Before I start this review, I feel it incumbent I share with you a few salient facts about my relationship with Michael Levy of Alta Audio. You can be the judge as to the efficacy of this review.
First and foremost I have been a friend of Mike Levy for at least thirty-five years and owned the first speaker he designed. I bought them after hearing a one on one comparison in my living room with the venerable KEF 105 2s. That was quite an achievement, since at that time the KEF’s were considered one of the premier speakers in the Hi-End.
Over the years Mike often used me as a sounding board (no pun intended) for his ideas and I tried to be as objective and critical as I could. He wasn’t looking for a ‘yes man’ extolling his achievements, but rather an honest evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of his design efforts. And, so I did. It proved more difficult than I imagined. Was I being overly critical in an attempt to be unbiased and going too far in that direction or was I being too agreeable so I wouldn’t upset my friend who was depending on my accurate feedback?
Over the years I’ve had a variety of speakers in my listening room. Just prior to the FRM-2s I had the FRM-1s which were formerly known as the Wasatch Musina (no longer produced). The Musina is a crossover-less, 2-way stand mounted monitor that required the use of the active crossover network of the DEQX Processor with the full use of its speaker calibration and room correction capabilities (which I’ve reviewed extensively in these pages) as well as four channels of amplification. The sound from the FRM-1s was excellent, full range, detailed, dynamic, and musical. Anyone who heard the system always asked where I was hiding the subwoofer. People were astonished at the full range of sound the system produced [The editor, included – Ed].
As time went on, I suggested Mike use his design talents to produce a 2-way monitor that could perform as well as the FRM-1s without the use of the DEQX processor and that only required two channels of amplification. After all, those extra power cords and interconnects added substantially to the cost and complexity of my system, especially when using monoblocks. Additionally, the cost of the DEQX and the additional amplification could simply put the speakers out of reach except for a few wealthy audiophiles. Other friends and colleagues had expressed similar thoughts.
More time passed and Mike gathered his resources and built and rejected various prototypes and came up with several fully finished pairs ready for Beta testing. By anyone’s standards they performed admirably and in many areas outperformed the FRM-1s (which was amazing) but there seemed to be a problem with the bass performance. On first listen, in my living room, the speakers sounded fine, there didn’t appear to be a bass problem. As the speakers burned-in, the bass grew in strength and started to dominate the scenic landscape. At several other listening sessions, one at friend and colleague Wes Bender’s Studio, the bass dominance continued to develop. It became apparent that the speakers balance needed adjusting. It was also noted that when pushed to very loud levels the bass driver could snap against the housing. Not bad for a two-way monitor.
Mike returned to the studio, absorbed the criticism, made adjustments to the crossover and came back with an FRM-2 that addressed the beta testers’ observations while maintaining his design goals. The discovery that the bass grew in strength as they burned meant he had to wait till burn-in was complete before initiating ‘The Fix’, as he called it. He rebalanced the speaker’s bass so it didn’t overwhelm (funny to say about a 2-way monitor) and, at the same time, allowed it to play 3-4 dB louder. The FRM-2 possesses a flat frequency response from 29Hz to 47kHz and a dynamic output exceeding 106db. There are many well respected and very costly floor standers that do not have the numbers the FRM-2s boast. But, numbers only tell part of the story.
The FRM-2 is constructed of Damphard, a multi-walled constrained dampening layered cabinet that results in a totally non-resonant enclosure. This helps to create the speaker’s clarity and openness. The FRM-2 uses a ribbon tweeter and cone woofer.
From the website:
The ribbon tweeter breaks new ground in state of the art performance. The six inch woofer has a 3.1 inch diameter long throw voice coil and uses a high powered motor that also allows smooth air flow. While performing incredible feats in bass response thanks to the Alta XTL bass tuning system, it melds seamlessly into the ribbon tweeter thanks to its low mass and high speed.
Internally, the speaker uses the highest grade silver foil capacitors and extra large Litz wire inductors with ten gauge deoxygenated copper wire in a special configuration that gently blends the drivers with such accuracy that vocal and instrumental details are presented with remarkable clarity, and the natural timbre of the music is preserved. The elimination of diffraction distortion combined with the accuracy of the crossover creates a huge listening window; the speakers disappear and are replaced with a clear three dimensional image of the instruments and vocals along with the space in which the music was performed.
The finish on my review pair was a mirror-like Black Onyx polyester that was simply gorgeous. Many other finishes are available on request. They will match any color and type of finish equivalent to/or better than the best of automotive quality finishes. There are two proprietary stands offered. The first is a standard powder coated black in a traditional design and the second is a luxury model finished to the same level as the speakers. The price is US$15,000/pair. (Stands $2000; Luxury stands $5000).
According to Mike, the speakers need at least 100 hours of playing to burn-in. I found it was closer to 200 hours before they achieved their full potential. I placed them on a pair of 24 inch high, heavily modified speaker stands about three feet from the rear wall and side walls with a very slight toe-in. As the speakers burned-in, the bass developed. So, give them time.
I’ll begin with the best version I know of Pictures at an Exhibition, the Analogue Production 200 gram reissue of RCA’s Living Stereo with Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra pressed at Quality Pressings. I own three different vinyl versions and three CD/SACD versions and hands down this is the one that delivers all the pictures. If someone out there would like to hook me up with the original Living Stereo pressing I wouldn’t object [Camden pressing, though – Ed].
From the opening trumpet to the kettle and bass drum whacks, I was hearing the subtleties, power and textures of each instrument. The complete dynamic experience capturing the power of the full orchestra transported me closer to the sound of a live performance. I recently attended a performance of Pictures at Lincoln Center in New York and I further appreciated how good these speakers were in their ability to differentiate the sound of similar instruments in this colourful music. For example, I could tell the indeterminate bass drum sound from the tuned kettle drums especially when playing simultaneously. I could clearly hear this in the live performance and now it was being appreciated more than ever in my living room. It was clear there had been an increase in resolution without falling into the category of edginess, hardness, or artificiality that more often than not, is mistaken for detail. Since the Alta’s blessedly lacked these nasties, listener fatigue was not an issue, except if it’s being created from other equipment in the audio chain.
As I alluded earlier, the bass performance is extraordinary. If this was an expensive floor stander I would be pleased, but to achieve this level of performance in a 2-way stand mounted monitor is truly outstanding and I’m sure that most other 2-way monitors could not match it. The XTL bass tuning system developed by Mike Levy performs its magic. It produces not only deep and powerful bass but with accurate musical timbre.
Listening to Ray Brown’s bass on Oscar Peterson Trio’s CD We Get Requests (reissued by FIM) was a revelation. The bowing was rich and resinous with full body and depth. One could feel the woodiness and timbre of the upright bass and when he changed from bowing to plucking the impact was powerful and the fingering was so well defined. The notes resonated through the room and you felt their impact. The same definition and impact could be said about the sound of the other instruments, Oscar’s piano and Ed Thigpen’s drum set. Get this CD.
Thrilling as the recreation of instrumental accuracy is, it doesn’t originate in a vacuum. It originates in a venue, whether in a concert hall, club or studio. The question is how well does the FRM-2’s recreate the venue and how well does it deliver the intent of the recording/engineering team? Obviously, without actually being at the recording/mastering sessions it’s impossible to know exactly what the final product is supposed to sound like. What I do know is that these speakers simply disappear and create a full three dimensional soundstage with rock- solid, full bodied images.
Another example I use for reference is The Modern Jazz Quartet’s CD, Fontessa. The title cut features superb vibe playing by Milt Jackson and an incredible cymbal solo by the great Connie Kay. The metallic qualities of the different cymbals are clearly expressed and discerned by the ALTAs. One can easily hear where they are being struck and the strike’s intensity. The decay and air around the cymbals were so realistically presented by the ALTA’s that I could sense the air shimmering.
Voices are rendered beautifully. Whether it’s Sinatra, Nina Simone, Eva Cassidy, or Pavarotti and Sutherland, you will hear them singing with presence and body. As I continued to listen, the speakers continued raising their very impressive bar. They were making me very happy. You know the feeling.
It still amazes me how something so small can produce such a complete and realistic sonic picture. Here is a case where I just accept the fact they do. I think that Michael has met the challenge and his FRM-2s have achieved levels of performance that not only matched the excellent performance of his FRM-1s, but surpassed them. A truly remarkable achievement.
For those of you who want to achieve full range sound without the subwoofer/monitor problems, and don’t want, or can’t accommodate, big floor standers, the FRM-2s will be the answer. It will put that ear to ear grin on your face.
Further information: Alta Audio