In keeping with current events, a single question must be asked at the front of this review. Do you believe an audiophile is the result of evolution or a product of intelligent design? Think about your response and the many music lovers who have never evolved beyond a receiver purchased from a Big Box store. Then consider the audiophile who spends large dollar amounts (often over and over again) at the audio specialty shop and ends up owning a mish-mash of components that could hardly have been the result of intelligent decisions. Whichever side you come down on, we can all feel fortunate this is one issue that will probably never be a subject of debate for a Kansas school board.
For the purposes of this review, we shall consider the Alegria Audio Emma both an evolutionary product and the obvious result of intelligent design. While artfully dodging the political correctness of the issue, Emma does manage to raise some questions that any music lover or equipment buyer should consider before becoming an “audiophile”. Or, at the very least, before spending money for products which are far less evolutionary, not the least bit revolutionary and lack any sort of design goal other than distancing you from your money and the music you love.
I mention all this because my date with Emma provoked a series of questions I have debated through several decades of involvement with high end audio. Some of the questions were quite simple and some required more than casual deliberation. Some went to decisions I had made years ago and some I am still studying. Let’s begin our time together with two quite simple questions I think you might want to consider before approaching the price range or the quality range of Emma.
First, let’s question just how well attached are the walls of your listening room? Very? We’ll see about that. Also you need to consider just how attached you are to the walls of your listening room? Are you willing to give them up? Whatever your response, it’s very likely that once you have spent some time with Emma the answers to both questions will surprise you. You will find that despite her relatively compact size and modest looks Emma is a powerhouse. Here is impressively deep, powerful bass notes that will shake the walls and anything not firmly affixed to them. Yes, this is accomplished by a few subwoofers that alone ask the price of admission Emma requires. However, Emma provides much more than just bass and the music above 100hz will have you believing she has moved the furniture out and knocked down the walls to give the musicians some elbow room to work. In fact, given the appropriate material, Emma will easily deceive you. Instead of the all too common impression that a collection of wires, controls and boxes are simply reproducing a recording, Emma easily leads you to believe live music is being played by real musicians. In your room! At your request! Is that cool, or what?
If you, as an audiophile, have ever questioned whether the ability to transcend the mechanics of the playback system is part and parcel of high end audio, you really should get to know Emma. No matter how long you have considered yourself an “audiophile”, Emma will have you questioning just what is, and is not, important in a speaker’s performance.
Be forewarned, however, Emma will ask as much of you as you do of her. In reality, she doesn’t ask much other than all you’ve got. Her appeal will be less to someone who wants a speaker that does all of the work. If you are not prepared to listen, really listen, to Emma’s performance, you would probably do better to find one of the hundreds of speakers more willing to accommodate a casual listener who wishes nothing more than something that “sounds good” and manages to homogenize all your music into a one-minute porridge. On the other hand, Emma will impart a touch of cinnamon spice and the sweet, pungent scent of nutmeg with a dollop of butter to the mix while bringing forth flavors and textures that will have you pulling out old, familiar gems for a go around. Making familiar recordings sound new by articulating and resolving what the artist has done is what Emma does best. Unfortunately, if you put her up against the garden variety players that have their pictures in all the glossy magazines, Emma could easily be passed over for being too unassuming. That would be too bad. The best dishes are often made with just a few perfect ingredients. Emma has the right ingredients. To put it more plainly, Emma is the attractive but modest girl you’ve never noticed, and she’s standing all alone. Take the chance and get her out on the dance floor, and you will find Emma can really cut a rug. Emma can have a wild side as the night wears on. If Emma has to work with mundane material, her talents are wasted. But, she’ll give it her best. Like any aspiring talent, Emma wants nothing more than to chew up some scenery and she has the chops to do so. You’ll find, however, she is comfortable, and most impressive, when called upon to play the supporting role to the real star of the show, the music.
During my time with Emma, I was frequently reminded of one of the most oft repeated (and totally ignored) bits of knowledge about audio gear; “Take home what impresses you the least.” That is apparently hard advice to follow. We would all like to think we have found something very impressive. After spending time with Emma, I wish she had been around when I was working the sales floor just to demonstrate how valid that old admonition can be. During the time I spent with her, Emma grew on me like a good neighbor. The kind that leaves the window shades up and the door unlocked. She is open and easy to get along with. Yet, whenever we were alone together and the conversation lagged, Emma would always find something new and fresh to say. In time I got to know Emma and understand her many talents. And, her talents are great enough that everyone should get to know her before deciding on a partner that could, sooner or later, make you wish you were the one dancing with Emma.
As I think back, my first impression of Emma was positive. Emma arrived one day when the Fed Ex guy rang the doorbell. She was in immaculate, if rather nondescript, condition. Once she was in the room and I could see her clearly, I was aware of how solid Emma is built. Emma is tight and stylish – in a Lake Wobegon sort of way. When she arrived Emma was done up in a simple gloss black over an ash veneer and there was not a flaw to be found in her appointments. Where the Alegria Audio Ling seemed proud of its prudent budget, Emma has the benefit of outstanding parts and a few extra dollars to dress her up just a touch. As your hand slips around to her backside, you’ll notice a dramatically flared curve. Next to catch your eye is a pair of most impressive binding posts. These are the type you find on legends. While I normally find undoing jewelry a bit of a pain, for the user who is going to place Emma on a pedestal and sit back to enjoy her, this is just a bit more of the class Emma displays.
After removing her grill cover, I invited Emma into the home theater room for a movie and some music. I had the Harman Kardon and the NAD already warmed and waiting. Later we would make our way to the back room to get more comfortable. McIntosh was back there but in no particular hurry. In any case, Emma was not going to be caught off guard by my shenanigans. Emma was sure footed and, while timid at first, knew what I was up to. It was obvious from the start Emma had something to say but I had to get her loosened up a bit. She sounded rather muddled at first until we’d had a few rounds. Soon she began to lighten up, brighten up and open up. Where she had at first seemed to not make much sense, Emma was now bringing things into focus. In a short amount of time Emma had me interested.
Let me stop here and catch my breath.
I need you to consider a few more questions I had to deal with while Emma was in town. As I took in all that Emma could do, I had to decide how I wanted to describe the time I spent with her. Would I compare Emma to the best I had ever known? If so, just what was the standard I would hold her to? Live music surely must be the ultimate comparison. Fair enough; but how do I decide what my experience with live music means to the reader of my tale? We all have different ears and, most importantly, different minds that choose a mate to suit our tastes and desires. My ideal may not be yours. And, after all, Emma is no high priced commodity. Good grief, she’s still a kid by almost any measure! A sturdy Lolita to be sure, but still a youngster. And, though filled with good intentions, she certainly deserves some slack against the best I’ve known. Shall I compare Emma to those others out there struggling for their chance? That’s a tough challenge since there are so many trying to be noticed. But here’s the thing; most of them are not in Emma’s league. Oh, they’re pretty and they have their own set of curves. But, mostly I’ve experienced all that before and come away unsatiated. A slight rise and fall in the, ahem… “presence region”, generously plumped and hoping to distract from the fact they are in your face and there is far too much over acting going on is the most common contrivance they employ. Ah, yes, they audition well in the typical cattle call. With promises of performance they cannot live up to, they offer cotton candy and marzipan. And, like those confections, there is little to be gained by taking in the calories. Emma, on the other hand, is tiramisu. Rich and chocolaty at first bite while being, at the same time, light and intriguing on top. Emma is layered with surprising flavors. No simple trifle here; Emma is worth the effort. None the less, whether you prefer spun sugar or zabaglione is often determined by personal taste and experience. While there is no doubt Emma would be fun at the state fair, you would also want her to be with you when you dim the lights.
Back in the 15′ X 14′ X 9′ home theater room, Emma was surprising to say the least. With Emma stationed about 4′ from the back wall and 3 1/2′ from the sides, I listened as the bottom dropped out of the room.
30 Hz… 29… 28… 27… And so on.
Emma proved she was more than just a tease.
Playing with a Harman Kardon amplifier, Emma went about delineating the line of the music with articulation and resolution. Where the Ling had been all about nuance, Emma was about making herself understood. There was never a doubt where Emma was taking the music. Every word and every phrase was done in a manner that breathed new life into every performance. Emma awakened the inner workings of the music. In few instances could I say I’ve understood more clearly the artist’s intent than when they were dancing with Emma. Lyrics that were often lost in the mix were easily understood and their meaning stripped bare.
When I handed Emma over to Elvis for his version of “Fever”, she reacted as if she was already beginning to smoke around the edges. Sultry and sexy, Elvis and Emma did a dance that had them rubbing up and down and sliding back and forth against each other while I sat and took it all in. This is what you pay big money for. Off in the far corner, the man with the sandpaper blocks must have been a bit embarrassed and held back a touch thereby muting the grittiness of the whole affair every so slightly. The drummer, buried deep in the other corner, was stroking his skins with a beat that only made it all hotter and served to punctuate every gyration of the dirty dance that Emma had going with the King.
The high hat sang with the metallic shimmer of the rails beneath the streetcar named Desire. This all became more than a just dance and with each stanza moved steadily toward a performance that left me intrigued and wanting more.
Playing sultry against virtuous, Elvis next wanted Emma to sing some Gospel hymns. Emma had the back up vocalists, way back in the rear, turning pages in their hymnals to keep up. Elvis had gone from the bad boy of the earlier song to the choir boy of “I Believe in a Man in the Sky”. Emma got out of the way and let Elvis swing through this hymn. Next, when Elvis dropped the dime in the slot on “Memphis”, Emma caught the rhythm and urged the drummer to drive home just what Elvis was pleading for.
Sweet and demure, Emma was the epitome of “bop” when she met Blossom Dearie and Ray Brown. Things got hot and dark when Coltrane stirred the embers of his self styled jazz. A restless Miles Davis played against the ultimate cool of Paul Desmond. Emma went from partner to partner with a grace that seemed beyond her youth. With only 125 watts to put into Emma, I never did find the point where she gave out and called it quits. Make no mistake, in sheer volume Emma cannot compete on the level of a Klipschorn. But, Emma has the hardware and knows well enough how to use it to make most of her faults less obvious and easier to forgive. I took her to the symphony on several occasions and she all but knocked my head off when the Telarc drum slammed out the opening strikes to “Fanfare for the Common Man”. We had a rollicking good time with Doc Watson and John Hartford. Thumbing through the stacks, I came across a Canned Heat recording from 1969. It was a natural for Emma. With a boogey beat, Emma “found her groove” and put the boys in their place. With Bob “The Bear” Hite doing vocals from far back beyond the boundaries of the room, Emma laid back and let Larry “The Mole” take over for a while. There they were up against the wall on the left when Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson’s fret work suddenly made her scream over to the right. To her backside Fito De La Parra brought home a rhythm that earned him a place as one of John Lee H00kers’ “Apostles of the Boogie”. Emma liked what the guys did and she played around with them a few more times.
I sat there taking it all in. In each case Emma was now bringing these musicians into my room. I sat there in my chair, in my room, while one after another came to play with Emma. I knew they weren’t real but still this was too much fun.
Before I knew what she was doing Emma was out looking for something completely different and she had The Bass Outlaws just short of clipping the amplifiers. The Cowboy Junkies came in and did their cover of John Lennon’s anti-war “I Don’t Want to be a Soldier” with it’s decidedly 2005 urban grief and beat and then we headed back to the church for a bit of The Trinity Sessions. The Junkie’s version of “Walking After Midnight” was followed by the original from Patsy Cline. Yeah, Patsy and Emma got along just swell. Emma took it all in stride and after all the players had left, she just stood there. She knew she had me.
OK, we put on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and “September Song” just to prove her point. She made the room disappear again. The next night we repeated the whole affair, this time in the back room with an assortment of McIntosh tubes and Mac solid state really lighting a fire under Emma. Everything she did in the home theater room became both more expansive, expressive and more discrete in the 21′ deep back room. Sitting 7′ out from the wall, Emma now had a bottom that said pay attention only when called into action. It wasn’t any less impressive, just more discrete.
In time I asked some friends over to meet Emma. Everyone who stopped by to meet her loved her and everyone commented on her ability to pull the music and the vocals out of even bad recordings. She did it with a unique style. There’s no doubt about it; she was a hit! Any time I thought I knew a work particularly well, Emma showed just a little bit more was still there.
We had a great two weeks together. No matter who I introduced her to, she took to them, and they to her, as if they were old friends. She had an easy way about her and I could relax with her in the room.
Then, before I knew it, it was time for her to move on.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my time with her. Could I live with her? Would I want to live with her? Even though Emma showed me a good time; was that enough? Or, was it just that I felt like I was cheating on my regular gear? You know, the thrill of something new and different.
I stopped and caught my breath.
As I think back on it, Emma was a lot of fun. But, like I said, she is just a kid when you come back around to the real world. Though she covered her herself very well, she had a few stumbles along the way. No big deal, it was hardly noticeable. Really, when you consider her youth and all I asked from her, it was inevitable. So I don’t think Emma will mind if I tell that sometimes you can tell this all just an act she puts on. Don’t misunderstand me. She’s got a bottom that you could eat right out of a spoon. Her top is full and very attractive. Above all that she’s got a kind of crazy hairdo that is a little tousled and wild at times. Not so much as to draw attention to it most of the time. And, it’s only when you compare her against some very classy competition that you notice it at all. It’s almost a Sophia Loren thing. The kind of gal you want to take home to Mom and then spend some time with in a smoky bar. When she got together with the NAD amp, she went over the top on several occasions. The way her middle works while her top has your attention is deceiving. Every now and then it comes off as a little thick – in a Lake Wobegon type of way. It doesn’t always go with what her bottom is doing so seductively and you wonder how she manages both at the same time. It’s only when she has on certain outfits that you notice anything at all And, it’s easily forgiven for all the things she does so well. I found that for all her talents, at times, she could suck the air out of a room with her presence. She liked to stay home at night though she did enjoy that mono Chicago blues bar. She’s not perfect and I don’t think she’d mind me saying so. She doesn’t insist on being the main attraction and she can step out of the way with grace to let the music take center stage. All in all, she’s a pretty good gal. She knows how to cook and she knows how to clean. Her only real fault is she doesn’t do windows to perfection. In the front room or the back room, Emma’s a heck of a lot of fun. What more could you ask?
The Emma Demo includes these selections:
Low frequency sweep w/ voice over 160-20Hz; Surround Spectacular; The Music/The Tests Delos DE3179
Beau’s Bass; Bass Outlaws; Illegal Bass NewTown NTN 2210
Sonata in E minor, Allegro Janos Starker, cello; Janos Starker plays Mercury Living Presence D 108349
Picures at an Exhibition, piano transcription, Promenade Byron Janis; Title: Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition Mercury Living Presence D 106727
Pictures at an Exhibition, La Grande Porte de Kiev Moussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition; Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Sym. Orch. Mercury Living Presence D 106727
I Believe in the Man in the Sky Elvis Presley; Such a Night – The Essential Elvis, vol. 6 RCA RCA 07863 678402
“From my research one major strength of the Essential 6 release is it’s brilliant sound quality compared to the previous releases of these takes. Just because you may have many or most of these takes on other releases, you must buy Essential Elvis Volume 6 purely for it’s sound quality. It is essential!
Little Jazz Bird Blossom Dearie; My Gentleman Friend Verve MG V-2125
“The most expressive of jazz vocalists … Dearie leads a quartet comprising her piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums.”
But Beautiful Ray Brown; Ray brown, Jazz Cello Verve MGVS 68390
Stay in the Middle of the Road Doc Watson; Arthel “Doc” Watson Sugar Hill SHCD 3759
I Wish You Would (mono) Billy Boy Arnold; Blues Chicago Style Pazzazz 2PAZZ044
Fried Hockey Blues Canned Heat; The Best of Canned Heat
Her Majesty The Beatles; Abbey Road EMI CDP7 464462
I Don’t Want to be a Soldier Cowboy Junkies; Early 21st Century Blues
Walkin’ After Midnight Cowboy Junkies; The Trinity Sessions RCA RCA8568-2-R
7 O’Clock News/Silent Night Simon and Garfunkel; Old Friends Columbia C3K 64780