". . . what they do in the small space they occupy is emotionally and viscerally gripping."
here's plenty of audio equipment that will rattle your windows or help you hear a distant fly buzzing through the recording studio. These are nice tricks, but at this point in my audio journey, they amount to a mere sugar rush. I've graduated to the hard stuff. I want goosebumps. I want a lump in my throat when I hear Barber's Adagio for the hundredth time. I want hardware that makes me forget it's there because I'm too busy playing with the band in my head. I want kit that will keep me up at night and make me long for it when I'm at the office.
Which brings me to the French speaker company Apertura. I'd never heard of the outfit when I wandered into a room at last year's AXPONA show in Chicago. I noticed the rather imposing profile of Playback Designs' Andreas Koch from the hallway and figured I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet him. Turns out, in spite of his stature (the guy must be at least 6' 4"), Herr Koch was a very soft-spoken, unassuming gentleman. He was there to demonstrate the many features of the Playback Designs IPS-3 integrated amplifier/DAC, and I was lucky enough to hear some amazing DSD masters he'd put together for the show. Because of Koch's restrained delivery, I didn't get a complete list of the material I heard that day, but I do remember some serious goosebumps, especially when he played a DSD version of Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin', a recording I've heard more often than I can count. This time, though, the sound was so lifelike that it felt as though Lynne was leaning toward me as she delivered each one of her sultry lines. These vocals had flesh on them and actually occupied three-dimensional space in the room.
Naturally, I wanted to know more about what might be responsible for what I was experiencing. I assumed the magic was coming primarily from Koch's legendary electronics because it surely couldn't be from the rather unassuming stand-mounted monitors I'd practically overlooked. When I finally pointed to them, Koch smiled and said, "They're quite nice, aren't they? I heard them in Munich last year and thought they'd be perfect for this setup."
"Quite nice"? Let's just say I practically begged for a chance to spend more time with these French beauties. I'd never been moved like this by two-way monitors. My enthusiasm led to a visit from Brian Tucker, the Midwest sales rep for Source Systems Ltd., the North American representative of Apertura speakers. Tucker drove from Chicago to St. Louis on a fall weekend and warned me that setup would be "a two-person job." For minimonitors? I'm not a weightlifter, but I thought I could manage a couple of boxes. Skeptical as I was, after Tucker's Volvo pulled up and we started unloading the Kalyas' custom-designed anvils -- I mean stands -- I finally got it. Each one is fashioned from 2"-thick aluminum and tipped the scales at 80 pounds. The stands are equipped with adjustable steel spikes that were big and sharp enough to cause my wife to worry that the combined 120-pound weight of each Kalya and its individual support structure might push them clean through our hardwood floors.
Lucky for me, my buddy Blackmore was in the neighborhood and sacrificed his sacroiliac to help us get the Kalyas balanced and positioned in just the right spots. Placing pennies underneath each of the Kalya's five spikes averted structural renovation and further marital discord. To illustrate just how much gravitas the Kalyas have, after they'd been shipped back to Chicago, I noticed the pennies we'd used for support had deep indentations in them where the spikes had been.
hristian Yvon, Apertura's designer and founder, is not a household name in the States, but his work is well known in Europe, where he earned his bones working on some very innovative speaker designs for Goldmund, the legendary Swiss audio concern. The Kalyas share the offset tweeter placement of Apertura's flagship speakers, the $26,000/pair Enigmas, but the challenges of making what Yvon calls a "non-compromise" high-end stand-mounted monitor must have been considerable. There are no parallel surfaces inside (or out) of the Kalyas and their cabinets are extensively braced and shaped with 25-30mm multilayers of pressure-molded MDF panels. While Apertura claims the Kalya's design eliminates standing waves, Apertura's general manager Eric Poyer told me that the geometry of the Kalya's cabinet only has a marginal effect on standing-wave cancellation. "By using non-parallel faces we modified the envelope of standing waves but not their level." Poyer added that the effects of standing waves are then eliminated by the incorporation of two large internal bracing panels for additional damping.
For the Kalya, Yvon has modified a 2" composite-membrane Fountek ribbon tweeter with a powerful neodymium magnet for treble duties and allied it with a custom-made 8" Isotactic Matrix driver with hand-woven polypropylene composite cone to handle the bass and midrange. The drive units are, in turn, configured with the tweeter below and slightly off center from the woofer. The 17"H x 10"W x 16"D Kalya is reflex loaded and ported on the bottom of the cabinet, which is unusual for a two-way minimonitor, and company officials say the placement of a center cone at the bottom of its stand is key to its improved handling of vibrational energy. With respect to the Kalya's nearly 8"-long, downward-firing port tube, Poyer told me, "For best results, the idea with Kalya was to have the vent-tube output positioned just behind the bass driver's magnet center. This way you have the cleanest bass extension possible."
When I asked about the unusual arrangement of the tweeter and midrange/woofer, Poyer explained that while the ribbon tweeter's speed and dynamics are exceptional, its one drawback is vertical directionality. Unless a listener's ear is at the same level as the ribbon, high-frequency attenuation occurs. This challenge was further complicated by the speaker's very precise port-tube placement. According to Poyer, "The only good solution was to have tweeter and bass drivers reversed. It's a matter of compromise between tweeter directivity, and vent-tube length and preferred position."
The Kalya's crossover, set at 2.5kHz, uses Yvons patented DRIM triple-transition technology, which combines 6dB, 12dB and 24dB/octave slopes. It was hand-wired on an FR4 PCB with a copper thickness of 140µm. Audiophile components were used throughout and include Jantzen coils with 1.4mm² baked wires and high-grade polypropylene capacitors. The Kalyas are equipped with single-wire binding posts that accept both bananas and spades. The speakers are available in rosewood and rosewood Santos high-gloss finishes.
Company measurements indicate that the 8-ohm Kalyas' frequency range is 40Hz-30kHz +/-3dB and that their sensitivity is 89dB/2.83W/1m. My 350Wpc Conrad-Johnson Premier 350SA amp turned out to be an effortless match for the Kalyas, providing drama and subtlety in equal measure. Based upon my extensive listening sessions, the Kalyas' grilles significantly softened, and in some instances even muddied, the sound. Consequently, all of my critical evaluations were conducted without them.
I've always valued the time and phase coherence of my Thiel CS3.7s, and I've missed it when switching to other speakers. Not this time; I was continually struck by how "in sync" musical performances sounded through the Kalyas. I suspect that the Kalyas' speed might have something to do with their tweeters' neodymium magnets. Jim Thiel also used neodymium magnets in the CS3.7's tweeter. Additionally, Apertura's Poyer confirmed that, due to Yvon's DRIM crossover, the Kalyas are phase coherent throughout the audio band. The ability to get the timing just right was absolutely thrilling on some recordings. It was not unlike driving a car with better response to subtle changes in steering and quicker acceleration. In other words, very addictive.
ne of the most rewarding moments I've had in this hobby happened a couple of years ago when we had a houseguest. Our friend was reading in the sunroom about 25 feet away from the main listening room. When I checked in on him, he smiled and said, "It sounds like a real band is playing in your living room." That moment sticks with me because it supports my belief that a good system should be able to produce a decent approximation of real music from a variety of vantage points. I never evaluate equipment welded to the apex of an equilateral triangle, even if that may result in "ideal" sound. I didn't spend all this cabbage to be chained to a chair, listening to sound; I'm a music junkie, and I want to enjoy my vice wherever I happen to be.
Even though the recommended arrangement for the Kalyas is the classic triangle, I was relieved to hear that after setting the speakers up several feet away from front and side walls, they sounded quite nice from a wide range of seating positions. Soundstaging was best at the apex, but tone, timbre and bass response held together surprisingly well regardless of where I sat. Every guest who heard the Kalyas commented on how good they sounded off-axis.
I don't have much experience with French audio products, so I couldn't say whether the Kalyas are typical French speakers. But I can say this: they sounded sweet, smooth, audacious, romantic, seductive and amazingly energetic for their size. If you thought that was subjective, you're really going to cringe when I tell you that the Kalyas are the one of the most magical speakers I've ever heard. Here's what I mean. During my listening sessions, I caught myself thinking that a cello had an auburn quality. I found myself musing about the citrus notes of a trumpet and the caramel tone of a flugelhorn. I even had some vivid internal hallucinations as I listened to passages from musicians playing at the height of their talent. I could "see" violinists swaying and leaning as their notes swirled around my living room. Music presented through the Kalyas triggered vivid images and emotional reactions. That's what I call "magic" and plenty of speakers I've heard can't begin to pull it off.
You're probably thinking I must've been hitting the single-malt a bit too much during my listening sessions, but I promise the liquor cabinet is off limits during review time. Whatever the Kalyas were doing, the result hit my brain's limbic system in just the right spot. An example of this happened when I cued up the title track from Frank Sinatra's 1960 album Nice 'n' Easy (CD [Capitol/EMI Records / Capitol 33745]). In modern parlance, this was Frank's chill disc and, to be honest, it can come off as a bit bland when played on average audio systems. However, through the Kalyas, Nelson Riddle's opening string-and-horn arrangement was especially warm and luxurious, just as I believe the arranger intended it to be. When Frank stepped up to the mic, he sounded closer and more intimate than I was used to through my reference speakers. The spotlight was more tightly focused on that subtle-yet-powerful voice, leaving no doubt as to why Sinatra is still considered the gold standard.
Yeah, but what about music from the 21st century? After all, there are a number of speakers famous for conveying everything well as long as the music never gets too loud or goes too low. So, to put the Kalyas through their paces, I streamed Lorde's Pure Heroine [Extended Edition] on Tidal and turned "Biting Down" up to eleven. Yow. The bombastic drum beats and throbbing bass lines that dominate this track were visceral and heart-pounding. These were definitely speakers I could dance to.
Given how much fun I was having with the Kalyas, I was naturally curious about how other people's brains might react to them. Test subject number one was my friend Steve the Architect and lover of all things Magnepan. When it comes to auditioning gear, let's just say Steve can be a bit blasé. Many's the time I've seen him stifle a yawn and squirm in his seat during audio crawls or visits to local dealer showrooms. Steve's never rude, but I've learned to see the meh written all over his face when something fails to ring his bell. When something does get his attention, he invariably straightens up, a slight smile breaks at the corner of his mouth and he starts asking questions. After hearing "Don't Misunderstand" from Melody Gardot's The Currency of Man (CD [Decca / Verve 4724682]), the Architect was a chatterbox. "I'm hearing things I haven't heard before on this cut. . . . That's incredible depth and bass energy for a two-way. . . . That crossover is seamless!" What was planned as a quick visit turned into several hours and loads of requests for all kinds of music.
One of the first things Steve focused on was the Kalya's ribbon tweeter. I suspect this is because it reminded him a bit of his Maggies. He commented that violins sounded sweet, luscious and authentic when played through the Kalyas. I'll chime in here and say that when it comes to treble notes, these are the least-fatiguing speakers I've ever heard. They conveyed the upper registers without the slightest hint of grain or strain.
The Kalyas threw a reasonably wide soundstage, with instruments occasionally appearing a foot or so to the left and right of their placement. Our reaction to this was somewhat muted because my Thiels' soundstage is exceptionally wide; listening to the CS3.7s is like watching a 70mm movie in CinemaScope. However, the depth of the Kalyas' soundstage was a bit more impressive than my reference, extending a foot or two beyond what we were used to in my room. Whether this was primarily the result of speaker size and placement or to the Kalya's design is difficult to say.
Steve and I were struck by how the Kalyas' sound reminded us a bit of what hearing music through great single-ended amplifiers is like. They nail the midrange and convey a startlingly three-dimensional presence when playing all but the most dynamically complex recordings. When something is wonderful but difficult to define, the French use the phrase je ne sais quoi. The Kalyas have loads of that.
Before he left for the evening, Steve cracked a wicked smile and said, "You're gonna miss these speakers when they go back to Chicago." Ouch. My Thiels were starting to look a bit diminished in their corner of exile in the adjacent room.
While the Kalyas did an excellent job of disappearing, on a handful of occasions I would hear a musical passage that sounded a bit like it was coming out of a box instead of thin air. A guitar here or a horn section there would come across as though it was emanating from a tube or was being processed through a filter of sorts. I'm tempted to use the word coloration to describe this, except that it only rarely happened and this lack of consistency left me puzzled. It could be the result of how the Kalyas interacted with the acoustic challenges of my listening space, which is a 15'W x 16'L x 8'H living room with variable surfaces and only moderate spouse-approved sound treatments.
The second guinea pig in my Kalya listening sessions was the always-willing Blackmore, TAB's newest reviewer. Of all the people I know, he has listened to the widest range of speaker types and sizes and has even puttered with a few of his own amateur designs. As a result, Blackmore was far less likely to fall under the spell of Christian Yvon's alchemy.
While he loved the Kalyas' ribbon tweeter, he was the first person to comment on whether the speakers were conveying all instrumental tone and timbres accurately. Because Blackmore is also a professional musician, he knows from firsthand experience what a mallet actually sounds like as it hits the skin of a bass drum. He said the Kalyas don't quite convey the "thwack" that proceeds the "boom." I agree. He also noticed an overemphasis of bass resonance as Jordi Savall bowed his viola da gamba during a performance of "Prelude" from Savall's Francois Couperin: Pièces de violes, 1728 SACD [Alia Vox AVSA 9893]. Blackmore said it sounded like we'd "stuck our heads inside the instrument" as opposed to hearing the naturally decaying resonance we would have experienced as members of the audience. While I've never been that close to a viola da gamba, I think the observation is on target, based on my listening to the same track on my reference speakers. The Thiels are famous for their transparency to source. In spite of their shortcomings, Blackmore concurred that the Kaylas' portrayal of vocals and acoustic ensembles was exceptionally involving and emotionally rewarding.
So the Kalyas are not speakers that will please everyone. While listening to particularly complex productions, they reminded me of using a camera that lacked a wide-angle lens. If you're taking a picture of a large group, people will have to move a bit closer together and sometimes be forced to move into poses that are not entirely natural in order to be part of the picture. In the case of the Kalyas, the more saturated and the more layered a recording was, the more "pushed together" the music's various components could become.
One example occurred when I played "Come on! Feel the Feel the Illinoise!" from Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise (CD [Rough Trade RTRADCD 250]) for Jim, my third test subject. Jim is an IT manager who owns Legacy Focus SE speakers and is, by his own admission, a bit of a bass head. Even he was impressed with the Kalyas' ability to reproduce lower frequencies. However, when Stevens' multitude of backing musicians kicked in, we both looked at each other and commented, almost at the same time, that the track just didn't quite "click" like it does on a set of full-range speakers. The drum-kit fills were there, but they seemed to be somewhat buried by instruments in the midrange, and the air we'd noticed on other recordings seemed to disappear in the swell of instrumental layers. The leading edge of the percussionist's transient attack was somewhat softened and the soundstage seemed a bit crowded.
I worry that I may be overemphasizing this shortcoming by expending so many words to explain it. My point is merely to say that a set of two-way monitors can only carry so much weight -- and Apertura makes bigger speakers for a reason. Nonetheless, it's not something that interfered much with the tremendous fun Jim and I had with the Kalyas. In fact, Jim e-mailed me a few days later to say that when it came to vocals, his Legacys sounded "broken when compared to the Kalyas." The Kalyas' ability to convey both the three-dimensional space of vocal music, as well as that subtle fourth dimension I call the soul of a performance, is unsurpassed in my experience.
On less-complex recordings, the Kalyas' performance often belied their small stature. Listening to the them deliver bass-heavy EDM tracks was like watching a 5'9" Nate Robinson dunk a basketball. You just don't expect it and hitting replay is the only reasonable response. When taut and textured bass notes hit your chest hard and there's no subwoofer in sight, you have a right to shake your head in admiration of Christian Yvon's design skills. Nonetheless, for those who need serious vibrations at the butt level, the Kalyas fall a bit short. It would be very interesting to hear the Kalyas with a subwoofer designed by Yvon. Should he ever decide to undertake such a project, I'd certainly stand in line to hear the result.
uring my four months with the Apertura Kalyas, I was reminded of the feud among British blues fans about whether Eric Clapton or Peter Green is the better guitarist. While I think both musicians are amazing, their styles are distinctly different. Clapton is clearly the more popular, and his technical chops are unassailable -- "perhaps a little too perfect," some critics say. Green's solos, by contrast, have a spooky, emotional quality that Clapton has only occasionally matched. In fact, B.B. King once said that Green was the only one of the young British guitar slingers who actually made him sweat -- made his "spine tingle."
The Kalyas are like that. They aren't perfect. As good as they are with the lower registers, they can only reach down to around 40Hz. But what they do in the small space they occupy is emotionally and viscerally gripping. If you can stop worrying about specs, I predict the Kalyas will entice you with their ability to convey rich midrange tones and delicate detail and tempt you with their effortless grace.
As a reviewer, I'm not quite ready to settle down, but these French beauties made me seriously think about it. I'm reminded of a quote that is sometimes attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire: "Perfection is the enemy of the good." If that's true, then it would not be faint praise to say that the Apertura Kalyas are very good speakers indeed.
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