May 2002Ethera Sound Corporation Vitae Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Etheras Leo Lewis and his Vitae loudspeakers have gained something of a legendary status in Canada. The speaker is not new, and the design has remained essentially the same for some years. According to Ethera, Lewis has spent many years getting the Vitae just right. His attention to detail earned him a reputation as a perfectionist, and the length of time the Vitae has been under development as well as Lewis near fanaticism regarding measurements are a testament to the process by which this speaker is now created.
When Lewis got the Vitae right, he left it alone -- called it done -- and now hes putting the finishing touches on a lower-priced loudspeaker, the Seraph, which took him a long time to design and build too. I suspect that when the Seraph is done, it wont change for a long while either. The Seraph will offer similar performance to the Vitae. However, due to the size of the cabinet and woofer used, bass response and overall output capability will be limited in comparison. The Vitae, at $5500 per pair including custom stands, remains the companys top speaker, and there are no plans to change it one bit.
The Vitae is a large -- very large -- stand-mounted two-way monitor with an 8" mineral-filled, polycone woofer and a 1" soft-dome tweeter. The drivers are the most conventional aspect of the speaker -- the rest is pretty unusual. The cabinet is wider than it is deep or tall -- something rarely seen. Its rather shallow, about 12", but it is just over 21" wide. Its also an unusual shape, with the back and front portions each made up of three angling walls in a complex arrangement. The angles and surfaces differ on the front and back to eliminate parallel surfaces and get rid of internal standing waves. Undoubtedly a cabinet with the Vitaes shape is quite time-consuming to make compared to the standard rectangular cabinets we see so often, and this helps to account for at least some of the products not-so-inexpensive price. Edges are rounded, and the front baffle is shaped to eliminate diffraction effects.
The unusual cabinet allows for further innovation in porting the speaker. The ports run vertically up the side area of the front baffle, angled slightly outward due to the shape of the cabinet. Ethera says the ports large size and odd shape results in less noise and interference than smaller, more conventional ports.
The Vitae is finished in mahogany veneer with solid edge pieces along the top, bottom, and back areas. The baffle is matte black, and non-removable wire grilles are attached over the front of each driver for protection. The cabinet is finished nicely, and the total weight of each speaker is 30 pounds. I knocked on the sides and found it to be rigid, but fairly hollow-sounding. Ethera says they brace and damp strategically inside.
But even with the elaborate cabinet, Leo Lewis contends that the heart of the speaker is its crossover. When I first met him some time ago, he made the unusual comment that a speakers crossover isnt inside the speaker -- its a few feet in front. Of course, he wasnt talking literally about the components being outside the speaker. Rather, he was referring to the mid-air blending of the acoustical output of the drivers -- the in-room response thats achieved.
Lewis is a great believer in anechoic measurements and has spent a lot of time at the National Research Council of Canada, much of it during the time Floyd Toole was active at the NRC. Therefore, its no surprise that Lewis has optimized his speaker for on- and off-axis frequency response, good bass response, and low distortion -- the gospel according to Tooles research. Thats part of the reason the speakers come in mirror-imaged pairs and are intended to be played with each tweeter toward the inside. Lewis says that this helps the speaker sound better in a real-world environment, where nasty reflections are a fact of life. Lewis spent plenty of time measuring the loudspeakers on- and off-axis responses, and the results can also be heard while listening -- simply walk between and around the Vitae and youll note how little the tonal balance changes. Of course, where a designer crosses over the drivers is also critical in achieving this, and the Vitae has a 2kHz crossover point using a second-order filter.
Ethera rates the Vitae down to 35Hz -- not truly full range, but plenty deep for most speakers, let alone a stand-mounted one. Anechoic sensitivity is said to be 88.5dB, and impedance is said to be a nominal 8 ohms, not dipping below 6. There is a single set of high-quality WBT connectors on the back, so biwiring and biamping are not options.
I hesitate to call any speaker with less than a 90dB sensitivity rating high efficiency, but there are a number of conventional speakers available that are claiming high-efficiency status, and this one is every bit as easy to drive as most of those are. Ethera says 15W is the minimum, and, in fact, I once heard the speaker sound quite good with Wyetech Labs 13W Onyx mono amplifiers. In my system, the Vitae gave no amplifier I used any problem whatsoever. Just a small bit of power brought them to appreciable listening levels.
The 21"-high dedicated stands are quite heavy and very dead, giving the speakers a sure footing. As mentioned, the Vitae is quite large and will take up a good chunk of room. However, the odd shape, particularly the angled back, made it appear smaller, and in my room it was pleasing to the eye.
The Vitae was extremely easy to set up even though it has an appreciable amount of bass output, and room interaction was really no problem (normally the more bass, the more room interaction and placement becomes critical). The sound was never boomy no matter where the speakers sat. My placement adjustments simply increased the amount of bass (closer to wall boundaries reinforces bass), and I balanced that off with the precision of the soundstage. Nearly every spot within reason produced good sound; its just that some places sounded better than others. I ended up with the speakers about five feet from the front wall, two feet from the sides, and with about 10 degrees of toe-in. My room is moderately sized. Given the prodigious output capability these speakers are capable of along with their easy-to-drive nature, I could see these speakers being used in fairly large rooms
I used the Vitae with two sets of electronics. One system had the Theta Data Basic transport and Zanden Model 5000 Mk II DAC as a digital source feeding a Blue Circle BC3000 preamplifier. Power amplifiers in this system alternated between the tube/solid-state hybrid Blue Circle BC2 monoblocks and the fully solid-state Simaudio HT-5 multichannel amplifier. I also used the speakers in another system consisting of Arcams FMJ A32 integrated amplifier and CD23T CD player. Wiring in both cases was by Nirvana.
If I didnt set these speakers on stands myself and had simply walked into a room in which they were playing with my eyes closed, I would not have guessed that they were stand-mounted speakers. With their considerable bass, fullness, and room-filling ability, they sound like floorstanders. They are also extremely neutral, while at the same time eminently listenable and enjoyable. Marc Mickelson called them "sweet-sounding" when he heard them at the Montreal show this spring, and they are. What they dont give is a Technicolor presentation -- one where the speaker exaggerates, imparting its own colorations on the music. The Vitae is like a big version of the Amphion argon2 I like so much. Both let the music flow beautifully. And, just like the Amphion speaker, the Vitae is deceptively revealing. Deceptively?
The Vitae has an even and balanced sound that can be disconcerting if you are used to hearing speakers that seem highly detailed but are really "tipped up" in specific spots like the midrange or high frequencies -- areas that can project a voice more forward or make guitars and cymbals jump to the front of the mix. The Vitae will have none of that. As a result, at first you might think youre missing something. But long-term listening reveals sound that is full, rich, and well balanced, along with a soundstage that has excellent image specificity with great width and depth and a load of detail among the performers and the places in between.
Everything is just there, but not in an artificial, hyped kind of way. The Vitae gives you the recording, for better or worse. It also gives you your system that way too. As I mentioned, I used the Vitae with three different amplifiers and could hear the sonic character of each with ease. The same goes for source components, since I used these speakers in my evaluation of the Zanden Model 5000 Mk II DAC and the Arcam FMJ CD23T CD player (review forthcoming). The Vitae is a good reviewers tool and also a superb music-lovers reference.
If you havent yet bought Norah Jones debut Come Away with Me [Blue Note 32088], go get it -- what a wonderful recording. Her piano on "Shoot the Moon" is rendered on the Vitae with such gorgeous bell-like clarity that it captivated me every time. Theres weight, clarity, and wonderful extension. I simply fell in love with the way this speaker handled piano. When I used the speakers with the marvelous-sounding Zanden Model 5000 Mk II DAC, the result was magnificent. The lower registers are deep and articulate, the highs smooth and crystal clear, and the midrange is so transparent and lush that its almost a revelation.
Whats also apparent on this album is that these speakers have wonderful dynamics and can let instruments and voices soar. I love Jones vocals on "Ive Got to See You Again." There is outstanding clarity, and the Vitae launches Jones voice from the cabinet with complete freedom. Theres not a hint of the excess sibilance, brightness, or edginess that can show themselves on lesser speakers. Other female vocalists I played -- Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos -- were rendered with purity and transparency.
However, despite the fact that the music Im mentioning does sound great on these speakers, not all music will sound so great, simply because the Vitae, like other high-quality designs, is also exceedingly transparent. If a recording is not good, the Vitae will not pretty it up. Jimmy Rankins Song Dog [EMI 705283] has some great music, but the recording quality is not to the same standard. This doesnt mean its not listenable -- I still enjoy the sparse and touching "It is the Hour" -- but its just that these speakers show the recording to be thin, lifeless, and lacking in dynamics. Theres no artificial coloration to cover things up, as you get with a more forgiving loudspeaker. I suspect that the recording engineers or someone else down the CD production chain didnt use a speaker as revealing or things would have been different.
On the other hand, Leonard Cohens Ten New Songs [Sony 85953] is another brooding masterpiece from the eccentric Canadian poet. On some speakers, this recording can sound overly warm and woolly. Not here. The sparse instrumentation and wonderful vocal accompaniment by Sharon Robinson show the Vitaes ability to convey a full and rich sound, while at the same time slicing through the detail to give a transparent view into the recording. Just like the Amphions, the Vitae treads a perfect line, balancing transparency and musicality.
What impressed me most about how this recording sounded is how robust Cohens vocals were but without a hint of chestiness that can hamper lesser speakers. This is definitely not something all speakers achieve with Cohens recordings, which are often closely miked (like this one) and artificially warm. If a speaker has any excess chestiness or other colorations, the sound gets too muddled and indistinct. In short, the ultra-neutral Vitae nails it perfectly, and theres still fullness to the sound that conveys the necessary warmth and weight -- neither thick nor thin, but ideally in between.
Not surprisingly, given the extra-large cabinet size and use of an 8" woofer, the Vitae goes quite a bit deeper in the bass than the usual 6.5"-based two-ways I review. In this regard, its a lot like the Speaker Art Clef -- a larger-than-normal stand-mounted speaker that gives floorstander-like sound.
The Leonard Cohen recording has a big, deep, and weighty sound thats positively room-filling through the Vitae. But, it must be noted, the Vitaes bass is not what audiophiles consider truly full-range -- 20Hz, bottom-of-the-hearing-range extension. You would need a subwoofer for that. But it is mighty full and deep, and I suspect that few listeners would even think of adding a subwoofer given the balance thats achieved with the Vitae. I would call the Vitae a nearly full-range speaker and wholly acceptable for the majority of listeners.
In ways, the Ethera Vitae is like a big brother to the Amphion argon2 -- and to a lesser degree, the Revel Performa M20. The similarity is in the exceedingly neutral presentation that these speakers share. The comparison to the argon2 is in the delicate balance of supreme transparency and long-term listenability that both have and the ability to cast an immense soundstage. The Performa M20 is every bit as transparent and neutral, but it slides just a bit to the side of being clinical, and care must be taken to match it with appropriate components in order to avoid an overly analytical presentation.
But the biggest difference is, of course, the price of the speakers. The Revel is $2000 (without grilles) and the Amphion is just under $1500 in real-wood veneer -- a fair bit less than the Vitae. Part of the reason why the Ethera speaker costs more is its larger cabinet along with the more complex nature of the cabinets design. All those angled edges are not nearly as easy to create as the rectangular boxes of the other speakers. In general, what the larger cabinet gives you is deeper bass and greater output capability.
Its no secret that deep bass costs money -- lots of money -- and thats the Vitaes greatest difference, along with a bigger, richer sound that is more room-filling. Small speakers give so much for so little, but only so much bass and so much overall output. No, the Vitae is not a 20Hz pounder, but it goes seriously deep with tightness and control. But the range the Vitae extends down to is handled with aplomb, and there is a more full and robust presentation that makes it sound much bigger than essentially every stand-mounted speaker. Despite the fact that the argon2 can play impressively loud, it doesnt charge a larger room the way the Vitae does.
A closer competitor in terms of price is another speaker I have in for review: Verity Audios $5000 Tamino. Both it and the Vitae have roughly the same range of bass extension, but then everything else about them is different. Its a contrast in design styles.
The Tamino is a narrow, elegant design with a piano-black finish -- visually its a little brother to the companys Fidelio and Parsifal models. It has a rear-firing woofer that goes as deep in the bass, but is a little fatter and warmer compared to the Vitaes more visceral and impactful delivery. The Vitae is gutsier, while the Tamino is more lush down below. Your taste in bass will dictate.
Tuning the Tamino to my room proved a little trickier than the Vitae, likely because of the warmer bass and also the fact that its woofer fires to the rear. The Tamino is also a little harder to drive, probably not so much because of sensitivity, but because of its rated 4-ohm nominal impedance. The Tamino gave my Blue Circle amps a little more of a challenge than normal, and I would hesitate to pair the speakers with low-power amps. In terms of overall output capability, I found the Vitae easier to crank up to higher volume levels, not just because of the easier load on the amp, but also the rooms interaction with it.
Midrange performance through the Tamino is similar to that of Veritys other models -- highly detailed while being a little laid-back. The Vitae is not an up-front speaker, but its more up front than the Tamino, putting voices more or less at the speaker plane, whereas the Tamino has them a little further back. High-frequency performance is comparably clean, clear, airy, and extended -- no complaints whatsoever (nor should there be at this price).
Both of these speakers offer top-notch sound quality commensurate with the investment they require. In other words, they cost quite a bit but give sound quality to match. I cant imagine someone going too wrong with these two speakers; however, they do sound quite different and will find themselves in different systems and with different listeners.
The Vitae is an innovative, well-designed loudspeaker that, in many ways, is the pinnacle of two-way stand-mounted designs. I believe its success is in that it achieves something that few other two-driver designs do: nearly full-range performance and across-the-board stellar sound thats highly enjoyable and transparent. Ive heard other two-way stand-mounted speakers offer the Vitaes type of bass performance, but either at the expense of bass quality or some other aspect of performance. Ive also heard lower-priced two-ways that offer high-quality sound but not near the Vitaes extension or room-filling ability. And, of course, Ive also heard some exorbitantly priced two-way speakers in jewelry-like cabinets that have only the bass performance of a $1500 two-way and dont offer the neutrality of the Vitae.
Leo Lewis seemingly lifelong project, the Ethera Vitae, isnt inexpensive, but it delivers the goods in a unique package. If your budget allows, the Vitae is worthy of audition.
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