". . .unforced and even-handed delivery. . .that is the whole point."
udioplan are neither the highest profile nor the most prolific loudspeaker manufacturer out there. By their own admission, they manage about one new design every ten years, a statement that chimes well with my own impressions of the brand. Ive been aware of the company for nearly 30 years, and in that time theyve launched three completely new designs, of which the Kantata, which appeared last year, is the most recent. This relaxed product-launch tempo is a reflection of a company that would rather work to refine -- and then further refine -- an existing product than create an entirely new one. Its an approach that has made Audioplan speakers consistently polished and musically communicative performers -- often way beyond their relatively modest pricing. The longstanding Kontrast model, the companys first and the first I ever heard, is now in Mk 5 guise, yet it still looks virtually identical to the Mk 2, the very first speaker I came across that used the narrow-fronted-but-deep floorstanding format at a time when the rest of the industry was obsessed with perching ever-smaller minimonitors on ever-heavier stands. The rest, as they say, is history.
For such an apparently compact enclosure, theres a lot inside this little speaker. I say "apparently" because the cabinet is considerably deeper than you expect -- deeper in fact than it is tall. What might be rather awkward visual proportions are concealed by the clever split-tone treatment of the cabinet along with the rear-sloping column of the stand, features that leave a distinctly unusual set of proportions looking entirely normal. The rear half of the cabinet and the stand are finished in either silver or sand enamel or gray Nextel, while the baffle and front half can be ordered in a range of contrasting wood veneers or high-gloss lacquers. There is no grille supplied (although you can get one as an optional extra), and the overlapping drivers make a strong stylistic statement against the contrasting background of the baffle. If you want speakers to blend seamlessly with an Edwardian drawing room, then you should probably look elsewhere, but the range of finish options mean that you should also be able to create a look that complements or successfully stands apart from most other décors.
Ticking the boxes
hat covers the outside; what about the insides? The Kantata cabinet is constructed as two separate open boxes built from 19mm HDF, the front "baffle" section being bonded to the rear "cabinet volume." This unusual approach, as well as providing the signature styling of the speaker, breaks the dimensions of the cabinets largest panels as well as supplying a degree of damping in the form of the glue. More importantly, it allows greater control of the energy distribution and dissipation within the cabinet. The larger floorstanding Kontrast and Konzert models employ separate, decoupled tweeter enclosures, an option that is precluded in the case of the Kantata by cost and size constraints. Instead, in the center of the rear baffle, youll see a black "knob," positioned directly behind the bass driver. Its the same as the carbon-composite polymer feet (or Anti-Spikes as Audioplan call them) on which both the speaker and stand sit. In that case the feet screw into the cabinet or base plate on threaded carbonized polyamide posts, the speaker being further attached to the stand by loosely fitted nylon bolts that prevent any risk of toppling. Audioplan dispensed with steel spikes some years ago, disliking the peaky energy bands that resulted from their use. In their place they developed the Anti-Spikes as a broader-band lossy interface that produced a more even, musical balance. The Anti-Spike on the cabinet rear takes that approach one step further. It is connected to a rod coupled directly to the motor assembly of the bass-mid driver. By carefully tightening it against the rear baffle (a factory adjustment, so dont be tempted to twist it) they are able to dissipate reaction energy from the driver into the rear half of the cabinet, and to do so in a much more controlled fashion, cleaning up the bass performance and significantly reducing the smearing of musical detail and timing caused by intermodulation distortion -- a particular problem in small speakers that attempt wide bandwidth. The rear half of the cabinet is also horizontally braced to stiffen its structure further.
Drivers are a 150mm (6") long-throw bass-mid unit with a woven and doped-fiber cone and extremely narrow surround coupled with a 25mm (1") coated-fabric dome tweeter. The bass is reflex loaded by a narrow, forward-facing slot port at the bottom of the baffle. In a trademark Audioplan technique, the behavior of the air mass inside the cabinet is controlled by a labyrinth of wool-felt partitions, which also help to voice the speaker and integrate the port output. The end result is astonishingly inert and solid to the touch, with a dead weight of 10.5kg (23 pounds) each, while still fastening the drivers to a solid yet lightweight baffle with very low storage characteristics.
The Kantatas crossover is a single-wired, quasi-first-order design, ensuring good phase coherence across the driver transition whilst minimizing nasties outside the critical range. Again, its a technique the company first used back in 1984 but which has since become increasingly common. The obligatory fancy components are all present and correct, although here they are selected on the basis of musical contribution rather than snob value and technology/brand awareness.
The stand is of welded construction, with pared-away top and bottom plates. Its stable and rigid and unusually built from heavy-gauge aluminum, allowing it to be lighter and a less efficient energy store than steel equivalents, resulting in a reduced sonic signature. The effect is that the mechanical energy that does pass from the speaker into the stand will be dissipated far more swiftly in the form of heat, rather than hanging around to blur and smudge the musical output.
So far, there are a few familiar themes here. The other speakers weve looked at in our small-speaker survey (the Crystal Cable Arabesque Mini, Raidho C1.1 and Lindemann BL-10) all offer dedicated lossy stands and complex cabinet/driver interface and construction. What sets the Audioplan Kantata apart is its price. At around £3400 including stands, the little Audioplans are around half the ticket attached to the Lindemann BL-10s, and those are far more affordable than either the Crystal Mini or the C1.1. In terms of the quality-minimonitor set, the Kantata is definitely nearer the bargain-basement end of the scale. What remains to be seen is whether it also constitutes a bargain in musical terms.
Mating and matching
n paper, the Kantatas modest sensitivity (86dB) looks like cause for concern, but in practice the benign load offered by its 6dB slopes makes it seem far more efficient than that number suggests. A lot of the listening was done with the Jadis JA-30 doing the driving (Audioplan also distribute Jadis in Germany, so its hardly surprising that this is a good match), and even with a mere 25 class-A watts to draw on, weight, scale and level never seemed to be an issue. But experience suggests that this has more to do with the nature of the watts delivered than the number. Certainly, I found that the Kantata displayed a natural affinity for tube power, whether Icon, Jadis or VTL derived. With the VTL MB-450 IIIs, the switchable damping factor served to confirm a suspicion that the little Audioplan dislikes overdamped amplification. Even an amp as lucid and musically fluid as the Rowland 625 failed to deliver its potential in combination with the Kantata, which simply left it sounding lean, thin and (frankly) gutless, which this amplifier definitely isnt. From which we can deduce that the Audioplans bass alignment is critical: squeeze it too tight and youll also squeeze the life from the music. Does that make solid-state a no-no? No, but you do need to select the matching amp, tube or solid state, with care, and muscle-bound muscle amps definitely need not apply. Instead you should be looking for easy dynamics and a sense of musical generosity. As I said, the JA-30 offers a near-perfect match.
Over the years, Audioplan speakers have exhibited one trait that set them apart from the competition. They offered what I can only describe as a musical completeness, the sense that they were presenting a musical whole. To put it another way, you never feel theres anything missing from the picture being painted. Intellectually you know that the bandwidth limitations and other considerations mean that there has to be information absent, but you just dont seem to notice that its not there. Its a neat trick and seldom repeated. One of the few current speakers that possess the same attribute is the Wilson Duette, a speaker I regard extremely highly, not so much for its musical accuracy but for the satisfaction it delivers. Thats exactly where the Audioplans always scored; listening was always an involving and satisfying experience.
Without wishing to get all Penn and Teller about it, there has to be a binding factor, a performance attribute -- or set of attributes -- that allow a small speaker like the Kantata (and Audioplan make no really large speakers) or Duette to deliver the sort of musically complete performance that so many larger and more ambitious systems so signally fail to achieve. Lets start by examining what the Kantata does and the musical results that accrue.
Where a lot of small speakers would list imaging amongst their attributes, it has never been a particularly obvious facet of the Audioplan mix. Just like their bigger brothers, the Kantatas deliver a compact, contained soundstage that majors on presence and solidity, substance and a coherent whole, rather than separation and the sort of etched transparency and hyper-detail that so many minimonitors present. This is no walk-in soundscape. What it is, though, is beautifully scaled and proportioned, with instruments and voices bound together into a single whole, rather than pulled apart and teased out. This is about the way the band looks and feels, the shape of the whole rather than the shape of the individuals. Which might seem like a strange place to start, but what the Audioplans do in the realm of imaging has a great deal to do with the way they handle music as a whole.
The recently late, definitely great Jackie Leven was a musical magpie with an almost insatiable appetite for rifling familiar licks, riffs or hooks, not to build whole songs on but to act as echoes behind his own work, dropped into a track to highlight or contrast an emotional shading here, a musical expression there. Who else would embellish a song titled "Blue Soul, Dark Road" (from Elegy For Johnny Cash [Cooking Vinyl COOK CD331]) with the unmistakably naïve opening bars from "Dont Know Much About History"? Yet, thats exactly what he does, the brightness of that melody deepening the darkness of the song as a whole. Its an effect that is played back in glorious Technicolor when you listen to the track through the Kantatas. Not only is that little spray of notes instantly identifiable, but the shadow cast by its brightness seems even deeper as a result. Its a presentation that highlights the emotional compass of the track and also the loudspeakers way with the shape and form of the music its playing. Not only is the melody instantly recognizable, its relationship to the song as a whole, why that melody and why there, is also plainly apparent.
This play of light and dark, the emotional contrasts conjured by the composer and performers, is never more starkly apparent than in Jacqueline du Prés intensely connected and heartfelt performances of the Elgar Cello Concerto. Most people will be familiar with the legendary 1965 EMI recording with Barbirolli and the LSO [ASD 655], but fewer will be familiar with Testaments release [SBT 1388] of a live concert performance recorded by the BBC in Prague and featuring Barbirolli and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Although recorded two years later than the EMI disc, this is still recognizably the same reading of this seminal work, and although the performance might not be as note perfect as the studio recording, it more than makes up for it with the atmosphere and emotional intensity of the live event, so beautifully captured by the BBC. This has become my favorite Elgar Cello recording -- and a benchmark when it comes to assessing a system or components ability to transmit emotional intensity -- and the Kantata demonstrates why.
Despite their modest dimensions the Audioplans succeed in presenting a big, bold, vibrantly solid sense of not just du Prés instrument but the action of her bowing, the sheer energy generated and the emotional and artistic intent that drives it; not just the notes themselves, but her control over their level and placement, the way she shapes those oh- so-emotive musical phrases. This is all about the whole, the natural sense of flow and passage in the playing. What the Kantatas achieve so resoundingly -- and what so few other speakers match, irrespective of price -- is their ability to allow the music to breathe, to give it the space and freedom that brings the performance (and performers) to life.
But as vitally important as that is, the object of this particular exercise, our small-speaker survey, is as much about understanding the how as the what a speaker does. In this case, the clues lie in the Kantatas predecessor, the Kontrapunkt. That speaker employed a 110mm (4 1/4") bass driver with a swept area of 55 square cms in a 5.5-liter cabinet. Contrast that with the same numbers for the newer design and you discover that the Kantatas bass driver is 150mm in diameter, with an unusually wide cone, delivering a swept area of 99 square cms, coupled to a 12-liter cabinet. Now consider the Kantatas 4dB improvement in sensitivity, extra 10Hz extension at low frequencies (their -3dB point is 50Hz) and the fact that they offer a far easier 8-ohm load than their predecessors 4 ohms, and you can begin to see where all that extra swept area and cabinet volume has been spent. But the real advances are in terms of musical expression, dynamic freedom and the rhythmic and musical articulation that results.
Thomas Kuhn is clear on one thing when it comes to small speakers: you lose more than you gain by adding weight at the bottom end. In an attempt to make the speakers sound bigger and more impressive, youll end up throwing out the musical baby with the bath water. Instead, you have to make the most of what you have -- its not about weight but energy and delivering a solid musical foundation. Or to put it another way, its about preserving what you have and presenting it clearly -- hence the emphasis on low-loss crossover design and a cabinet and stand carefully designed to dissipate unwanted energy effectively, energy that would otherwise blur and muddle the musical fundamentals. In the case of the Kantata you can point to the clever split-cabinet construction, the complex enclosure lining, the internal mechanical coupling and the linear dissipation paths provided by the Anti-Spikes. The end result is two drivers, unobtrusively coupled and left to operate in splendid isolation.
Putting the whole first
hat I have described so far is a performance that is unusual for its completeness, the absence of joins or seams that disturb the sense of the whole event. In fact, it doesnt take long to realize that this is exactly what the Kantata is all about: delivering as much of the whole as coherently as possible. You could respond that that is the goal of all loudspeakers, but bitter experience should tell you that youd be wrong. The speaker market is full of designs that fasten on a single stellar performance attribute and then try to graft on as much of the rest as possible. The smaller the speaker, the more eclectic its driver technology, the more pronounced this imbalance is prone to become. Classic examples would be the extreme transparency (and complete lack of bandwidth) demonstrated by the original Quad electrostatic, or the vocal coherence (and total dynamic constipation) of the LS3/5A.
Advances in driver technology and developments in cabinet design have finally allowed Audioplan to offer the same musically open and invitingly holistic character in their small speaker that makes the medium-sized Kontrast so special. The upper-bass/lower-midrange integrity and clarity of the Kantata are the rocks on which its musical performance rests. But rather than opt for the ultra clarity and detail of a speaker like the Lindemann BL-10, the Audioplan stays true to its roots, seeking to deliver the whole rather than a selection of its parts. In this respect it sits far closer to the Crystal Mini than either the Lindemann or the Raidho designs.
So, whilst du Prés cello is impressively solid and present, so too is the orchestra and the sense of acoustic space. Separation of the solo instrument and orchestral cellos is excellent, locational and tonal separation of cellos and basses equally clear and unambiguous. Audience and orchestral incidental noise are clearly located, making them a natural adjunct to the live event, a contribution rather than a distraction. The solid musical foundation and sheer substance underpinning the orchestra make for suitably sudden dynamics, with the impressive jump and impact so vital to the emotional range of this piece.
Shift scale and genre and the Kantatas deliver just as effectively. Listen To "The Radio" from Nanci Griffiths album Storms [MCA DMCG 6066], a beautifully recorded and typically wistful little piece of country-pop puff. Griffiths rapidly piping vocal tests the articulation of any system, while the hitch-kick that marks the rhythmic pickup, underpinned by the measured, walking bass line is what holds the whole thing together. Where many speakers fasten on that distinctive lead vocal, the Audioplans make it clear that this track is all about the band, as the lyric actually makes clear. This is a celebration of Lorretta Lynn and her music, and it takes that responsibility seriously. Its catchy, infectious and should make you want to dance -- and thats exactly the way it should be.
But the sternest test of rhythm and articulation comes in the familiar patterns of speech, particularly the humorous anecdotes that intersperse or introduce the tracks on a live album. Griffith again, but this time One Fair Summer Evening [MCA MCAD-42255]: the track "Love at the Five and Dime" opens with a long, rambling discourse, the back-story to the song. The Audioplans deliver Griffiths familiar voice with an uncanny naturalness, the timing so critical to humor preserved intact, as are the spaces and hesitations that allow her to fit her phrases and sentences around the gently picked underpinning. The transition from speech to song is completely natural, the whole sense of presence helped by the height and space captured by the open mics. Perhaps even more impressive is the effortless separation between the lead and subtle harmony vocals; theres far more there than you think!
The Kantatas soft-dome tweeter might look old fashioned against the high-tech materials, ceramics or ribbons sported by more exotic speakers, and in truth it doesnt have the sheer air and precision of the current crop of diamond or beryllium devices. But it dovetails perfectly with the midband delivered by the bass driver, rendering the crossover point essentially invisible, despite its location right in the heart of the critical midrange. With the Ricci Carmen Fantasie [Decca SXL 2197] the little Audioplans do lose a little of the recording venues acoustic height and space. What sounds wonderfully warm and cozy on the Griffiths live album or Art Peppers Smack Up [Contemporary Records S-7602] does sound a shade closed in and slightly dark on the wideband Decca, but does it impact on the music? Riccis fiddle is still laser fast and precise, shrill without ever straying into edgy or glassy. The harmonics are there, but more importantly so too are the sheer verve and brilliance of the playing. Likewise the piano on the Pepper tracks is solidly insistent, the percussion crisp, perfectly placed in space and time. But the lasting memory of Smack Up has to be the fantastically natural tone and texture of the horns. The old adage states that everything starts in the midband, and the Kantatas are living, breathing truth of that fact.
he Audioplans take a number of increasingly familiar strands and pull them together in a single, carefully considered whole. Looking at the speakers we have already considered, we see those concerns (energy storage and dissipation, behavior of the cabinet and internal volume, the creation of a matching stand and low-frequency voicing) given varying levels of priority and treated in a range of ways. The Kantata offers its own solutions and what is possibly the best-balanced blend of overall virtues weve yet enjoyed. It lacks the standout talents displayed by the other designs: it cant match the dynamic range, immediacy or resolution of the Raidho C1.1; it lacks the sheer clarity and stark separation of the Lindemann BL-10; it cant match the sweet warmth and tonal richness of the Crystal Mini. But it does well in all these respects and achieves that at a considerable cost savings. The Kantatas chief attribute is that it exhibits no standout qualities at all. Its strength lies in its extraordinarily balanced performance, a quality that makes it musically unobstructive, engaging and, above all, satisfying. It may not be overtly or obviously impressive, but once you get used to its unforced and even-handed delivery youll soon appreciate that that is the whole point.
What the Kantata clearly demonstrates is that the success of a small speaker depends more on achieving a convincing midbass performance than any other single feature. It also demonstrates that achieving that goal demands a whole range of complementary techniques -- there is no silver-bullet solution. It doesnt better the performance of our carefully selected and far more expensive alternatives, but it does perform well beyond its price level.
The Audioplan Kantata is a class act, one that delivers the music without drawing attention to itself or the process. It steps aside, not in the obvious, "Look, no hands" style of super-transparent designs, but in the more unobtrusive way that it delivers the musics natural ebb and flow, allowing the musicians and their instruments to speak, delivering them with an uncanny sense of weight and scale that belies the speakers modest dimensions and power demands, pushes the speakers themselves to the back of your awareness. Rather than admiring their performance you simply forget about it -- which is possibly the biggest compliment I can pay this speaker.
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