Speaker Art Clef Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
The last afternoon of the CES is always tough. There are only so many slot machines, blackjack tables, $5.99 steaks, and promises of life-fulfilling satisfaction that your body can handle. Las Vegas begins heavenly and fades to hell. Everyone starts to look like your enemy, and you feel like emerging from the Alexis Park pool to hunt down Marlon Brando while singing low, "This is the end..."
A year ago at CES 97, I had already heard, seen, and experienced enough for a lifetimeI didnt need any more stimulation. However, just as I was about to snap, I heard a sound so sweet, so soothing, so real, I felt a surge of sanity return. From behind, me, the voice of a female vocalist sounded so natural that it caused me to pause and listen. It was, of course, another audio demonstrationbut this was special. I never did learn the name of the singer, but I did find out about the loudspeakers that had soothed this savage beast.
"Theyre the Clef from Speaker Art."
"How much do they sell for?" I needed to knowI had already tagged them at upwards of $2500.
"About twelve-hundred bucks, I think," was the fellows reply. "But Im not the owner, and hes not here right now." I was floored at the price and, although the man underestimated by $99, the Speaker Art Clef, at a buck shy of $1300, hit the top of my "follow-up" list in a flash.
Bob Gross, owner of Speaker Art, contacted me shortly after the Show, although it took the better part of 1997 before I had succeeded in landing a pair of Clefs on Canadian soil. In the meantime, I had done a little bit of research on Speaker Art and found that despite the obscurity of their name and product line, they have been around for many years. Companies like this dont have the marketing savvy or means to take a baseball bat to the world and club everyone over the head with propaganda about the superiority of their products. Instead they must rely on a strong dealer base and heavy word of mouth in order to grownot always the most reliable way. In fact, Speaker Art has a tight, dedicated dealer network and a fan base that worships the speakers, and I found out why. The wait for the Clef was worth itits one of the finest loudspeakers near its price, but for reasons I had never expected.
Never Judge a Book
Covers never tell you much, and unfortunately they often govern how a product sells. Magazines, videos, even audio products can be judged and quickly accepted or dismissed based on an initial brief assessment of whats on the outside. Bob Gross expressed concern that I would dismiss the Clef based on appearance alone. Speaker Art, it seems, is not one to explore the limits of visual acceptance for their products.
The Clef in its standard form is a fairly large, stand-mounted speaker with good-quality oak or walnut veneer. Piano black can now be ordered for a $1000 premiumouch! Ill stick with the basic model. Fit, finish, and presentation of the product through its packaging and literature are all excellent. Driver compliment is a one-inch metal-dome Vifa tweeter and an eight-inch woofer. From the outside, the Clef is nothing spectacular, but nothing to fault eithervery well done in my estimation, and at 50 pounds each, very heavy too. It should be noted that the Clef is also available in Super Clef form, which is identical except for the use of a Scan-Speak tweeter, some minor crossover changes to accommodate that driver, and a $300 increase in price ($1599 retail per pair). Too close in price to the Clef? Perhaps, but Bob Gross has an upgrade program for standard-Clef owners, so no one ever feels left out should they decide to dip their toes with the basic model first.
While the exterior of the Clef may not raise goose bumps, the internal workings excited my audiophiles heart. Speaker Art uses proprietary crossover technology that claims slopes upwards of 40dB per octave. A "series network" is what they call it, and they have patents and all those things and dont like to talk too much about them. The series network is Speaker Arts claim to fame, and the results, Bob Gross claims, can be heard through such things as the Clefs superior imaging characteristics and layer upon layer of depth. Speaker Art leverages these steep slopes and dive bombs the tweeter right down to 1600Hz before handing off to the woofer, which runs down to a rated 30Hz and I believe is the absolute low point after hearing Fiona Apples Tidal (WORK/Clean Slate OK 67439) thunder through all my rooms. With an 88dB sensitivity, the Clef doesnt need that much power to get revved, but it is current hungry, so a lot of power is needed to take full control of the situation. A minimum of 50W of quality solid-state amplification is a good start, but muscle amps in the 200W range can be put to good use in this regard too.
When you pay $1299 for a pair for speakers, you cant expect everything. Real-world issues dictate that compromises must be made in the design, but it is how the compromises have been balanced within the Clef that lead me to reassess loudspeaker performance at the Clefs price point.
If I were to approach the Clef with a traditional audiophiles viewpoint, I would dissect the performance into known audiophile terminology and do something like describe the midrange as wonderfully liquid and smooth, the bass as thunderous with slam and authority, the highs as extended and never etched, and the imaging and soundstaging ability as focused, palpable, and wall-to-wall when the speakers are set up properly. On the downside, the bass is a little thick and requires a powerhouse amplifier to give it the speed and jump of some speakers, the midrange is not as defined and textured as the best, and the highs, though extended, could tolerate a tad more sparkle and air. Finally, although the Clef can play at high levels, it needs LOTS of power to play at volume levels that heavy-metal lovers would define as LOUD. If youve got the poweruse it.
All added up, this is already extremely high praise for a speaker in the Clefs price range, and the Clef deserves high praise because it is unbelievably good for its asking price. But frankly, this still does little to tell you about the way the Clef sounds. The Clef is much better than the vast majority of speakers near its price because its strength is its synergy and presentation as a whole, and these are hard if not impossible to describe until theyve been heard. As James Saxon sagely pointed out in his CES 98 description of the Supered version, "the Speaker Art Super Clef doesnt perform audiophilio but it plays music." Translation: The Clef is about music, not high-end mumbo-jumbo.
I think Jim summarized the secret behind the Clef series of loudspeakers. Bob Gross balances the Clefs strengths with its weaknesses and arrives at a loudspeaker design that is harmonically rich, vibrant, lifelike and natural, unlike any Ive tried at this price point. In fact, its overall balance competes with speakers I love costing in the many thousands of dollars. No amount of slicing and dicing of its performance or constituent parts translates into telling you how wonderful this great little loudspeaker is at playing music. Im told that the Clef measures very well, but frankly I dont care because I like the way it sounds. Bob Gross tells me he wants to send me the Super with that Scan-Speak tweeter. "Its even quicker, with more detail from 1200Hz up," he says. Definitely intriguing, and a follow-up is scheduled.
Sure the Clef may not be the most detailed or the most dynamic or the most neutral loudspeaker at its price point, but it is one of the most engrossing and musical. Hard-rock and gangster-rap fans will applaud the Clefs deep bass, but they will be left wanting if they cant power the Clef to keep pace or play as loudly as other bass busters in the Clefs price range. But for most anything else, and that includes the vast majority of my music collection, the Clef is at homeplaying jazz, classical, folk and most any pop music you can throw at it. Within this realm of music, the Clef works wonderfully in a variety of systems and with a variety of amps, including the excellent all-tube $2495 Power 1 from Sonic Frontiers. In this case, with the amp putting out only 55Wpc, the Clef couldnt quite muster up the lifelike volume levels some would prefer, but with the Anthem CD-1 spinning discs, the system had a level of purity and musicality thats rare at the price.
The fact that in my current system I now have the Clefs set up with Blue Circles $6000 BC-2 amplifiers, $3300 BC-3 preamplifier, $3000 worth of Theta digital gear and almost $3000 worth of Nirvana Audio wire and have been as happy with their sound as speakers costing two and three times as much should tell a prospective consumer two things: (1) The Clef is equally at home with high-priced company as they are with the lower-priced crowd, and (2) the Clef is a high-priced find misplaced in the bargain rack. Ive heard a pair of Clefs sound incredible with budget-priced gear, and I know that many fine entry-level high-end amplifiers and cost-effective CD players would make excellent dance partners.
Audiophile friends who hear the Clef dont feel compelled to talk about its octave-to-octave performance or its ability to throw a huge, rock-solid soundstage. While they play audiophile games with other speakers (piano-spotting on Holly Coles Temptation (Metro Blue CDP 7243 8 31653 2 2) is a favorite pastime), when they listen to the Clefs, they trade pinpointing the image for enjoying the sound. When the music plays, all these things become a given and comments such as, "that sounds really good," "very real" and "will you play this for me?" abound. The Clef garners listener compliments about how good the music sounds, with no nit-picking. Thats how I know the Clef has cast its spell. Simply put, the Clef plays music and thats what really matters. Thats also why you should seek out a pair to audition. In my opinion, the Speaker Art Clef is not a good speakerits a great one.
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