Audience ClairAudient LSA8+8
Loudspeakers -- MaxxHorn Lumination
Preamplifier -- Audio Research LS26
Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VS115, Bel
Canto e.One REF 500 monoblocks
Analog sources -- Linn LP12 turntable, Graham
2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Frog cartridge, Audio Research PH5 phono stage
Digital sources -- Meridian 508.24 CD player,
Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player
Interconnects -- Audience Au24 e, Blue
Marble Audio Blue IC, Clarity Cables Organic, Crystal Cable Piccolo, Purist Audio Design
Venustas, TG Audio High Purity Revised
Speaker cables -- Audience Au24 e, Blue Marble
Audio, Clarity Cables Passion, Crystal Cable CrystalSpeak Micro, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Power cords -- Audience powerChord e, Blue
Marble Audio Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Accessories -- VPI HW-16.5 record cleaner,
Walker Audio Talisman LP/CD treatment
Crossovers are evil -- a necessary
evil, perhaps, but evil nonetheless. While we take crossovers for granted as essential
components of multiway loudspeakers, many listeners still dream of the ideal of a
crossoverless, single-driver speaker. To borrow some thoughts from Johan van Zyl, designer
of the MaxxHorn speakers: Crossoverless speakers offer a very coherent and precise
presentation of the music in the domains of time and space. There are no passive crossover
components to cause phase shift in the vital midrange, or to muddy complex dynamic signals
and soften transients. So we should toss out all crossovers, eh?
Unfortunately, most crossoverless speakers attempt to use a
single driver to cover the entire audioband, and therein lies the real problem. Single
drivers usually produce little or no bass, and their response, especially in the treble
range, is often ragged and peaky, particularly off axis. Most speaker designers find it a
better solution to use separate woofer/midrange/tweeter drivers to cover all or most of
the audioband, and try to design crossovers that do minimal damage to the sound. To
achieve extended and smooth midrange and treble, they use small drivers. And to achieve
powerful deep bass, they use large drivers to move more air.
But what if you used a small driver to get good midrange
and treble performance, and then, to get the radiating area needed for good bass, you
added lots of additional small drivers run full-range, their total combined radiating area
equal to that of a single large cone? Thats exactly what Audiences president
and CEO, John McDonald, has done in his line of ClairAudient Line Source Array (LSA)
speakers, which he spent years designing. Now, at last, theyre in production,
including the subject of this review: the ClairAudient LSA8+8 ($28,000 USD per pair).
Occupying the middle of the ClairAudient LSA line, this
models "8+8" designator tells us that it uses 16 Audience A3s -- 3"
cones made of an alloy of aluminum and magnesium -- arrayed in two vertical stacks: eight
on the front, and eight more on one side of each sealed enclosure, which has a triangular
cross section. The 16 drivers have a radiating area equivalent to a 15" driver. But
that number doesnt tell the whole story. While the radiating area may be equal, all
else is not; the free-air resonance of the 3" drivers is 70Hz, and, as used in the
ClairAudient system, the resonance is around 150Hz. Since the enclosure is sealed, that
means the speaker rolls off at 12dB/octave below resonance. A single 15" driver would
probably have a much lower free-air resonance, not to mention quite a bit more linear
travel, which would allow it to move lots more air. So to get deep bass from the
ClairAudient LSA8+8, you must rely on bass reinforcement from the room. That, as we shall
see, can be a tricky proposition.
Each Audience A3 driver has a total moving mass of only
2.5gm. Note that I said total moving mass; that includes the voice-coil as well as
the speaker diaphragm. By arraying the drivers vertically, McDonald has created a
quasi-line source that radiates in what he says is a cylindrical pattern for best
dispersion. The most detailed soundstages Ive heard have come from line-source
speakers, and the ClairAudient LSA8+8s did nothing to change that view.
The cabinet of the ClairAudient LSA8+8 is built of Baltic
birch plywood in a pentagonal shape. Drivers are mounted to the front and rear of the
cabinet on aluminum plates, and fastened to the plates with nylon screws. Rounded
"cheeks" machined from solid blocks of MDF are glued to two of the sides of the
pentagonal cabinet to provide more solidity and better dispersion; with the cheeks in
place, the LSA8+8 has a triangular cross section. A fine-furniture veneer is then applied
over the enclosure, which measures 55"H by 15"W by 12"D overall. My review
samples -- the first off the production line -- were veneered with a striking African
sapele wood. To my eye, the speakers are just exquisite, and look smaller than their
dimensions suggest. They would grace any décor.
The speaker cabinet sits on a Y-shaped aluminum base, the
three arms of the Y extending beyond the speakers footprint for added stability.
Instead of the spikes used on so many speakers, the ClairAudient LSA8+8 uses a type of
Stillpoint under these arms. The speakers stability was exceptional; when I tried to
rock the cabinet back and forth, there was nary a wiggle. And unlike the spikes used under
many speakers, the Stillpoints dont poke holes in your carpet or scratch your
polished wood floor. A slit on the rear arm of the base is used to align the speakers;
when the line is parallel to the front wall, the speaker is correctly oriented.
Cardas single-knob binding posts make it easy to connect
speaker cables as long as they have spade lugs, but the Cardases dont accept banana
plugs. Standard five-way binding posts can be ordered if youre really a banana-plug
fan. The substantial single-knob Cardas post lets you tighten both conductors at the same
time. Since the knob is fairly big, you can achieve plenty of torque to firmly clamp
speaker cable to speaker, but unlike standard binding posts, they wont scratch the
spades. The binding posts are on the side of the speaker where there are no drivers, and
since that side is readily visible, having the binding posts there doesnt enhance
the LSA8+8s appearance. Id have preferred to have the binding posts placed
under the drivers on the back side, so the third side would be just gorgeous veneer. And
now youve heard my only quibble about the LSA8+8. Internal speaker wiring is
Audiences OHNO single-crystal copper, like that used in their Au24 e speaker cable;
its only 21 gauge.
Specified at 96dB sensitivity and 400W power handling, the
LSA8+8 can play loudly enough to damage your hearing and, more important, should
experience no dynamic compression. Its 4-ohm impedance should be a moderate load for most
When you position the ClairAudient LSA8+8s in the listening
room, the front eight drivers are toed-in about 45 degrees toward the listener, and the
back eight roughly face the front wall (actually, theyre angled out just a bit).
Its always a plus when the designer sets up speakers for you, and I was most
appreciative when John McDonald himself appeared on my doorstep. In his expert hands,
assembly and positioning of the ClairAudient LSA8+8s took a total of one hour. Since the
speakers are dependent on their proximity to the front wall to achieve the deepest bass,
we experimented with their positions, and achieved a rather flat frequency response from
about 40Hz to 23kHz, as measured by a spectrum analyzer at my listening position. Happily,
thats exactly whats claimed on Audiences website. McDonald told me that
hed achieved response flat to 20Hz in his room with the speakers about 16" from
the front wall. Later, I experimented with placement closer to the wall, but was unable to
significantly improve on the bass extension, even when moving the speakers as close as
16" from the wall.
To get another perspective on the LSA8+8s sound, I
borrowed a pair of Bel Canto e.One REF 500 monoblocks; I thought their output of 500W each
would extract as much bass as possible from the ClairAudient LSA8+8s. But while the Bel
Cantos produced bass that was punchy, firm, energetic, and especially clean, they
didnt really extend the bass any deeper than did my own amp, a 120Wpc Audio Research
VS115. I cant explain why I couldnt achieve deeper bass extension, only
describe what I heard in my room. Still, getting a 40Hz response from a bunch of 3"
drivers is pretty doggone amazing to me.
Although the A3 drivers of my review samples had already
been broken in, the LSA8+8s internal wiring was brand new. At first the speakers
sounded rather bright, but after about 15 hours that began to diminish. The 21-gauge wire
doesnt take long to break in, but I gave the speakers a total of around 100 hours
before doing any critical listening. That also allowed the 4-ohm windings of the output
transformers of my ARC VS115 to break in; I hadnt used them before the ClairAudient
LSA8+8s arrived. Cables throughout the system were Audiences own superb Au24 e
and PowerChord e, reviewed in our
February 2009 issue.
Would you expect 3" drivers with
2.5gm of moving mass to be extraordinarily fast? Of course you would, and youd be
right; they gave nothing away to any electrostatic speaker Ive heard. They retrieved
a staggering amount of detail that was real musical detail, not the bogus variety
produced by some speakers whose designers have simply goosed up the highs. No, the
ClairAudient LSA8+8 retrieved an incredible amount of information from recordings. I heard
exactly how each note from each performer was launched, sustained, and released.
Nor was the ClairAudient LSA8+8s detail limited to
transient events; along with all that information was an equal wealth of harmonic and
tonal content that told me how a musician really sounded. These speakers sang. As I
poured CD after CD into my Meridian 508.24 CD player, I was almost overwhelmed with
information about each performance -- information Id never heard before. The
ClairAudient LSA8+8 didnt grab me by the throat and brag about how much musical
information it was showing me; instead, it just fused the extra detail into the
performances to give me a very high-definition sound. I heard more information than I had
ever dreamed was on my recordings. I was just stunned by the completeness of the tonal
presentation. Some speakers that present you with lots of information do so in a clinical
way, but not the ClairAudient LSA8+8s. On the late Eva Cassidys Somewhere
(Blix Street G2-10090), a recent posthumous release, her performance of Gershwins
"Summertime" just blew me away with the amount of detail presented, including
her guitar intro. Then she starts to sing, and the vocal inflections and the minute
changes in her phrasing had never been so clearly laid out.
While the ClairAudient LSA8+8 equaled, if not surpassed,
the amount of detail Ive heard from electrostatic speakers, it utterly destroyed any
electrostatic Ive heard in terms of dynamic range. Those Audience A3 drivers started
and stopped so fast that they equaled electrostatics ability to distinguish among
the minor changes in volume we audiophiles call microdynamics. But the LSA8+8 could also
play at barely audible levels, then nail me to the wall with a gut-punching musical
transient that would turn any electrostatic Ive heard into a pile of smoking rubble.
On Area 31 (SACD, Chesky SACD288), violinist Tom Chius performance of David
Cheskys spiky Violin Concerto (conducted by Anthony Aibel) bristled with dynamic
life and momentum; through some speakers, it can be somewhat dynamically blunted.
Did all that detail and dynamic range automatically make
for a divine midrange? Yes, but, paradoxically, something else came along with it: a sense
of quietness and poise. I dont mean that the LSA8+8 didnt produce tons of
volume when asked to, but rather, with all those drivers working away, I got the feeling
that each individual driver was just loafing along, never straining, but creating a sense
of relaxation and repose. When the music was rowdy and exciting, I heard rowdy and
exciting; but when things were relaxed, so were the LSA8+8s. All that meant that I never
had to work hard at listening.
To me, live music is an entirely different experience from
recorded music; theres a freedom from electronic crud that just lets music
communicate more directly with the listener. The ClairAudient LSA8+8 had that same
unstrained quality. As a result, my listening sessions frequently went way past my normal
bedtime -- when something sounds that good, its hard to turn it off. On Jordi
Savalls La Folia: 1490-1701 (CD, Alia Vox AFA 9805), my favorite test track,
the anonymous Folia: Rodrigo Martinez, revealed unprecedented detail. It was
trivially easy to follow the continuously changing dynamic levels, which just seemed to
flow naturally. Some components tend to clump up the dynamic changes into discrete steps,
but thats not how Savall and his compatriots perform this music, and the
ClairAudient LSA8+8 tracked their continuous dynamic changes with crystal clarity.
If you like the ClairAudients midrange, youll
love the rest of the audioband through them. Bass was fast, detailed, and very agile; it
did justice to a quite a lot of the music, but didnt really nail the bottom octave.
Its surprising how satisfying speakers with response flat to 40Hz can be; the bass
drum on Folia: Rodrigo Martinez was solid, with plenty of weight, but it
didnt get the entire drumbeat, which extends down into the 20-30Hz range. For those
who crave deeper bass, Audiences own subwoofer is designed to complement the
At the other end of the spectrum, high frequencies really
did go way, way out, and while there was no audible peakiness from the 16 metal
drivers, there wasnt any rolloff either. If youre used to a high-frequency
rolloff, you wont hear one from the ClairAudient LSA8+8. In the overture to
Kabalevskys Colas Breugnon, from Bolero! (CD, Reference RR-92CD),
conductor Eiji Oue really wrings out the Minnesota Orchestra, the highs provided by a
variety of percussion instruments. The LSA8+8s showed tons of high-frequency extension and
detail, but unlike some metal-dome tweeters Ive heard, never even suggested a bit of
One way a two-channel audio component can create realism is
by producing a believable soundstage. The LSA8+8s soundstage was uncannily solid and
(pardon the cliché) palpable. The pair of them spread out an expansive sonic panorama,
giving vivid sonic impressions of performers firmly and precisely located in space. Nor
did I have to sit with my head locked in a vise to hear that spacious soundstage; it
extended from arm to arm of my couch, and even to adjacent chairs. Sitting in the center
of the sofa still gave the absolutely best focus, but off-axis listening imposed little
Most recordings of Gregorio Allegris Miserere
sound very spacious, telling you a lot about the rooms in which the recordings were made.
Reproducing a performance by vocal group A Sei Voci on a disc of Allegris works (CD,
Naive E 8524), the LSA8+8s, much to my surprise, produced a huge soundstage with
oodles of depth as well as width -- yet each singer sounded firmly placed within the
soundstage. While I could hear each voice and its unique qualities, the group also blended
together to sound just like a choral group singing in a large room. And with
Kabalevskys Colas Breugnon, the normally spacious but not too sharply
defined soundstage snapped into focus as it never had before.
Audiences John McDonald had warned me: "You
should experience wider variations from various music CDs . . . The ClairAudient LSA8+8
speakers are truly reference, in my opinion. Therefore, you will hear your music CDs the
way they are more than ever . . . less homogenized . . . each will be more distinct. The
key indicator is that you should hear more information, indicating you are getting more
He was spot on. But while Ive extolled the
LSA8+8s ability to paint an exceedingly detailed picture of musical performances,
this had a downside. If any performance I was listening to had not been well recorded, the
LSA8+8s told me so in no uncertain terms. They werent ruthless, but they did show me
what my recordings sound like, warts and all. But in my time with them, the
ClairAudients extreme detail only occasionally made a recording sound unattractive; way
more often, they made recordings sound much better than I had ever heard them.
I had fun swapping out different cables, easily hearing the
differences among them. I could even hear an improvement when I lifted the speaker cables
above my carpet. I had hitherto suspected that cable lifters were audio snake oil; the
ClairAudient LSA8+8s showed me that lifters can make a positive improvement.
The MaxxHorn Lumination ($28,500/pair), at almost precisely
the same price as the Audience ClairAudient LSA8+8, is another attempt to produce a
full-range, crossoverless loudspeaker, but this time with not 16 drivers but only one: a
5" paper cone in a rear-loaded tractrix horn, which provides full-range loading to
the driver, a Feastrex Monster alnico. The Feastrex is incredibly fast -- the fastest
Id heard until the Audience A3s came along. That shouldnt be surprising; the
Feastrex drivers have a total moving mass of 5.33gm -- twice as much as the Audience A3,
but still exceedingly light compared to virtually every other speaker. But driver speed is
not determined by moving mass alone. The magnetic structure that drives the cone is also a
big factor, and the Feastrex cone is powered by the huge alnico magnet after which the
driver is named. The Lumination has a sensitivity of 103dB, an impedance of 16 ohms.
My real-time analyzer showed the MaxxHorn Luminations
in-room frequency response to be somewhat similar to that of the ClairAudient LSA8+8. Bass
extends down to between 40 and 45Hz, the treble up to around 15kHz. But the
MaxxHorns frequency response is tilted to slightly elevate the bass end of the
spectrum. The resulting sound isnt peaky but has a gradually linear slope, to the
tune of a few dB overall. That makes the Luminations low-frequency extension a bit
more solid and weighty than the LSA8+8s; theres a bit more slam and impact
when someone pounds a kettle drum.
You may wonder, as I did, how a 5" driver can produce
any bass at all. Its all about that tractrix horn that loads the driver. It does
what most horns claim to do but fail to deliver: provide real bass augmentation. No, it
doesnt plumb the absolute depths -- I sometimes wish for more bass from the
Lumination -- but generally, with solid, weighty bass down to around 40Hz, its
surprisingly satisfying. On several bass-heavy pieces, the MaxxHorns weightier bass
provided a firmer foundation that I found more satisfying. Neither speaker, however,
reproduced the deepest bass notes; if youre an aficionado of pipe organ or heavy
metal, youll want a subwoofer, or speakers with deeper bass response.
On Folia: Rodrigo Martinez, both speakers produced
details of the bass-drum thwacks with speed and accuracy, but neither got the
lowest parts of the drums notes. That requires reproduction of the lowest octave
with accuracy and power. But if your primary interest is the information above that lowest
octave -- you know, the area where most of the music resides -- both the MaxxHorn and
Audience speakers reproduced that with amazing speed and detail. The Audience handled the
highest octave (10-20kHz) better, with no rolloff at all. And while the MaxxHorns
treble extends to "only" 15kHz, most people will find that more than adequate.
Which was better? Its a hard choice, and essentially
one of personal preference. I could very happily live with either, although the
MaxxHorn Luminations weightier bass sways me slightly in its direction.
Audience has made a technologically formidable effort to
produce a full-range speaker devoid of the drawbacks of a crossover network. To my ears,
theyve achieved a spectacular success. Their ClairAudient LSA8+8 delivers astounding
speed, dynamic range, tonal accuracy, soundstaging, and detail while never sounding etched
or strained. Far more important, the amount of musical information they convey made my
eyes water. Music is, or should be, beautiful; the beautiful sound of the ClairAudient
LSA8+8 can touch the heart.
Although the LSA8+8 couldnt reproduce the bottommost
octave of the audioband (20-40Hz) in my room, they reproduced everything -- and I mean everything
-- above that better than Ive heard it done by almost any other speaker at any
price. Ive heard a number of speakers that go for six digits a pair, and some that
cost more than ten times the ClairAudients price. But I cant think of a single
speaker Ive heard that has combined all the strengths of the ClairAudient LSA8+8 so
spectacularly. It may well be the most neutral speaker Ive ever heard, and it puts
everything together to present memorable, moving, magnificent musical moments. Absolutely
glorious, and an easy Reviewers Choice.
. . . Vade Forrester
|Audience ClairAudient LSA8+8 Loudspeakers
Price: $28,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
120 N. Pacific Street, #K-9
San Marcos, CA 92069
Phone: (800) 565-4390
Fax: (760) 720-9544