August 2005ACI Sapphire XL Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Its one thing to build a two-way minimonitor these days, but quite another to build a two-way minimonitor and have it stand out in what has become a fiercely competitive speaker class. There is no shortage of great two-ways on the market in all price ranges. To be noticed you just cant be just OK or even good; youve got to be great in many ways.
"Great," though, doesnt just mean great-sounding -- your two-way has to have great build quality and a great price as well. Todays audiophile-approved two-ways are hardly the domain of small, niche speaker manufacturers any longer. Companies big and small are producing fabulous-looking two-ways that deliver cost-no-object sound for surprisingly affordable prices.
My own "price line in the sand" is drawn at $2000 -- to buy what I consider a great two-way loudspeaker. For that you can get Paradigms Signature S2 or PSBs Platinum M2, two speakers that more or less set the standard for two-way excellence. Do you need to spend more? I havent encountered a compelling reason to do so. But what if you can get close to the M2 and S2 for less money? Now thats interesting.
Enter ACIs Sapphire XL, the seventh iteration of the decade-and-a-half-old Sapphire speaker that has top-of-class aspirations but is priced at $1500 per pair in the standard piano-black and satin-black finishes, and $1600 per pair in pearl white. Optional wood finishes will soon be available for $1700 to $1800 per pair depending on the wood. This is a speaker that hasnt necessarily shifted my $2000 line backwards, but it has blurred it for reasons Ill describe.
The Sapphire XL has an interesting appearance -- it looks like a box in a box. The baffle is small, which is attractive and gets out of the way of the drivers. The back end, though, is a bit wider but not any taller. All told, the cabinet is 12" high, 12 1/2" deep, and 8 1/2" wide across the back and just under 8" wide across the front. This gives the cabinet greater volume but keeps the front, which is what you notice the most, petite -- important for those who dont want their speakers to dominate the room. Each speaker weighs 22 pounds and grilles cover the drivers (although its obvious from the design of the grilles -- a tad obtrusive, like many -- that the Sapphire XL is designed to be listened to seriously with the grilles off).
The Sapphire XL is designed around Scan-Speaks 5 1/2" Revelator woofer and 1" 9500-series tweeter. The crossover point is 2.7kHz, and the tweeter is offset slightly to one side, meaning that when the speakers are set up they should be mirror-imaged, most likely with the tweeter on the inside. On the backside of each Sapphire XL are a single set of binding posts on the lower portion, and the port opening near the top.
ACI rates the speakers sensitivity as 85.5dB/W/m and the impedance as 6 ohms with a 4.5-ohm minimum. The sensitivity and impedance are basically on par for smallish speakers, and any reasonably powerful amplifier -- 50Wpc or more -- shouldnt have any trouble driving the Sapphire XLs. ACI has used amplifiers with as few as 6 watts with good results.
The company also says that the speaker is very linear in terms of frequency response -- ±1.5dB from 60Hz-20kHz -- and that the -3dB point under anechoic conditions is 48Hz. If thats all true, the specs are impressive for a small speaker, as such numbers translate into "flat" and "plenty of bass."
Two more things deserve mention. The first has to do with how you purchase the Sapphire XLs, and here there is both good news and bad news. Let me start with the bad news. The Sapphire XLs are available factory-direct, meaning that you cant audition them at a dealer. The good news about this, though, is that ACI offers a 30-day money-back guarantee to help alleviate the problems of buying speakers sound unheard. As well, it goes without mentioning that going factory-direct cuts out the middleman, which is probably how ACI keeps the Sapphire XL's price reasonable.
The second thing has to do with the warranty, which is almost all good news. After the 30-day return policy theres a five-year warranty, which is more or less standard in the speaker industry. But it gets better -- that five-year warranty is transferable to a second owner, providing that you adhere to certain conditions. Furthermore, ACI also offers a One Year Total Assurance Guarantee (OYTAG). If you have a problem with the speakers and they have to be returned to the factory within the first year, ACI will pay the shipping both ways. The OYTAG is also transferable, just like the five-year warranty. The only fly in the ointment is that the OYTAG is only applicable to US-based customers, which is where ACI is located. Even though Im Canadian and therefore outta luck on the OYTAG, I do commend ACI for offering one of the best warranty packages in the industry.
I sat the Sapphire XLs atop 24"-high Foundation stands, which were perfect for my listening-chair height, putting the tweeters at about ear level. Driving the Sapphire XLs were the Stello M200 mono amplifiers -- outstanding cost-effective amps that I have just finished reviewing -- linked by Nordost Valkyrja speaker cables. Up front were my Theta Data Basic transport -- over a decade old and still running strong -- feeding Stellos amazing DA220 DAC via an i2Digital coaxial digital cable. The preamplifier was Song Audios SA-1 linked to the Stello monos by Nordost Valkyrja interconnects.
Prior to the Sapphire XLs Id never heard any ACI speaker -- not even at trade shows -- so I can definitely say that I didnt go into this review with any preconceived notions about what Id hear from this small speaker. Still, the Sapphire XLs impressed me right off the bat with their refined sound. From the beginning the Sapphire XLs proved to be top-class minimonitors for a real-world price.
I played Blue Rodeos Five Days in July [Discovery 77013], which has warm, rich sound along with plenty of space and atmosphere. Rumor has it that it was recorded in a building on a farm during a hot early-90s Ontario summer. Im in the middle of such an Ontario summer right now, and Five Days in July sounds familiar. Over the Sapphire XLs the opening track, "5 Days in May" (no, thats not a typo), sounded extraordinarily spacious for such small speakers. The soundstage was enormous with an excellent re-creation of depth and rock-solid image placement. Tonal balance was spot-on without any unnatural emphasis in any region. Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy are the bands two lead singers, and the Sapphire XLs re-created their voices with perfect tonal balance and no hint of chestiness or other such nasty anomalies. The Sapphire XLs nailed the presentation with little to fault, right down to the interesting piano recording that shows up right at the end of the disc, which sounded surprisingly weighty and robust over such a petite speaker.
Likewise, Daniel Lanoiss latest album, Belladonna [Anti 86767], sounded amazingly good. This new release is all instrumental and not really what I expected from Lanois. Still, expected or not, I like Belladonna and particularly the sprawling, immersive soundfield that the Sapphire XLs delivered. Set up with ample space to the side and front walls, the Sapphire XLs cast an expansive soundstage -- left to right and front to back -- and do a topflight job of getting out of the way of the recording. In fact, their spaciousness reminded me of Mirages 360-degree-radiating speakers.
But "getting out of the way" doesnt just mean outstanding imaging. It means not drawing undue attention through some sort of distortion or frequency-response irregularity. I was thoroughly impressed by how balanced the Sapphire XLs sounded, meaning that -- save for the low bass, which I'm getting to -- no one part of the frequency range sounded emphasized or recessed. Voices sounded very natural, not forced and certainly not distant. All instruments, too, sounded even and natural.
The only thing that struck me as different, and not necessarily a bad thing, was the top end, which was a little more polite than that of some hyper-resolving minimonitors Ive had in my system. My hunch is that ACI tamed the very top end just a touch to be easier on the ears, perhaps to accommodate the abundance of marginal digital recordings on the market today. To some that slightly recessed top end might mean that the Sapphire XLs may not be the last word in accuracy, but to me its not a bad thing when it comes to long-term listening. In the end, I liked the politeness, so I dont hold it against the Sapphire XL.
The bass range -- down to 50Hz or so is my guesstimate -- certainly isnt extraordinarily deep. I mentioned that the piano on the Blue Rodeo disc was "surprisingly weighty." What I meant was "surprisingly weighty for a small two-way" like the Sapphire XL. Theres still some oomph down low that the Sapphire XLs miss and that a much larger speaker, or a subwoofer, would likely get.
Then theres how loud the Sapphire XLs can play -- pretty darn loud, but not excessively so. When you start to push the Sapphire XLs hard they lose a bit of control and get shouty through the mids. And when it comes to playing really loud with really deep bass, you need a different speaker. Take, for example, the soundtrack to the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive [Milan 35971]. "Diner" is more of a long sound effect than music -- deep, deep rumbling bass that sets the Sapphire XLs woofers moving substantially, not unlike a warped LP would. I have no idea exactly what frequency dominates this track, but I suspect its far lower than what the Sapphire XLs like. When I cranked the volume the movement became worse and port chuffing was audible. In short, you can push the Sapphire XLs reasonably far, but theres a point where theyll give out.
But not everyone pushes speakers to the extremes that reviewers do. And, frankly, had the Sapphire XLs not performed so amazingly well in other areas I might not have been as tempted to abuse them the way I did. Within their limits the Sapphire XLs sound wonderfully refined and extraordinarily balanced. They are among the purest, sweetest, and smoothest sounding two-ways Ive come across. ACI has struck an interesting balance by voicing the Sapphire XLs to sound neutral but pleasurable, polite up top but still revealing and detailed, and full enough down low that unless youre a bass freak you wont need a subwoofer providing that you set the speakers up in an appropriately sized room. If you can live without much below 50Hz and dont need to play your music back at "11" then the Sapphire XLs are really hard to fault. If I retired from reviewing, I'd choose a small speaker to use for years to come, and I could live very happily with a pair of ACI Sapphire XLs.
Canadian speaker companies, once the kings of cost-effective two-way speakers, have set their sights on the state-of-the-art minimonitor category with equal success. PSB has delivered a winner with the Platinum M2 ($1999 per pair). Its the kind of small speaker that makes you ask, "Do I need to spend more money?" The Sapphire XLs have their own answers, though they require that you live without a couple of things.
The first difference you'll notice between the M2 and Sapphire XL is size. With the M2, the larger cabinet and higher price result in some nice finishing details and a speaker that I found more visually appealing than the Sapphire XL, particularly with the M2s matching stand that extends the speakers style right to the floor. As much as I could admire the Sapphire XLs fit and finish, especially in pearl white, I prefer the way the M2 looks.
The M2's larger cabinet allows for a slightly larger woofer, and, as a result, the M2s go just a bit deeper in the bass -- not much, but some. The M2 can also play louder without strain -- at the point where the Sapphire XLs start to cry uncle, the M2s are still OK and can go a touch beyond. In these areas, the M2s performed better and can certainly justify their higher asking price, factory-direct pricing for the Sapphire XLs or not.
The top end varies a fair bit between the two. The M2 has more energy in its uppermost reaches, making it sound a little more vivid and precise, but also a little more aggressive on recordings that are "hot." On the other hand, the Sapphire XLs are more polite, but they still manage to provide excellent detail. Damien Rices O [CDW 48507] varies considerably from track to track, but one thing that's consistent is that his voice is always presented up front and close to the mike. This recording is more palatable through the Sapphire XLs than the M2s. Its obvious that both speakers designers have voiced the treble area in a way that they believe is "right," although it is certainly not identical.
The mids are more similar-sounding than the highs. I liked the balanced sound of both -- neither too forward nor too relaxed. The main difference is that the M2 is more incisive and immediate, which matches its more energetic top end, whereas the Sapphire XL is a touch smoother and warmer, which again mates perfectly with its more polite upper frequencies.
Then there are soundstaging and imaging, where both are again similar. If anything, the M2s energy up top makes the stage project a little forward, but the difference is not all that substantial. What both share, though, is a remarkable ability to charge a room with a rich and vibrant soundfield abundant with strong image placement. Both speakers are best suited for small- or medium-sized rooms, and set up in that kind of environment they can project size and scale that seemingly break down walls and make the speakers sound larger than they are.
There are a couple of areas where PSBs Platinum M2 squeaks ahead -- bass and overall output level -- but other areas where its not necessarily better but simply different. Given the price discrepancy -- 33% more for the M2 if you look at it from the perspective of the Sapphire XL; 25% less if you go from the M2s price -- you can see that the Sapphire XL is quite a deal. In the past, I referred to the M2s as " the pinnacle of common-sense two-way bookshelf-speaker design." The Sapphire XLs may not be the "pinnacle" of two-way design, but they get mighty close and cost $500 less.
The ACI Sapphire XL is exactly the kind of speaker I like -- a high-performing and well-priced minimonitor. For $1500 the Sapphire XLs can deliver almost all the performance discriminating audiophiles yearn for. I say almost because of their limitations with deep bass and stadium-like playback levels -- nothing shocking for such speakers. However, those caveats have to be taken in context of exactly what the Sapphire XL is: a high-performance small speaker that can compete with the best two-way minimonitors currently available. That the Sapphire XL costs less than the competition certainly adds to its allure.
As I said at the beginning, building a two-way speaker is one thing, but building one that's distinctive is quite another given all the great speakers on the market today. ACI, though, has achieved just that with the Sapphire XL.
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