Issue 142 / June/July 2003

hp's Workshop
Recommended Systems

Alón Exotica Grand Reference Speaker System
Price: $120,000
See Issues 133, 134, 136

Since its introduction, this ambitious "statement" design of Carl Marchisotto's has evolved. The speaker elements, from the true ribbons at the top end to its dual towers of ported 12-inch woofers, have remained as a constant. But the crossover workings of the main towers-themselves consisting of ribbons, midrange, and midbass cone drivers-have been refined more than once. With the result that the integration of the multiple drivers in the main towers, already a job nicely done, has become very nearly seamless. The musical consequence of this? The "focus" of instruments on the sonic stage has been made more precise, without becoming etched; the boundaries of that stage are more audible; and best of all, the harmonic overtone structure of instruments is considerably more vividly and richly detailed.

Thus, the Grand Reference joins that handful of "big" speaker systems that are able to capture semblances of certain aspects of the real thing. No system, however elaborate or technologically thrilling, really is able to bring it all back "alive," which is why we must settle, even with the best, for spooky moments when a sound will be captured in a way to take your breath away, so lifelike is it. Yet the best big systems, like the Exotica, do, excluding those magic moments, come closer, top to bottom, to the gestalt of music than do the vast majority of their lesser brethren (exceptions to be noted here and in the future).

The bête noire of this system, and many another with free-standing woofers, lies in integration of the bass with the main drivers, and the Exotica is no exception in this regard. There are eight 12-inch cone drivers in all, each with its own port, divided between two seven-foot towers. These are not, like the big Infinity systems which seemed to have inspired this design, servo-driven, and so you must find amplification that will bring out their best. No small challenge, this. The amplification must pass through the wondrous, but now discontinued, Dahlquist DQLP-1O electronic low-pass filter (Marchisotto worked with Jon Dahlquist back in that company's glory days-his basic training, so to speak, in more ways than one).

Marchisotto originally supplied, with the review units, a Krell KMA-160 monoblock set. As good as those classic Krells are in the lowest octaves (and the towers operate at their best below 40Hz), I did not find them a satisfactory match for the woofer ensemble. The bass just didn't seem to be quite getting "out" of the boxes. At first, I attributed this to the ported design, which is not sonically, in my experience, the best or easiest road toward natural bass reproduction. Then we began to experiment, and found several combinations that worked better-most notably the amps from Edge, but I was disinclined to use our review units simply for bass reproduction. Turns out, after more experimentation, that the Plinius SA-250, whose upper octaves I found a bit bleached, was a bass amplifier par excellence, achieving, for the first time, a genuinely smooth and hard-to-detect integration of the woofer towers into the upper registers of the system.

One more point about those woofer towers. In my particular setup, they are arrayed approximately three feet behind, and to the inside of, the main towers. I do not understand the rhyme or reason of this, but we have found that unpredictably, at times, these towers must be put out of relative-phase with the main towers for truly flat bottom-end response.

That said, I feel sure some of you are wondering about the other massive speaker systems that have passed through rhe portals of Music Room 3 here in Sea Cliff. In other words, how would I rank them vis-à-vis the big Alóns? Truth to tell, I don't know. I haven't heard the Wisdom quasi-ribbon hybrid designs in several years and I cannot speak to their current iteration, any more than I can to the present state of the big Pipe Dreams, which have undergone much work since I last encountered them (but I remember them with great affection). I anticipate that we will soon be hearing their current sound. And now that Genesis has been revivified by new owners, with Arnie Nudell, now in his prime, back doing what he does best -- design -- we shall see an update of the Genesis One in the not-so-distant future. Forget not that there's plenty of room at the top.

Alón Lotus Elite Signature Speaker System
Price: $7995

At something approximating one-fifteenth the cost of the Exotica Grand References, we have here a speaker that provides 80 percent or so of the sound quality of its fat bigger brothers. In a smallish room of shoebox like dimensions, like our Room 2, the Elites can reach down below 40Hz and do so with a soul-satisfying output. Mind you, they won't do this is in a big room, but then Marchisotto will be happy to sell you one of his new subwoofers (which the rise of home theater spurred him to design). So what do you get for just less than eight grand?

A three-way system with two eight-inch drivers in separately tuned enclosures, topped with a five-inch midrange and a dome tweeter (proprietary design) that are free-standing. (Remember the Dahlquist influence?) All drivers sport Alnico magnet structures. They are 8-ohm systems, with a rated sensitivity of about 89dB, which means they'll require somewhat more power than most single-ended designs can supply. And they look just as sexy as can be. (There is also a non-signature, half-as-expensive version that uses Alnico magnets for the midrange drivers only, and this Scot Markwell finds most, most satisfying.)

I'm not goihg into any great detail about the sound in this forum. You should know that it is, in the right room, about as full-range as you could ask for. It shares that special kind of seamlessness that the Exotica has in such abundance, and is so complete in its capturing of music's overtone structure that you could use it as a monitor-it isn't huge in size, nor a burden to move about. More than one jaw has dropped, including mine, at the quality of its sound. With the Exotica Grand, Carl Marchisotto came into his own as a designer; his speakers before that always, like the Magnepans, sounded like music, but with their own sonic signature. What he learned with the Grand he has now applied, and with a vengeance, to a much smaller and more democratically priced system.

When the speakers are paired with Antique's 60-watt push-pull monoblock triodes (the AQ 1009-845), they come into their own; the sound has a three-dimensional realism (bought at the price of some midbass colorations) unsurpassed in my experience. But you can't play them at a room-filling volume without orchestral fortes going to pieces; it's one of those times you could practically cry for an extra 3dB of output from the amps or an extra 3dB of sensitivity in the Elite's design.