Quintessence Acoustics Standard Loudspeakers
by Dave Duvall
Quintessence. By definition it's "the pure essence or perfect type." If youre a loudspeaker manufacturer and you decide to name your company Quintessence, you've just set the bar mighty high and proclaimed that your products should be second to none. On top of that, you call your new speaker line Standard, and so you've doubly claimed that not only should this product be "the pure essence," but that it is also something to judge others by. These are lofty expectations, and from my listening, Tom Campagna and Quintessence Acoustics should be proud of how far they've come toward them with the Standard speaker.
The Standard line consists of three models: the Standard Junior ($3850 per pair), the Standard ($8500 per pair and the subject of this review), and the Standard Signature ($19,500 per pair). I have heard several of the Quintessence Acoustics bigger-ticket speakers at the CES and HI-FI shows over the years, and particularly when they are used with Lamm electronics, they have impressed me with the way they always seem to be about the music and not about hyped-up presentations meant to hook a listener on first aural glance. When I heard the Standard Signature speaker at HI-FI '98, I felt compelled to ask if SoundStage! could do a review. Instead, Campagna sent me his personal pair of Standard speakers, eliminating the tedious process of burning-in a fresh set of drivers.
Fit and finish
The Quintessence Acoustics Standard speaker is a beauty to behold. I'm in the lumber business by day, and the natural stained cherry wood veneer is a finish that I can really appreciate. Measuring 50" tall, 11.5" wide, and 16" deep with a weigh-in of 125 pounds, the Standard can be danced around on its spikes easily, but lugging them around otherwise can be a chore. The cabinet features 3" dimensional bracing, with panel thicknesses ranging from 1" to 3". I'm assuming the front baffle is the 3" portion, but Campagna preferred to leave some things about his speaker to my imagination. The cabinet seems quite inert, with solid thuds galore when rapped. The base is a 2"-thick full-surround plinth with a sculpted front and gold plate that reads "Quintessence."
The main tweeter is a Focal 1" titanium dioxide inverted-dome unit, while a 1" Vifa silk-dome ambience tweeter is located on the back of the speaker. The 7" Focal midrange has a polyglass cone. The dual Vifa 7" doped-paper woofers are housed behind flush-mounted non-removable 11.5"-diameter grilles. Neither is a passive radiator, and the two drivers combined equal the approximate radiating space of a single 10.5" cone. The original design called for a single side-mounted 10" woofer, but Campagna said that "the twin drivers provide a faster, more linear response vis-à-vis the 10" [and] also handle more power." All drivers are connected in the same polarity, and internal wiring is from Monster Cable.
The top and side edges of the Standard are beveled. This not only aids in reducing cabinet diffraction, but it adds an elegant look. The smallish 8.5" x 18" grille covers offer a nice touch in comparison to the usual full-length cover found on most front-mounted-woofer speakers. I didn't find a difference worth hooting over with or without the covers on, so for the most part they remained on during my listening period. In addition to space for the ambience tweeter, the rear of the cabinet provides a home for Vampire binding posts mounted about a foot off the floor for ease of cabling and a 3" non-flared port. The part of the back panel that houses the rear tweeter angles in toward the front, leaving but a small section of flat land to call the speaker top.
The crossover is deemed a fourth-order acoustic topology. Tom Campagna explained that "acoustic" simply means the total filter network achieves its results with both a passive network (the crossover) and in the way the drivers are mounted (in other words the type and size of box they are loaded into). He continued: "The 7" midrange, for instance, has no passive crossover on the bottom side, but we still get a second-order roll-off due to the sealed-box loading, but the overall filter network, stated as fourth-order (24dB slope), is done passively, and the upward roll of 24dB is normally how a speaker crossover is shown in terms of specs, etc. But one could argue that we use fourth-order networks upward and second-order downward." Campagna preferred not to disclose the crossover frequency points.
The Quintessence Acoustics Standard speaker is rated at 90dB sensitivity (2.83V), and its frequency response is specd at 30Hz to 22kHz (+/- 3dB). Nominal impedance is 6 ohms (4 ohms minimum) and the power-handling capacity is 200 watts RMS continuous (400 watts peak).
Once again with feeling, please
The roster of gear used for this review in my 18'W x 28.5'L x 9'H listening room is as follows: CAL CL-20 DVD/CD player (HDCD and 20/96 analog output capable, 24/96 digital output enabled for review purposes) and CAL Alpha 24/96 DAC; Muse Model Two Plus DAC (with Bessel reconstruction filter) linked via W313 I2S connection to a Muse Model Five CD transport; Audible Illusions L-1 preamplifier (with Amperex 7308 tubes); Belles 150A 100Wpc stereo amplifier; HAVE Canare, Cardas Digital/Video Link, and DH Labs Silver Sonic digital cables; Cardas Golden Cross interconnects; Kimber Bi-FocalXL and Cardas Golden Cross speaker cables; PSB Stratus Gold speakers; Kimber PowerKords; TAD Systems (Bybee) Power Conditioner; home-brew racks, isolation components, and absorption panels. Couple the gear with an open mind and some great music and it's off to the races.
How to get acquainted with every fiber in your carpet -- use and setup
With my much less expensive PSB Stratus Gold speakers, the Kimber Bi-FocalXL speaker cables exude the finest level of sound I believe they are capable of, but with the Quintessence Acoustics Standard speakers, the Kimber cables take the sound too far past neutral and into the land of analytical. Cardas Golden Cross provided a slight warmth and richness that is offset by the clean midrange sound of the Standard, and it was the cable of choice during the review period. The Standard as supplied was set up for single cabling; biwiring is available on the current production run. With the cables in-house all being biwires, I initially thought there may be a problem, but the pair of speakers supplied to me utilized Vampire binding posts that project about an inch from the speaker back and are set flush on the cabinet -- not recessed at all. Thus, putting both spades on one post was a snap and worked just fine sonically. Ergonomically, these binding posts were a joy, and they have a sizable nut that is easily tightened with even a crescent wrench.
Quintessence suggested a minimum placement of four feet from the rear wall. Because the Standard is a rear-ported speaker, I started there and then moved them further into the room until I got what I considered to be a good sonic mix. Son of a gun if they didn't ultimately end up just about in the same spot as the Stratus Golds, about nine feet into the room. This positioning allowed the soundstage to develop behind the speakers with no serious detriment to bass performance. I was told that I'd probably get the best performance with little or no toe-in, and I settled on about 10 degrees as being perfect for imaging and top-end characteristics.
The Standards were spread about 8' apart, leaving about 5' to either side wall (minimum 1.5' side-wall clearance suggested); each first-reflection point on the side walls was treated with 20 cubic feet of R-38 insulation built into 1"x12" pine boxes. Another 20 cubic feet was positioned behind the rack located between the speakers, six feet or so back. (The wife swears she'll bury me in these pine boxes if I don't start spending a little less time away from my gear.) Quintessence suggested that I try the speakers with a very wide spread, up to 12', and that the Standard would still maintain quality imaging. That it did, but beyond 10' apart, I had to toe the speakers in directly at the listening position, which heated up the treble just a bit more than I preferred. The narrow front baffle, which side-mounted woofer placement allows, could be instrumental in the speakers outstanding imaging, even at such wide positioning. The supplied spikes allowed me to not only level the speakers, but stabilize and anchor them to the subfloor, firming up the bass.
Quintessence recommended a listening distance of 9'-10' with the 8' spread, but I preferred a slightly greater distance of 12' or so. This, of course, will have everything to do with the size of your room, and the proximity of the speakers to the side and front walls.
The Standard's bass performance is best described as tastefully implemented. I measured in-room response down to the high-30Hz area, yet I seldom found this speaker to be gut-wrenchingly visceral. Toward the end of Corey Greenberg's "Eden," a sonic feast and cool collage of sound from Stereophile's Test CD 2 [STPH004-2], there is a swept tone starting with very low frequencies that seems to be heard and felt a little earlier through the Stratus Golds than the Quintessence Standard speakers. The Standard goes plenty deep to satisfy a music lover, but its real shining glory is how well controlled bass notes are, and how little influence one can hear in the lower midrange from upper bass overflow. Keep in mind that I preferred the speakers pulled into the room substantially, and the bass can be reinforced with positioning closer to the wall behind them. My choice in the end was quality over quantity. The transition is quite seamless moving upwards, and possibly a combination of the quickness of the dual 7" woofers, a smaller woofer tending to hang on less after a note has stopped, and the fourth-order crossover slope handing off to the midrange driver.
The Standard was subjectively a little leaner through the midrange, the Gold more romantic and lush. Long listening sessions demonstrated to me that the Standard was designed around resolution, and the difference between these two speakers (regardless of the difference in price) was comparable to the distinctions I found in my review of the Muse and CAL digital products. Different schools of thought are on display, ultimate resolution versus a bit of romanticism, neither in my mind being better than the other. The Standard's more resolute, distinct flavor will fare well with components more on the warmish side. This was exemplified by my preference for the CAL digital gear and Cardas Golden Cross speaker cables over the Muse and Kimber products. A good speaker is chameleon-like, and while I suspect it's impossible to not impart some coloration, the Standard leans toward neutrality and takes on the character of the equipment in front of it.
Never mind that a little raving here will garner me a number of hate e-mails for showing too much passion, but the treble performance of the Quintessence Acoustics Standard is outstanding. The combination of the front and rear tweeters provides a level of openness and unetched detail that consistently impressed me through my auditioning. The rear tweeter seemed a little down in level compared to the front, although I don't have measurements to back that up. The top end has a subliminal effect of being endless, extended, and spacious. This was something that I felt I experienced on an emotional level without consciously attempting to; in other words, no critical listening was required.
As I listened to many kinds of music, I felt the Quintessence Acoustics speaker performed its best on, and was possibly voiced for, instrumental jazz and classical music. Dave Brubeck's Time Out [Columbia/Legacy CK 65122], as well as "The Originals" Classic Sampler [Fi Magazine/Deutsche Gramaphone 457 098-2] exemplified the outstanding qualities this speaker was capable of. Whether it was the clarity of Paul Desmond's sax tone or the moving works of Ravel, Schumann, and Debussy, the Standard let through the last ounce of detail and emotion. Rock and other kinds of "aggressive" music were less enthusiastically received by the Quintessence speaker. For example, R.E.M.'s Monster [Warner Bros. 9 45740-2] seemed a bit restrained. Im not implying that the top end was rolled-off -- quite the contrary. While this speaker is very good in the resolution department, the electric-guitar, chord-grinding music of Monster came off as bit polite with the Standard. It was not quite as dynamic and energized as I've heard it with other speakers.
Music: the true judge of a design
Listening to "So What" from A Tribute To Miles [Qwest/Reprise - 45059-2], a 1994 recording by Hancock, Shorter, Carter, Roney, and Williams, I noticed a delicacy compared to (the much less expensive) PSB Stratus Gold. Wallace Roney's trumpet sounded more polite in its sense of aggressiveness, but not in its focus or clarity. On "RJ," several drum interludes demonstrate a compliance to the drum heads, particularly off the foot pedal, which comes off cleaner and more polished through the Standard. The drum set as a whole seems slightly more diminutive, not as present.
Occasionally I'd miss the richness of vocals heard through the PSB midrange. I noticed this first while doing A/B/A comparisons with Diana Krall's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (All For You [Impulse IMPD-182]). Her voice was not as full-bodied as heard through the PSB speaker, which I would argue has a true-to-life richness. Listening to Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies sing "Seven Years" (Pale Sun Crescent Moon [RCA 07863 66344-2]), I found her voice quite moving though not as harmonically emphasized with the Standard. This is not to say that the midrange of the Standard is threadbare, but that at times I felt the notes had been cleansed, leaving the fundamental prominent.
But hold on to your hats folks. The 24/96 Classic Records release of Art Davis' A Time Remembered [Classic DAD 1001], knocked me on my rear with the Standard speakers in use. This is an exceptional recording, and when played back on the California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD/CD player, the Quintessence speaker brought forth detail in a wide and deep soundstage that nailed me to my listening seat each and every time I played this disc. Herbie Hancock's piano came off as exceptionally realistic in timbre, while Marvin "Smitty" Smith's drum work was crisp and exciting. Here was a combination of great music, an excellent recording, synergistic playback electronics and cables, and the Quintessence Standard speakers that begged the question "How much better can it really get?" And knowing that it can, "At what tremendous increase in price?"
The Quintessence Acoustics Standard speaker is not a speaker whose character you immediately grasp as soon as you burn it in and take your first listen. After some time I sincerely came to appreciate how it didn't jump out and grab your attention or sugarcoat the sound to get you to buy it after a five-minute demo. I heard an honesty in Jimmy Witherspoon's cancer-riddled voice through Live At The Mint [On The Spot 0100582137-2] that let me hear the subtleties that indicated his throat had been ravaged by his illness. Playing "Goin' Down Slow" with the Quintessence speaker truly brought home the relationship between the song and Witherspoons personal battle with the disease. The Standard was very capable of playing with emotion and did so by disappearing into the music, not by throwing sonic bells and whistles at you.
While I found plusses and minuses with this speaker, never did I feel that it was a speaker that would provide anything other than countless hours of musical enjoyment. As with its bigger and more expensive relatives that I had heard at several shows, there was an honesty to the Quintessence Acoustics Standard that compelled me to spill some ink, or shall I say bandwidth, about it. The Quintessence Acoustics Standard is a product deserving of an audiophile's full attention.
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