Issue 92 Late Fall 1993
The Acarian Systems Alón II Loudspeaker
DISTINCTIVE, DYNAMIC DIPOLE DESIGN
WHEN THE ACARIAN Alón II loudspeakers were first set up in my listening room, I was disappointed. I had been spoiled, over the last few years, by large-scale, physically and technically ambitious designs (e.g., the Eminent Technology LFT-IIIs)- tall, imposing units that dominated the room with their presence and their ability to fill it with a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling panorama of sound. The modestly sized, austere-looking, unimposing Alón IIs looked most unimpressive by comparison in my large-ish environs (now), I mentally prepared myself for a downscaled auditory experience.
Then I listened to them.
Although a proper evaluation of a component requires many hours of listening with a variety of associated equipment, experienced audiophiles know that a great deal can be determined from those first moments, of listening. My first impression with the Alón IIs, which was only reinforced by time, was one of surprise: They sounded so much bigger and better than they looked- followed by relief-that I would not have to give up the quality of reproduced sound to which my pampered ears had grown accustomed.
A three-way dynamic design1, their physical construction is nevertheless somewhat unusual. The bulk of the Alón II's structure consists of the sealed rectangular enclosure which contains the 10" woofer (as well as the crossover electronics and the biwireable, back-panel goldplated metal binding posts). Atop this enclosure rests a molded, curved black plastic baffle which holds the five-inch midrange driver (whose cone is of a tri-laminate construction) and the mechanically damped, aluminum alloy one inch dome tweeter. The midrange driver operates in what Alón refer to as "open dipole" mode-simply put, the driver is frontmounted on an unenclosed baffle, rather than in a cabinet, like its bigger brother the Alón IV2, to avoid the sonically deleterious effects of "box colorations" (for physical protection, the driver is surrounded by a plastic mesh basket). The tweeter is mounted in a similar fashion, although the top of the mounting baffle has a curved "hood" which controls the vertical and horizontal dispersion of the tweeter's backwave. I find the naked, ungrilled speaker attractive in a techno-Spartan way, though some will undoubtedly consider it hideous disrobed.
I don't think anyone, however, will find its sonics anything but appealing-unless he puts poor electronics in front of it. Many speakers in the $1000-$2000 price range are designed to be forgiving-to roll off at the frequency extremes, plump up the upper bass, and not pass fine sonic detail-so as not to reveal the flaws of bright, flat electronics with poor bass control, or harsh-sounding CD players. The Alón II does nothing of the kind, and deserves to be paired with the finest associated equipment one's budget will allow. Most of the time, the Alón II revealed the limitations of the associated equipment and not vice versa; sonic differences resulting from equipment substitutions and tweaks were heard quickly and obviously after I had the IIs optimally set up. For my room, setup was as follows: The speakers were 78 5/8" (between inside edges) apart, 56 3/8" (measured from the front of the woofer enclosure) from the back wall, with no toe-in. These speakers were obviously (to me) designed with live music as the reference standard-obvious because of the lack of "designed-in" colorations to make the speaker more euphonic and therefore more complimentary to lesser equipment and/or recordings.
The soundfield produced by the Alón II is, as I have alluded, much larger than its appearance would lead one to expect. Stage width exceeded the edges of the enclosures by many feet- on the right recordings, the side walls of the listening room seemed to be the limiting factor. Depth was equally expansive, and the slight blurring of the soundfield at the rear of the stage which I heard was, I am confident, more an effect of the limitations of my associated equipment and room than of the IIs. 3 The Alón IIs also produce a credible sense of height, but only on the right recordings with the right equipment. Using the Levinson 23 amplifier, height rarely exceeded the tops of the speakers. However, the McIntosh MC 275 re-issue amplifier excelled in the reproduction of the height dimension, again, on the proper recordings, such as my beloved Mercury Living Presence Petrouchka [SR 90216], or the Fiedler/Gershwin American In Paris / Rhapsody In Blue [RCA LSC23671. The differences in soundstage dimensions on various recordings were easier for me to hear on the Alón IIs than they were on either the 57" tall Eminent Technology LFT-IIIs or the 72" Flatline Design Model 175s-leading me to wonder how much of the height I hear from both of these much taller speakers is actually on the recordings, and how much is artificially generated simply because of the fact that those speakers' tweeters are higher off the ground.
Within the well-defined soundstage, images have firm, unwavering location with a strong sense of dimensionality. Imaging is equally solid whether at the edges of the soundstage or the middle, and only mildly less so at the rear. A good example (and classic) of this-the various crowd sections singing Along with Harry Belafonte during the "Matilda" finale on Belafonte At Carnegie Hall [RCA LSO-6006].
The Alón II is exceptionally-and I mean that in the true, not the ad-hyped sense of the word-detailed without hardness or any hyped-up, etched quality in the upper midrange or treble-quite a feat for an aluminum-domed tweeter. This is not a garden-variety transducer: Like the other drivers the tweeter is proprietary. The treble is neither "sweet" nor "grainy," merely present or absent according to the recording. These speakers allow you to "see into" the music with ease, as there is no grain or distortion present in the upper midrange or treble. As a result, ambiance retrieval is excellent, as is reproduction of low-level detail. An ear-boggling example of this is Lou Reed's "Berlin" from the album of the same name [RCA APL1 -0207]-not only can you hear every nuance of Steve Winwood's (clumsy) piano pedal work; you can hear the inside of Reed's mouth between vocal phrases-it brings new meaning to the phrase, "eating the mike!" While these speakers are not the last word in transparency-I'd give that accolade to the Magneplanar MG-20 ribbon, the Martin-Logan CLS IIz, and the Crosby-Quad ESL63 (I haven't heard the Genesis One enough to make a judgment), I'd put them somewhere in that dictionary between "Zw" and "Zx." Nevertheless, the Alón II is not as colored as other, more transparent transducers (which can be "plasticity," "zippy," "metallic," etc.).
Tonal balance is just to my liking-neither bright nor muddy, thick nor threadbare. These speakers are not forgiving; neither are they overly clinical sounding. One noticeable attribute of the Alón II is that if a recording is too bright (i.e., the sizzlingly EQ'd dance track, of Melba Moore's "Mind Up Tonight" [Capitol S98483]), that recording will sound brighter than on most other speakers I've heard. However, if the recording is tonally correct (Bill Evans, The Paris Concert, Edition One [Elektra/Musician 60164-1]) again, on the Rhapsody in Blue / An American In Paris [RCA LSC-236-7], it will be reproduced as such-likewise, if it is dull (The Kink Kronikles [Reprise 2XS 6454]). The midrange is exemplary, with lifelike (in the true, not the clichéd, sense of the word) presence, depth, openness, and bloom. This results, in large part, from the fact that the midrange driver is not confined in a box. (This ingenious idea, mounting a dynamic driver as if it were a dipole, and thus allowing it to behave much like one, was pioneered by the venerable Dahlquist DQ-10- of which the Alón II is a direct descendant.) The midbass region is also quite fine, especially in the areas of overtone complexity and dynamic gradation. You'll never confuse a cello with a double bass through these transducers! The low frequencies are articulate, fast, and much more dynamic than a 1 0" woofer in a box would lead you to believe-electric bass and kick drum possess outstanding punch and harmonic definition (try Gang Of Four's 12-inch "I Love A Man In A Uniform" [EMI UK 12EMI 5299] to hear what I mean).4 That is, down to about 30-35 Hz, in my room. After that, the bass rolls off in a moderate fashion. The low bass on "SoMA," track 8 of The Absolute Sound / Heart Of Space CD sampler [HS 11103-21-which, on the Genesis Ones, can scare Whitley Streiber's demons away-was nonexistent. As it was from my new killer-low-bass torture test, the cut "Take Me Back" by Rhythmatic, from the Best of Techno, Volume One CD [Profile PCD-420]. (This cut contains so much bass that, when I played it through the Clark Audio Contrabass subwoofer at what is normally a low volume setting on my rig, the first floor of my house shook violently-and the subwoofer was in the basement!)5
Psychoacoustically, the tonal balance is satisfying even without the bottom bass. (In my room, I'd say these speakers go into the mid-30s.) Most speakers don't produce the bottom octave anyway, so you tend not to miss what you almost never get to hear (HP excepted). The bass driver blends exceptionally well with the midrange and tweeter, even though it's in a box and they are not. Anyone who can hear the crossover points has better ears than me.
Another reason why the Alón II sounds bigger than it looks is because it can play l-o-u-d. Loud enough to fill my large, dead-ish listening room with as much volume as I'd ever want on a drunken party night hanging out with demented friends. I pushed it hard. (You want to hear an unbelievably clean rock recording which sounds fantastic at sick volume? My nomination for hard rock Super Disc, 38 Special's Wild Eyed Southern Boys [A&M SP-48351, who's "Hold On Loosely" is as fine a recording as anything.) I have no idea how loudly- maybe 105 dB? Unlike some of my reviewing peers, who's identities I will keep shrouded in the TAS Cloaking Device, I am not in the habit of pushing speakers to the annihilation point. Fear not, chamber music aficionados-these speakers also perform superbly at low volumes, and their dynamic range is refined, finely gradated from a whisper to a scream, handling the requirements of Brahms and Flipper with equal savvy. There is never any sense of dynamic constriction or compression (well, maybe at Kennedy Airport volumes; I wouldn't know), and dynamic contrasts are even throughout the frequency spectrum. At mere sonic-laxative volumes, there is, I must tell you, a slight degree of image collapse.
Another notable attribute of the Alón II is its transient handling ability-fast and clean, with little subjective sense of ringing or overshoot. Plucked electric bass has an absolutely explosive initial "snap." Tympani strokes are delineated with superb attack and subsequent harmonic integrity. In fact, all percussive sounds are, making acoustic pianos, mallet instruments, and guitars, both acoustic and electric, (it is easy to hear the difference between light and heavy gauge strings-easy) a particular sonic pleasure. One of my favorite tests of a speaker's ability to handle complex percussion textures is the "Lemon Firebrigade" track from Haircut 100's Pelican West [Arista AL8-80351 which contains, among a dozen other instruments, tambourine, claves, afuche (shaker), triangle, agogo, sleigh bells, multiple cowbells, temple blocks, and congas of various tunings. All fantastically well separated and articulated-I couldn't help but listen over and over. A knockout!
No component is perfect, and my review so far has indicated little serious flaw with the Alón II save for the absence of low bass, and a slight curtailment of the ultimate in resolution. Of course, there must be some other deficiency; otherwise we could all junk our IRSes and WAMMs right now! In fact, what's missing in the Alón II is what the aforementioned speakers, among many others, have in abundance: the sense of scale. The sense that there is a large volume of sound filling the listening room. The sense that instruments are reproduced with the proper size, weight, authority, and actual, rather than smaller-than-life-size location in a seemingly real space. The feeling of a physical wavefront of air being moved. These things, the Alón II (or any other modestly sized speaker) cannot do, regardless of playback volume. (There is a difference between playback volume and volume of air moved, even if at the same decibel level.) While providing an expansive soundstage with only slightly diminished image size, the Alón II simply cannot approach that sense of real-life scale some of the super speakers can.
That aside, the Alón II speakers were a pleasant surprise. They sound so much more impressive then they look. Don't be fooled. They provide true High End performance. Most importantly, they are an affordable avenue toward the assembly of a system which has the performance of one of far greater expense. For under $2000, they are quite an achievement-I've heard five and 10 thousand dollar speakers which I didn't like as much.
Many thanks to Frank Doris and The Absolute Sound for an extremely accurate review of the Alón II loudspeaker system.
In addition to our appreciation for this review, we also appreciate and have great respect for a reviewer who can decipher all the vagaries of source, associated equipment, and room acoustics. The reviewer is then left with a residue which becomes a valid description of the performance of the product in question.
Our goal for the Alón II was to provide a wide band, neutral, low coloration transducer of moderate size and price. The Alón II is a true High End loudspeaker.
We would also like to bring up some points made in the review which we find of interest.
The differences in recorded soundstage dimensions were easier to hear on the Alón II than on a 57" or a 72" ribbon/hybrid loudspeaker- leading the reviewer to wonder how much of the height information heard with much taller loudspeakers is actually on the recording.
If a recording is too bright, the Alón II will sound brighter than most other speakers. However, if the recording is too dull, the Alón II will sound duller than most.
While no loudspeaker is perfect, [we feel] the above two points indicate the essentially neutral characteristic of the Alón II in both tonal balance and soundstage replication. We feel this is as it should be.
Carl J. Marchisotto
1 Designed by Carl Marchisotto, formerly of Dahlquist.
2 Reviewed in Issue 80.
3 My analogue front end is excellent, but not state-of-the-art,, my digital rig is of lower quality, and I have no stereophonic, purist-miked home recordings good enough, to my ears, with which to make soundstaging evaluations.
4 With the right cable. Harmonic definition was much better using Acarian's Black Orpheus speaker cable than when using the Transparent Cable Ultra. I have not yet determined if the converse is true with other speakers.
5 I'm afraid to play this cut on the Sea Cliff Genesis Ones. Much as I would be afraid to push the control rod on an atomic pile past the critical mass point.
This review has been reprinted in its entirety from The Absolute Sound, with not one word censored or deleted. The Absolute Sound is the journal of High End audio and reports its findings on audio components and recordings without fear of or favor from any commercial interests. Its literate evaluations and tests take place in real listening conditions, i.e., the home, without recourse to confusing or misleading measurements. The only standard is that imposed by real music taking place in a real space, hence music (the absolute sound) is the measure of reference. Subscriptions and/or single copies may be obtained from the business office at $6.00 per issue or $45.95 per volume. You may call us directly with your Amex, Visa, or Mastercard in hand at (800) 222-3201 or (516) 676-2830 or mail your check to Pearson Publishing, Box 360, Sea Cliff, New York 11579.