Recently, while reviewing the Sprout by PS Audio, I borrowed a pair of Alta Audio’s new small Solo speakers to match with it, and discovered that they were a remarkable fit. Since then, I continued to be very impressed with the Solos as entry-level but audiophile quality speakers. I thought a review was in order.
One nice thing I learned from my Sprout review was that we audiophiles need to bring our feet back down to earth from time to time so that we can evaluate quality in a broad sense, gain balance and have relevant reference points. If all we drink is Chateau Margaux everyday, how can we learn anything new and how can we possibly develop an extensive and useful evaluation tool kit? Just as there are fabulous inexpensive wines out there—and hunting them down, drinking them and enjoying them is a crucial part of being a true oenophille, the same is so for the audiophile.
How the Solos fit in the Alta Audio line
Alta Audio is a USA based and owned speaker company, and their products are manufactured in the USA as well. All of their speakers are designed by CEO and founder Mike Levy who has decades of hands on experience in designing and building speakers.
The Solo is the little ‘bookshelf’ brother in the line of Alta Audio speakers; each weighs only 15 pounds, and contains only one driver (solo)—a 6” full-range driver. As stated on the Alta Audio website, ‘Our state of the art single driver emulates a point source in full range for enhanced clarity and dimensionality.’ The driver itself is beautiful, with a shiny silver colored phase plug that sticks out like a little missile. The cabinet size is merely 11.125” (H) x 8.5” (W) x 11.5” (D). The driver has a port in the back. The front covers are non-magnetic; instead they firmly attach by snapping them into four holes.
A pair of Solos costs $1500 for the basic smart-looking black finish, $2000 for various optional wood finishes. The top has a cool looking indentation in its center—as if the speaker was given a fashionable haircut. With an impedance of 8 Ohms, its rated power is 25-75 Watts.
As a mind-boggling comparison, the biggest Alta Audio brother is the ‘Statement Tower’ speakers which weigh in at 485 pounds each, are 7’ tall, contain 11 drivers (4 subwoofers, 4 midrange and 3 ribbon tweeters) and cost $250K per pair. In between are the FRM-2 full range monitor speakers at about $15K; they were reviewed back in June 2014 in Audiophilia. The FRM-2s are my current reference speakers, having replaced a variety of floor standers.
The plan of this review and the equipment used
For this review I only used PCM digital audio files (from CD quality 16/44.1 up to 24/192) and as alternatives for amp/preamp I used two different integrated amps that each contain their own built in DAC: the Sprout (Class D, 32 Watts per channel at 8 Ohms, with an analog preamp built in), which retails for $799, and the more powerful and more expensive Bel Canto 5Ci (Class D, 60 Watts per channel at 8 Ohms, with a digital volume control through its DAC), which retails for $1999. Because of the internal DACs, no analog interconnects were required.
As sources I used a Mac Mini (upgraded by Mojo Audio, with Joule V power supply) running JRiver MediaCenter 20, and a MacBook Air running iTunes. When using the Sprout, I used USB or Bluetooth streaming; for the Bel Canto I only used USB. For speaker wires I used a 10’ pair of Anticables Level 2 Performance Series, with banana plugs on both ends, which retail for $140 (a real find). Paul Speltz, owner of Anticables will soon be loaning me a pair of his highest Level 3 Reference Series cables for comparison ($300 a pair retail); I can’t wait.
For USB cable, I stuck mainly with the AudioQuest Forest, which retails for $34. For power cords I used either the stock cords that came with the integrated amps, or at most a Shunyata Research VENOM-3. In short, I kept away from using the much more expensive and high-end amps, DAC and cabling that I use in my own reference system; that would have been overkill and defeated the purpose of this review.
The Solos possess the same signature sonic character as found in all of Alta Audio’s line: a detailed, fast, musical and natural live-performance sound—and with the small Solo, an unusually deep bass extension that seamlessly integrates with all else.
This unusual bass extension stems from the proprietary ‘Alta XTL bass tuning system’ and the proprietary cabinetry itself, and just as with the FRM-2, most likely one will not want or need a subwoofer. The bass is already good enough for most music. I advise ignoring the listed frequency response of 60 Hz to 22 kHz; a perfect example of how numbers do not tell the full story. Instead, just listen. For example, the Solos gave a surprisingly impressive performance of track 4, ‘Flight of the Cosmic Hippo’ from the album of the same name (by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones). Sure, they did not cause my couch to shake the way the FRM-2s do, but that is not their purpose or the purpose of any ‘bookshelf’ speakers.
Speaking of bookshelf speakers: Yes, the Solos could be placed on a bookshelf with quite decent results; but they deserve more respect. By stand mounting them some distance from the back and side walls their full potential is readily revealed and you will be handsomely rewarded.
Setting up the Solos
I simply removed my FRM-2s from their 28” high stands and placed the Solos on the same stands (with the same toe-in). The simple but solid banana plugs of the Anticables made it very easy to get connected, and because there is only one driver, no jumpers are needed! Right from the start, the positioning was already close to optimal: About 6-feet apart, and about 3.5 feet from the back wall. The right speaker was about 4-feet from the right wall but with a large radiator box there bringing it 3.5 feet from that, while my listening space is open on the left. My couch is about 6’ from the speakers. My listening space has high ceilings, about 12 feet high.
Some serious listening
I gave the Solos an extensive workout by playing a wide range of music. Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised, and downright amazed at times that such a small single-driver speaker could produce such quality sound. I also had the pleasure of inviting others both audiophile and non-audiophile alike to have a listen.
Having already used the Solos with the Sprout with great results, and with the Solos now burned in, I spent most of my new listening time using the more powerful Bel Canto 5Ci, which (particularly at higher volumes) yielded a rich, detailed, smooth and full sound with a very respectable sound stage and imaging. I typically preferred the volume at about 75/100 which brought out the best features of the Solos. Easy on the ears, I found myself listening to music for hours at a time without fatigue. What is of course missing that would be gained by using a much higher-end speaker (and peripheral equipment) is: extraordinary imaging and isolation of instruments with greater fullness, density, and textures, a larger sound stage and even deeper bass extension, that say, one gets from the FRM-2. But don’t forget that these Solos are only $1500 a pair and have only 1 driver. Quite something. Here are some examples of music I played for which I found surprisingly exemplary results:
• Classical: Brahms, Cello Sonatas 1& 2 (2011 Remaster), by Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim. Bach: Suites for Solo Cello, by Janos Starker; exquisite details were exposed, and the timbral accuracy and tone of the instruments were right on.
• Voice: Buddy Holly, the tracks ‘Well… Alright’ and ‘True Love Ways’ taken from the album ‘From The Original Master Tapes’. Peggy Lee, ‘Fever’ from 1958, from the album ‘The Best of Peggy Lee’. ‘Just a Little Lovin’ by Shelby Lynn’s album of the same name. All very natural and live sounding with air and warmth.
• Jazz: Oscar Peterson Trio, ‘You look good to me’ from the album ‘We get Requests’. No subwoofer needed to vividly hear that wonderful stand up bass played using a bow, and the clarity and intensity of the triangle sound from the left channel showed off the Solo’s ability to integrate the lows with the highs.
• Guitar: ‘Baja’ from Bill Frisell’s album ‘Guitar in the Space Age’. What can I say; its just my favorite current piece by Frisell. The Solos make it lively and uplifting.
These bookshelf speakers are very special. As one of my friends commented, ‘They paint a lovely picture’. I couldn’t agree more. They impressed particularly because of their bass performance (no subwoofer needed) but they also yielded a detailed, smooth, full and transparent sound with a very nice sound stage and imaging. They were a pleasure to listen to even for long periods of time. I can’t imagine any audiophile not being impressed.
Further information: Alta Audio