Cabasse Baltic/Santorin 30 Speaker System

The shape of things to come?

by Roy Gregory | July 8, 2015

y now it’s dawning on even the most entrenched, separates-using, physical-media-hoarding, high-end audio traditionalist that, moving forward, things are going to change. The way younger generations consume music and the shape of the systems they use to do it will bear little or no relation to the stacks of multiple, separate boxes and sonic wardrobes that we’ve all been aspiring to for years. From their perspective, the way we listen and what we listen on are both hopelessly old-fashioned and -- more pertinently -- impossibly costly. Of course, the fact that new approaches to music distribution and listening are emerging doesn’t mean that you have to engage with them. The systems we own are still doing the same job they always have and most of us still own discs we haven’t listened to yet; there’s no need to "dumb down" or "accept second best" when it comes to the performance of our home systems or the enjoyment of our music.

Prices: Baltic, $9998/pair; Santorin 30, $5998.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

210, rue René Descartes
BP 10, 29280 Plouzané

But what if those new technologies or trends, practices and products can offer genuine advances in performance? New system topologies and hardware can offer remarkable performances or surprising benefits, products of technological development or repurposing, with new markets and scales of manufacturing bringing access to cutting-edge developments at previously unattainable prices. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the HRT Stage -- or better still, give it a listen: you’ll be shocked by the level of genuine high-end audio performance generated by this sub-$1500 system. Suddenly, the ever-increasing cost of high-end separates starts to make a horrible kind of sense: those prices keep rising because we’re building these things in smaller and smaller numbers. Why can an iPhone or iPad do so much, be so compact and yet cost so little? Because the manufacturing numbers for those products run into millions. The HRT Stage might not be in that league, but how many high-end manufacturers are even ordering their parts in thousands? How can AudioQuest produce the DragonFly at the price they do? Because the manufacturing logic and the numbers involved have more to do with the iPhone and the market it serves than they do with high-end audio.

That’s one (pretty sobering) side of the coin. But there’s another aspect to this: just as emerging markets allow access to previously unattainable technology, they also require access to traditional expertise, opening up opportunities for existing manufacturers to partner with those technology suppliers or develop their own offerings. The Naim/Focal merger can be seen as an example of the latter, Cabasse (with their Canon tie-up) an example of the former. Mind you, one look at the company’s history and product lines and you’ll realize that Cabasse is about as far from a "me-too" high-end speaker manufacturer as it could be, combining seriously ambitious and unique assaults on the state of the art, products whose technology and approach are as distinctive as their looks, with a successful range of more prosaic product that’s perfectly at home in high-street multiples.

So when Canon came calling, they found themselves pushing at an open door. The subsequent amalgamation of resources brought the unique acoustic technologies developed by Cabasse into direct contact with genuinely cutting-edge DSP processing (think image manipulation, in which Canon are world leaders). It’s a combination that has generated some remarkable and striking results, from the impressive and extremely affordable Stream products, all the way up to the likes of the L’Ocean spherical, full-range, fully active loudspeaker system. If it’s a question of the shape of things to come in high-end audio, Cabasse might not have all of the answers, but they certainly offer a few pointers.

Cabasse loudspeakers have long ploughed their own furrow, resulting in products and drivers that are distinctive enough as to be instantly recognizable. Early advocates of coincident driver technology, Cabasse have evolved their own diaphragm materials and not just coaxial but triaxial drive units, inviting the development of novel cabinet construction and system topologies. It’s no surprise that the company has long offered sophisticated and surprisingly accomplished sub-sat packages, a policy that can only benefit from access to advanced DSP technology.

Which brings us to the products under review, the Baltic satellite system and Santorin subwoofers, currently top of the Cabasse sub-sat tree.

Five reasons why more boxes might mean more performance -- and then some

ubwoofers rarely get great press and the same goes for sub-sat systems, so many high-end customers pass over, reject or simply ignore an option from which they might actually derive serious benefits. What’s ironic is that the low opinion of subwoofers in particular owes more to the nature of so many existing examples (built to a price for A/V applications, with the emphasis on the V) and the lack of experience and expertise within the audiophile community when it comes to setup, resulting in poor performance and untapped potential. Most of the subs we have heard simply don’t sound as good as they could, a problem compounded by unrealistic expectations. We all accept that getting high-quality, full-bandwidth performance out of a single-cabinet speaker system is a complex and costly exercise, resulting in products that are large, demanding and require precise setup. Yet we all seem to assume that once you take those low frequencies and generate them from a separate box, it should work for a lot less money. But the physics haven’t changed, only the approach: if you are going to substitute active equalization for physical volume, the amplifier doing the driving (and the cabinet doing the enclosing) had better be up to the job or quality will suffer -- and we all know how that goes. The simple, inescapable truth is that high-quality bass extension costs money, requires serious engineering and careful setup to conquer the challenge presented by domestic room acoustics -- and there’s no getting around it!

Having said that, on a theoretical level, subwoofers impart several significant potential advantages, meaning that if you get them right, the results can be excellent. Let’s start by looking at the benefits that accrue at the opposite end of the sonic spectrum, once you separate bass duties and allocate them their own solution. As soon as you limit the bandwidth demands on a speaker, certain almost automatic advantages apply. The cabinet can be smaller, and smaller enclosures are necessarily stiffer (unless smaller also means thinner and less substantial) with lower mass and thus lower stored energy. Less obvious is that smaller enclosures allow designers to investigate materials and manufacturing techniques that are impossible (or impossibly expensive) for larger structures. The advent of .1 systems (2.1, 3.1, 5.1 or 7.1) also alters the economics, with a single enclosure being capable of fulfilling multiple roles (center, front channel or surround) adding further potential economies of scale. Once you start installing such a system, the benefits keep coming. With a full-range enclosure, or one that’s pretending to be, siting is critical. You need to precisely balance the speakers' bottom-end output against the bass nodes in the listening acoustic. It’s make or break when it comes to musical performance, often pushing loudspeakers into direct conflict with aesthetic, domestic or practical considerations -- "Yes, Darling, I know it’s the doorway, but that’s where it sounds best." Satellites are smaller and less intrusive, and you need to worry more about spacing and reflections than bass alignment, meaning that they can be positioned with far greater flexibility. Behind the sofa, peeking over the top? Why not?

Take a closer look at the Cabasse Baltic and you’ll quickly realize that it exploits all of these benefits and more. The 10 1/2"-diameter spherical enclosure is a resin-based molding, combining incredible rigidity with excellent self-damping and easy volume production. Despite its size (a little larger than a soccer ball), the Baltic is a true three-way, coincident system, with all the time and phase benefits that this topology delivers. The three drivers use 8", 4" and 1" diaphragms to deliver bandwidth from 80-25,000Hz, making the Baltic ideal as both a main-channel satellite, a center-channel speaker or surrounds. To that end, a range of different stands and mountings are available, the tall and elegant blades that you see illustrated in this review as well as wall and surface mounts that allow the speakers to be angled easily and precisely. Meanwhile the 9 1/2" coaxial Riga and the smaller, softball-sized iO2 systems both offer similar versatility, chic appearance and sonic virtues in smaller, more affordable and more discreet packages, perfect for surround or extension use. Connections are at the base of the stand, making for a tidy installation with no trailing cables. The Baltic spheres are available in high-gloss black or pearlescent white finishes, with matching grilles and bases for the stands, while the uprights come in cherry, santos rosewood or wenge veneers.

Of course, the performance of the best satellites in the world can easily be wrecked by the use of a poor subwoofer. Cabasse recommend the Santorin 30 for use with the Baltics and that’s what they supplied, a relatively compact, fully active unit with a 500-watt amplifier driving a 12", downward-firing driver and loaded with a sophisticated DSP package -- sophisticated enough to defy simple description and application. Supplied with its own microphone and software to assess room-averaged response, this is basically an ultra-narrow-band parametric equalizer, allowing you to generate a more linear low-frequency response. Of course, there are limits to what even a unit as sophisticated as this can achieve: there’s no point trying to "drive up" dips in response -- you are better off flattening the humps on either side. But in the hands of someone who knows the system and its software inside out, the results are mighty impressive.

Having suffered at the hands of DSP-controlled subwoofers in the past, I approached the Santorin 30 with more than a degree of skepticism, so much so, in fact, that I insisted on Cabasse also supplying the Santorin 30i, essentially the same amp, driver and cabinet but with a conventional active crossover and low-pass filter, shorn of the DSP (and a chunk of the asking price at $3299). Past experience has also shown that Cabasse know what they’re doing when it comes to basic subs, achieving excellent results that leave most of the competition, even the self-appointed specialists, sounding thick, clumsy and awkward. Do I really need all that DSP? At least that’s what I was thinking until I sat down to play with the Baltics and the two subwoofer options, with the low-frequency boxes taking alternate turns positioned between the speakers and equidistant from the listening seat.

At that point, as energetic, musically enthusiastic and mobile as the conventional sub sounded (and it really did sound pretty darned good) there was no escaping the added integration, transparency, pitch definition and texture that was added by the DSP. But what about timing? My big beef with DSP low-frequency equalization has always been the inevitable latency the system introduces, the slight lag that delays the low frequencies while the electronics do their stuff, a lag that has the bass end dragging its heels. When quizzed on this -- and shown exactly what I was talking about, the contrast between the bouncy, lively (albeit slightly uncouth) momentum of the 30i and the more studied, correct but restrained (let’s make that rhythmically constipated) presentation of the DSP driven 30 -- Christophe Cabasse just shrugged and said, "So move it forward." We did, and sure enough sliding the 30 forward a little at a time allowed us to time-align the low frequencies with precision, while the DSP compensated for nodal shifts -- one of those things that’s so obvious once you think about it that you wonder why it never occurred to you before.

There’s more to the Santorin 30 and 30i than just a sophisticated DSP package or its absence. You still need to get the right drive unit, amp and enclosure, and once again Cabasse have demonstrated their abilities in this regard. Building your own bass units obviously helps, as does being able to select amplification that only needs to deliver a decent bottom end, but there are other nice touches too. The active enclosure is supported on a spiked plinth, but separated from it by four soft polymer isolators. With any downward-firing driver, the distance to the floor and the nature of that surface has a profound effect on the sonic character of the low frequencies produced. The Cabasse solution provides the Santorin subs with a stable footing, some isolation from low-frequency feedback, but most importantly of all it ensures consistent acoustic conditions for the units’ output. It’s all part of getting the subwoofer to do the best job that it can acoustically, before introducing the DSP. That way you need to use as little digital EQ as possible, which is a good thing both in terms of the audibility of the processing itself and the loading of the driving amplifier.

One other thing that springs to mind (although I didn’t actually investigate it) is that the central positioning for the sub is the easiest route to good overall integration, but far from the most domestically discreet. As impressive as the DSP adjustments were in this context, start shifting the sub to a more remote, hidden location and I can only see the performance gap between the 30 and the 30i growing wider still. As much as I enjoyed the performance delivered by the 30i -- and I think that given the savings, it’s definitely a cost-effective option -- there’s no escaping the superiority of the 30. Dial in the DSP and both the integration and the quality improve significantly. The increase in linearity is further reinforced by the increase in extension. With the 30i I found myself balancing bass quality against quantity, using placement to achieve the desired degree of deep-bass roll-off to keep things moving. With the 30, Christophe Cabasse was able to minimize bass humps, allowing us to enjoy the added extension beneath them. The result is a genuinely full-range system, with a bottom end that continues to shock and surprise, even after you’ve gotten used to it.

So much for theory

here’s one big caveat in all of this -- as there is with any system: performance potential is one thing, and delivering it is quite another. The Baltic satellites require just as much care and attention when it comes to positioning and attitude as any other speaker. However, the total absence of horizontal surfaces on speaker or stand makes getting the rake angle (and thus the tweeter axis) precisely the same for both speakers quite a challenge. I ended up using a plumb bob from below the Baltic’s "chin" to a set of reference marks inscribed on a strip of tape running up the front edge of the stand. That did the trick, and boy, did it make a difference to the soundstage coherence and the dimensionality of the images.

But where general audio experience and a little ingenuity will work wonders with the satellites, when it comes to the Santorin 30, there is no substitute for really knowing what you are doing. That means that you’d better have access to a decent dealer who qualifies. Try and sort this out yourself and even with the instructions supplied by Cabasse, you are only going to scrape the surface of what’s possible, which means that the value of your investment in all that DSP technology will be seriously undermined. Having said that, at a hair under $16,000 for a basic 2.1 setup, a Baltic/Santorin 30 sale should be sufficient to get the attention of the guy who wants to take your money.

The other consideration is wiring the Baltic/Santorin combination into an existing system. Like most subs, the Santorin will run with either a high-level input (connected to the main amplifier’s speaker terminals) or a low-level RCA/XLR input. Cabasse strongly recommend the high-level route, so that’s the one I took, an approach that demands two sets of identical speaker cables (same type, same length). You could run shorter cables to the sub, but at the end of the day if it’s musical performance that matters, any sub-sat system should welcome all the help it can get with integration, so introducing unnecessary asymmetry between the sub and sats is best avoided. Likewise, you could run the satellite speakers from the sub’s high-level outputs, but again it’s best avoided, simply another way of introducing asymmetry into the system.

With the practical niceties taken care of, I ran the Cabasse system with a whole range of different ancillaries, from the Arcam FMJ A19 and Simaudio Moon 250i Neo integrated amps, all the way up to the Border Patrol P20, via the Icon Audio Stereo 60 tube integrated. The active bass and 90dB system sensitivity (it sounds louder, so I guess the claimed efficiency is rather more realistic than some) mean that the speakers present a less-than-frightening load, the limited bandwidth of the satellites helping to compensate for a minimum impedance that dips to 3.2 ohms. Either way, the speakers responded enthusiastically no matter the driving amp, making the most of the signal delivered and notably failing to punish its shortcomings. In part, at least, that forgiving tendency is down to the genuinely excellent bottom-end performance and the musical and sonic foundation it provides.

ny full-bandwidth speaker system has to be able to do deep bass, and the Cabasse combination doesn’t disappoint. Turn away from audiophile-approved material and throw a few dance tracks at the Baltic/Santorin setup and the depth of the bass is certainly impressive. But more impressive still is its power, pitch and sense of purpose. Everything from Clean Bandit and Massive Attack through to Yello and Macy Gray exhibited bottom-end impact and motive urgency, a grasp of rhythm and tempo that generated an instantly infectious, toe-tapping connection with the music -- irrespective of its compressed and pro-tooled nature. Low-frequency dynamics were tracked with serious intent, extracting every last ounce of energy, shape and direction from the signal. This was bottom-end weight that got behind the notes, filling out their shape and helping to propel them in the right direction. It was not just quantity but serious quality too, delivering subtle textures and shifts in pitch or tempo with the same ease it wielded synthesized hammer blows.

The explosive dynamic demands of the orchestral backing to the Bizet Carmen Fantasie (Ricci, Gamba and the LSO [JVC XRCD 227-2]) are a case in point, the sudden orchestral tuttis and rapid but rapidly shifting tempi being delivered with real drama and poise. The restrained strings that underlie the "Habanera" were beautifully weighted and paced, with just the right shape and rhythmic accent, the orchestral exclamation mark that completed the passage suitably emphatic yet still full of detail and individual instrumental texture.

Moving to the other end of the musical range, the Carmen also highlighted the Baltic’s weakest quality. Compared to many of the more exotic (and expensive) high-frequency units out there, the Cabasse soft-dome lacks air and extension. Ricci’s violin lacked edge and bite (he was nicknamed "Screechy" for a reason), the acoustic the sense of height and volume it normally projects. Although there was plenty of depth to the soundstage, there was a lack of transparency and focus, especially with higher-frequency instruments.

Now, let’s set that in context. First, it’s a comparative observation, based on what’s possible with the best tweeters currently available. Second, the triaxial nature of the Cabasse drivers delivers a remarkably coherent sound, where the sheer integration makes the high frequencies sound less obvious or exposed. Just as many diamond tweeters can sound superficially dull, don’t misconstrue the Baltic’s slightly reticent top end. It will match the detail and energy of most other soft-domes; it just can’t compete with the very best tweeters out there. In part, this is where the rake angle of the speaker proves critical. Although the off-axis tonality is remarkably even, making shifts in listening height tonally irrelevant, get the tweeters firing right at you and the gains in immediacy and substance are well worthwhile.

The title track from Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space SACD [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2021] is the perfect example here. This is music with substance and attitude, and getting the listening axis just right adds the necessary energy and clarity of purpose to the vocals, matching the easy, loping pace of the bass line, the edgy body and presence of the guitars. The Baltics might lose out to the best of their competition when it comes to high-frequency air and absolute transparency, but make no mistake, they come back swinging when it comes to presence, musical attitude and substance, the ability to generate seriously impressive and propulsive low frequencies -- and do it with quality, subtlety and a beguiling musical generosity. In tilting their talents toward the bottom end, they fly in the face of current fashion, but that doesn’t make them wrong -- it just makes them different.

The occasional cosmic accidents that result in the brothers Finn being able to occupy the same room long enough to generate even a few tracks should be celebrated by all. The apogee of their sporadic but brilliant collaborations came with the Crowded House album Woodface [Capitol CDP 7 93559 2], which generated enduring single success in the shape of "Weather With You," "Fall at Your Feet" and "Four Seasons In One Day." That creative flowering was typically brief but the album that resulted was a masterpiece of subtly crafted studio rock, producer Mitchell Froom putting the brothers’ harmony vocals front and center, underpinned by a deeply layered, undulating and mobile bottom end that generated its own, inexorable sense of life and forward motion, leaving plenty of space for the sparse instrumental accents to take full effect.

The Cabasse speakers delivered those beautifully layered and textured low frequencies with easy, unforced grace and an understated sense of purpose that made them even more compelling and hypnotic than usual. Just take "Fall At Your Feet" as an example: one listen and there’s no mistaking what this song is about. And that’s really the nub of the Baltic/Santorin listening experience. There are undoubtedly speakers that will deliver a more impressively airy and spacious rendition of those super-transparent tracks so loved by audiophiles trying to convince themselves and others just how good their systems are. If you want wood blocks hanging, perfectly placed in space, then those are the speakers for you. But if you are more interested in the contribution of those woodblocks to the musical whole, then maybe you should be looking at the Cabasse combination. Few speaker systems I’ve used, and very few at this price or lower, can deliver the sheer range of music, irrespective of genre or recording quality, that flows so effortlessly from the Baltic and Santorin. There may be other speakers that will outperform them or sound more spectacular on showstopper recordings, but how many of those recordings are there? How much other music is there? Care to take a bet on which speaker will do a better job with all the rest?

Much of what the Cabasse system does and the way it does it is tied up with its chosen technologies, the active bass and triaxial driver. The depth, power and quality of the bass are exceptional -- as is the coherence of the mid and upper registers. Combine those two things and you have a speaker that has an almost preternatural sense of pace and timing, an ability to unearth the musical structure and skeleton buried within even the most compressed or congested material, to project rhythmic complexity that extends right across the range, to join all the musical elements into a single, meaningful whole. It makes for engaging, entertaining but above all highly enjoyable listening. Cabasse make a range of more conventional-looking cabinets, as well as some stylistic halfway houses, matching the spherical mid/treble enclosure to a floorstanding cabinet. The traditionalist market would probably accept those designs more readily, but for me, if you accept the logic and technology behind the Baltic and Santorin, then this is the product that takes it to its logical extreme, promising -- and delivering -- the most impressive results.

Now consider for a moment those other aspects of its design that set the Cabasse system apart: its compact and stylish design, low-impact domestic presence and versatility when it comes to multichannel or multi-room configurations. Don’t forget (or underestimate the importance of) the fact that the basic thinking and format are available at a range of different price levels -- all of which share the essential elegance, versatility and unobtrusive domestic presence of the Baltic and Santorin. The nature of these speakers gives them a better-than-average chance of finding their way into non-audiophile homes; the nature of their performance gives them a way better-than-average chance of captivating a whole new generation of listeners. This is one speaker system that won’t punish you for playing MP3. Instead it will probably blow your socks off -- given the material that normally gets the MP3 treatment. Yes, CD and other higher-resolution formats will sound better, but out in the real world that’s in danger of ceasing to matter -- or at least the systems that demand (and rely on) that software are.

udio snobs will always instinctively turn their noses up at a system like the Baltic/Santorin combination. They’ll dismiss it as a novelty, a triumph of style over substance. But as much as anything else, they’ll dismiss it because it doesn’t look like the equipment they own or think that they should own. Sadly, listening rarely comes into it. But -- and it’s a big but -- if they just stopped to hear a few tracks it might just strike a chord; they might just remember why they got into audio equipment in the first place. They might then take the trouble to discover just how long Cabasse have been working at this -- and just how much technological and financial muscle they have backing them up. They might even conclude that having over 600 dealers/outlets in their home market suggests that Cabasse are doing something right.

Or there again, they might not. Which brings us right back to where we started. The worlds of music distribution and audio technology are changing and changing dramatically. We can easily sit atop our ivory towers and ignore what’s happening on the ground, or we can descend those long, steep, narrow spiral staircases, all the way to the bottom of our towers, open the doors and stick our noses outside to see what’s happening. What is happening is different and unfamiliar and it’s not the way that we’d do things. But along the way, the people developing these new technologies might just have invented the elevator as well. Do you slam the door and ignore them or open it and take advantage? It’s a long, long way back up those stairs to the top of that tower.

The Cabasse Baltic and Santorin tick more than enough performance boxes to be taken seriously in audiophile circles. More importantly, they ace the exam when it comes to musical expression and communication, the very areas in which so many audiophile-approved systems actually fail. That in itself poses some pretty pertinent questions. This sub-sat system doesn’t look much like a traditional high-end speaker, most of which present flat veneered panels and a stacked array of drivers to the watching world. It doesn’t sound like one either, foregoing the startling, spot-lit detail and clarity of the high frequencies and muddy, insubstantial and indefinite low frequencies of so many speakers with audiophile pretensions. Instead it bends established acoustic experience and uses powerful new technology to serve an alternative musical perspective and slant on the balance of virtues.

If you are looking for a speaker to impress your old-school audiophile friends, I’m not sure that the Cabasse Baltic/Santorin system will serve. But if you are more interested in simply playing and enjoying music -- any music that you or any of your family, friends or visitors choose -- it is a remarkably capable and satisfying solution. The lesson here is simple: don’t knock it until you’ve heard it.

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic Direct turntable with JWM 12.7 tonearm; Kuzma Stabi M turntable with 4Point tonearm; Langer No.7 turntable with Audio Origami PU7, Jelco 750D and Rega RB1000 tonearms; Allnic Puritas, Kuzma CAR-50, Lyra Etna, Dorian, and Dorian Mono cartridges; Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator record weight; Connoisseur 4.2 PLE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i, 861 GNSC and Simaudio Moon 260D CD players; dCS Paganini transport, DAC and uClock; CEC TL-3N CD transport; CH Precision C1 DAC/control unit; Arcam iRDAC DAC.

Preamp: Connoisseur 4.2, Tom Evans Audio The Vibe.

Power amps: Arcam FMJ A19, Simaudio Moon 250i Neo, Icon Audio Stereo 60 integrated amps; Border Patrol P20 power amp.

Speakers: Focal Scala Utopia V2, Coincident Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Benesch Square Five and Endeavour.

Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Valhalla 2, or Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus, from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are Hutter Racktime, HRS or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.

Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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