AOM Logo March 2002
 

The Fabulous Finn

Anthony Kershaw listens to amphion's xenon loudspeaker


When did the Finns get so good at everything? A literacy rate in the 99th percentile, a working social economy, the cleanest environment in the western world, a source for many of the world's leading conductors, and Nokia! The high-end world should thank Finland for the designers at amphion loudspeakers ltd. In their flagship xenon loudspeaker, they have produced a truly world class product.

The amphion xenon loudspeaker

The xenon is a three way, hypercardioid, vented speaker with three aluminum drivers (of proprietary design and manufactured by Seas) -- the 6.5" midrange driver is stationed at the top of the cabinet with the 1" tweeter just below. The 8" woofer is located on the side of the speaker (for best results, the woofers should fire toward each other - amphion suggests that in some unusual setups, the woofers may give a more balanced response firing outwards). And with an 8 ohm resistance and 86dB efficiency, only the most esoteric single ended designs need not apply. The xenons can certainly maximize power into sound pressure. At times, I had the Audio Research VT100 Mk.II cranked up to chest-crushing levels; my ears gave out well before the speaker's soundstage imploded.

The xenon's frequency response is 28 to 20,000 Hz, it measures an elegant H 42" W 7.5" D 14.25", weighs in at just over 66 lbs, and is bi-wire able via the excellent five-way, gold-plated binding posts. Visually, the xenons are an absolute treat. My review pair came in a birch finish (cherry and black are also available) and featured top class cabinetry; we're talking ProAc and Totem quality. The routed hollow where the aluminum tweeter resides makes the visuals even more appealing. The birch veneer strips follow the curvaceous lines perfectly - the workmanship reveals a real labour of love.

The amphion designers have been experimenting with crossover points, and have made the decision to crossover at 150 Hz (first-order filter) and 1200 Hz (second-order filter). The routed baffle for the tweeter acts as a small horn and allows the crossover point to be lower than normal. I know the design team have worked tirelessly to get the crossover points right, the most critical design phase for the success of a speaker. Visually and technically, the xenon's tweeter is the key. Their literature quotes '… all the frequencies the ear is most critical towards are produced by the tweeter. As the moving mass of the tweeter is only about 1/50 of the woofer or even the midrange, transients are faster and distortion lower.' The superb sound quality of the speaker proves their critical decision-making and methodology has been extremely well researched.

Gimmicks, gimmicks! Many new high-end designs of all types of equipment seem to have an 'angle', hoping to emphasize their unique qualities. amphion introduces two new 'angles' with which they hope to elevate the xenon's performance. 'U/D/D - technology' (Uniformly Directive Diffusion) and the 'BAS' (Bass Adjustment System) are more to do with ease of placement than sound enhancement; I am happy to report that both technologies do exactly as advertised.

The excellent amphion website explains U/D/D thus: 'When moving towards off-axis, the level of all frequency areas attenuate evenly. This unconventional system ensures that the direct sound from the speaker is not masked by room reflections. Despite strong directivity, the xenons still produce balanced, undistorted ambient information. Therefore, the speaker's free field response (anechoic chamber) and the energy response (real listening room) measured in wide variety of room types are surprisingly similar, sometimes even almost identical. This ensures the xenon sounds extremely good even in acoustically challenging listening rooms.' I can attest to a balanced sound when the xenons were placed much closer to the side walls than usual, and with some adjustment to the BAS (see below), I was able to get a fairly uniform presentation. Off axis listening did lose some of the center fill and image placement, but it was nonetheless very enjoyable.

The BAS system is described by amphion as '…ensuring perfect bass response level, regardless of room measurements or speaker placement. xenons can be positioned solely based on the convenience of daily life and still enjoy perfect sound. Due to the combined effect of U/D/D and BAS, the xenons are perfectly happy close to the walls or even in the corners still producing optimum sound. xenon's modern good looks and easy placement ensure that it will achieve an unbeatable WAF-rating (wife acceptance factor).' Excellent sound, yes. Optimum? I suggest positioning these wonderful speakers pride of place in a well-setup listening environment. They deserve no less. This will render amphion's adjustment technologies moot. If placement folly is a WIF (wife initiated factor), the xenon's superbly uniform horizontal dispersion pattern and its Bass Adjustment System (to a maximum of -3 dB) will ease the pain. Adjustments to the BAS are made by adding a jumper (or lintel, as described by amphion) and/or blocking the 2½" rear port with foam.

The amphion literature suggests firing the front drivers just outside the listener's shoulders. This suggestion is right on the money. You won't have to invest in a head vice, but the sweet spot is very sweet, lessening slightly as the drivers fire off axis. Other than the time spent experimenting with aiming the drivers, setup is very simple. I single wired my pair, placed them slightly over eight feet apart (my thanks go to fellow reviewer David Aspinall for some fine tuning in this regard), broke them in for one hundred hours, then began serious auditioning.

Out of the box, the speaker's sound was etched and light in the bass. However, it was not long before the aluminum drivers began to show their mettle. The overall sound has been balanced extremely well by the designer. Each of the three drivers integrate seamlessly into one musical fabric. The care taken with the design of the crossover network shows in the flawless transition between octaves. The imaging is in the Verity Fidelio class -- high praise indeed. And while the xenon does not produce the vastness of the Gallo Solo Nucleus soundstage, recording after recording demonstrated an accurate portrayal of the performing space.

The highs are clear and true. The piccolo and flute players on Arnold Bax's The Happy Forest (Naxos 8.5536088) scaled the heights of their compasses beautifully and the articulation of both was spectacularly resolved. Bloom, too. Triangles and cymbals shimmered via the Audio Research tubes - even the quality of beater and player was evident through the xenon's upper reaches. Case in point: the incredible Schönberg chamber version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (Harmonia Mundi 901477). The gentle strokes of the triangle and cymbals on this recording are spine tingling and so very tactile. The treble resolution on this amazing CD is a test for any fine loudspeaker. Subtlety and overtones won the day.

Associated Components

Analogue: Clearaudio Champion Level 2/RB300 mod/Clearaudio Sigma mc cart, Rega Planar 25/RB 600/Benz Micro Silver/Rega Super Elys carts
Digital: Rega Planet 2000, Rega Jupiter
Preamplifier: Audio Research SP9 Mk. III
Power Amplifiers: Audio Research VT100 Mk. II
Loudspeakers: amphion xenon, amphion creon (review forthcoming), Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo
Cables: Interconnects: Audioquest Emerald, Kimber PBJ, Wireworld Polaris III, The Chord Company Cobra 2. Loudspeaker: van den Hul M.C. The Sky-Line Hybrid
Accessories: Solid Tech Feet of Silence, Black Diamond Racing Cones (Nos. 3 and 4), LP#9 stylus cleaner, Target wall shelf and stand, Seismic sink, BBC boards

The midrange is warm and detailed. Solo voices of both sexes gave the xenon their imprimaturs. Frank sounded great but the variable pressings of his Reprise and Capitol monos did much to hinder 'the voice'. When listening to the cleanest of these pressings, his warmth and exquisite phrasing came through. The late nights with Only the Lonely were especially moving. Hearing Melissa Walker sing A Time for Love on the amazing Burmester CD 3 sampler was a treat (US$40.00, and worth every penny). Just towards the end, her pianist arpeggiates chords in an ascending pattern - the midrange (helped in no small way by its associated vented acoustic chamber) and its balance with the other drivers helped to make this short passage a musical ideal. The piano's hammers, tone decay, and overtones were all there for the audience (and there were many during the time the speakers were chez nous) to enjoy. High marks, here.

The bass (with and without the BAS involved) was extremely fine - with some small experiments in the speakers' placement, I managed to get the beasts down to a respectable 30Hz on the Radio Shack meter; the meter is hardly the zenith of accurate measurement, but good enough to stress the depth the xenons can plumb. So, out came the organ! Wolfgang Rübsam's odd interpretations of Bach transcriptions (Naxos 8.550936) demonstrated superbly clean bass response from the acoustically muddy confines of Seattle's St. Mark's Cathedral. That it could decipher the rhythmic quirks that Herr Rübsam brings to these transcriptions is testament more to the resolving power of the bass driver than Rübsam's lack of practice with a metronome.

The designers have negotiated a very musical deal. The xenon presents exceptional imaging + a wide and deep soundstage + excellent resolution + very accurate vocal and instrumental timbre. These qualities equal a very fine and, I suggest, much-to-be-sought-after speaker. In fact, the buzz from the recent Las Vegas CES was they were the 'find' of the show. European shows, too.

Are there any weaknesses? It is a truism in high-end that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. The xenons are not the ultimate in resolution or power handling - they won't (and shouldn't) replicate stadium sounds or allow the listener to hear a flea break wind at the back of Chicago's Orchestra Hall stage. For these qualities look elsewhere and have a very healthy bank account. What the speaker does have, and what passionate, committed audiophiles crave, is superb sound and workmanship for a very reasonable investment.

It was John Cleese, in the guise of Basil Fawlty, who once extolled about the fun you could have with Finns. I know the feeling having spent some three months in the company of the xenons. The speakers, part post modern, part art house, part craftsman, sound just gorgeous. Once again, it amazes me how designers keep developing the art and science of loudspeakers and then manufacture them for such a reasonable price. The xenons are worth every penny of their price and then some. They are one of a handful of very special products I have heard recently that further the cause of our beloved high-end. My advice is to audition them quickly before word gets out. The price of excellence may go up.

The xenon loudspeaker
Manufactured by amphion loudspeakers ltd.
PO Box 6, 70821 Kuopio, Finland
phone: +358 17 2882 100, fax: +358 17 2882 111
web: http://www.amphion.fi, e-mail: info@amphion.fi
Price: US$3629.00 (Birch or Cherry) US$3129.00 (Black)
Source of review sample: Canadian Distributor
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