Small Wonders: Further Thoughts

by Roy Gregory | January 9, 2012

efore Christmas, I wrote an introductory piece on the subject of small speakers -- and the imminent prospect of reviewing half a dozen or so of the serious European contenders in the category. Time flies and the first two of those reviews are now complete, allowing the opportunity to sit back, take stock, and see what’s emerged and what we’ve learned so far.

The first two speakers to suffer the considerable indignities involved in the review process (a bit like being prodded and poked by a doctor, but without the prescription drugs afterwards) were Raidho’s latest C1.1 and the Crystal Cable Arabesque Mini. Their place at the front of the line was no accident, both speakers delivering class-leading performance (and wallet-wringing price tags to match), allowing us to establish benchmarks for musical expectation and cost. But while both speakers are undoubtedly excellent, they are also very different, their contrasting strengths defining the extremes of a framework within which to assess other products. It’s a framework that we might find ourselves adjusting, but it was important to create that frame of reference.

Now, with those reviews complete, other interesting aspects of the contrast between these two very different yet equally successful designs have emerged, not least the common thinking that underpins their differing musical strengths. One of the key waypoints on the path to really satisfying small-speaker designs was the realization of the vital importance of dynamic coherence. So much effort was expended trying to fake the last ounce of bass weight from ever-smaller boxes, or vociferously arguing that no bass was better than bad bass, that the fact you need both bass and clarity in order to convince musically (or satisfy long-term) seemed to escape the protagonists' attention. Yes, you need clarity and rhythmic integrity, but it needs the underpinning of sufficient bass if it’s going to satisfy; and no, there’s no point in having gobs of bass that are detached in time or space from the rest of the musical range -- or even worse sprawling all over it. It’s dynamic coherence that binds these two conflicting aspects of small-speaker performance together, keeping the two ends connected and in step, and ultimately delivering musical expression and long-term satisfaction.

So it comes as no surprise that it’s one aspect of performance that both the Crystal Mini and the Raidho C1.1 take extremely seriously. What is so fascinating is the form those concerns take, and the way they manifest as engineering solutions. Both speakers are, in their own way, evolutionary products -- but the focus of their development is very different indeed.

Let’s start with the Raidho. The current C1.1 is a further development of engineering and hardware that was first seen in the original C1. That speaker took the virtually unprecedented step of bringing drive-unit development and production entirely in-house, allowing the company to create clean-sheet designs employing novel materials and radical construction to simplify dramatically the overall structure of the speaker assembly as a whole. By creating integrated assemblies that built the moving parts and motors directly onto the rear of a precision-machined baffle, Raidho were able to optimize the mechanical elements and behavior to significantly reduce non-linearities and energy-storage effects -- which directly impact the loudspeaker’s dynamic range, phase integrity and noise floor (not a property we often discuss in the context of loudspeakers, but one that might just be the next big issue for speaker designers). These revolutionary drivers were then built into a small, carefully engineered and exquisitely finished but otherwise conventional cabinet.

The C1.1 uses essentially the same cabinet as the earlier model, but adds further refinements to the drive units, cables and connectors (you can get the full details from the review) that collectively raise the performance significantly. Externally almost identical to the C1, there’s no mistaking the increase in authority or musical integrity from the revised model.

The engineering background and approach of the Crystal Mini is almost diametrically opposed to that of the Raidho. Rather than being a further evolution of an earlier model, the Mini represents a successful attempt to downsize the technology and thinking previously employed in a large floorstanding design. What’s more, that technology concentrates on the innovative and unusual cabinet construction -- glass in the floorstander but realized in aluminum panels here. Careful shaping of the cabinet and optimized dimensions for each of the panels means that Crystal have been able to control the behavior of not just the structure but the internal air-mass as well, eliminating the need for wadding or other internal damping materials. Just as Raidho lavished care and attention on an otherwise conventional cabinet, Crystal have gone to great lengths to ensure that the drivers chosen, although conventional in form and execution, include niceties that ensure that they don’t dilute the advantages won with that sophisticated cabinet design.

Yet, despite having such a different developmental focus, both speakers exhibit significant similarities in thinking and performance.

  1. Both have achieved an unusual purity of form, completely eliminating elements that previous designs have considered essential, efficacious or both. That clarity of purpose and structure carries over into their musical performance and overall intelligibility. Although they differ in terms of musical emphasis, both set standards of musical integrity and insight that many larger designs cannot compete with.
  2. Both cite avoiding dynamic compression as a key design principle. In fact, I’d almost go further in the case of the Raidho, where it is not unfair to describe this as the single overriding concern.
  3. Both target the elimination of stored energy and the smearing and time-related distortions/discontinuities that result. It’s not new thinking -- it’s just that few designs have attacked the problem in such aggressive, radical or effective ways.
  4. The search for coherence in terms of space, time and the energy spectrum extends to the crossover. Both speakers use simple crossovers and go to extreme lengths when it comes to their physical execution.
  5. Given the price, you’d expect both products to be beautifully presented -- and they are. But in keeping with their almost Bauhaus purity of purpose, there are few if any unnecessary frills here: both speakers come with matching stands; both use carefully selected terminals and excellent internal cabling; both offer exquisite but robust finishes that won’t age or deteriorate. All of these things contribute directly to the performance, consistency or longevity of the product.

Taken together, these observations could well constitute a new agenda for speaker design in general and small-speaker design in particular. In the same way that Raidho have conceptually refined and simplified the driver itself and its cabinet interface, Crystal have refined and simplified the cabinet and the relationship between the air-load and the mid-bass driver. Despite coming at the problem from opposite ends, both companies have achieved the same result: allowing more performance to be extracted from a small cabinet by getting closer to the theoretical ideal rather than bending it out of shape. Both approaches have eliminated significant shortcomings in the construction of more conventional designs -- shortcomings that have limited performance and set our expectations accordingly, and not just for small speakers. Indeed, both the Mini and C1.1 don’t just defy their diminutive dimensions; they call into question the benefits of all but the best larger speakers.

Next up is a pair of more affordable designs from Germany. Chris Thomas will be looking at the Lindemann BL 10, while I’ll be considering Audioplan’s latest offering, the Kantata. How many of the boxes outlined above will they tick -- and at what cost? In addition, Chris will also be taking a listen to the Mini and the C1.1. It will be fascinating to see whether his views accord with mine.

The Audio Beat • Nothing on this site may be reprinted or reused without permission.