In Search for a Reference
Unlike most large glossy snobbery Ezines, we will actually hold our heads high and admit to being audio equipment fans who read and purchase other audio publications and more importantly (and far more CHEAPLY) browse the internet’s selection of fine “consumer driven” review pages and online societies. One such online forum is the tightly-knit community for AV123’s products.
If you are unfamiliar with AV123, it is the brainchild of one Mr. Mark Schifter (see our inaugural “20 Questions” interview), who has built up quite a faithful following of believers in his ability to build high quality items at low price.. just our kind of guy.. there we turned to a product that has had large amount of “internet groundswell” ….the Strata Mini.
The Onix products safely come in large MDF cornered/edged boxes, which bear the 158 lbs. each (in full courier resistant battle armor) the Mini’s weigh!
The handling of these is definitely not for the meek or the weak of/at heart. Unloading this extra weight certainly requires more than one person; thankfully, the Stratas come with a set of cotton gloves for each speaker (as one person unloading a set of speakers wearing gloves just looks silly, but two of you can strike up quite a kinship when both of you are wearing these cotton “de-fingerprinters”)!
The extra weight of the Minis certainly foretells a story of it’s own; besides the heft of the included power amp (more on this later), the cabinetry itself is very solid. The “knuckle-wrap test”(as well as the lesser-known “head-bump test”, this writer admittedly found out) reveals supremely resonance free cabinetry, that is beautifully seamless in build quality, from the base to the matching top which is crowned with a AV123 signature black “cap”.
Attention to detail is evident everywhere in this product from the packaging (including the use of a wonderful cotton speaker sock, the last covering before the grand unveiling) to the detailing of the design. The real rosewood veneer covering the face / front pillar on our review pair is a matte finish which does not detract from the fine grain of the rosewood veneer.
Though the available high gloss optional finish is quite spectacular in pictures, the matte may be more practical when used as it is in our room; it reflects less light when used in a home theatre setting, especially if are using a front projector.
However given the height of the Mini (47″!), you would only be able to use the “3 across” preference with a high-placed Plasma screen, or a sound permeable “acoustic” screen (in the case of a front projector). However, in my pervious experience with ribbon drivers, they can usually float a wonderfully convincing “phantom” center channel that is superior to the usage of a horizontal center we’ll see if the Minis can replicate this notion..
Not a very “placement difficult” speaker, we moved the Minis to our starting position in the room, 37″ out from the back wall, and “toed-in” about 9 feet out from the “sweet spot” listening position. After initial play back, we settled on moving the Minis about two inches back toward the wall to try and get an as perfect “equilateral triangle positioning” as possible, in this room. Angled down with the assistance of a few “shims” (various spike discs we have collected while auditioning other products), so that the tweeters are at ear height as suggested in the manual, there they stayed throughout the rest of our testing. and in fact here they still sit…
“….funny, they don’t SOUND like Mini Driver(s)…”
The Mini’s overall sound is on the warmer side of neutral; the mids, from the planar magnetic 8″ midrange, and 5.25″ mid-bass coupler, though not “boxy” have body to them regardless. Being on the warmer side of neutral, they are not too “hyper-detailed” for those who do not enjoy naked transparency, they still project the sound of the recording itself … just a more relaxed version of it… very crafty (and often difficult to achieve) indeed! This is definitely full scale mid-range, with no discernible drop out in the lower sections. I have experienced this same planar driver in other manufacturer’s products and have found it to be nice and fast, but the attack can be unnaturally quick, as to limit “resonance”. In other words, I heard the strum and attack of the acoustic guitar but not necessarily the timbre and vibration of the wood, present even when a note or chord is muted; not so with the Minis.
Furthermore, the mid to low-end transition is quite seamless. And what a low end it is, even prior to engaging the sub amp and woofer! When playing the title track off of the Donald Fagen “Morph the Cat” DVD-A disc, the drums were fully represented and had enough dynamics to have a believable presentation and “feel”. Given this set-up is the simplest and most direct “plug and play” option, and that we are comparing this speaker to others with more and larger drivers, the bass quality is indeed sufficient for music only uses. Cutting to the chase, if you are using the Mini for movies, or “Organ-fests”….
…that is just TOO easy….
..you’ll want to engage the powered sub option; come ON people, you’ve just re-injured your hernia lifting these things, the least you could do is make use of the option you paid so little for!
Plugging in and dialing up the powered sub opens up a WHOLE new world, and in fact if you did indeed open up your hernia by lifting, the level of lower intestinal damage will be further increased, so you should move out of the listening area…
… hey, I warned you!
Utilizing the sub-amp makes this speaker pound and pummel for movie usage (as almost all subs will) but somewhat surprisingly, continue the musicality of the speaker, especially when once again playing the Fagen reference song. The bass comes together (we’ll come back to that in its capitalized form …wait, wait….it’ll be fun….you’ll like it) even though nothing was noted as missing prior to sub utilization.
AV123 sure has done their job with the crossovers (as noted in our interview with founder, Mark Schifter) in this speaker. When crossover settings in speakers are adjusted accurately, the whole unit speaks as one throughout the entire frequency range; thus is the case with the Minis. In fact, so much so that even adding the extra bass extension does NOT take away from the mids and/or the tweeters. The specs list the low end limit as 27 Hz, and though not measured (we’ll leave that to our learned peers!) that would seem to be about right.
On “Come Together” (see I TOLD you that was coming up)off of the DVD-Audio disc “Love”, the bass is clear, musical and defined. What if you already have a sub that you would like to utilize? Easy answer: not needed, for most uses….especially if you are a music only listener, as previously mentioned. But given the low price of the Minis, and while we have the “Love” disc in our player, we hooked up our reference sub, the wonderful TBI Magellan.
As other publications and esteemed audio writers have noted, “system synergy” or the ability to “play well together” (that of course is a simplification of this term…. but hey, …”I am but a simple man”), is important; thankfully the TBI and the Minis form a well matched set-up. We have the sub placed almost center between the two mains (actually just to the right, if facing the speakers), as suggested, and found the best matched settings within minutes.
Now, settling in for some extended listening, we have bass as low as is needed for tracks such as the Beatle’s “Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows” and movies such as “Lord of the Rings”, which require full range and can be punishing to speakers if not “up to snuff”. Simply stated, the transition between these speakers and subwoofer is seamless. Beautiful!
Having the opportunity to listen to these speakers for a bit, there was something small missing; all joking aside, we DO take our responsibility in providing readers with a honest recommendations very seriously, so when I sat down to do some dedicated listening, I deduced that the “air” of the treble wasn’t what it could be.
Spoiled by my admitted preference for -and experience with- the breathy highs that ribbons can provide, I was slightly under whelmed by the very high treble of the planar magnetic 1″ tweeter. The quality isn’t bad at all, don’t get me wrong; they just seemed somewhat limited in range.
This is when we contacted AV123 (thanks again Mark and Sean) with this minor issue. In typical Onix customer service fashion, they did not miss a beat and sent us out a pair of $349.00 Extended Response Tweeters (ERT), to try.
This was ideal, as an extended/super tweeter device such as this can usually cost as much as our main speakers themselves, but in this case still kept us well under budget. Again the set-up was rather quick; we followed the instructions, adjusted the settings and positioning, and settled on aiming them down towards the “sweet-spot”. Now, the high end had the ability to truly keep up and surpass most other ribbon-hybrid speakers (and QUITE a few costing $1000’s more).
I was smiling to myself as I closed my eyes and now completely heard the breath of the alto sax entry into “Take Five” on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic, “Time Out” (sacd). I love hearing the little nuances of recording, such as the sound of sheet music being turned, session chairs squeaking, and even the breathing of musicians themselves in recordings such as MA’s must have “MA on SA” sampler, and Concord Jazz’s “Super Audio CD Sampler Volume 2″. For me this represents the “life” of the recording, more accurately approximating the live experience of having the musicians in the room with you (after all, isn’t that the goal of all of “this” anyway?). Now that’s what I’m talwkin’ about!!!
The Minis have a great combination of qualities. They are revealing yet not clinical; they image well yet have a large sweet spot and some dynamic impact where other ribbon / ribbon-hybrid speakers don’t.
This Mini is one of those break-through products of it’s time, not just in sound alone, but in VALUE. When factoring in performance vs. value there is NOTHING that we have encountered giving this amount of performance, for this little money… nothing. INCLUDING the added price of the ERT’s.
If you are one who does not value transparency as much as I (especially if your listening experience is mostly made up of heavier rock or movies), you will do MORE than fine in skipping the ERTs. To make the value of this product even more desirable (if you do need any more reason to purchase) we have seen AV123 price the Minis down to $1299.00 a PAIR (in South American Rosewood) on sale, not “b-stock”, but brand new…. you really can’t go wrong. So you could buy the ERT’s and try ’em out; with the sales like these, they are STILL cheaper than the full price when our testing began!! And by the way, damn AV123, as the Mini’s could be considered in our MIDDLE room with sales such as these… but we are tired (some would say lazy), and want to just rest… and listen to some music….
Two more are now on their way to complete our 4.1 set-up (using the “Phantom center” setting on our NuForce AVP17)… I hope the structure of our listening room can take it!!!
Call it: reference speaker solidified!!
Well done Mr. Schifter, well done.
I.M.H.O., Jason Gower