At the recent 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), Alta Audio premiered a new $10,000/pair 2-driver loudspeaker (1 tweeter, 1 woofer) named the Alec. Unlike Alta’s flagship FRM-2 Celesta ($15,000/pair), which also has 2-drivers but is monitor sized and sits on stands, the Alec is a floor standing model, with a larger (8.75” versus 6”) woofer, and 20 more pounds in weight (75 pounds versus 55 pounds). In the showroom at RMAF, Alta’s President, Mike Levy, joined forces with VPI Industries for the source (an HW-40 direct drive turntable loaded with an Audio Technica cartridge, and VPI phono stage) and Krell Industries for the amplification (amp, preamp). Not only was Levy in the room, but so was Mat Weisfeld, President of VPI, and Walter Schofield, Chief Operating Officer of Krell.
Whenever I entered the room, it was abuzz with crowds of listeners and was widely acclaimed as one of the finest sounding rooms at RMAF. Audiophilia, for example (including yours truly), found the room superb sounding and unanimously placed it in the top two rooms. You can imagine then my surprise and satisfaction when two weeks after RMAF, Levy pulled up to my apartment in a car with a gorgeous pair of the Alec in black Onyx for my perusal (they are also available in Rosewood); hence this review. I add that the Celesta are my reference for speakers for almost 4 years now, and the VPI HW-40 serves as my reference for vinyl.
Before continuing I must also bring attention to Alta Audio’s more elaborate and expensive Titanium Hestia ($32,000/pair) with 5 drivers and a dipole open back. They yield an enormous soundstage and pin-point imaging, and with that same live and refined sound quality of the Celesta that so attracts me; but they are not appropriate for my apartment living space; they require a larger venue.
Height: 39 inches, 40.5 inches with spikes
Width: 8.75 inches at top, 15 inches at bottom
Depth: 10.5 inches at top, 12.5 inches at bottom Weight: 75 lbs
Driver complement: One 5 3/4 inch ribbon tweeter; One 8 3/4 inch midrange woofer
Sensitivity: 93 dB / 2.83 Volts
Frequency response: 32Hz to 47kHz (but it easily goes much lower, down to 29Hz or so in appropriate venues such as my apartment space).
Impedance: 4 Ohms
Requirements: 50 to 150 Watts per channel
Alta XTL Bass (10.5 foot transmission line (TL)) with DampHard faceplate Black Onyx High Gloss finish. They are also available in a Rosewood finish.
Levy was able to get the price of the Alec down to $10,000 per pair while the Celesta is up at $15,000 because the Alec uses a less expensive tweeter and woofer, and (as close inspection reveals) a less expensive cabinet. But these compromises do not necessarily mean that sound quality suffers: With the Alec, Levy is trying to show by creativity, experiment and perseverance that the rabbit can still be pulled out of the hat—at a lower price point using his method/philosophy of design. Has he succeeded? Damn close I say with more details (and surprises) explained below.
How does the sound quality/presentation of the Alec compare with the Celesta?
The Alecs were already broken in and I was able to simply swap out the Celesta for the Alec within minutes (with the help of Levy and one of his associates). My other reference system equipment remained the same too: PS Audio Direct Stream DAC, Mojo Audio Deja Vu Music Server with Roon core, VPI HW-40 Direct Drive turntable, Pass Labs XP-17 phono stage, PS Audio BHK Signature preamplifier, and Audio by Van Alstine DVA SET 600 Mono Block amplifiers. For digital music streaming I used Qobuz and Tidal (plus my own internal storage).
With some minor repositioning over time to better optimize the sound for my space, the placement of the Alec was quite close to that of the Celesta: about 7.5 feet apart, 3 feet from the back wall and 9 feet from the back of my listening couch. The Black Onyx Alec looked stunning in my apartment and were easier to move around than the Celesta because one does not have to mess with stands. I kept the four bottom spikes placed on the same small brass footers (on my living room rug) that I had been using for the Celesta which allowed me to simply push the Alec slowly in any direction. They are lower in height too, and the speaker posts being low near the bottom made it easier to attach the speaker wires and placed less stress on them as compared to the Celesta.
Because of the wider bottom, the Alec are very stable; knocking them over won’t happen. Both my wife and I preferred the looks of the Alec in our living room to those of the Celesta; because they were floor standing with elegant long curved sides (not just a simple rectangular box), they appeared more naturally like fine pieces of furniture. The Alec has a port on the front near the bottom, the Celesta has one in the back. According to Levy, however, the port will be placed on the back in all future productions (for esthetic reasons); it will have no effect on sound quality. The Alec comes with magnetic cloth grills to cover and protect the drivers if need be.
Above all, I quickly perceived a significantly larger soundstage from the Alec than from the Celesta, a more powerful presence, and more stable bass presentation. And the bass easily reached as low as 29 Hz (even though officially the specs are given as down to 32Hz); my floor shook at times when playing church organ.
What is fascinating is that Levy, when designing the Alec, did not intend the sound stage to enlarge in that manner (see his comments on this issue below); it was not part of his goal and he does not fully understand why they turned out this way. In essence, the Alec seemed to share some of the unique sound qualities of the Titanium Hestia as well some of those of the Celesta. The long depth of the soundstage in particular was impressive and allowed for some venues to reveal themselves strongly (churches and concert halls, for example), and for the placement of voices and instruments to appear anywhere from far away in back (into another room) to a dash in front of the speakers. At times, I felt as if I was close in proximity to the the musicians in a live concert. These differences took me time to get used to. Partly this initial ‘getting used to was due to the fact that the height of the tweeter is about 6” lower than for the Celesta; at Levy’s advice I ended up slightly tilting the top of the cabinets back (so as to point the tweeters higher up) by lengthening the two front bottom spikes (simply twist them out more); that also had the positive effect of adding further stability to the soundstage. Nice. The larger soundstage also allowed the music to be enjoyed just about anywhere in the living room and kitchen (which is open with the living room).
As for volume: I could easily crank it up on the Alec more than on the Celesta. When using my preamplifier’s volume control which is scaled to stay within 0 − 100, I could hit 60 easily where as with the Celesta I typically would not go beyond 50 and most of the time remain in the low to mid 40s. Although I have never been bothered by my neighbors for playing music too loud, I kept expecting a knock at the door when experimenting with volume during this review (Steely Dan, for example), but it never happened—so far.
Any downsides in the Alec’s sound quality to me as compared to the Celesta? After all I have had them in use for several years and know them extremely well. Sure: However subtle, I would say that the Celesta are slightly more refined and warmer sounding to me, and they never get in your way; as if some magical addictive dust is thrown in with their design.
The Alta Audio Philosophy on Speaker Design
I queried Levy with some specific questions involving design and I report on that here.
When you designed the Alec, you did not have in mind enlarging the sound stage as was purposely done when designing the Titanium with its dipole and such; but that is what it does, and it came as a (wonderful) surprise; some thoughts?
Loudspeaker design is as much an art as it is a science because in the end it all comes down to what we hear, and the magnificent deception a great speaker system is capable of. It took a lot of science to come up with the design of the Alec speakers, but it is the art that achieves the magic in design. I view the audiophile loudspeaker as a Music Reproduction Imaging Instrument.
The Alec Speakers began, as all designs begin, with a concept that in this case was to design a floor standing loudspeaker that would have no sonic limitations in any reasonably sized room while remaining as unimposing in size and visual footprint as possible. Unsaid in the concept is what all Alta products are about, the sound and feel of live music. There were specific parameters we needed met by the drivers to achieve our goal. In the end, our love for the smooth, detailed extended response of ribbons resulted in our 5 3/4 inch Neodymium magnet ribbon tweeter, Our 8 3/4 inch woofer was designed with the Small-Theile parameters to tune down to infrasonic bass in the Alec’s 10 1/2 foot long XTL transmission line and for smooth extended response to meld seamlessly with the tweeter, but when I put them together something magical happened that I have yet to explain. When I compared the Alec speakers with our Hestias and Celestas, to my amazement, the image size and quality were more like the dipole Hestias than the monopole Celestas. The crazy part about this increase in overall image size is that they maintain the proper size of the individual images, and they portray that image even when they are in a smaller space. It is amazing, but I have yet to pinpoint the cause.
You have a very important design philosophy that has always driven you: Most people view a driver as a speaker, where as you like to point out that a speaker is made up of several drivers and as a whole/together with a cabinet—that is the speaker, and the ‘tuning’ of that speaker’s cabinet is extremely crucial to getting the frequencies to all work together as a whole. More drivers does not equal better sound, nor does it yield wider frequency response. (And you are not a fan of separate subwoofers.) For example, you have accomplished a lowest frequency of 29Hz with a tweeter and only one 6” driver (woofer) in small cabinets (Celesta, for example). Please elaborate.
Most people think of the driver as the speaker and completely ignore the cabinet. That is equivalent to judging a violin by the strings and ignoring the body of the instrument. With drivers, we think the bigger the better, the more the better. Nothing could be further from the truth for designing a full frequency loudspeaker that images and sounds like live music. The bigger the speaker, the more it gets in the way of the music and needs a larger space. The trick is to tune the speaker to fully transmit its energy to sound. When you see the woofer cones moving the most, is often where they are putting out the least sound because that motion is energy that has not been transmitted to the air. That is achieved by proper coupling to the cabinet, much like a pipe organ. The size of an individual pipe in a pipe organ is small compared to the size of the church it is usually in, and yet the sound it makes moves the whole church. Because it has to achieve the coupling to the driver through a wide range of frequencies, the design of our cabinets is far more complicated than the design of a pipe organ, but it achieves the same goal.
By achieving the dynamics and output desired using a single driver, we have achieved better imaging, and smoother and deeper bass than would have been achieved with multiple drivers. While we use all of the technology available to us to graph the response of our speakers, we have found that the most important part of the design is the fine ear tuning of the sound. It is amazing that when we get to that level we can easily hear the differences made by small changes, but the graphs look the same. That is what the art of loudspeaker design is about.
Coudn’t Stand The Weather, Stevie Ray Vaughan, track 'Tin Pan Alley'. The larger soundstage of the Alec is on display; the wooden block and drums resonate with such force, and Vaughan’s voice sounds larger than life. The bass is spot on and stable, no resonance problems. This was the track that I had used extensively to evaluate the Titanium Hestia.
The double album Dreams and Daggers by Cecile McLorin Salvant (2017). In this one, closing my eyes, when listening to the live cuts I truly felt as if I was sitting within the first two rows of her performing live. Again, I think the larger sound stage allowed that illusion. I even wandered into my open kitchen and the illusion persisted.
This is actually a comparison that surprised me: I have always liked two classic versions of the song 'Fever', both recorded in the late 1950s in stereo; the one by Peggy Lee, and the one by Elvis Presley (who was motivated by Lee’s version). When I heard these on the Alec, my goodness, how the larger sound stage taught me how different the voice recordings were. Lee’s was just perfect, going so well with the instruments, while Presley’s was as if in a huge echo chamber with the instruments elsewhere. I certainly noticed a difference before, but the larger sound stage of the Alec brought the difference out in spades, and made me realize just how special the Lee recording is. The Celestas did not do that to such a degree. Fascinating.
At times I sensed that piano sounded unusually good on the Alec; perhaps the larger sound stage allowed a grand piano to display its grandeur more naturally. Here is one example: Fazil Say playing piano on the classic Mozart piece ‘Variations on “Ah, vour dirai-je, maman”’ K 265, 1997 CD, Atlantic Records. (This is the Mozart piece that was much later used for children’s nursery rhymes such as "ABCD" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep".) Here the piano sounds so clear and true; the Alec show off Say’s lively energetic (and fast) performance.
At only $10,000/pair Alta Audio has indeed pulled a rabbit out of a hat with the Alec. As a low cost compromise between the majestic Titanium and its smaller and addictive sibling Celesta while retaining the unique signature sound quality that makes all of Alta audio speakers so special, another winner is born; within arm’s reach of perfectly bridging the two.
Further information: Alta Audio