I have long had the dream of finding the perfect ribbon-based speaker. Why? Because a ribbon driver can simply sound incredible in the midrange and high frequencies. My first exposure to ribbon designs came through Apogee in about 1990. In those times, many Best Sound at the Show awards went to systems using Apogee speakers, for good reason. The first time I heard an Aaron Neville track that I knew well through their full-range ribbon driver speakers I was left spellbound. It simply sounded real. More real than I had experienced through dynamic driver speakers at the time. However, this did not come without expense. Those speakers were pigs for power, and even when fed enough juice they certainly could not play as loud as I would have liked them to. Furthermore, the bass performance using ribbons drivers, although quite good with certain models, certainly did not possess the impact and slam of a great dynamic driver design. Despite seeing a glimpse of sonic heaven, I knew I could not live with the consequences of a full-range ribbon design.
About that same time a number of companies began trying to 'marry' dynamic drivers with ribbon or electrostatic drivers to take advantage of the strengths of each technology. Apogee was one of the first in this arena and when they introduced their first 'hybrid' design, the Centaurus, I snapped a pair up. The Centaurus was a fairly low priced loudspeaker (about $1200) that combined an 8 inch woofer with the famed Apogee ribbon midrange/tweeter used in their much more expensive models. Sonic heaven, in an efficient and low-priced package, would be mine. Or so I thought.
At times they did sound stunning -- yes, stunning! So stunning, in fact, that I tried harder than ever to get every last bit of performance out of those speakers. I moved and fiddled and tweaked them for over a year. Never had I found such frustration from a loudspeaker. However, in the end I found the quality of the midrange unit easily surpassed that of the woofer. The woofer did not possess the level of detail that ribbon was capable of, nor could it match its apparent 'speed.' As well, the ribbon had a 'beamy' character which meant I had to be positioned just so in order hear a correct tonal balance and to recreate a soundstage image. My sonic dreams, through those speakers at least, would not be realized. In the end, my impression was that it sounded like driving a Ferrari through two feet of mud with my head strapped back to the headrest.
So in late 1996 when I talked to John Meyer at Newform Research and he wanted to ship me their R8-1-30, a hybrid design using an 8 inch woofer and priced at $1236 USD (dubbed 'The Favorite' in Newform literature), I was having a feeling of deja vu. The price was certainly appealing (likely helped because Newform sells all their loudspeakers factory direct). But I had been down this road before and I did not have another spare year of my life seeking the promised land. Still, the quest for sonic perfection got the best of me.
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE
The R8-1-30 arrived lickety split in two very large heavy boxes and another small, and still very heavy, box. The two large boxes held the woofer modules which use 8 inch woofers sourced from Peerless. The woofer cabinets are ported to the front. Reflecting the speaker's relatively low price, they are finished in a vinyl woodgrain veneer (which never in the history of my audio fetish have I found particularly attractive from any manufacturer). Despite the plastic 'skin,' the quality of construction is very good with angled corners and a nicely beveled bottom that aids their aesthetic appeal. Good quality connectors are used and biwiring comes standard. The top of the cabinet has connectors for use with 'jumper cables' that attach to the ribbon unit.
The other smaller box contained the starpower in this combo -- the proprietary Newform ribbons which are designed from the ground up by John Meyer. The ribbons supplied with this model measure 30 inches in height. Unlike, say Apogee, Newform uses a monopolar design (they only radiate energy to the front) and are they are specifically designed for good horizontal dispersion, as well as high power handling. This intrigued me because the 'beamy' character of my Apogees was one of the main causes of my endless fiddling and tweaking. The high power handling, to me, is also very important since specific frequencies, at slightly higher than normal levels, could cause the Apogee ribbon to flip and fly like clothes in the wind. I like my speakers to have 'guts' to deliver when they have to.
The woofer handles the lowest frequencies up through part of the midband. The ribbon handles the upper midrange through to the highest frequencies. The result is relatively full-range loudspeaker (36Hz-20kHz +/- 3dB) with a fairly easy amplifier load (87 dB sensitivity at 1W/1M with a 6-8 ohm nominal impedance according to Newform documentation). The crossover point of this 2-way design is 1KHz. Crossing over at this frequency will require the woofer to perform more than bass-support duty. It will also have to handle plenty of midrange information so integration between the ribbon and woofer becomes even more important in this critical ear-sensitive area.
A small bit of assembly is required which took less than 20 minutes. Newform supplies what I consider to be one of the best Owner's Manuals I have ever come across. It contains everything you need to know to get up and listening. There is plenty of information on Newform's vast product line (they supply kits, raw drivers, etc.), in addition to suggestions for typical types of room setups and proper speaker placement. Furthermore, they offer a 30 day, money back Satisfaction Guarantee if you are not completely satisfied with your loudspeakers. Overall, Newform Research is doing a first rate job that makes factory direct sales easier and better!
Using supplied Allen bolts, the ribbon modules attach to a bracket on the top of the woofer cabinet. Once in place, a supplied 'jumper cable' is used to electrically connect the ribbon. It is an interesting looking loudspeaker to say the least. Some find them rather high-tech and 'sharp' looking while others find them simply -- odd. I haven't made up my mind but I'm leaning toward the looking cool side.
Although the R8-1-30 is a fairly easy load on your amplifier (Newform recommends amplifiers from 20 to 150 wpc), I did find them to work best with solid state amplifiers of decent power, say 100 watts per channel or so. There are a wide variety of reasonably priced amplifiers like this that I feel would make a good pairing. My Classe Fifteen (175 wpc) provided more than sufficient power and worked well through a wide variety of music, although it is probably more expensive than many prospective consumers would use. It was the Spectron 1KW amplifier, however, that proved to be a synergistic match with the Newforms (not surprisingly, Newform is the Canadian distributor for Spectron). It was not so much the tremendous power the Spectron is capable of (300 wpc), but rather, the tight and almost visceral performance of that amplifier. The Spectron snapped the entire speaker into tight focus.
The rest of my system consisted of a Theta Data Basic Transport connected with Nirvana Audio's incredible digital cable to a Theta Prime II DAC. The venerable Blue Circle BC-3 preamp fed the above mentioned amps. Interconnects were Nirvana's SL-1 and speaker wire used was Silver Sonic's T-14 (biwired) and Nirvana's SL-1 (single wire).
From the first listen on, I could tell that at a shade over $1200 the R8-1-30 offers tremendous performance value for the dollar. Not surprising to me, much of the praise goes to the performance of the ribbon unit. Newform's research has paid off handsomely in what has to be one of the finest sounding midrange/tweeter drivers around, regardless of cost. This ribbon's sound is exceptionally transparent, revealing, with wonderful body and weight. There is an incredible amount of detail and a fabulous sense of transparency. At the same time this ribbon always retains its composure and unlike other ribbons I have heard, the Newform ribbon is never, never, never harsh. If anything, it is somewhat laid-back sounding which is probably the reason I could throw lots of power at them without them ever sounding fatiguing. The speaker was able to throw a well-focussed soundstage with solid imaging although the woofer performance lessened this somewhat -- more on that in a bit . Fellow contributor, John Stafford, used the word "phenomenal" to describe the ribbon's performance.
If it sounds like I am raving, it is because I am. The sound heard from the Newform ribbon driver is outstanding and it is this aspect of performance that allows the R8-1-30 to be compared with speakers costing much more. Furthermore, the ribbon performs feats rarely heard from this type of transducer. It has extremely good horizontal dispersion resulting in good off-axis performance. As well, they handle a lot of power and are capable of producing near ear-splitting volume levels. Pushed very hard, at levels far beyond what average listening would be, the ribbon can get a smidgen 'steely' sounding, but it still retains its composure well and does not break up or distort. I would imagine they could go even louder, but I don't have the ears or the mentality for that.
When John Stafford was over I played Sarah McClachlan's 'Ice' track from her Freedom Sessions disk (Nettwerk WS-6321). 'Ice', in a nutshell, sounds like a real rock band in a real room. There is very little, if any, compression or limiting used on this disk. The R8-1-30 was able to handle Sarah's screaming guitar and the hard-pounding drum track with aplomb. Where many speakers begin to choke, the Newforms begin to sing.
This is not to say that the R8-1-30 is without flaw. The woofer portion shows up specific strengths and weaknesses in this particular speaker's design. Unlike the rest of the speakers in the Newform lineup that begin to roll-off at about 80 Hz or so and are intended to be used with subwoofers, John Meyer designed the R8-1-30 to be a near full-range standalone unit. And sure enough, the R8-1-30 has strong bass down to the mid-30 Hz range that will satisfy many listeners.
However, being the purist I am I found that while the use of an 8 inch woofer provides strong deep bass, its integration with the ribbon unit is compromised to a degree. As a result, it tends to cloud the midrange performance. This was most noticeable to me reproducing some vocals. Male vocalists, in particular, took on somewhat of a heavier, more chesty nature than I would have liked. For example, Chris Isaak recordings are difficult to reproduce on some of the best speakers I have heard. Here there was an increased amount of wooliness and blurring. The ribbon was fast, crisp and clean; the woofer had a muddier, less distinct quality. Soundstaging and image specificity in the lower registers suffered as a result.
Despite these criticisms, the overall woofer/ribbon integration is very good considering the price and actually far better than I imagined it would be. I have heard Newforms more expensive NHB loudspeaker ($2450) and the integration in that model is seamless. However, the NHB rolls off bass at about 80 Hz and must be mated with a subwoofer to get full-range performance. At $1236, Newform has created an extremely good loudspeaker with wide-band performance so compromises in some areas must be expected. On the whole, the R8-1-30 deserves its moniker as 'The Favorite.'
Most importantly, in day-to-day listening the R8-1-30 captures and conveys the 'soul' of the music. Without getting mystical and trying to explain exactly what that means, suffice to say that I threw at and thoroughly enjoyed the way the R8-1-30 presented everything from Sarah McClachlan to Jewel to The Hip to Dylan to almost everything in between and beyond. It can even deliver the heart pounding bass that Elsas dance tracks require to come alive. I know I never found my Centaurus as musically satisfying of a performer as the R8-1-30. Setup and positioning with the Newform was also much easier.
I had a chance to compare the R8-1-30 to the Coincident Technology Conquest loudspeaker ($1595 USD) that I recently reviewed in SoundStage! The Conquest uses an 8 inch woofer and a silk dome tweeter. It was an excellent exercise that contrasted the performance of these two very different loudspeaker designs and proof to me that there is not necessarily one 'best' speaker in a certain price range. With the Conquest, the wooliness I noted was absent and it seemed to play 'cleaner' through this area. In general, I found the Conquest to have better performance through the upper bass lower midrange regions. Although both speakers boast bass performance into the 30 Hz range, the Newform was more visceral into the bottom octaves and generated more impact. It was a much weightier performance. This will please some listeners and may overwhelm others. The Newform seemed better suited to a home theater environment or for those listeners who prefer a more driving sound. Both speakers have outstanding performance in the upper midrange and high frequencies that belie their price. Yet the different technologies employed in each spotlighted some differences. I found the Conquest very clean and slightly more extended in the highest frequencies. It has a 'shine' to its sound. The Newform provided a notch more detail and a tad more see-through transparency. In the end, however, I found them both to be excellent loudspeakers that will likely appeal to different types of listeners and will mate better in different systems.
I am not one to be overly concerned with Home Theater, but with the performance characteristics I was noting I had a hunch the the R8-1-30 would be a match made in high-end home theater heaven. With soundtrack reproduction the strengths I noted in the woofer performance outweighed the weaknesses that I found when using them strictly as high-end music speakers. Soundtracks tend to rely on impact and 'the shock factor,' particularly in the bass region. The R8-1-30 handled this with ease and were more than impressive. As well, with the detailed yet non-fatiguing nature of this speaker they were ideal for overall voice reproduction. The R8-1-30 are some of the best speakers for home theater that I can think of at anywhere near this price. The result was thrilling. Furthermore, I felt no need for a subwoofer at any time.
I talked with John Meyer specifically about their application in a home theater. Sure enough, part of the design criteria was to create a speaker that would not only work well in a pure music setting, but also in home theater. Furthermore, John abhors the use of a center channel. Instead, he recommends running four R8-1-30's (2 front, 2 rear) with a 'Phantom' center channel. With the ribbon's outstanding imaging ability, he considers the need for a center speaker unnecessary. If I was to set up a full-fledged home theater system I would use this loudspeaker without hesitation.
The R8-1-30 offers aspects of performance that outclass many speakers near this price (no doubt dealing factory direct helps keep costs low). As previously noted, the high level of performance is mainly due to the ribbon unit. Within the ribbon's operating range, the speaker compares to other speakers costing upwards of two, three, or four thousand dollars. The performance in the lower frequencies is very good, but not outstanding in the same way and is more in line with speakers in the sub-$2000 range. Taken as an overall package, the R8-1-30 is a star performer. At $1236 the R8-1-30 represents superb musical value and is simply a steal for someone contemplating setting up an outstanding music/home theater system.
Price: $1,236 USD
Only available factory direct in North America
Newform Research responds:
Thank you for your very positive review of the R8-1-30. At last, audio people are starting to recognize the need to have speakers which work in a home theatre environment as well. Newform Ribbons are the only mono-polar large planars on the market so we are uniquely well suited to this new dual role (the omni- speaker?). Dipoles produce a back wave which fouls precise sound localization clues because it is reflected and arrives at the listener some 5 to 15 milli-seconds after the front wave. This leaves the classic panel designs restricted to the 2 channel realm.
But wait! Do I hear murmurings of disgust from the two channel, music only crowd? Something about home theatre being interesting effects with lousy sound? Well listen to the later releases and you will hear (still) obnoxious effects with good sound and, even occasionally, a good musical soundtrack. There is more. The latest reports on DTS surround CDs (music only) are all extremely favourable. With 20 bit, fully disrete low compression technology, that is what one would expect but the point is, it is here now and certainly indicates the future. The future audio system will be a home theatre system with the video turned off. Newform Ribbon systems fit extremely well into that format. As a matter of interest, Audio Ideas Guide is doing a review on 4-R8-1-30s in a home theatre system in their spring issue. This is our first exclusively home theatre review.
Enough futurism. A word about the R8-1-30 and Doug's findings. First I would like to point out that the price of $1236 per pair is delivered to the door via UPS. One charge shopping. Also, the "owners manual" is actually our 20 page sales booklet so people know what to do before they actually buy the speakers.
The Ribbons were designed to cross over to an 8" woofer before the woofer started to beam or break up. We thought that about 1kHz would be the ideal crossover. Conventional systems use much higher crossover points and the off-axis suckouts are inevitable. These degrade soundstage focus and produce a nasal quality. We designed the Ribbons to go down to 1kHz for this reason.
We chose an 8" because we wanted a very good bottom end with pretty good dynamic capabilities. The Peerless 8" delivers both. Inevitably an 8" at 1kHz cannot be as fast as a 3/4" Ribbon and Doug put this in excellent perspective. We feel that the compromise is minimal and the many buyers of the R8-1-30 agree as it remains our most popular model; a speaker that will do everything well and a number of critically important things exceptionally well. The Standing Modules and No Holds Barred both feature 5" mid-bass drivers which merge extremely well with the Ribbon. The 1kHz crossover must be about the lowest for a 5" on the planet but the smaller the driver, the fewer the errors for any given frequency (above resonance). The 5" drivers also allow a narrower cabinet to be used which is all to the good for minimizing diffraction and maximizing soundstage focus.
Note that we will have out in the fall several models which will team the R30 Ribbon with 6 1/2" drivers, including either Dynaudios or Scan Speaks. These new models will also feature full grills to deal with the aesthetics issues. They will be priced above the R8-1-30 which will remain as our all-in-one, maximum bang-for-the-sonic-buck favourite speaker.
It is unlikely that the 6 1/2" units will be able to match the dynamics of the 8" Peerless but they will be very attractive to people with another set of priorities. Speaking of dynamics, the reason the R30 holds up so well is that it has the radiating surface of 25 or so 1" dome tweeters. No strain, no pain. The "steely" sound Doug noted at extremely high volumes might be the Ribbon starting to compress but it might also be the onset of clipping or both. In our experience, the Ribbon does not get harsh, it simply doesn't play any louder at ear damage levels.
A last note on home theatre. Our position is that if you have a good soundstage, a centre channel will only mess it up. How strong is our opinion on this issue? The first 20 respondants will receive a "Death to Centre Channels" button just for asking.
Thanks for your effort and incisive commentary.