August 2009

Audience ClairAudient LSA8+8 Loudspeakers

Associated Equipment

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

Reviewers' Choice LogoCrossovers 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? That’s exactly what Audience’s 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, they’re 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 model’s "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 doesn’t 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 I’ve 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 speaker’s 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 don’t 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 don’t accept banana plugs. Standard five-way binding posts can be ordered if you’re 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 won’t 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 doesn’t enhance the LSA8+8’s appearance. I’d 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 you’ve heard my only quibble about the LSA8+8. Internal speaker wiring is Audience’s OHNO single-crystal copper, like that used in their Au24 e speaker cable; it’s 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 amplifiers.


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, they’re angled out just a bit). It’s 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, that’s exactly what’s claimed on Audience’s website. McDonald told me that he’d 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+8’s 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 didn’t really extend the bass any deeper than did my own amp, a 120Wpc Audio Research VS115. I can’t explain why I couldn’t 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 doesn’t 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 hadn’t used them before the ClairAudient LSA8+8s arrived. Cables throughout the system were Audience’s 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 you’d be right; they gave nothing away to any electrostatic speaker I’ve 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+8’s 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 I’d never heard before. The ClairAudient LSA8+8 didn’t 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 Cassidy’s Somewhere (Blix Street G2-10090), a recent posthumous release, her performance of Gershwin’s "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 I’ve heard from electrostatic speakers, it utterly destroyed any electrostatic I’ve 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 I’ve heard into a pile of smoking rubble. On Area 31 (SACD, Chesky SACD288), violinist Tom Chiu’s performance of David Chesky’s 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 don’t mean that the LSA8+8 didn’t 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; there’s 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, it’s hard to turn it off. On Jordi Savall’s 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 that’s 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 ClairAudient’s midrange, you’ll 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 didn’t really nail the bottom octave. It’s 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 didn’t get the entire drumbeat, which extends down into the 20-30Hz range. For those who crave deeper bass, Audience’s own subwoofer is designed to complement the ClairAudient LSA8+8.

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 wasn’t any rolloff either. If you’re used to a high-frequency rolloff, you won’t hear one from the ClairAudient LSA8+8. In the overture to Kabalevsky’s 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 I’ve heard, never even suggested a bit of peakiness.

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 penalty.

Most recordings of Gregorio Allegri’s 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 Allegri’s 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 Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, the normally spacious but not too sharply defined soundstage snapped into focus as it never had before.

Audience’s 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 resolution."

He was spot on. But while I’ve 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 weren’t 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 I’d heard until the Audience A3s came along. That shouldn’t 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 Lumination’s 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 MaxxHorn’s frequency response is tilted to slightly elevate the bass end of the spectrum. The resulting sound isn’t peaky but has a gradually linear slope, to the tune of a few dB overall. That makes the Lumination’s low-frequency extension a bit more solid and weighty than the LSA8+8’s; there’s 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. It’s 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 doesn’t plumb the absolute depths -- I sometimes wish for more bass from the Lumination -- but generally, with solid, weighty bass down to around 40Hz, it’s surprisingly satisfying. On several bass-heavy pieces, the MaxxHorn’s weightier bass provided a firmer foundation that I found more satisfying. Neither speaker, however, reproduced the deepest bass notes; if you’re an aficionado of pipe organ or heavy metal, you’ll 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 drum’s 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 MaxxHorn’s treble extends to "only" 15kHz, most people will find that more than adequate.

Which was better? It’s a hard choice, and essentially one of personal preference. I could very happily live with either, although the MaxxHorn Lumination’s 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, they’ve 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 couldn’t reproduce the bottommost octave of the audioband (20-40Hz) in my room, they reproduced everything -- and I mean everything -- above that better than I’ve heard it done by almost any other speaker at any price. I’ve 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 can’t think of a single speaker I’ve heard that has combined all the strengths of the ClairAudient LSA8+8 so spectacularly. It may well be the most neutral speaker I’ve 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.

Audience, LLC
120 N. Pacific Street, #K-9
San Marcos, CA 92069
Phone: (800) 565-4390
Fax: (760) 720-9544