Tidal • Contriva Diacera SE Loudspeakers

The science of beauty.

by Marc Mickelson | July 27, 2010

idal is one of those rare audio companies that produces electronics and speakers, both with no-compromise ideals. There are reasons few audio companies attempt to venture outside a chosen market niche. First, it's difficult to maintain the core competencies required to make vastly different products, even if the products are meant to be used together. Second, offering electronics and speakers, for instance, puts extra pressure on distributors and dealers, who have to commit to carrying two product lines, and it also reduces possibilities for strategic alliances with companies that make what you don't.

Price: $58,200 per pair in gloss black finish. Optional veneers are available at extra cost.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Tidal Audio GmbH
Immendorfer Strasse 1
50354 Hürth, Germany
+49 (22 33) 966 92 25

Participation at the major shows has created a persistent buzz about Tidal speakers, as well as continuing online discussion among owners and want-to-be owners. Residing slightly above the middle of the company's line, which ranges in price from a little over $18,000 to a little under $280,000, is the Contriva Diacera SE, a large floorstanding speaker of exceptional visual style. Its proportions and swept-back appearance, as well as its gleaming hand-applied lacquer finish, give it an inherent beauty. It looks expensive, and so it is at shade under $60,000 per pair.

As for its sonics, beauty is far from the mind of its designer, Jörn Janczak, the hands-on CEO of Tidal. His goal, as he told me, is a simple one: "design a speaker which is speaking the truth..., which is changing the incoming signal as little as it can." In this endeavor, Jörn says, "we offer a pretty boring product: HP-MDF, ceramic and diamond drivers, a solid crossover. No hidden spaceship technology inside or 'magical' cable." Perhaps because my mom's side of the family is German, I am used to, and even admire, such candor.

To accomplish his goal, Jörn and the craftspeople at Tidal rely on technology that's in their own backyard. Tidal uses drivers from Accuton -- a company that is literally 20 minutes away -- along with capacitors and inductors from Mundorf, which is even closer. The headlining part of the Contriva Diacera SE is the tweeter, Accuton's largest diamond-dome model, a version made specifically for Tidal. The 7" midrange and dual 9" woofers use ceramic cones whose extreme stiffness yields greater output at lower levels of distortion. With a tweeter, it's the resonance frequency -- the frequency at which it vibrates, and distorts, naturally -- that's a major concern. The diamond dome of the Contriva Diacera SE's tweeter pushes this up as high as possible -- and far beyond the limit of human hearing.

Jörn's goal with the Contriva Diacera SE's crossover is "a step response as close as one can get to the theoretical ideal," "plus a super-flat frequency response, plus a proper decay spectrum, plus distortion control, plus, plus, plus." The better these parameters are, he argues, "the better the speaker can disappear as a messenger." The Contriva Diacera SE's diamond tweeter crosses over to its ceramic midrange at 1700Hz, which then crosses to the pair of ceramic woofers at 260Hz. Both crossover points are somewhat low by conventional standards, but none of the drivers is conventional. "The ceramic drivers are actually not fun to work with," Jörn admitted. "They have tremendous advantages, but also they do have a hard cone break up and resonances. If one is not dealing with these issues, then one will hear the [ceramic] material for sure later."

As alluded to, the Contriva Diacera SE's cabinet is constructed of HP-MDF, a variation of medium-density fiberboard that's created under high pressure. Cabinet walls are up to 3.6" thick, and the cabinet is extensively braced inside to increase stiffness and rigidity. Jörn used all the technology at his disposal to design the cabinet, including CAD simulation and measuring with microphones as well as accelerometers. The geometric look of the Contriva Diacera SE's cabinet is deliberate, but not for the reasons some might think. Jörn admits that the 6-degree slope of the baffle "looks great and has some influence to the dispersion, but it has no influence on the time correction, as many say." The long facets on the front edges reduce diffraction and give the cabinet a sleeker look. Regarding looks, while the hand-applied lacquer finish is certainly attractive, it also has a functional purpose: it seals the cabinet and lowers its resonance frequency.

As a buyer would expect from a speaker in the Contriva Diacera SE's considerable price range, nothing about its design or execution is perfunctory. Jörn and the craftspeople who work for him share well-defined ideas about the speakers they are creating, and these are meant to lead to a well-defined sonic outcome. "People think usually the more technical one starts," Jörn told me, "the less emotional the performance will be, since a speaker becomes 'analytical.' The opposite is the case; the less a speaker colors and changes, the better one can hear the chain in front of it."


Where to put 'em and other considerations

lacing and orienting speakers to produce their most fully realized performance requires visual geometry in three planes, each of which has an effect on the others. You first find the best spots in the room for the speakers, taking into account the distance to the listening seat along with any effects from boundaries. You then adjust toe-in, which affects not only the tonal balance of the speakers but also their ability to cast a believable soundstage. Finally, you level the speakers side to side and adjust front to rear to aid their drivers in summing at the listening position.

It all sounds easier than it is, and the Contriva Diacera SEs required more experimentation than most speakers I've set up in my large listening room. While they sounded very good in various spots, their toe-in and especially the distance from the listening seat were especially critical. With the drivers angled too far outward, the speakers sounded essentially dead -- lacking in high-frequency delicacy and air, and sounding ponderous in the midrange and down into the bass. Each incremental shift toward the listening seat rebalanced the speakers tonally and focused everything spatially. Reaching the best combination of high-frequency energy and spatial acuity meant moving my seat back a couple of feet, so the output of the speakers summed at the listening position but didn't require such severe toe-in that the soundstage was laterally truncated. My experience suggests that sitting at least ten feet from the speakers is mandatory, if you want to hear them at their best, that is. The speakers ended up 46" from the front wall and 53" to the side walls -- roughly where the Vivid G1 Giyas they replaced were situated. However, I sat closer to the Vivid speakers, which were less picky about placement.

The Contriva Diacera SEs, and likely other Tidal speakers, also have two features that tailor their frequency response. First is what Tidal calls the "Aerotune System," which involves plugging one of each speaker's rear ports, or plugging neither of them. Tidal provides a nicely made, fist-sized foam stopper for this. With one port plugged, the speaker is said to be essentially flat at 30Hz and provide the most linear bass. With neither port plugged, there is a 3dB rise beginning at 35Hz. The differences are clearly audible. The second feature has no spiffy name, but it involves removing a jumper to effect a 2dB dip in the speaker's treble range. Installing the jumper adds the 2dB back, producing what's referred to in the manual as "full open treble." As with plugging the port, this jumper makes an obvious difference.

In my room, one port plugged and the jumper installed was the way to go. It was also the combination that created the flattest response. I suggest trying the port plugs and jumpers in all possible combinations as part of maximizing the speakers' sonic potential. My large room doesn't have any obvious issues, so the flattest response was clearly the best. In a room that swallows low frequencies, for instance, that 3dB bass rise may make for greater low-end extension at the listening seat.

Finally, break-in wasn't an issue with the pair of Contriva Diacera SEs I wrote about. They had hundreds of hours on them from use in the former distributor's listening room as well as at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and the CES, after which I hauled them home with me. They sounded essentially as I describe from the first note to the last.

Hearing things

did my listening to the Contriva Diacera SEs long before I began discussing the fine points of their design and manufacture with Jörn Janczak. His premises were surprising to me, given what I had heard from his speakers, but when he began divulging his sonic goals, everything became much clearer. While the Contriva Diacera SE was designed in an uncompromisingly scientific way, its sound was anything but scientific, just as Jörn had predicted. Above all, it was a seductive speaker, one whose unique voicing was responsible for much of its allure.

It occurs to me, however, that Jörn may in fact have disdain for the notion of "voicing" -- relying on listener preference instead of strict science to craft a speaker's sound. Even so, the Contriva Diacera SE certainly had a sonic personality, one that began with the special qualities of its treble. Along with being able to reproduce the immediacy and steeliness of an electric guitar -- often the domain of an aluminum-dome tweeter -- there was a silky naturalness that seemed to extend to the heavens. The treble sounded light and airy with one recording, tangible and gritty with another. Each new recording seemed to reveal some new facet of the speaker's high frequencies, which always sounded pure and distinct.

While analog playback is perpetually praised for its warmth, any analog diehard knows that this doesn't come at the price of a restrained treble region. The high frequencies from LPs can sound as overdone and ugly as from any digital source, but when the setup is just right, they can demonstrate the inherent crudeness of CDs all the better.

The CD of Nirvana's MTV concert, Unplugged in New York [DGC 24727], has a spacious soundstage and knife-edge transients -- demonstration-quality sonics overall. Yet, the latest LP [DGC/Original Recordings Group ORG 034] has a sense of fluidity, especially to Kurt Cobain's acoustic guitar, that the CD doesn't achieve. I've used "All Apologies" as a demo track for years, because it encapsulates very well what the entire recording does in sonic terms. With the Tidal speakers, it was not only easy to hear the difference between the digital and analog versions of this cut, it was easy to determine which one was ultimately more realistic. Kurt Cobain's voice on both was edgy in its uppermost registers, turning hard with the CD but staying composed with the LP. His lead guitar had slightly more whip-crack speed via digital but was better integrated texturally and spatially into the performance via analog. The Contriva Diacera SEs not only revealed these differences, they revealed something important about themselves: an inherent high-frequency poise that lacked nothing in terms of absolute resolution.

I have only praise for this quality of the speakers -- no matter what is responsible for it. Ease and resolution are often at odds in lesser audio components, with one reducing the sense of the other. With the Contriva Diacera SEs, they coexist deftly. Music poured from the speakers like water, no matter its scale or dynamics. A light-footed, spacious recording like the Bobo Stenson Trio's Cantando [ECM 2023] showed a touch of the aridity that characterizes so many ECM recordings, while Hope Waits' robust self-titled debut [Radarproof Records 1019] could seemingly flex the walls with its big dynamics and potent bass. The Contriva Diacera SEs transported me into the Bobo Stenson CD, while bringing Hope Waits and her band into my listening room, which seemed just barely big enough for them.

It would be easiest to say that the Tidal speakers were simply conduits for the recordings, but that doesn't adequately describe them, because their own contributions were always apparent. Instead, they possessed an unerring textural connectedness and an innate sense of momentum and flow. Every recording sounded individual and distinct while either drifting or cascading from the speakers. This is an unusual quality, and heretofore impossible for speakers that use ceramic drivers to achieve -- at least in my experience. So many of these that I've heard had a certain tightness -- the exact opposite of bloom -- that was immediately recognizable. Not so with the Tidal speakers, which displayed obvious, even copious bloom throughout the midrange and into the upper bass. It occurred to me while I was listening to the XRCD of Diana Krall's All For You [Impulse!/JVC 532 360-9] that its inherent sound was much like that of the Contriva Diacera SEs: more about natural timbres, tonal rightness and overall beauty than clinical precision and ultimate vividness. Recording and speaker were made for each other, the piano on "Deed I Do" sounding lively and vivid amidst Krall's always-relaxed singing.

The bass throughout the album showed that of the Contriva Diacera SEs to be a touch lean in its middle region, somewhere around 200Hz, I would guess. This is the only area in which the speakers lack the abundance they display in so many other ways. They displayed bass depth just short of what I've heard from larger floorstanding speakers, and, again, none of the ceramic-driver constriction. The bass-pedal notes on the Music Matters 45rpm reissue of Larry Young's great Unity [Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84221] were ferocious in their sustained power -- just as Joe Harley and Ron Rambach of Music Matters wanted them to be. Still, the Contriva Diacera SEs weren't the last word in terms of bass bloom, heft and slam, though the tracking of low-frequency detail -- variations in pitch, low-frequency transients -- was handled very well, with speed and a notable lack of smearing.

Dynamically the Tidal speakers were adept but not ostentatious. The large-scale dynamic prowess of the system in which the speakers are used will be more a function of the amplifier than of the speakers themselves. By this I mean that the speakers' sensitivity, which Tidal doesn't reveal but says is "very good," didn't aid in their ability to go from soft to loud, but the power amp could. Of the amps I had here, the Lamm M1.2 monoblocks were best able to bring the speakers to a dynamic boil -- the point at which they seemed to play no louder, which was ear-ruining in level. The Lamm amps were also the best on the other end of the dynamic spectrum, the combination possessing expert shading and retrieval of detail down to the noise floor. Given what the speakers do well, I suspect that a pair of Atma-Sphere OTL amps -- preferably the massive MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks -- would be at least an interesting match and possibly a magical one, possessing great agility in the treble and best-of-the-best midrange transparency.

My persistent thought about the Contriva Diacera SEs was that they are for true connoisseurs, for experienced listeners who have made the equipment rounds and come to value tonal and harmonic rightness along with high-frequency sophistication over boom and bluster. The Tidal speakers urge you to lean into your music, to lose yourself in it, instead of simply to observe the sound coming from them. I don't know about you, but achieving this sort of unreasoned involvement is why I've built an audio system in the first place.

Same mirror, different reflection

mmediately before the Contriva Diacera SEs arrived, I was listening to speakers that are natural competition for them, the Vivid Audio G1 Giyas ($65,000 per pair). Aside from their similar price, both speakers are the product of similar aims: that loudspeaker design is first and foremost a matter of science. There is no doubt in my mind that Laurence Dickie, who designed the entire Vivid Audio line as well as the B&W Nautilus, and Jörn Janczak would have a rousing good time talking driver breakup and crossover points over dinner. Both direct the entire process by which their speakers come into being, and both do so with a decidedly methodical bent.

The cabinet of the Giya looks unusual, like a prop from a Tim Burton movie, but its look is a matter of form following function. Its defining visual feature -- the curl at the top – provides a means for the output of the speaker's dual side-mounted woofers to dissipate, and its bowling-pin-like profile was derived from research done on the propagation of sound waves. The Contriva Diacera SE looks far more traditional, but its cabinet was designed with no less rigor, especially in terms of its solidity and inertness. Laurence Dickie designs the drivers for his speakers, and they are all manufactured at Vivid Audio in South Africa. Like other speaker makers, Jörn relies on the expertise of a well-known driver manufacturer, though many of the drivers he uses are not off-the-shelf parts. Finally, both men have tried to create a speaker that preserves what's fed to it with utmost fidelity, though Laurence Dickie admitted to me that the Giya has a slight downward tilt in its frequency response simply because it sounds best this way.

With such a confluence of thinking, it seems all the more surprising that the G1 Giya and Contriva Diacera SE sound rather different. Whereas the Tidal speakers are about high-frequency variegation and a unique ratio of sheer resolution to musical ease -- in short, a poised, gentler view of the music -- the Vivid Giyas' wide bandwidth is punctuated by the best bass definition I've ever heard. They sounded big and immediately impressive, their way with All For You, for instance, being about the scale of the soundstage -- which was big in all dimensions -- and the pitch definition of the bass. In contrast, the Contriva Diacera SEs were more self-effacing, mirroring the recording's own dusky intimacy and, as with the Hope Waits CD, bringing the musicians to the listening room.

This doesn't mean the Contriva Diacera SEs can't cut it with raucous rock, or the Vivid Giyas overwhelm a piano trio playing a slow ballad. It's a matter of inclination, the unique way any speaker's traits combine to create a sonic personality. And, of course, the electronics and cables in front of the speakers have influence as well. I listened to the Vivid Giyas mostly with a pair of the massively powerful Luxman B-1000F mono amps, which I wasn't able to use with the Tidal Contriva Diacera SEs. Knowing those amps as I do -- I've had them in my system for two extended stays -- I expect that they would bring out the very best in the Tidal speakers' bass, while leaning out their midrange compared to the Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks and Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp I used most of the time with them. Still, their essence would be preserved.

Partnering equipment aside, it's clear to me that the potential buyers for both of these speakers will value different things about reproduced music. The Vivid speakers were endlessly exciting and massively forceful, but my own inclination would be for the Tidal Contriva Diacera SEs, which I found exciting and forceful in their own understated way.

Embracing beauty

hile Jörn Janczak set out to design a speaker that strictly adheres to the scientific principles of reproducing sound, I think he's created something that's much more than this: a speaker that is immediately likeable and forever engaging, a speaker through which you want to experience your music, not simply play your CDs and LPs. A litany of the Contriva Diacera SE's merits -- its unique and varied treble, its chameleon-like ability to change with each recording, the way it absorbs listeners -- doesn't come close to summing it up, and that's much of its charm. More than anything, it provides a standard of beauty -- not the fantastic, technicolor kind we've come to think of when the word is applied to sonic reproduction, but one that's genuine and universal, like a sunset over the ocean or a rose in full bloom. While I don't think every listener will admire the Contriva Diacera SEs with equal vigor, I'm convinced that the astute ones will hear and understand what's special about them.

We have come to value beauty in just about every facet of our lives, so why not with our music as well? Music is beautiful, and the Tidal Contriva Diacera SEs were a constant reminder of this.

Associated Equipment

Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC and VPI Classic turntables, Graham B-44 Phantom Series II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Audio-Technica AT33EV cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard phono cable, Allnic Audio H-3000 and Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono stages.

Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal player, Zanden Audio Model 2000P CD transport and Model 5000S digital-to-analog converter.

Preamplifiers: Audio Research Reference 5, Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Legend with phono stage, Lamm Industries LL1 Signature, Zanden Model 3000.

Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp, Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: Vivid Audio G1 Giya.

Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-IC.

Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-SP.

Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray Version II.

Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research CX-series (various), Zanden Audio power cords.

Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz 6 Reference isoRack plus and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases under digital gear.

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