SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published August 15, 2003

 


Amphion Xenon Loudspeakers

I have to make a confession here. I fell in love with the Amphion Xenons the first time I heard them, which was at Montreal's 15th Le Festival Son et Image in 2002. I thought the Finnish floorstanding three-way was beautiful looking and unbelievably musical -- and best of all, it was affordable.

Just one problem, though: It wasn't available in the US.

I thought that was a pity, especially because the more I discovered about the Xenons and about Amphion, the more I liked 'em. My SoundStage! colleague Doug Schneider was gaga over Amphion. He'd even taken their argon2 loudspeakers, which he'd reviewed, to Canada's NRC for anechoic testing, where they measured so low in distortion that he had them measured a second time 5dB louder, just to be able to see what was happening.

I really wanted to review the Xenons, but there didn't seem to be any point until the company established US distribution. Then I received an e-mail from Stirling Trayle, long-time audio marketing maven and former Sumiko partner, who was starting his own audio distribution company. "I'm looking for a really good loudspeaker line to import," he wrote. "Know anybody who's ready for primetime?"

Heh, heh, heh, did I ever!

Of course, I'm probably leaving out a bunch of heavy business meetings, not to mention hours upon hours of sauna meetings (we are talking Finland, after all), but Stirling and Amphion finally got together -- and I got a pair of Xenons to review.

Hey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

What is best in music is not to be found in the notes

Amphion was the son of Zeus and Antiope, who played so melodiously upon his lute that the stones of the field danced their way into the walls and houses of Thebes of their own accord. Xenon is a member of the so-called noble gases. It exists naturally in the Earth's atmosphere (about 0.05 ppm) and is slightly more present in the atmosphere of Mars (about 0.08 ppm). Xenon is used in the lamps that excite ruby lasers into generating coherent light. Now you know.

The Xenon loudspeaker is an elegant floorstander that stands 42"H x 7.5"W x 14.25"D. It is configured differently from just about any other three-way you're likely to have ever seen, though. Its 8" aluminum woofer is mounted on the side wall of the cabinet (mirror imaged, so they can fire toward one another or toward the room's side walls). The 6.5" aluminum midrange driver is positioned high up on the cabinet's slender baffle -- above the 1" tweeter, which is positioned in a smoothly contoured "dimple" that serves as the tweeter's waveguide. This waveguide -- and a pair of perforated triangular panels mounted to the Xenon's side walls on either side of the midrange driver, which "leak" a controlled amount of that driver's out-of-phase backwave -- are the keys to the speaker's hypercardioid radiation pattern, which Amphion calls U/D/D technology (Uniformly Directive Diffusion). More on this anon.

The Xenon employs a cleverly designed minimal crossover. Amphion's philosophy is to keep things as simple as possible in the electrical domain by solving most problems through its speakers' acoustical design. The Xenon's crossover points are 150Hz (using a first-order filter) and 1200Hz (using a second-order filter). No, that's not a misprint. The tweeter handles everything from 1200Hz up.

Amphion explains this by noting that human hearing is not linear. The area where the ear is most sensitive is between 2000Hz and 5000Hz, where even the smallest fluctuations are easily perceived. Guess what? Conventional crossover points are typically in the 3000-4000Hz region, or, for a three-way design, around 5000Hz. As a result, Amphion claims, loudspeaker designers have to employ complex crossover designs, use exotic materials, or purchase expensive drivers. Even so, critical frequencies have to be covered by the woofer or midrange drivers, which have higher mass and lack transient speed.

Amphion's designer Antti Louhivaara addresses this by pushing the tweeter's crossover point as low as possible -- in the case of the Xenon, it's 1200Hz, and even Amphion's smallest two-way crosses over at 1800Hz. As a result, Amphion says, all the frequencies that the ear is most attuned to are reproduced by the tweeter.

This wouldn't be possible without that nifty little waveguide (don't you dare call it a horn!). The waveguide/tweeter interface is designed to produce a straightforward tweeter dispersion pattern, but Amphion points out that it does more than that. It also helps to smoothly couple the tweeter's response to that of the lower frequencies produced by the midrange driver and woofer by amplifying the tweeter's output. The waveguide's flare gives the tweeter about 9dB of gain at the crossover point, which also explains how the driver can tolerate the power demands placed upon it by the Xenon's low crossover point. Electrical correction is then applied to the tweeter above 20kHz, which is outside the range where the ear is sensitive to such things. Pretty neat, in theory -- and it's hard to argue with the sonic results.

The Xenon employs a rear-firing flared port and comes with a foam port plug inserted. It also features a discreet switch located beneath the port, labeled BAS (Bass Adjustment System), which attenuates bass response by 1.5dB.

The Xenons have a single pair of extremely high-quality five-way binding posts. They also have a pair of outrigger stabilizing spiked "feet" since the cabinets are so narrow. These really do give 'em a solid footing on terra firma. They weigh 66 pounds and they come in two different categories of finish: in birch or cherry, they cost $4699-USD/pair; in black or silver laminate, they cost $4050/pair. Mine were birch and yummy!

Magic is what we do. Music is the way we do it

It's not a bad idea to automatically suspect any audio product that sports too many acronyms. A reliance upon jargon can be indicative of a component that would be considered ordinary -- or even substandard -- without all that alphabet soup. However, U/D/D and BAS really are rooted in good engineering practices and are attempts to deal with the fact that loudspeakers generally have to work in rooms -- you know, places where people live and do other stuff besides listen to music. Yes, it's an ugly fact, but most of us must acknowledge it.

U/D/D is an attempt to prevent the side walls of the room from affecting the sound unduly. Most loudspeakers radiate sound in an omnidirectional dispersion pattern, which means that furniture and the room's side walls cause reflections to bounce toward the listener at the same speed as the original soundwave. When you're inside a small space, like, say, a typical living room, the reflected sound is so close to the original event that it's indistinguishable as a separate entity -- but it affects your perception of the sound, just the same. It both creates a smear and changes your sense of where the original sound was located (this is called the Haas Effect).

All speakers become more directional in the higher frequencies, compounding the problem. Midrange and low frequencies radiate spherically (which is why the Xenons can have the woofers on the side walls of their cabinets and still sound coherent), while the highs beam straight ahead. Amphion came up with U/D/D to deal with this mixed radiation pattern and smearing. The tweeter's waveguide gives that driver a slightly less beamlike dispersion pattern, while those midrange vents tend to focus that driver's pattern into a cardioid (heart-like, lobed) dispersion pattern. Off the forward axis, all frequencies attenuate fairly evenly, which prevents room reflections from masking the speaker's response. Amphion claims that the speakers' free-field response (what you get in an anechoic chamber) and their energy response (what you get in a genuine listening room) are "surprisingly similar, sometimes even almost identical." That's not so modest a claim as all those modifiers might make it seem.

BAS also is an attempt to deal with room-placement issues. You have three ways of adjusting speaker/room interactions. The first method involves the orientation of the side-firing woofer. In most rooms, you'll want to locate the woofers on the speakers' inside cabinet walls, facing one another. In really large rooms, where side-wall coupling is less of an issue, you can place the woofers on the outside cabinet walls -- in fact, you may have to.

If you're forced to put the speakers near the front wall, stuffing the port with the foam port plugs can buy you a few inches -- and attenuate the overall bass response by about 1.5dB. Switching the BAS toggle can also attenuate bass response by 1.5dB at 100Hz. All three options, used singularly or together, make the Xenons extremely easy to place -- in real rooms.

Where words fail, music begins

In my room, I found a slight degree of toe-in got me tightly focused sound and a deep, detailed soundstage. Then I had to adjust the image height, starting with getting the speakers level. (Here's a hint for placing all loudspeakers: Getting them level is a lot more import than most people think.) Once I got the Xenons level, I could change the image height easily by playing around with the relative heights of the front and rear spikes. I sit tall in the chair (and have a high-ish listening chair to boot), so I needed to use a tad more backward tilt than most people will require.

Overall, I found the Xenons extremely easy to set up. Stirling Trayle and I eyeballed 'em into approximate positions by guess and by gosh -- and we hardly had to fiddle with 'em to fine tune 'em. Oh, I tried, but they sounded about as good where we put them in the first three minutes as they ever did. Leveling them and spiking them through my carpet made a bigger difference than moving them up and back or from side to side.

With the woofers firing towards one another and the middle, I got deep, low bass. I played with both the port plug and the BAS switch, but in my room at least, unplugged and unattenuated produced the best sound and let me put the speakers where they sounded best -- but anything that gives me placement options is always welcome.

My listening system consisted primarily of the 300W Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista integrated (although I also employed the Ayre V-5x/McCormack MAP-1 combo), MF Tri-Vista SACD player, Ayre CX-7 CD player, and Shunyata Research Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables.

Music is the shorthand of emotion

It's not as though I hadn't been listening to some pretty good loudspeakers before I put the Xenons in the system. After all, they followed the Wilson Sophias and the Focus Audio Signature FS-888s in my review sequence -- and them two's pretty good competition. Still, the first thing I noticed was how deep, solid, and impressive Steve Swallow's bass sounded on Carla Bley's Looking For America [WATT/31 CD]. It's not as though the Xenon's 28Hz pedal point was all that different from the Sophia's 29Hz or the FS-888's 30Hz -- most people would call that a three-way tie, in fact. However, the Xenons had a sense of slam and chest-slapping dynamism that sounded as close to what Swallow sounds like in a small club as I have ever heard from a hi-fi.

It bears repeating: There remains a huge gulf between the sound of live music and the sound of reproduced music. A lot of it lies in power delivery -- the leading edges of transients get blunted (damped, more like) in reproduced music. Products like the Sophias and the Xenons capture more of that transient pop than most loudspeakers, and it's amazing how even the smallest additional amount of this leading transient energy can distinguish really good speakers from the rest. The Xenons are well above the tree line on the "really good" heap.

They also share with the Sophias -- which are more or less the pinnacle of that particular pile -- an astonishing coherence. The tuneful, full-bodied impact of Swallow's bass, or the Carla Bley big band's brassy ebullience for that matter, did not exist out of proportion to the rest of the sonic spectrum. In fact, the Xenons reproduced the sound of those 18 musicians with a top-to-bottom cohesiveness that was breathtaking. A big band is loud -- it's also powerful, possessing a degree of energy and sizzle that few loudspeaker systems can completely capture.

Part of that distinctive sound comes from the fact that a big band moves a lot of air, so anything that diminishes that quality of mass and heft robs a big band of part of its unique sonic identity. The Xenons passed that through without damping it down a jot.

Another aspect of big-band sound that most loudspeakers simply wimp out on is the complex overtone structure of all those different brass instruments. Stand close to any brass or sax player and you can almost hear the bell of his instrument sizzle as it resonates with the column of vibrating air passing through it. It's a form of high-energy transmittal that drops off rapidly with distance -- and it's one of those things that reproduced music typically leeches from the sound of the original event. The Sophias capture that particular sound better than just about any loudspeaker I've ever heard, but the Xenons don't cede them much ground in this department. The Amphions delivered that big-band sizzle in spades.

And voices? Oh, my gosh! Rachmaninoff's Vespers [PentaTone Classics 5186 027], performed by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, was transported to my room with uncanny detail. The sound of massed voices in a large room was so solidly presented between the Xenons that I felt as though I could have walked among the singers and through my now nonexistent front wall, deep into PentaTone's big Elburg recording facility -- and the image was so detailed, I probably could have walked through the studio door and deep into the Dutch countryside.

Oh yeah, I was describing the voices. The Xenons captured both the seamless blend of the Russian choir and the little identifiers that reveal that the blend is a combination of discrete voices. Well, duh! Except that it's a really nifty trick -- one most speakers don't quite pull off. Usually, a speaker falls on one side of that ideal or the other -- it either emphasizes the blend or it goes overboard delivering the individual components that make it up. Either way, audiophiles tend to use that emphasis as evidence of a speaker system's superiority. Except the truth is that a choir (or instrumental ensemble) is both a massed entity and a group of individual components and only the best loudspeakers reveal those two seemingly contradictory identities all the time. The Xenons certainly do.

This ability to sort out complex and sometimes confusing sonic pictures was a strength of the Xenons -- and of the very best loudspeakers I have auditioned. Robert Silverman's wonderful Beethoven sonatas set [Orpheum Masters KSP 830] presents a fascinating challenge to any music reproduction system precisely because it delivers an intense musical message in a slightly compromised recorded setting. Silverman's performance is simply magical and he's playing a great-sounding piano -- a 9' Bosendorfer -- which is captured with astonishing presence by John Atkinson's recording. But the room the piano was in was small and bright, not an ideal venue for a big piano playing works full of big ideas.

In real life, we have to sort these inconsistencies out all the time. Most of us don't live in an ideal word, so we hear speech, music, drama, and life in compromised settings, and we have no problem retaining the meaning and the magic and ignoring the dross. (Heck, those of us who follow the New York Philharmonic have been dealing with that particular reality for almost 50 years now.) On recordings, however, it becomes harder to separate the music from its setting, probably because so much other information is lost in the process of transferring the original event to the recording medium. But some components seem to open the window onto the event a little wider than others do, making it easier for us to capture the magic and ignore the unimportant wrapper it is delivered in.

The Xenons are among that select group of audio components. They delivered Silverman's mercurial performances with electrifying fidelity. His interpretations seemed almost unmediated -- and the sounds of that grand piano (and, yes, the very-early room reflections of it) were there, but completely beside the point. The Xenons communicate -- and that's an extremely rare trait for a loudspeaker at any price point.

Great music is mad with its own loveliness

It's a simple story. Boy meets speakers. Boy falls in love with speakers. Complications ensue. Boy reviews speakers. The end. Or is it?

There's no question that the Amphion Xenon is one heck of a well-designed and well-built loudspeaker. Amphion -- and speaker designer Antti Louhivaara -- should be very proud of what they've accomplished. The Xenon is even modestly priced -- at least compared to the sort of audio-realm superstars I'd rate as its equals or its betters.

Can you buy a better loudspeaker? Yup. The Wilson Sophia and the Dynaudio Evidence Temptation both get ever so slightly closer to the original event than the Xenon, but you have to pay a lot more for those last little licks. The Xenon is more of a volkspeaker -- especially in the laminate finishes where it's barely over $4000/pair (although the birch is so gorgeous, it's worth an extra $649 to a wood'n'finish freak like me).

For an awful lot of us music lovers, the existence of superior sound at $11,700/pair or $30,000/pair just doesn't have any impact on our purchasing decisions. Oh yes, those speakers are out there and they're better than anything I'll ever own. So what?

The Amphion Xenons, however, are so good in so many particulars that they don't just give you a taste of that audio magic the expensive superstars deliver -- they let you experience something extremely close to the same thing. Affordably.

In your living room!

Obviously, the Xenons are loudspeakers you have simply got to hear. I heard 'em and I fell head over heels in love with 'em. Now I want to run away with these blond Finnish lovelies.

When my wife reads this, I'm definitely going to have a lot of 'splainin' to do.

 ...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Amphion Xenon Loudspeakers
Price: $4050 USD per pair in silver or black; $4699 per pair in birch or cherry-stained birch veneer.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Amphion Loudspeakers Ltd.
P.O. Box 6
70821 Kuopio Finland
Phone: +358 17 2882 100
Fax: +358 17 2882 111

E-mail: info@amphion.fi  
Website: www.amphion.fi 

North American distributor:
Quartet Marketing Group
P.O. Box 751360
Petaluma, CA 94975-1360
Phone: (707) 762-0914
Fax: (707) 762-8473

E-mail: strayle@myquartet.com


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