Genesis APM-1 Loudspeakers
by Greg Smith
It all started at CES '97. After an unnecessarily long trip across Las Vegas, the SoundStage! crew and I had made it to the Genesis room, far away from the main high-end exhibits at the Alexis Park. While I was waiting to meet Mark Schifter, someone I'd only exchanged e-mail with before, I sat down and listened to the new APM-1 speakers that were playing. To be honest, I'd never really been a fan of gear from Genesis. The few pieces they made that approached the price range I'm familiar with hadn't caught my attention, and I'm never impressed with megabuck gear from anybody. But the APM-1s were different. Even with the speakers playing an orchestral piece I'd never heard before, I was immediately struck by how enormously powerful the speakers sounded. Every note came through with seemingly zero distortion, and the bass seemed flat down to DC. It was easily the best I'd ever heard a system sound at a show.
After sitting spellbound for a few minutes, I snapped back into reality. Knowing Genesis, these were probably $20,000 speakers, if not $40,000 or $80,000. When Shifter told me the projected retail was $7500 per pair, I was amazed. While the speakers were certainly not cheap, a quick mental estimate of the construction costs for a pair led me to believe they were actually priced quite reasonably. Apparently, Genesis also felt the pricing was a bit too reasonable; after the initial production, they realized $9500 was more appropriate. Even at that price, I was still interested, so I asked for a pair to review.
Inside and outside
Standing 64.5" tall, 11" wide, 25" deep, each Genesis APM-1 weighs in at 240 pounds. The weight of the speakers was made painfully obvious as I planned the logistics of getting them up my stairs. You see, I live on the sixth floor, and there's no elevator. In a sudden fit of testosterone-induced stupidity when faced with the speakers staring at us in the garage, my roommate and I decided to carry them up the stairs without additional help. The hard part about such an exercise is returning to the ground floor to grab the second speaker, because at that point you know perfectly well what suffering lies in store for you on the way up. After this exercise, it was suggested that if I would ever want bigger speakers than these, I should have them delivered by helicopter to the roof.
I unboxed the beasts, finding the IEC power cords and manual hidden in the bottom of one of the cardboard monoliths. On the rear of the APM-1 is an array of controls. A power switch controls the amplifier driving the woofer in each speaker. Even more fun, there are level knobs for the bass gain, midrange level, and tweeter level. I glanced through the manual to get a feel for what appropriate starter settings were for each control, wired everything up, and sound came out.
Speakers rarely sound all that great out of the box. Driver break-in, placement issues, amplifier and speaker cable compatibility -- it's a wonder we can ever get these things working right. When you add the necessity to tune three level controls on the speaker as well, the odds of the APM-1s sounding at all like one of the slick demo setups when you first fire them up are slim. My roommate, who hadn't heard the speakers before, was shocked at how unimpressive they were during his first listen. I knew that this was a setup problem, shooed him away, and went to work. A little slide across the room here, twist the bass gain there, and around four hours later, I finally had something that sounded reasonably good in my room. I beat on the speakers for a week to loosen them up while planning my game plan for a second round of adjustments.
A look at the speaker's construction was helpful. The Genesis literature proclaims: "The APM's magic is in the drivers." So let's start there. The 1" planar ribbon tweeter is 0.0005" thick, constructed from a laminated membrane of aluminum and Kapton. Since low mass usually corresponds to good high-frequency response, it's not surprising to discover that the ribbon is rated as flat to 36kHz (-3dB). The titanium midrange cone measures 5.5" in diameter and is joined by two 6.5" metal-cone midbass drivers. My experience with speakers from NEAR has made me realize that I really like the low distortion and sharp transients of lightweight metal cones, and the APM-1 drivers have these characteristics in spades. The bass of the speakers comes from the 15" side-firing metal-cone woofer. A 500W G-SAT switching amplifier of Genesis design is coupled with a servo control system, which uses an accelerometer to keep the woofer on track no matter what it's called on to do. A large warning at the end of the instruction manual says: "Should your woofer amplifier unexpectedly turn off and you are unable to turn it back on, you have overheated the amplifier or have played it too hard. It may take up to ten minutes for the amplifier to turn back on...and you are probably now deaf." OK, it doesn't actually say that last part, but it should. Considering the size and efficiency of this woofer, and the fact that you get two of them with 500W of power for each, I suspect few people are going to have problems with the amplifiers running out of steam.
Did I mention that the speaker is a dipole? The back of the upper section is open, with a grille keeping stray fingers from poking at the driver innards. In addition to the regular out-of-phase radiation coming from the front drivers, a second tweeter is located at the very top of the cabinet. An open cabinet like this can help to reduce "boxiness," as there's no pressure build-up inside the enclosure. A small amount of filler material is located right behind each of the front drivers, and there's some cabinet bracing, but other than that the top enclosure is empty.
A beautiful ten-layer sculpted rosewood panel is the main thing you see when looking at the front of the speakers. It's criminal to cover such craftsmanship, and it's obvious the APM-1 grille is an afterthought. I didn't mind at all that half the plastic supports holding it in place broke off when I first removed the grille. The rubber holding the plastic stand-offs in place on the speaker front is apparently stronger than the glue holding the stand-offs to the grille. While I don't like to dismiss even minor flaws in a product this expensive, I suspect very few potential APM-1 owners would even seriously consider using the grilles, even if they were fantastic. Not only is there the potential for sonic degradation, they just don't look nearly as attractive as the speaker in the nude .
The manual for the APM-1 suggests a system-tuning procedure that relies heavily on speaker placement. While adjusting the bass level is mentioned in several places, there's almost no discussion of what to do about the level controls for the midrange and tweeter. This is a pity because they were by far the most problematic to set correctly in my system. "After following the rough setup guide above, your speakers should sound great," says the manual. While those suggestions are probably sufficient for Arnie Nudell to get the speaker sounding good, the APM-1s speakers were far from "great" after I followed the procedure. The important thing to realize is that the relatively small effect of the midrange and tweeter levels (at most +/-1.5dB) means that you don't use them like you're used to using tone controls. For example, if the midrange doesn't sound forward enough, increasing the midrange level is probably not the right approach. What the adjustments really do is affect how the drivers integrate. You notice the most difference around the frequencies where the crossover melds two drivers together. Because the midbass drivers are the only ones without any controls, everything needs to be tuned relative to them.
The real key is to only adjust the controls in one direction from their minimum or maximum. That gives you a much better feel for what the level dials do than using a middle setting and moving in both directions. I suggest starting with the midrange and treble controls at their maximum and the bass gain at the minimum. Using a recording with lots of deep and midbass, turn up the woofer gain on each speaker separately until that speaker sounds natural. Switch to stereo and adjust both woofers equally from then on (you'll probably need to turn both down a little bit). Turn down the midrange control until deep male vocals sound right (if it's set too high, they'll be a bit thick and boomy). Robbie Robertson's self-titled album [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 618] worked well for me here. With the tweeter at its maximum, everything should be a bit "larger than life." I found listening to someone with a high-pitched voice is the best way to get the control tuned right; embarrassingly enough, I settled on Journey's Steve Perry as my singer of choice for tuning the high-frequency level.
After spending a bit over a month occasionally adjusting all the controls available on the speakers, everything snapped into place. Before that moment, there were quite a few times when I was dissatisfied with the speakers. But the vast array of adjustments always left me feeling like I had options even when I wasn't happy. For example, I had a problem with bass reinforcement for the left and right speakers because of their very different corner proximity. This was dealt with quite easily once I realized what was happening and adjusted the speakers separately. While the adjustments available to you on the APM-1s are subtle in some areas, they allow a very powerful tuning procedure. It's complicated to be sure, but that goes with the territory.
Gear and room
As for matching equipment, I used my usual collection of gear (Warner Imaging VTE-401S amp, Lexicon DC-1 preamp/DAC/surround-sound processor, Parasound C/DC-1500 CD player/transport, JPS Labs Superconductor interconnects, B&W 602 rear speakers) with these speakers, with one notable exception. I borrowed a set of the JPS Labs Superconductor2 NC Series speaker cables ($2499 per 8' pair); they seemed more appropriate for use with a set of $9500 speakers than the inexpensive AudioQuest Type 4 I normally use. The fundamental strengths of the JPS cable that I noted, which include especially clear high-frequency detail and solid bass, match quite well with what the Genesis APM-1s do well. Switching back to the Type 4 caused a clear loss of resolution and transient snap. While the basic goodness of the speaker comes through with either cable, I think it would be foolish to limit the performance of the APM-1 with a $100 speaker cable. I suspect most buyers of speakers in this price range already have a long list of favorite cables. The JPS cable seems an excellent match, albeit with the usual concerns I have with the company's designs. (It took well over an hour to figure out a good way to carefully bend the cable into the space I needed it to cover.)
The part of the L-shaped room I listen in is 23'L x 15'W, with half of the long dimension open. The farthest away I could get the speakers from each other was six feet, which seemed to be sufficient. The backs of the speakers were 16" away from the rear wall, which means the higher-frequency drivers were closer to 27" from the wall. The couch is about ten and half feet from the speakers. My space is really about as small a spot as I'd recommend these speakers be used in. They are large enough and have sufficient placement constraints that you're not likely to have enough room in a less spacious area.
The impressive bass response of these Genesis speakers was a large part of what initially impressed me about them, so that's what I first started listening to carefully. "Oceania" from Mike Oldfield's The Songs of Distant Earth [WEA 1477] is a subwoofer torture test that few systems survive without cracking woofers and nasty distortion. With the APM-1, the synthesized landscape of the music rides clearly above the powerful bass background. Tiny details of the sonic textures Oldfield lays out so carefully all come through without being distorted by the powerful low end. On systems with lesser subwoofers, this recording tends to become a bass-fest, lacking subtlety. With the APM-1s, low-frequency distortion is so low that it can't interfere with the rest of the music.
A long-time subwoofer-buster favorite among audiophiles is Jean Guillou's performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition [Dorian 90117] transcribed for the Great Kleuker-Steinmeyter Organ of the Tonhalle in Zurich. The 16Hz bass of the 32' pipe will not only rattle your speakers, it will disturb your neighbors, break an occasional window, and cause indigestion. I'm serious -- it's tough to reproduce correctly. Ever had an old cassette tape or LP that had a skip or similar problem in the middle? You know how, after repeated listens, you start tensing up at that part of the music, even after the source is long gone? That's how the "Gnomus" section of Pictures is for me. Even though I've owned some pretty good subwoofers in the past, I wince when the really deep parts start because I'm so used to associating those areas with distortion and overloaded woofers. While the APM-1 hasn't totally cured my tension, the remarkable cleanliness with which the servo-driven woofers handle very low frequencies has certainly helped. Parts of my room still shake in time with the organ, but now it's not the speakers themselves breaking up.
Since I was already digging into the cliché'd, reviewer part of my collection, I spent some time with Famous Blue Raincoat [Classic Records RTHCD5052]. Most tracks continued to showcase the virtues of the Genesis speakers, like the way the big drum during "Bird on a Wire" clearly contrasted with the tinkling bells and other percussion. But during "First We Take Manhattan," Jennifer Warnes's voice wasn't quite as satisfying as I would have liked. As her vocals moved up and down in frequency, there are spots where the focus isn't as clear as it should be. I traced this small discontinuity through a couple of CDs just to prove to me it was an acoustic problem rather than a recording issue. Since Id never noticed this bit of weirdness in any of the APM-1 listening Id done in other rooms, I decided some room treatment was in order.
I picked up a number of acoustic foam panels from Markertek some years ago. Their 54" square, 2" thick egg-crate style Markerfoam sells for $20. While its not quite as sexy or effective as similar products from companies like Sonex, its a whole lot cheaper. When I was using the Magnepan MMG speakers, another dipole design, I found that tiling the wall behind the speakers with Markerfoam gave a notable improvement by reducing echo in the room. With the APM-1s, I found it more useful to cover part of the rear wall instead. While this produced a welcome sharpening of overall focus and clarified the already impressive soundstage, the midrange oddity was still there. As I sat and thought, I reached for the soda sitting on the coffee table in front of me. Coffee table...hmmm. Putting my drink on the floor, I banished the table from the listening room. That was definitely a step in the right direction. I grabbed a piece of foam Id cut into a 18"x54" strip and put it where the table had been. Now I was on to something.
With the foam strip about one-third of the way from the speakers to me and centered between them, Warnes was coming in perfectly (and my neighbors were glad that I was finally moving on to another song). I revisited the other recordings I had found problematic to confirm my solution. Fish's frantic vocals on "He Knows You Know" from Marillion's Script to a Jester's Tear [EMI 7243 8 57865 2 5] had been suffering from a lack of spatial realism, with the center image smeared, but with the room treatment in place, everything sounded great. In addition to clear vocals, the instrumental jam in the middle was handled incredibly well. The interplay and power of the guitars, keyboards, and drums were flawless. With the long vertical distribution of drivers in APM-1 array, it appears theres considerable value to controlling the floor bounce between the speakers and the listening position.
The time I've spent with the Genesis APM-1 has been an interesting lesson in resolving power. The accuracy of the drivers really allow listening deeply to how a recording was made as well as how it was intended to sound. But unlike with some expensive designs, this is not accomplished by simply exaggerating high frequencies or other such detail-enhancing tricks. Pulling out recordings from my collection of badly recorded '80s pop, like Aldo Nova's "Fantasy" (from the Portrait collection, [Epic/Legacy EK 48522]), I was pleasantly surprised. The gritty and harsh qualities of this recording weren't thrown in your face. You could hear that the tonal balance of the recording wasn't quite right, but the detail wasn't accompanied by the spitty treble that plagues playback of this song with most speakers. The APM-1 lets you hear what the recording is doing without suffering too much in the process if that recording is poor.
The accurate-but-tolerant design of the APM-1 is one of the reasons it's suited for use in a home-theater system. Films are often more harsh in a home setting than they should be, and the APM-1 speakers work very well at keeping this from being especially problematic. My only real concern with these speakers in a video environment is related to dialog. With more bombastic movies, like the DVD of Eraser [Warner Bros 14202], I found it difficult to hear the dialog during louder scenes. The unrelenting bass of the movie combined with the somewhat laid-back midrange of the speakers can work against you. The dialog during the plane/parachute scene in particular was hard to make out above the roaring of the engine. At reasonable listening levels (in my case, ones low enough that my neighbors won't call the police), I found it necessary to utilize the Dolby Digital (AC-3) dialog enhancement features of my Lexicon DC-1 with many movies. In a system with a dedicated center-channel speaker, like the Genesis 700 that matches the APM-1, this might not be an issue.
I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on the issue of amplifier selection with these speakers. Despite the speaker's 90dB sensitivity rating and built-in subwoofer amp, my 200Wpc Warner Imaging amplifier was radiating a serious amount of heat when I was playing the APM-1s at higher volumes. The feedback I've gotten from several Genesis dealers suggests that the APM-1 needs a bit more power than you might expect at first. Something about the drivers or crossover seems to draw considerably more current than a typically low-powered amp is capable of. The best sound I've heard from these speakers was with high-output Audio Research tube amplifiers like the VT100 and VT200. While there's more to how powerful an amplifier sounds than its regular output rating, I suspect that amps in the 50Wpc to 100Wpc range would be most appropriate for these speakers, with either tubes or solid-state offerings being suitable. Since the recommended configuration for connecting the subwoofer amplifiers involves tapping off the signal from the main system power amplifier, you should be aware that an amp for your main speakers that rolls off deep bass may also affect the bass coming out of the subwoofer. You could always use the preamp-level sub inputs in this situation instead, but it will make for a slightly more difficult integration job.
The Genesis APM-1 will serve as an excellent speaker to almost any music or home-theater system. I have nothing but praise for its frequency extension in both directions and overall resolving-but-friendly character. The small aberrations I noted instead fall into the area of coherence. With its six drivers, a myriad of controls, and large size, it's difficult to get the speaker to sound like a single point-source. While other rooms or other listeners might not run into exactly the same problems I raised, I suspect that these speakers are more prone in general to have driver-integration issues. To me, the small loss in coherence compared with some other comparably priced designs is more than made up for by the APM-1's effortless playback at practically any volume, no matter how demanding the material.
With proper setup, the APM-1 provides neutral playback that's adjustable for just about any reasonably sized room. But getting that result can take some tinkering. High-end audio requires that you don't take the initial out-of-box experience too seriously. If you have the space and the money for the Genesis APM-1, I highly recommend you audition this speaker. Just matching the bass performance of the APM-1 alone is likely to cost around $5000 -- that's the price for a pair of Genesis's 900 subwoofers, which use similar technology. If you get a pair of these speakers for your home, expect a bit of a learning curve before you get the best results from them. But if your results are like mine, the APM-1 is well worth the trouble in the end.
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