AOM Logo May 2002
 

FINN-TASTIC FIDELITY

David T. Brown listens to amphion's creon loudspeaker


Human beings are amazingly adaptable creatures. To wit, I'm writing this review sandwiched between two other laterally compressed air travelers, squeezed into steerage class three hours into a 14-hour flight across the South China and Tasman Seas between Bangkok and Auckland. We're subjected to the buffeting of a none-too-gentle air passage, the culinary transgressions of airline food (poulet caoutchouc avec pommes de terre enrobée en quelque chose déspicable), the aroma of a newly-filled airsick bag two seats over, the coughing and spewing of the otherwise very pleasant lady in the seat opposite me who is copiously leaking from every visible orifice, and the most ignominious indignity of all to an audiophile: the execrable sound quality of the aircraft's so-called audio system. The venerable B737-200 I'm riding in is equipped with a vintage random-flutter tape drive which apparently employs a used postal rubber band for a drive belt, rotary analog dials to select the particular blend of dropout-laden cross talk to which one wishes to be subjected, and that distinctive two-step volume control shared with curbside ghetto blasters and PA systems particular to the low-end audio market: either 'off' (rarely) or 'too loud' (usually). Pipe it all through tin-can-and-string headphones in competition with the dull roar of the Pratt and Whitneys throbbing just outside my window, and you have an acoustic experience that is the auditory equivalent of a root canal.

The amphion creon loudspeaker

And yet despite all of this, I still manage to enjoy the virtuosity of Marc-Andre Hamelin's Etude No. 3 (variations on a theme by Paganini and Liszt) and the cheerful pentatonic perambulations of the Thai look toung singers querulously sharing the segment of wobbly tape located somewhere between channels 3 and 4. Such is the adaptability of humankind, particularly a music-starved intercontinental traveler desperate for something more melodious than airport arrival announcements. But I think back fondly to just a few days before my departure -- the experience of listening to the superb acoustic qualities of a pair of amphion creon speakers that I had the pleasure of auditioning for a couple of months in my home.

Amphion, that consummate musician and immortal featured in the Theban saga in Greek mythology, was credited with inventing the lyre. With it, he performed music of such power and beauty that it charmed even inanimate objects. Creon is the one of the sons of Amphion, a noble in Theban society in his own right. The choice of nomenclature seems appropriate for this distinctive speaker design, as the creons are in many ways the noble progeny of the amphion speaker line, most notably the musically superb xenons.

The creons I auditioned are striking, finished in semi-matte silver over rock-solid, massively heavy wood-composite enclosures. Though tasteful and clean, they are far from understated - their sheer physical dimensions (107 x 33 x 15.5 cm) and their unusual styling make them a focal point of virtually any room. The drivers are shielded by acoustically transparent black nylon fabric attached to thin steel frames that are set in grooves, machined into the face of the speaker enclosures. When removed, the frames and fabric grilles must be handled with care, as they are somewhat delicate and the fabric is prone to detach from the metal frames. However, when in place, they stay put quite firmly, and the black inserts nicely complement the speakers' contemporary lines.

The quality of construction is impressive. Enclosures are flawlessly rendered and immaculately coated in a smooth semi-matte silver finish. Birch and cherry finishes are also available. The massively heavy (23 kg), tall and narrow cabinets are further stabilized by black painted steel cross-braces at floor level, equipped with effective but somewhat lethal-looking threaded metal spikes at the corners to elevate them above carpeting and to reduce the contact area with the substrate. Coin-like metal discs about the size of a five-cent piece are provided for use on hardwood floors, and their use is advised on uncarpeted floors: the concentrated weight of these units must produce astronomically high pressures on the four tiny suspension points, which would be death to any bare floor save steel or concrete.

The innovative speaker design, an amphion trademark carried over from the extremely well rated xenon model, features rear-firing ports for the midrange and bass drivers. A single 8" polypropylene bass driver is side-mounted in each of the paired mirror-image speaker cabinets so that the woofers face one another when the speakers are set up as a pair. As bass frequencies are theoretically not highly directional due to their relatively long wavelengths, orientation of bass drivers is widely believed to be non-critical. However, the amphions belie this concept. Placing the speakers in close lateral proximity to anything solid will seriously degrade the quality of sound reproduction, turning the otherwise well-defined low end into muddy bass mush. There are direct implications regarding the setup of the listening room: there can be nothing of substance inserted between these striking silver towers except open air, or the quality of the acoustic experience will be severely degraded.

Attenuation of bass frequencies is possible through the use of a gold-plated lintel or shorting plate which connects across an additional pair of terminals on the back of the speaker enclosure. Using the lintel drops bass frequencies by -1.5 db, while removing it keeps bass responses essentially flat.

Midrange and high end are handled flawlessly by 5.25" polypropylene and 1" titanium drivers, respectively, with astonishing stereo imaging and absolutely no detectable shifts in tone colour, amplitude, or ambience across the audio spectrum. Crossover points are at 1500 Hz and 150 Hz. The crossover point for the tweeter is extremely low, requiring it to handle a significant amount of power, but this is also one of the secrets of the tremendously smooth spectral response of the creons: the crossover point is moved well out of the most sensitive part of the human hearing range, making the acoustic transition between midrange and treble drivers essentially undetectable. Overall frequency response is a satisfying 32 - 20,000 Hz, with excellent linearity and no discernible 'peakiness.'

Optimal speaker orientation calls for placement of the cabinets about 2.5 m apart, producing a relatively forgiving sweet spot about 2 - 2.5 m in front of the drivers. Off-axis listening results in a less clearly defined stereo image due to the relatively narrowly focus of the cardioid dispersion pattern and the high directionality of the aluminum tweeters, but the speakers are such excellent and well-integrated overall performers that an enjoyable acoustic experience can be had virtually anywhere in the room (important for those mere mortals among us who use our listening rooms for other purposes besides listening, and who sometimes find ourselves unable to hog the sweet spot).

I was fortunate enough to have the amphions coupled to an excellent Dynalab integrated amplifier (review forthcoming). The 100W RMS per channel Dynalab was up to the task of driving the not-terribly-efficient creons (86dB). However, massive, power-draining musical passages such as fff organ toccatas, broad orchestral tuttis, and the digital thunder in John Williams' recording of Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite tested this particular pairing to its limits at only moderately high playback levels.

The creons are connected to the amplifier via two pairs of gold-plated, five-way binding posts of excellent quality. In my test setup, I bi-wired with a pair of somewhat bulky and intractable but sonically excellent Audioquest Slate cables terminating in banana plugs. Bi-wire cabling is now almost a given in high-end audio, and is probably forgivable given the obsessive quest for transparency in high-end systems. The rationale for this single/double plug arrangement, however, does require a bit of a leap of faith: double leads carrying conductors of differing diameter and metallic composition are supplied at the driver end, ostensibly to reduce the incidence of so-called 'skin effect' (interactions between magnetic and electrical field effects at varying distances from the surface of a conductor) across the audio frequency spectrum, thereby ostensibly optimizing the delivery of the appropriate signals to the appropriate drivers. This is an argument that makes only marginal sense in theory, since physical measurements show that such effects are most pronounced at frequencies considerably higher than the highest audio frequencies (i.e., at around 50 kHz). However, a sufficient number of audiophiles swear that they can hear a distinct difference between single-wired cables and bi-wired cables to support a lively market in esoteric cable technology, supported by extensive rationales on corporate websites by cable manufacturers promoting their products. In the high-end audio market, many design parameters are driven by criteria discernible only in the test lab, and I would wager that the extremes of speaker cable design are cases in point.

A perfectly valid counterargument is certainly that the cumulative effects of such measurable (though perhaps individually inaudible) design factors can add up across components and eventually result in sub optimal sound reproduction, arguably making the investment and the inconvenience of the bulky cables ultimately worthwhile. But like wine and fine automobiles, the appreciation of high-end audio components is governed by more than mere empirical measurement. If you believe the difference in audio quality justifies the twenty-fold difference in price over plain copper in terms of the ultimate effects on the listening experience, then stop worrying and buy the best cables you can afford. If you're looking to save some pocket change, then test out a system with the creons using a range of cable qualities, and let your ears be your guide.

Perhaps the most impressive quality of the creons is the astonishing faithfulness of their acoustic reproduction, almost clinical in its accuracy and lack of coloration. Much of my classical collection is of comparatively recent vintage, and quite well recorded, and I delighted in the exquisite transparency and ambience of the best of these recordings as rendered by the creons. Playing familiar vintage pop and jazz selections was frequently an exercise in rediscovery: well-known recordings demonstrated all sorts of surprising latent characteristics as a result of the superb rendition and accuracy of the speakers, most often in the realm of dynamics, imaging, and spatial orientation. Some of my favorite old chestnut albums in the popular and jazz idioms were filled with the greatest number of sonic surprises. Paul Desmond's masterful breathing acquired a spatial as well as a temporal dimension, and the subtle overtone harmonics and visceral punch of a variable-speed Leslie hooked up to a Hammond B3 had virtually the same spatial animation and dynamism of the real thing. It was astonishing to be able to detect the subtle physical movement of the individual members of the Trio Los Panchos as they played and sang their close-harmony backups on their classic 1968 recording with Eydie Gorme - and equally startling to hear all sorts of studio artifacts in the analog master (low-frequency thumps, bumps, foot scrapings, and such) that the recording technology of the time could accurately pick up, but which the contemporaneous playback technology could not meaningfully reproduce! So convincing was the portrayal of the sound stage on this particular recording that I rushed headlong to turn down the amplifier during one high-volume late-night listening session, mistaking some widely separated low-frequency thumps on the recording for the irate hammering of a (nonexistent) neighbor on my front door.

Unfortunately, in a number of cases, the faithfulness and fidelity of reproduction emphasized flaws in the recording process or deficiencies in mixing or mastering (tape hiss on analog masters was a common defect, as were crappy hole-in-the-middle stereo mixes and disembodied vocals or instrumental solos obviously added after the fact to pre-recorded backup).

The desirability of this otherwise laudable attribute of accuracy is therefore somewhat debatable: just as pure white light is effective at revealing details and nuances of an object under examination, the creons are excellent at revealing the full acoustic characteristics of the program source - often to its detriment. Not all listeners are equally enamoured of this type of uncompromising sonic veracity. One seasoned listener, a career musician with decades of live performance experience, found the accurately reproduced sonic incongruities in some badly-engineered older recordings so disconcerting as to render them virtually unlistenable.

However, when auditioning well-recorded, properly equalized recordings, the speakers perform splendidly: few audiophile colleagues could find fault with nearly any recent, credibly-engineered contemporary DDD offering that was sampled. Well-recorded ADD material also fares well: the classic 1976 recording Jazz at the Pawnshop was rendered spectacularly, with the creons faithfully recreating the ambience, instrument placement, and full acoustic dimensions of the live club recording. A late 1970s direct-to-disc vinyl recording of the Les Brown Orchestra was also amazingly satisfying in its fidelity, range, dynamics, and sonic ambience.

For much vintage material with high musical integrity but relatively low production standards (arguably most pre-1990 recordings, be they digital or analog - i.e., much of my existing CD and record collection), the clinical accuracy of the creons shed much new, and sometimes unflattering, light. For many of the older or less technically exacting recordings I love, there are speakers on the market with a more, let us say, 'forgiving' tonal coloration. If, like me, you prefer drinking, dining, and making love in the warm glow of candlelight, as opposed to the more accurate and faithful illumination of full-spectrum fluorescents, a less forgiving speaker may be in order. But for the serious and discerning audiophile looking for extremely accurate, well-balanced speakers with excellent imaging and a striking visual presence, these fantastic Finns are hard to beat.

The creon 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$2199.00 (Black or Silver) US$2499.00 (Birch or Cherry)
Source of review sample: Canadian Distributor
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