Tidal Sunray Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson | November 30, 2011
Every audio product reflects the priorities and sensibilities of the person or persons who designed it, but the Tidal Sunray takes this axiom a step further. These speakers actually mirror the physical stature of their maker, the 6' 8" hands-on CEO of Tidal, Jörn Janczak. The Sunrays are tall and not overly wide, the power forward of loudspeakers. They reach for the sky, possibly one inspiration for the name Sunray, but their faceted front along with the deep luster of their finish and chrome accents give them a svelte loveliness that quickly turns to intrigue as you begin to examine them. They are what you think they are: three separate cabinets stacked one atop another comprising a highly original three-way speaker.
In a certain sense, the Sunray is a large minimonitor -- a maximonitor, if you will -- with bass modules above and below. "With this configuration," says Jörn Janczak, "I have only advantages." These include splitting the cabinet into "three small problems instead of one big one in terms of vibration control, energy-storage effects, etc." That maximonitor covers 60Hz and above, with the bass modules housing woofers mounted on the sides and opposing each other. Jörn's rationale for this unusual handling of the bass is multi-faceted. First, with four woofers arrayed in this way, "the bass is being reproduced in a circle around the acoustical center" of the speaker. This means that "bass shoots out of the middle, from where the mids and highs are coming" and "the bass and midrange are time-aligned in the step response." Second, eight woofers means that "bass modes are generated at eight points in the room for a more even frequency response with fewer peaks and reflections." Third, mounting the woofers opposite to each other cancels their forces on the cabinet walls. Finally, each woofer actually carries a quarter of the bass load and therefore produces only a quarter of the excursion, so they each also produce a quarter of the distortion, thus working comfortably within their capabilities. "Since it is four woofers moving each a quarter in and out," Jörn explained, "we have full 1:1 bass again."
The Sunray's middle section is crammed with high-tech drivers and especially high-zoot crossover parts. The drivers all come from Accuton. The 7" midranges and 9" woofers have ceramic cones, giving them, according to Jörn, "tremendous advantages." However, he also admits that these ceramic drivers "do have a hard cone break up and resonances," making them a challenge to use properly. As I can attest from my earlier audition of the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE, Jörn seems to have harnessed the capabilities of these drivers and ameliorated their potential issues. Unfailingly, speakers with ceramic drivers have a tightness to their sound that constricts the music's natural flow, but not the Tidal speakers, which are devoid of this coloration. The Sunray's 1 1/4" diamond-dome tweeter also comes from Accuton, and it is the largest and most expensive tweeter the company makes. As I'll comment later on, Jörn also seems to have gotten the most out of this very esoteric driver.
Things get even wilder in the crossover, where Jörn uses the most expensive passive parts available today: Dueland silver-foil capacitors and coils. The Sunrays are reportedly the only speakers currently made that use these parts. Some of the caps are as big in diameter as the speaker's midrange drivers, and they, along with the pure-silver coils (not to mention the diamond-dome tweeter), are responsible for the substantial price of the speakers. There are, in fact, more than twelve pounds of silver in a pair of Sunrays, all of it located in these caps and coils. At $35 per ounce, that's almost $7000 in pure silver in each pair of Sunrays. However, even $7000 won't buy just one of the silver caps.
Jörn hasn't chosen these parts because of their eye-popping cost or perceived bling. He feels that they are the most transparent passive parts available, thus helping him achieve his goal: "to hear the speaker -- not." Actually, Jörn expresses this most often in another way, calling the Sunray "a glass of water." Translation: a speaker that doesn't sound like a speaker.
Except for the aluminum bottom plates of each module, the Sunray's cabinet is made completely from HD-MDF, a medium-density fiberboard that's created under high pressure. Fashioned of multiple pieces of this material with adhesive in between, the cabinet walls are nearly 4" thick, as is the front baffle of the middle module, and there's extensive bracing as well. The gorgeous piano-black finish (wood veneers are an option) is applied in a dozen coats, building up a surface that's nearly 1/8" thick and sealing the cabinet for good measure.
Still, in these days of speaker cabinets made of high-tech composite materials and aircraft-grade aluminum, the Sunray seems basic, even plain -- "the world's most boring speaker," as Jörn also refers to it. Yet, he is no fan of aluminum as a cabinet material. It "has a very high resonance" and "rings like a bell." "HP-MDF is still the material that has the best resonance absorption," Jörn concludes, adding, "we build speakers, not airplanes." Hard to argue with that.
Erecting the towers
Jörn and his assistant Felix, another tall, lean German, set up the Sunrays in my large listening room. The speakers come packed in a pair of foam-lined, metal-reinforced flight cases, and while it's possible (although backbreaking) for one person to unpack the speakers, putting them together is a two-person job. The modules, which each weigh in excess of a hundred pounds, are stacked, fitting into recessed inserts on the top of the cabinet below. To effect this maneuver, Tidal includes a pair of special suction-cupped "grabbers" similar to what people who install plate-glass windows use. These affix to the sides of each module without marring the finish, providing handholds that make the grunt work easier. When it comes to hoisting the top module into place, having Jörn's height is a definite asset.
The modules are strapped together with gold-plated copper bars that double as jumpers. The binding posts along with other connectors reside on the rear of the center module and feature plastic caps that are easy to torque by hand to extreme tightness. Tidal is unusual in that it manufactures electronics as well as speakers. Perhaps for this reason, the Sunray can be configured a number of ways, including with its active external crossover and extra channels of amplification. The crossover isn't necessary for using the speakers, but it comes with them nonetheless.
I reviewed the Sunrays in their most basic configuration: connected directly to the amplifiers, which powered them full-range. In this regard, both Lamm M1.2 Reference hybrid and Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 OTL monoblocks drove the speakers more than admirably. Jörn commented on how good the Sunrays sounded with the Lamm amps, but I preferred the Atma-Sphere monoblocks, their remarkably transparent midrange making for a truly memorable speaker-amp combination. I also used the Sunrays with Lamm ML2.2 monoblocks, the latest version of Vladimir Lamm's 6C33C-based single-ended amps. These monoblocks can surprise with their ability to power speakers that seem wrong for their mere 18 watts. The Sunrays, in fact, were unsuited for the ML2.2s, sounding tonally voluptuous but dynamically stunted. Jörn keeps the sensitivity of his speakers to himself, but if I had to guess, I'd say the sensitivity of the Sunrays is around 88dB -- too modest for the SET Lamms.
To position the speakers, Jörn eyeballed their general positions in the room and then used a laser measurer to set the exact distance from the listening seat to the front of the cabinet, bouncing the beam off one of the midranges. For toe-in, he used the sides of the cabinets as a guide, explaining that seeing an angled swath about three inches wide from the listening seat was ideal for my room. He and Felix swiveled each speaker, eyeballing the results to ensure that those three inches showed from the listening seat.
Within 90 minutes, the speakers were unpacked, assembled and placed within the room. However, the setup was not sonically optimized; as Jörn explained, "we know reviewers like to find out for themselves." It was no surprise, then, that initial listening proved unsatisfying. The soundstage was locked in between the speakers, nary an instrument or singer venturing beyond the inside boundaries of the two tall, dark sentinels. Luckily the speakers do not rest on spikes. Instead, they are bolted to heavy chrome bars into which some unique isolating footers screw. These have flat bottoms that allow for the speakers to be moved -- provided you use a judicious amount of tugging and pushing. Jerk the speakers too violently and you might be watching in horror as they slowly tumble over -- possibly on top of you. What I did was get on my hands and knees and pull near the footers as daintily as I could. This would move each speaker a fraction of an inch without causing catastrophe. It's important to do this within the first day or so after setup, because once the speakers settle, the footers sink into the carpet and pad (if you have them, of course) and movement is pretty much impossible.
I ended up with the Sunrays spaced farther apart than Jörn and Felix had placed them, and toed out more as well. Three inches of cabinet were reduced to two (or so), and the soundstage stretched laterally, providing greater depth behind each speaker as well. This put the speakers roughly where my Wilson MAXX 3s had sat, and where a number of other speakers sat after them: 48" from the front wall and 53" to the side walls. From the listening seat, the Sunrays didn't look as large as they are, their width being less than half their depth. They are actually very attractive, due to their proportions, deeply mirrored finish and subtle chrome accents.
As with the Contriva Diacera SEs, there are ways of tailoring the Sunrays to the room in which they will be used -- or listener preference. The first is what Tidal calls "the Varioterminal" system, which changes the speaker's low-pass filter in frequency and gain, allowing the woofer output to be adjusted to one of three settings: "Flat," "Gain A" or "Gain B." The latter two increase bass output for those rooms (and customers) that require it. Tidal's "Aerotune System" involves the pair of ports in each bass module. Tidal provides nicely made foam stoppers for plugging one or two of them. This has the effect of either providing flat bass (with two ports plugged) or creating a 3dB rise beginning around 30Hz (no ports plugged). This works in conjunction with the Varioterminal setting; neither overrides the other. The final feature has no specific name. It entails removing a jumper to introduce a 2dB dip in the speaker's treble. Installing the jumper adds the 2dB back.
The difference that the port plugs and jumpers effect was clearly audible. In my room, plugging neither port and installing the jumpers came closest to fulfilling the expectations that such large speakers create in terms of bass output and treble sparkle. The sound was more exciting, even if it wasn't as spectrally balanced as the configuration I settled on: one port plugged and no jumper. I'm sure Jörn would say that there's no right or wrong way to use these features, and I would agree with him. In terms of the Varioterminal setting, "Gain A," the middle setting, was deemed correct for my room, and I never changed it.
I've already mentioned the "ceramic constriction" that Tidal speakers somehow avoid. With the Sunrays, what's missing in this regard goes a long way toward defining their sonic character. They track the signal with a natural suppleness that's carefully counterbalanced with quickness into and out of each note. This gives transients a purity and completeness that worked equally well with all kinds of music, a feat matched by precious few speakers. I could have ended the previous sentence with "at any price," but the "completeness" the Sunrays achieve is frankly what listeners expect from speakers of their considerable cost.
In my review of the Ayre DX-5, I compared well-known recordings in different formats -- CD, SACD, DVD, everything I had on hand except analog, which would have made no sense in the context of the review. However, that doesn't mean I didn't make the digital-analog comparison as well. I actually had 45rpm test pressings of Getz/Gilberto [Verve/Analogue Productions AVRJ 8545-45] and Oscar Peterson's We Get Requests [Verve/Analogue Productions AVRJ 8606-45], a pair of well-recorded jazz albums that have become workhorses of the audiophile catalog. I discussed both in the DX-5 review, and adding the LPs to the digital mix was fascinating, proving both how good digital can sound and in what areas the very best LPs remain supreme.
The Sunrays were central in parsing the differences, not only between the digital formats but especially between digital and analog. Perhaps it's no surprise that the least-compelling version of Getz/Gilberto was the first SACD of the title [Verve 589595], with the latest digital version I own, the SHM SACD, being easily the most spectrally balanced. However, the LP crushed them both in terms of inner detail -- the small sonic touches that give texture, air and verisimilitude to instruments, taking us into recordings -- and the ratio of ease to sheer resolution that is at the heart of a convincing presentation, at least for me. It was with the LP that the Sunrays did their best work, mining all manner of minute detail without aggression, revealing without highlighting. Perhaps this is what Jörn meant when he called the Sunrays "boring," but it was also responsible for the way these speakers convince -- and seduce.
There were truly special qualities to the Sunray's treble and midrange, at least for those of us who value a natural, unhyped portrayal with lavish detail. There is much to praise about the Sunray's diamond tweeter, which seems to meld the characters of so many other tweeters: the steeliness of an aluminum dome, the suave texture and utter lack of hardness and glare of a silk dome, and the fleet airiness of a ribbon. The intensity of these things changed with each recording, proving that the treble region reported instead of editorialized. The same was true of the midrange, but with an interesting twist. There was physicality and roundness to singers, which can be the sign of some tonal darkness, yet the Sunray's midrange always sounded light and sprightly. It deftly balanced presence and transient agility, ultimately sounding faithful to both the recording and the music's intent.
Once I discovered this, I paired the Sunrays with the amps that are the transparency champs: the Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks. I was delighted, and not at all surprised, by the outcome. The combination was stunningly immediate -- neutral and detailed for sure, but also unfettered spatially and dynamically. Voices, strings, horns -- everything -- leaped from the speakers without the exaggerated edge that can give the illusion -- and nothing more -- of speed. Another digital format I explored in the context of my Ayre DX-5 review was Blu-ray Disc, for which there isn't a deep musical catalog at this point in time. Still, there are some impressive recordings available. I mentioned Andreas Fliflet's Mira [Jienat JNCD002] in my Ayre review, a Blu-ray-and-SACD package that includes some of the most boundary-bending music I've ever heard. From beginning to end, Mira was huge and resounding, impactful drums and lilting voices emerging from blackness, then retreating just as quickly -- a true sonic spectacular that enlivened my musical life. Even with this very challenging music -- challenging to make for sure, and challenging to reproduce as well -- the Sunrays simply laid it out with all its scale and dynamic alacrity intact. But more significant again was the poise and control the big speakers displayed, both disappearing into the soundscape they created and conjuring powerfully real images right in the listening room.
In fact, the perspective the Sunrays presented seemed to be an outgrowth of their stature and configuration: large floorstanding speakers with the heart of finely wrought minimonitors. Physically, of course, this is accurate, but the combination was most telling sonically, the speakers transforming with the music. The various Wilson Audio speakers do the same thing, with the larger models like the MAXX 3 and Alexandria X-2 Series 2, displaying the greatest spatial duality, because they are both very large and, when set up to Wilson's standards, disappear as the sources of the music. This is true of the Sunrays as well, even though their overall character is rather different from that of the Wilson speakers. If the Sunrays possess any overt tendencies, they lean to the forgiving side of the continuum and don't possess the ultimate in terms of bass weight, power and bloom, emphasizing quick pacing and agility amidst depth that certainly extends into the 20Hz range.
The bass is the Sunray's most intriguing and possibly enigmatic distinguishing mark, given the unusual implementation of its four woofers. Is it more or less indicative of what's captured on each recording? While there was no question that the Sunrays earned the "full range" title, they didn't immediately wow with their low frequencies, as their sheer size suggested they might. The bass still conveyed a measure of the ambience that is required to portray large soundscapes well, and there was nothing insubstantial about it, the throbbing low frequencies from Harry Connick's She [Columbia 64376], a personal bass-workout favorite, sounding, well, throbbing and low. It's worth noting, however, that Tidal makes a pair of subwoofers, the matching T1 towers, for use with the Sunrays and their included crossover. Whether they are considered necessary will depend on your desires and bank account.
Bigger than a breadbox but not a Sunray
Speaking of Wilson Audio, after the Sunrays departed I finally had the opportunity to listen with my reference speakers again. When Paul Bolin and I launched The Audio Beat in late 2009, I had lined up a few speakers to write about. This meant that my MAXX 3s ($69,500/pair) were put on their casters and wheeled out of the listening room. Little did I know then that I wouldn't hear them make a sound again for nearly two years. With the departure of the Sunrays, I wheeled the shorter-but-just-as-deep MAXX 3s back into position, being sure to site them exactly where they had been set up (I had marked everything with masking tape). It was like getting to know them all over again, an enlightening process.
Putting aside the different bass presentation, which is about weight, power and bloom with the MAXX 3s, there was an abundance of midrange information that united seamlessly with the treble above and bass below. This is a way of saying that these large multi-driver speakers are coherent -- sounding in manner and quality like one driver throughout their range. While the drivers of the Sunrays are well integrated with each other, there was no question that the diamond tweeter possessed a special character that drew attention to it. This is simply a matchless driver, at least in this implementation, and one for which there is probably no exact midrange or woofer equivalent.
Still, the Sunrays managed a holistic presentation that was founded on their characteristic combination of resolution and ease. This applies to the MAXX 3s as well, although they sound bigger, no matter the recording, perhaps because they present more in-room presence. As mentioned, the Sunrays walked a fine line between in-room and within-the-recording energy. Neither speaker is insistent or emphasized as it transitions into the treble, and that's welcome as far as I'm concerned, as this closely aligns with live music, avoiding the detrimental electronic artifacts of reproduction. Both offer suave, well-behaved high frequencies that convey the qualities of instruments that fall into their range, although the Sunrays are more variegated in this regard.
A more relevant face-off for admirers of the Tidal sound is between the Sunrays and the Contriva Diacera SEs ($58,200 per pair), which I reviewed more than a year ago. I expected that the Sunrays would be more accomplished than their smaller, less expensive brethren, owing to the ambition of their design, their sheer size and their driver complement, but their performance was significantly better in every way. They sounded bigger, more transparent (especially through the midrange), and wider in bandwidth. They also revealed more about each piece of equipment in front of them, but unlike speakers that are ruthless in the way they expose such variation, the Sunrays always sounded composed, always made deeply involving music. The same could be said for the Contriva Diacera SEs, although to a lesser degree.
Wilson Audio rates the MAXX 3s as 91dB sensitive, and I have no reason to doubt this, as, for instance, the Lamm ML2.2s were a wonderful match with them, while the same amps couldn't cut it with the Sunrays. This translates to a difference in dynamic agility, the MAXX 3s sounding more free and open at lower levels and attaining their highest points in volume in a more immediate, even startling way. Yet, with all of the other amps I had here, the Sunrays were anything but dynamically stunted. With ample power, they captured a wide range of volume changes along with detail at all listening levels, never losing their sense of proportion.
Of course, there is a huge difference in price between the Sunrays and MAXX 3s, and the same holds true for design and construction. Wilson Audio pays great attention to the cabinets for its speakers, and the MAXX 3s are a melange of different high-tech materials chosen for their properties within certain frequency ranges. Intellectually, the Sunrays' use of HP-MDF seems unrefined by comparison, although Jörn Janczak would certainly argue that his approach to speaker design makes his choice of cabinet material just as deliberate and vital as Wilson Audio's. Still, when speakers in this price range use everything from proprietary composites to aircraft-grade aluminum, one whose cabinet is made of MDF, even a special grade of it, suffers a perceptual deficit.
However, as audiophiles well know, perception and sonic reality are often unrelated, and the Sunrays definitely excel at the latter. I doubt that a potential buyer lost in the music that pours forth will hesitate because of what's beneath the gleaming surface of the Sunrays.
One of the most interesting things about the Sunrays -- and indeed the entire Tidal speaker line -- concerns the company's customer base. Since my review of the Contriva Diacera SEs, I've become e-acquainted with a number of Tidal owners, including two who own Sunrays. I initially found this out-of-the-blue contact surprising, because Tidal has such a low profile, at least here in the US, where it doesn't advertise and handles its own distribution. Also, while I've reviewed some speakers from companies that would be considered Tidal's competition, I've corresponded with owners of those speakers very little -- and I've never encountered owners of other competing brands.
What I've come to understand through corresponding with Sunray owners is that Tidal has tapped into its market in a completely nontraditional way, and I have yet to comprehend fully how this happened -- other than that music lovers seem to admire the speakers. There are over 30 pairs of Sunrays in use, and many more Contriva Diacera SEs, Piano Ceras and other less-costly models. While 30 pairs doesn't seem like a huge number, reread the previous paragraph: there is no advertising for the Sunray, which translates to a higher profile for its competition, yet there is still an enthusiastic customer base -- for a speaker that costs over $150,000 per pair.
After spending months with the Sunrays, I get it. These are uniquely revealing and musical speakers whose spatial characteristics and tonal sophistication befit their stature and unusual design. More than enjoying the Sunrays, I valued them as an alternative to so many big, expensive speakers whose promise goes unrealized for one reason or another. While no speaker has cornered the market on sonic realism, the Tidal Sunrays met a number of my personal standards for this, at least as they exist at this point in time.
Price: $154,990 per pair in gloss black finish. Optional veneers are available at extra
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Tidal Audio GmbH
Immendorfer Strasse 1
50354 Hürth, Germany
+49 (22 33) 966 92 25
Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable, Graham B-44 Phantom Series II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Allnic Puritas cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard and Nordost Odin phono cables, Allnic Audio H-3000V and Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics DX-5 "A/V Engine."
Preamplifiers: Allnic Audio L-3000, Audio Research Reference 5 and Reference Anniversary.
Power amplifiers: Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks, Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference and ML2.2 monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio MAXX 3 and Sophia 3.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research PowerSnake Series Anaconda and Python.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research PowerSnake Series Anaconda and Python.
Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Hydra Triton.
Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference and MusicCord-Pro ES, Shunyata Research CX-series (various).
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz² 8 equipment rack and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases.