"You want me to review what?" That was my response to Marc Mickelson when he proposed that I review the Cerwin-Vega CLS-215 speakers. You see, my knee-jerk, audiophile reaction was that Cerwin-Vega speakers were more suitable for playing music at deafening levels in frat houses than for serious audio systems. But then I realized that maybe, just maybe, these speakers could be an answer to the prayers of fans of low-power amplifiers: a high-sensitivity speaker with big-time bass. Although low-power amplifiers, like single-ended triode (SET) designs, are highly prized by some audiophiles for their direct, spacious sound, there arent a lot of speakers they can drive because of their single-digit power output. And many of the speakers such amps can power to loud levels use "full-range" drivers that may sound great within their limits but usually have little or no real bass response and sometimes ragged high frequencies. In an effort to coax more bass out of full-range drivers, designers often resort to complex and expensive cabinets like folded horns. Such speakers tend to be large, ugly, and expensive; and most of them that Ive heard really dont get much deep bass response anyway.
Wouldnt it be nice, therefore, if there was a high-sensitivity speaker that offered bass response into the mid-20Hz range? And, even better, wouldn't it be great if the speaker was inexpensive to boot? When I saw the specifications for CLS-215 -- low end limit of 24Hz and sensitivity of 97dB -- I thought it just might be that speaker. So "You want me to review what?" turned into "Why not?" and I decided to find out.
Did I mention they're big?
The CLS-215 is the top speaker in Cerwin-Vegas relatively new CLS series, but even so, its dirt cheap by high-end standards: $999 USD per pair. Thats right -- less than one G-note per pair. Weighing in at 106 pounds each and measuring 48"H x 16 1/2"W x 19"D, the CLS-215s are visually imposing speakers. Clad in black wood-grain vinyl, the cabinets seemed rather resonant when I applied the knuckle-rap test. As far as I could tell, the cabinet-wall thickness was only 1/2".
In the rear of the CLS-215, there are two sets of gold-plated binding posts for biwiring. Rather lightweight jumpers connected the upper and lower binding posts. Two 4" ports vent at the rear of the speaker. These are not fancy audiophile-approved ports with flared ends to prevent port noise, but straight cardboard tubes. However, I didn't hear any port noise, so the tubes did their job. A fuse holder on the rear panel protects against overdriving; the speaker is fused at 500 watts. If you elect to play such sensitive speakers at levels high enough to blow the fuse, you had better be certain your homeowners insurance is paid up because your house may experience structural damage.
The "215" in the model designation tells you the speaker has two 15" woofers. In front, the waveguide-loaded tweeter, which looked a lot like a horn to me, was not covered by the grille. The rest of the drivers were covered by a black perforated metal grille, which didnt appear to be removable, and I wasnt daring enough to try prying it off. The 6 1/2" midrange driver is also loaded by a horn-like waveguide. The two woofers use Cerwin-Vegas signature red surrounds. Crossover frequencies are 280Hz (woofers to midrange) and 2.4kHz (midrange to tweeter). The slopes are unspecified.
I began my time with the CLS-215s by reading the four-page user manual that came with the speakers, but it had little information that would help with positioning. So I experimented and discovered that the CLS-215s sounded their best in approximately the same position as my reference speakers, except I placed them six inches further from the wall behind them, so the back corners of the cabinets were just over three feet from the wall. I preferred the speakers angled to point directly at the listening position.
The speakers needed special attention to get the best from their high-frequency response. The tweeters horn -- er, waveguide -- actually steered the treble slightly upward, a strange design choice given that when youre seated in a normal couch or chair, the tweeter is already several inches above your ears. For best results, you must sit high enough so your ears are roughly at the tweeter level, which is 42 1/2" off the floor. Otherwise, the treble is slightly ragged and soundstaging suffers. Not wanting to introduce a barstool into my listening room, I inserted 1"-high Mapleshade brass weights to tilt the speakers forward a few degrees, so that the tweeters were better aligned with my ears. It didnt look too weird, and it worked fine.
The only feet provided for the CLS-215 were some stick-on rubber jobs. Because my listening room is carpeted, the rubber feet would provide no benefit and would soon come off as I scooted the speakers around to find the best placement, so I didnt bother to install them. My experience has shown that speakers benefit from being firmly coupled to the floor so when an audio signal reaches them, all the energy goes into moving the cones, not rocking the cabinet back and forth on a carpeted floor. So I couldnt resist trying some large cone feet under the speakers. Fortunately, I had available some of the Thorpe Audio Group (TAG) uber-cones, the most impressive cones Ive seen. Machined out of one of the hardest alloys of stainless steel with very sharp points to penetrate your carpet (or your foot, if you accidentally drop one), these cones, which cost $500 per set of three, weigh about five pounds each. I reasoned that their diameter of 2 3/4" would surely provide a stable platform for the CLS-215s. On the other hand, the TAG cones are quite tall, so I worried that raising the tweeter another three inches would have a degrading effect on the sound.
The TAG cones made a significant improvement. My first impression was that the bass seemed to be less prominent, but on closer scrutiny, I realized a slight peak in the upper bass had been reduced, producing flatter response. Deep bass was still there and better than ever. It was easy to tell that the bass was tighter and more detailed too. Drums sounded more realistic; before inserting the TAG cones, their lower frequencies were reproduced with plenty of energy, but the upper frequencies that help define the initial impact of the stick on the drum head and the resulting initial transient had been somewhat smeared. After inserting the cones, the drums sounded more "whole," with both low-frequency energy and higher-frequency details coming together. It wasnt perfect but was clearly better than without the cones. The improvement wasnt limited to the bass, either; it extended into the midrange and treble.
If youre reluctant to spend more for cone feet than you did on the speakers, you might try Mapleshade Heavyfoot brass cones, which sell for $78-$114 per set of three. I didnt have current models available, so I cant comment on how they sound.
The CLS-215s were a clear-cut example of why you need to break in speakers. Right out of their boxes, the speakers were so tight they would hardly play at all. As I put more hours on them, first the tweeter loosened up, then the midrange. Finally, the woofers started to loosen up, gradually reaching deeper and deeper. And after the woofers achieved maximum bass extension, bass tightness and detail continued to improve. As a rule, I recommend at least 300 hours break-in time on a pair of these speakers before forming an opinion about them.
Did the CLS-215 meet the goal of a sensitive speaker with good bass? Well, in answering this question, I have good news and bad news.
First the bad: Sensitivity seemed lower than the 97dB advertised. My reference speakers have true 97dB sensitivity, and when I switched from them to the CLS-215s, I had to crank up the volume control significantly. My Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk III amp, which outputs 30Wpc, was more than up to the task of driving the speakers, but when I tried a pair of 7-watt Welborne Labs 300B DRD monoblocks, the amps struggled to reach a normal listening level and were rather lacking in dynamics. So Im afraid amps with single-digit power ratings just arent up to driving the CLS-215s. I would guess the actual sensitivity to be around 92dB.
OK, now for the good news: The CLS-215s' bass went seriously deep, but what would you expect from two 15" woofers? The bass didnt boom -- a real danger with improperly damped woofers. On Bachs Prelude in D from the Reference Recordings 30th Anniversary Sampler CD [Reference Recordings RR-908], the organ shuddered forth impressively, as only an organ can, shaking the whole room with deep bass. When I cued up Kabalevskys "Colas Breugnon - Overture" from the Bolero! CD [Reference Recordings RR92], the CLS-215s reproduced even the very deepest notes, which extended into the mid-20Hz range. Previously, only speakers with prices in the five-digit range have satisfactorily reproduced these notes.
However, although the bass reached impressively deep, detail was a little lacking. I dont mean that the low frequencies were amorphous mush, just that Ive heard more low-frequency detail from other speakers. I also observed a slight peak in the upper bass, which created a bit of a discontinuity in the midbass area. But, overall, the CLS-215s bass was quite impressive. I suspect rock fans would go nuts over the CLS-215s low-end grunt.
Powerful bass is a welcome rarity in sensitive speakers, but, of course, the midrange is even more important. And Im pleased to say that the CLS-215's midrange was fast, detailed, and quite dynamic. Sometimes loading a midrange driver with a horn can create a coloration or resonance, but the CLS-215s waveguide didnt display that effect.
So we have first-rate bass and excellent midrange, but what about the treble? Ive mentioned the need to tilt the cabinet so the tweeter doesnt spray the high frequencies over your head, but once I was sitting in the right position relative to the speaker, the tweeter blended superbly with the midrange and was surprisingly good. On Argentos "For the Angel, Israfel," from the Casa Guidi CD [Reference Recordings RR100CD], the very highest chimes were smooth and energetic, and I could hear them floating over the rest of the orchestra, just as chimes do in a live concert.
Once I was properly aligned with the speaker, the soundstaging was open and inviting. Allegris "Miserere" on the CD of the same name, performed by the Tallis Scholars [Gimmell 454 939-2], had a spacious feel, but the location of a performer or group of performers in the soundfield was a bit less precise than with some other speakers Ive used. The soundstage was wide, so I didn't need to sit with my head locked in place to enjoy it. I could detect a decent representation of the musicians and their placement from anywhere on my listening couch, an unusual feat for a non-omnidirectional speaker. The tweeter and midrange waveguides were clearly distributing the high- and mid-frequencies uniformly across the listening area.
Another strong suit of the CLS-215s was their dynamics. The first time I played Eric Mongrains CD Fates [Prophase Music MVDA 4585], the highly dynamic guitar transients startled me. The large macrodynamic swings were the most impressive, but smaller microdynamic shifts were nearly as distinctive.
Changes to my system were not lost on the CLS-215s either. While the speakers were in use, I auditioned some Stillpoint footers, and with the CLS-215s it was easy to hear improved clarity and focus with the Stillpoints in place. I was even able to tell the differences in sound as I moved the Stillpoints to different locations under my CD player and preamp. For example, it was easy to tell that the CD player sounded best with one of the Stillpoints placed directly under the CD drawer. That experience illustrates how transparent the CLS-215s were. And, yes, the Stillpoints are staying in my system.
One thing is clear: Cerwin-Vega speakers are not just about playing loud music anymore. While the CLS-215s will play music at very loud levels, they will also do equal justice to serene solo-piano music and string quartets. My 30Wpc OTL amplifier drove them much louder than I cared to listen, and Ill bet the CLS-215s would be a great match for a medium-power tube integrated amplifier. Solid-state amps should also work well; one of the mid-power British integrated amps should be a good match, as should some of NADs offerings. So the CLS-215s should fit well into many budget systems, and Ill bet youd spend a long time searching for a speaker in its price range with equal bass.
And if you are charmed by single-ended triode sound, dont despair; a single-ended amplifier using 845, 805, 211, GM70, or 6C33 tubes to produce 20 or more watts should match up well with the CLS-215s Of course, theres no reason the CLS-215s wouldnt work just as well with higher-powered amps -- they can certainly handle lots of power.
On the other hand
My Opera Audio Consonance M12 speakers ($5900 per pair) are large two-ways with a compression horn tweeter and cone woofer. Like the CLS-215s, their enclosures are ported. Rated at 97dB sensitivity, the M12s can be driven by virtually any low-power amp, including my Wright Sound Company WPA3.5 monoblocks, whose 2A3 tubes produce only 3 1/2 watts. With a single 12" woofer per cabinet, the M12s bass should be less extended than that of the CLS-215, and that's the case -- the CLS-215 goes 10-15Hz lower. For organ music, the CLS-215s were the clear choice. However, the M12s much lighter woofer cone produced greater bass detail than the CLS-215s, and the M12s woofers blended more seamlessly with its tweeters. But then, for almost six times the CLS-215s price, they should.
The M12s exhibited finely graduated dynamic performance, although their macrodynamic performance was not as startling as that of the CLS-215s. When I first set the M12s up, it took a lot of fiddling with placement to find the ideal spot for the best soundstage, and although its decent, Ive heard better. It was much easier to achieve a convincing soundstage with the CLS-215s.
The overall sound of the M12s was more detailed, and instrumental tonality was more accurately fleshed out. Voices were also clearer and easier to understand. But I still found the CLS-215s to be very enjoyable. In terms of appearance, there was no contest: The M12s genuine African walnut veneer was beautiful, while the CLS-215s black wood-grain vinyl covering was, charitably put, plain.
The Cerwin-Vega CLS-215s didnt quite satisfy my hopes for a very high-sensitivity speaker with bass. The bass part was just fine -- it was powerful and deep, in fact -- but the sensitivity seemed lower than advertised. Our measurements will tell if that impression was correct.
However, the speakers certainly exceeded my expectation for sound quality, and I wasnt the only one who thought this. When I invited several audio buddies over to hear the CLS-215s, I could tell they all arrived expecting to sneer at the "lowly" Cerwin-Vega speakers. They all left shaking their heads and muttering that these were seriously good speakers. If they didn't sound as suave and elegant as my way-more-expensive reference speakers, they were still amazingly good at their bargain-basement price.
You should keep in mind that much of the praise Ive lavished on the CLS-215s is based on proper alignment of the speakers relative to the listener. If you dont fancy tilting the speakers forward, Cerwin-Vega makes a shorter speaker, the $799-per-pair CLS-15, which has only one 15" woofer but otherwise the same drivers. That speaker is rated at 2dB less sensitivity, and the low end is specified to reach 26Hz instead of 24Hz, but these differences would probably be hard to discern. The CLS-15 is 8" shorter than the CLS-215, so listeners should be able to enjoy it sitting on standard chairs and couches. And since it weighs only 76 pounds, it should be lots easier to position in your room.
Although the CLS-215s arent perfect, I challenge you to find speakers in their sub-$1000 price range that match all their strengths. The tweeter and midrange are just fine drivers, period; and while the woofers may give up a little in bass detail, they will nail you to the wall with their power. I think the CLS-215s compete well with many speakers costing up to $4000, making them an easy Reviewers Choice.
Its not surprising when designers are able to produce a good-sounding speaker for $10,000, but its hugely impressive when they can produce a speaker that sounds this good for such a low price. Id love to hear what Cerwin-Vegas talented engineers could build at a higher price point, but other speaker manufacturers probably wouldnt!
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