why anyone would spend so much on a pair of speakers. Its relatively small footprint (for a big, bass-proficient speaker), exquisite finish, and understated appearance will make it attractive to the wealthy, urban audiophile who lives in an apartment of small to medium size, but who wants big sound when he can crank it and convincing sound when he can't. And if that well-heeled audiophile has a big dedicated listening room, well, no problem there either.

I spent three months with the Diablos and found them to be among the most capable and musically engaging speakers I've yet auditioned. They could rock out and play very loud and gritty, and they could lie back to deliver delicate acoustic music with all the textural and tonal nuance needed to convincingly sell it as happening live—and that's within an hour of my return from a concert at Avery Fisher Hall.

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