November 2002Ensemble Figura Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson
SoundStage! has become two-way-speaker central thanks to the many reviews of small stand-mounted speakers we've published, the majority of these done by minimonitor maven Doug Schneider. However, there are any number of two-way floorstanders available, and many of them have been highly praised, like the Meadowlark Shearwater and Merlin VSM-Millennium. These speakers offer larger cabinets than their bookshelf brethren for generating greater bass extension, and they obviate the need for speaker stands. They also allow you to own a floorstanding speaker with only one crossover point, which is perhaps the greatest reason that two-way monitors often sound so good.
My first exposure to Ensemble products was via the company's well-known Tube Sox. These little Kevlar and copper sleeves fit over small-signal tubes and reduce microphonics. They worked like a charm in a CAT preamp I used to own, and I've used Tube Sox elsewhere in the interim. I still own a pair and will always have them around. They should be in every tubeophile's tool chest.
But Ensemble also makes a wide-ranging line of electronics and cables as well as the speakers under review here, the Figuras. Thus if you are so inclined, you can have an all-Ensemble system -- from digital source to loudspeaker, even power-line products. And why you would do this became obvious to me at last year's CES. Ensemble's setup at the Alexis Park was one of the best-sounding systems in Las Vegas. While at the show, I began talking with Brian Ackerman of Artistic Audio, Ensemble's US distributor, about reviewing some of the company's products. So far we've covered Ensemble cables, both signal and power, as well as the company's power-line products.
Now we jump to speakers, namely the $8900-USD-per-pair Figura, a sleek, front-ported two-way design using a 1" silk-dome tweeter and a 6 1/2" woofer, both custom built for Ensemble. Don't ask the company about the manufacturer of the drivers or the frequency at which the speaker's 12dB-per-octave crossover is set -- both are secrets. What the company will talk some about is the Figura's cabinet, which employs multi-layer sandwich construction with the outermost areas covered in brushed aluminum plates. The front baffle, presumably of a wooden material, is finished in a dark-pearl lacquer and rounded at its edges, and it has recessed areas for the ports and drivers -- even the tweeter's diffraction-reducing felt ring is slightly recessed and thus flush with the baffle edge.
The speaker base is another brushed-aluminum plate that extends rearward in order to allow the main cabinet to slope in that direction and reportedly time align the drivers. Around back is a single set of Ensemble's own Synergia binding posts, which are milled out of solid chunks of high-conductivity beryllium copper and ingeniously covered over the contact area with spring-loaded vinyl caps -- very Swiss. The Ensemble crew is once again hush-hush about what's going on inside the Figura, but they do divulge that their own Megaflux and Megalink wires are used for connection.
Ensemble says that the Figura's frequency response is 30Hz-30kHz. That bass figure seemed immediately generous to me given the size of the speaker's woofer and cabinet. Sensitivity is rated at 87dB for 2.83V output at one meter. Ensemble recommends amplifier power of 10W-120W. The Figura measures 40"H x 8 1/2"W x 10"D and weighs 70 pounds. Interestingly, the speakers do not come with the standard carpet-piercing spikes. Ensemble prefers the sound quality of the speakers with its own rubber footers.
Review system and setup
For the bulk of the review, I used the Figura speakers with solid-state amplification: either the Audio Research 100.2 stereo amp or a pair of Mark Levinson No.434 monoblocks. I also used the speakers with my reference Lamm ML2 SET monoblocks as well as a pair of deHavilland Aries 845s. Preamps in use were an Audio Research Reference Two Mk II and the Lamm L2 Reference. I also used Mark Levinson No.39 and No.390S CD players directly into the amps via the players' internal volume controls. I used both players as transports too, tethered to a Bel Canto DAC2. Interconnects and speaker cables were from Analysis Plus (Solo Crystal Oval and Solo Crystal Oval 8), Shunyata Research (Aries and Lyra), and DH Labs (Air Matrix and Q10). I also used a run of Ensemble's own Megaflux speaker cable. Speakers on hand for direct comparison were Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s and Silverline La Folias.
Setting up the Figuras was easy in terms of getting good sound, but it was harder to squeeze the very most out of them. After some trial and error, I settled on spots roughly five feet from the front wall, two feet from the side walls, and toed in so the drivers would fire at my shoulders when I was seated. In this configuration, the speakers threw a vast soundstage that was a touch more distant than that of, say, the WATT/Puppy 7s, but it was very easy to adjust to and grow to enjoy. I settled on using Ensemble's Megaflux speaker cables for the bulk of the review because of their intrinsic quietness, perhaps due to their proprietary shielding. A good second choice was the Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8, whose high resolution worked well with the Figuras.
Two-way speakers have an inherent advantage when it comes to achieving single-driver-like coherence because they have fewer elements to optimize and only one crossover point. The Figuras, not coincidentally, excelled in this regard, and more so than other two-way speakers I've heard. I'm convinced that some of this comes from their very consistent character from top to bottom, but I'm also sure that the single crossover point and choice of drivers and passive parts play roles too. I would guess their crossover frequency to be around 2kHz because of their driver complement -- not because I could hear anything that would lead me to this conclusion. In use, hearing any remnants of the Figura's crossover point is impossible, and thus this speaker sounds absolutely unified from its depths to its heights. A disc like the Cowboy Junkies' Whites Off Earth Now [RCA 2380-2-R], with its deep bass and openness courtesy of a single Calrec Ambiosonic microphone, shows this off well, but you may still find yourself wondering about that certain something the Figuras have with any disc you play.
In fact, certain something describes the Figuras' character well, not only for their coherence but also their combination of clarity throughout their range and gentle portrayal of the music. This is not a tonal thing but rather a matter of perspective. These speakers have only a trace of sweetness in the uppermost treble; otherwise they are clean, neutral, and very transparent. And these qualities coupled with a soundstage that's a small bit more distant and a way with nuance more than bombast make the Figuras sound unique. I grew to admire the amount of detail they conveyed without ever sounding hard, grainy or unmusical. If the Figuras would have had a forward perspective, perhaps due to a trumped-up upper midrange, they would have irritated me to no end. Instead, they put forth clarity and detail in a very amiable way. Aimee Mann's high, breathy voice can be hard to take sometimes, but the Figuras tamed it, imparting all of Mann's vocal gestures without any irritation. Mann's new Lost in Space [Superego Records SE-007] is one of the best CDs released this year, and it was a joy to hear over the Figuras.
Another proficiency of the Ensemble speakers is their ability to disappear sonically. Smallish stand-mounted speakers can pull off this trick to the same degree as the Figuras, but the only floorstander I can remember doing it is the Merlin VSM-SE (now VSM-Millennium), another two-way floorstanding speaker. But what makes this possible is proper setup in the first place. When everything is just right, the Figuras are not identifiable as sources of the music, which simply emerges in the listening space. A byproduct of this is the way the speakers float images -- like few speakers at any price. I've been listening habitually to John Hammond's Wicked Grin [Pointblank 7243 8 50764 2 8], a collection of Tom Waits songs done by Hammond and his band of bluesmen. On "Buzz Fledderjohn," Hammond's voice hangs there over my equipment racks amidst the instrumentation around it -- what audio system? And here's another trick courtesy of the Figuras: Goose the volume and there Hammond's voice sits, only louder. Turn it up even more, louder still. Even more volume -- you get the idea. Seldom do speakers only get louder with changes in volume, but the Figuras pull it off.
As you would expect from a two-way speaker with a 6 1/2" woofer, the Figuras will not give you subterranean bass. In fact, the speakers don't give the sort of bass you will hear from most floorstanders in their price range either. On "32 Flavors" from Ani DiFranco's Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe 7], the bass, which is a series of deep whomps on the Wilson WATT/Puppy 7s, is more of a poof over the Figuras. This may be a bigger deal to me than it is to you because of my time spent with speakers like the Wilsons, which go very low, but I could certainly adjust given all of the other things the Figuras do so well. I might experiment with a subwoofer, but only a very good one that won't muck anything above its range. Wilson Audio's WATCH Dog would almost certainly integrate well, but it costs more than the Figuras.
In terms of amplification, although Ensemble states that 10 watts are acceptable to drive the Figuras, I found that the speakers need some juice -- otherwise they sound dynamically stunted and too mellow for my tastes. This was pretty much the story with both my reference Lamm ML2 amps as well as the deHavilland Aries 845 monoblocks. I would recommend 50Wpc at a minimum, with 100Wpc not being a waste. And you can push these speakers hard -- they won't turn hard in response. In fact, they sound very composed when played a little louder than you might normally listen. They're also good at lower levels because of their obvious and abundant clarity.
The $7995 Silverline La Folia speakers cost a little less than the Ensemble Figuras, and the differences between these two speakers don't end here. With the La Folias, you have a four-way speaker with rear-mounted woofer and a large footprint. Not coincidentally, there is the very full-range sound of these speakers, along with a sweet and silky character that is exceedingly pleasant. Images via the La Folias have heft, density, and hereness, and while the treble is not the most transparent, it is detailed nonetheless -- not at all burdened with too much sweetness. Bass is powerful and not in need of subwoofer help.
The Figuras, on the other hand, disappear, leaving behind a clean and yet gentle view of the music. Images don't have the weight of those of the La Folias, but they are no less convincing because of the way they float with the Figuras. Bass is no contest -- the La Folias go deeper and with greater authority -- and so is overall clarity, which goes to the Figuras.
If you have $8000-$9000 to spend on speakers, you should hear both the Silverline La Folias and Ensemble Figuras for their different approaches. But I will be shocked if you like both speakers equally -- they sound that different.
The Ensemble Figuras wear their Swiss credentials on their, ah, cabinets, but their unique and very satisfying sound will win them admirers all over the audio world. I especially enjoyed their coherence and clarity, the images they float, their ability to disappear, and their overall gentle demeanor. The Figuras are not exactly inexpensive even by high-end-audio standards, but their design shows the earmarks of Swiss engineering precision, and their sonic performance is about as unique as that of any speaker I've reviewed.
I would love to hear an entire Ensemble system in my listening room -- soup to nuts from one audio company is a rare achievement. I suspect that Ensemble's own electronics would elevate the Figuras' performance in some new ways, but even without the Ensemble electronics in the mix, the Figuras were very satisfying speakers and worth hearing as part of your audio ensemble.
Copyright © 2002 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved