Michael Levy, the owner of Long Island's Alta-Audio and designer of its range of speakers, is as passionate an audio professional I know.
Levy leverages every ounce of that energy, extreme knowledge and passion into his loudspeaker design.
Two Audiophilia writers, Martin Appel and Karl Sigman, both have Alta Audio FRM-2 Celestas as their references. At USD$ 15,000, they are worth every penny. Encased in the most gorgeous polyester piano black finish, these stand mount gems are among the best sounding speakers you can buy. Truly magnificent.
Recently, the very busy Levy has created speakers above and below the Celesta's price of admission. The sound signature is all in the family and uses the same topology (ribbon tweeter and standard woofer) but varying in cabinet size and drivers.
Audiophilia has reviewed all but the mighty Statement Tower. A simple search from our navigation bar will uncover a treasure trove of Alta Audio goodies.
So, other than the yet to be reviewed Statement, I'm last to the Alta review party with the IO. I have lots of casual experience with the Celestas but heard the others only at shows -- where they sounded superb.
A phone call to Levy garnered information about the initial design of the IO:
The design of the IO is rooted in the original research project that resulted in the Celesta FRM 2. Taking all the design points that made that speaker so highly reviewed, and creating them on a much lower priced platform by using the highest value components rather than choosing the components using a cost is no object philosophy. The result is incredibly close. Instead of the entire cabinet being made of "DampHard"" material only the front face is used.
The IOs are larger (and heavier) than many bookshelf loudspeakers, but fit comfortably on stands. A little Blu-Tac helped to bond them to the metal of the stand. Levy mentioned a slight toe in for best listening position. I tried them like that for a good week during break in but preferred them firing straight out into the room. Imaging remained specific but I enjoyed the wider soundstage.
Break in is suggested at 200 hours! Some time is given to the drivers at the factory and Levy was right on the money when he told me that they sound would improve greatly after 50 hours or so then continue to offer more subtle improvements over the next 150 hours.
Out of the box, the woofer offered some resistance to playing nicely, but acquiesced after 30/40 hours. The change thereafter was quite remarkable. From shy and inhibited to classy and confident.
The IOs differ from its much more expensive cousin by clever use of some trickle down design cues and less expensive drivers (but using the same topology). Alta Audio uses DampHard (a multi density layered construction which presents a hard surface externally, while damping out unwanted resonances). This very expensive material is used on the IO's front plate only. The most expensive Alta models use DampHard throughout the cabinet. Levy suggests that DampHard produces a clean silent background on which the fine details of the music are evident.
Bass performance is enhanced by the use of Alta's proprietary 'XTL bass tuning system'. Basically, a very effective transmission line design which allows the monitor enclosure to produce significant and accurate bass. Far more than from a regular bookshelf speaker of standard design.
The rear of the speaker has high quality bi wired terminals (with jumpers for single wire fans) and a single bass port. The indent on the top of the speaker is cosmetic.
When fully broken in, the IOs exhibit the very best of the Alta Audio signature sound. Open and detailed with sweet treble, rich midrange and low bass with no bloat or bloom. Only the best designers in my recollection manage the 'family of sound' across the range, no matter the price (Focal, Raidho, Wilson etc). For the asking price of a relatively inexpensive USD$3500, you'll be buying into a designer and manufacturer with the scientific knowledge and ear that can conjure superb, dynamic sound from small enclosures. The IOs will fit any decor -- the review pair was in a very nice Rosewood, but the silver (photo top of review) looks very lovely. And you can never go wrong with gloss black. Don't forget, you'll need stands to hear them at their best.
Levy was very confident about the IOs bass response, so I gave it my two standard tests -- the opening track of Thomas Newman's American Beauty (digital) and the first movement from Shostakovich's 1st Symphony (vinyl). The Newman track has thunderous (and very separated) synthesized bass that goes crazy low. Levy's cockiness was well earned. The IOs handled the bass easily, and, even better, the very complex Latin Percussion arrangement Newman provides. Very impressive.
Even more impressive was the Alta's handling of the Classic Records Shostakovich vinyl reissue. Recorded by Jean Martinon and the LSO in Kingsway Hall, London, the Holborn/Aldwych Piccadilly Line tube goes directly under the hall. Regular as clockwork, the IOs would be replicating the gorgeous sounds of the LSO players and then the quiet, but very distinct rumble of the subway train going past would be heard accompanying Shostakovich's youthful symphony. Lots of speakers will give you the grumble but not the rolling stock's distinct rumble. The IOs were splendid here.
But what's good bass with weak mids and treble? Happily, the IOs give you a very balanced musical picture. Voices sound natural and recordings tell of their lineage.
A recent Audiophilia review of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life -- guess the hero?) was heard exclusively on the IOs. With so much to review, one has to multi task. This Supercuts LP reissue sounded spectacular. From the refulgent basses at the opening, to the treble detail of Strauss' 'Adversaries' (chattering piccolo, flutes, oboes and cymbals) to the gorgeous (and lengthy) violin solo. The hero's lovemaking with his wife was suitably rich in the midrange. A great test record. And fine speakers from which to hear it.
No matter your budget or room size, there'll be an Alta Audio loudspeaker that suits your needs. The USD$3500 IOs played nicely with different cables (Antipodes Audio, Transparent, Wireworld) and worked beautifully with my Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier. It also handled digital and vinyl duties equally well. My fairly small listening room was never overwhelmed; I think the IOs would be fine in anything up to a medium size room if you wanted to rock out.
For this price point, I'd be hard pressed to recommend a speaker that does all the musical and audiophile things the IO does. It is beautifully made with fine cabinetry, is extremely well designed, and produces highly musical sounds in all the important octaves. Chalk up another winner from the Alta Audio speaker stable. Very highly recommended.
Further information: Alta Audio
Height 14.5 inches; Width: 8 1/2 inches; Depth: 13 inches
Weight: 27 pounds.
- One 2 inch ribbon tweeter.
- One 7 inch Paper/Kevlar midrange/woofer
Sensitivity: 87.5 dB / 2.83 Volts @ 1 Meter.
Frequency Response: 42Hz to 47kHz.
Requirements: 50 to 150 Watts per channel.