Whether you believe the economy is “fundamentally sound” or in free fall, a bargain hunter—or cheapskate?—lurks within most of us. Being a wine lover, and also a writer on the subject, I delight in discovering outstanding bottles in the fifteen-to-twenty-dollar range. When it comes to loudspeakers, I had previously thought that, as good as many sub-thousand dollar models are, you had to spend $1500 to $2000 to get something really interesting. But a guy named Mark Schifter has just shattered that notion.
Perhaps I should have seen it coming. After all, Schifter has championed high value in audio for quite some time. His former company, Audio Alchemy, produced legendarily fine-sounding and modestly priced digital audio gear (as well as preamps and amps) before folding in 1997, some 18 months after Schifter left the company. Never one to sit idle, Schifter has gone on to co-found a speaker cabinet manufacturing facility in China (which builds large numbers of enclosures for other speaker companies), and in 2000 was a founder of AV123, one of audio’s first Internet-direct sales firms.
AV123’s U.S. headquarters are located in Colorado, but its main manufacturing facility is located in Cali, Columbia (it also produces speakers from the Chinese factory). In a recent conversation, Schifter spoke enthusiastically of his love for the Columbian people, and especially for those who make up his extended “family” there. Chief among them is Santiago Chavarro, whose family has owned and operated the manufacturing facility used by AV123 for over 75 years.
Schifter is equally excited by the raw materials his company’s South American location gives him access to—including what he says is the “best MDF I have ever seen,” which AV123 sources from Chile—and by the highly skilled laborers who assemble his loudspeakers. Schifter is also dedicated to sourcing sustainable woods, and having a factory that is safe for his workers as well as the environment.
The speaker I received for evaluation is the $799-per-pair X-Statik, which falls squarely in the middle of AV123’s X-Series. Curiously, it is the only open-baffle stereo design in AV123’s relatively extensive product mix. I say “curiously” because, given this speaker’s sonic excellence, you’d think AV123 would offer more open-baffle models. (In actuality, AV123 builds one other open-baffle design, a center-channel companion to the X-Statik called the X-Voce.)
For those unfamiliar with the concept, an open-baffle loudspeaker is one in which there is no box around the midrange and tweeter drivers, which allows them to operate in a dipole mode where the speaker’s rear sound waves flow into the room. The Dahlquist DQ-10 is a legendary example of an open-baffle design, and today Nola follows suit.
The X-Statik is a four-foot-tall, three-way, five-driver design, using a quartet of 6.5" treated paper drivers, and a 1" fabric dome tweeter. Two of the 6.5" units cover bass frequencies up to 200Hz, while the remaining pair operate up to 1.8kHz, which is where the tweeter takes over. The dual midrange drivers and tweeter are mounted on a 1.5"-thick open baffle, and are arranged in a D’Appolito configuration, while the woofers function in a sealed enclosure. Rather than covering the drivers with grille cloth, AV123 shields them with more-acoustically-transparent perforated metal grilles.
It should be noted that, while the X-Statik is truly a “budget” speaker in the realm of high-end audio, there is nothing about it that feels “cheap.” Packaging is first-rate, with cloth sacks wrapping the speakers instead of the usual plastic bags, and a well-considered set of protective Styrofoam inserts protects the speakers while in transit. Included in the package are an unusually good “enjoyment guide” (owner’s manual), which offers truly useful set-up advice, floor spikes as well as rubber feet (for hardwood floors), and first-rate binding posts for speaker-cable connections. And AV123’s Web site boasts of the high-quality parts used in the crossover network: polypropylene capacitors, air core indictors “in all the right places,” non-inductive wire-wound resistors, and Sonicap Gen 2 bypass capacitors.
Given that AV123’s sales are Internet-direct, and that you can’t go out and audition a pair, the company offers a 30-day in-home trial: Satisfaction guaranteed or a full refund, except for shipping.
So how does the X-Statik sound? X-Statikally good! But before I touch on the overall sound, let’s talk bass.
AV123 is unusually up-front about the X-Statik’s low-frequency response, which is rated down to 65Hz. For a floorstanding tower sporting two 6.5" woofers, that’s not very impressive. And, indeed, AV123 recommends using a subwoofer with the X-Statik. But the cabinet is sealed, not ported, which means that, while the spec may make you yawn, the X-Statik’s bass is impressive when it comes to speed, impact, tonal and textural detail, and smooth integration with the midrange drivers. I auditioned the X-Statik in my small listening room without a subwoofer and except for a few recordings did not miss the very deepest frequencies. If you listen to lots of bass-heavy music, have a large room, or are going to use the speaker in a home-theater system with lots of action flicks, you may want to add one of AV123’s subwoofers.
In any event, even with a perennial audiophile test fave such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon [EMI], with its famous “beating heart” opening, the X-Statik delivered a fairly impressive, mildly sternum-thumping effect.
I was also reminded why this LP, which I can rarely listen to after countless numbers of spins during my audio-retailing days, was and remains such a hot demo item. I actually had a flashback to those years, and of playing Dark Side through the Dahlquist DQ-10. The mesmerizing spatial effect, three-dimensionality, and sensation that the sound wasn’t coming from the speakers but was simply there, floating in space, was something that turned a lot of young listeners on to this hobby. And though these traits are what we’ve come to expect from speakers over the years, there’s still something about dipoles that casts a beguilingly magical spell.
And the X-Statik’s got it. On Acoustic Sounds’ 45rpm pressing of Monk’s Music, the track “Well You Needn’t” showcased the X-Statik’s ability to throw an impressively lifelike soundstage that seemingly goes back as far as the recording allows. The other illusion that adds to this sense of life is image size and height (another dipole characteristic). Whether playing as an ensemble or soloing, the four horns, bass, drums, and Monk’s piano are presented in a convincingly life-sized scale, and with an energy and weight that is thrilling to hear. Indeed, when Art Blakey launches into one of his usually intense drum solos, every aspect of his kit is solidly placed and defined in space.
Tonally, the X-Statik sounds fairly neutral. It’s not overly warm but a touch so through the midband, and is lively in the upper mids and on top, but never excessively or uncomfortably bright. Specifically, when that chorus of ticking and chiming clocks introduces Pink Floyd’s “Time,” the X-Statiks produce a naturally vivid, clanking metal effect; and when Ray Copeland lets his trumpet rip on the Monk album, it has the natural brightness and bite one would hear from a trumpet playing up close in the same room.
Not surprisingly, all of these qualities translate beautifully to classical chamber ensembles, which sound very alive and “in the room.” With orchestral music—say, Lutoslawski conducting his own Cello Concerto [Philips]—when cellist Heinrich Schiff opens the piece unaccompanied, his instrument sounds as if it’s on the stage floor, but when the Bavarian Radio Orchestra’s brass section speaks, it sounds elevated and quite a way back in the hall, and as the rest of the orchestra enters the instruments fall into their natural places on the tiered stage.
My only real criticism of the speaker—and it’s no “deal-breaker”—is what I will characterize as a slightly grainy texture that I noticed in the midrange, especially, say, with male vocals. This quality receded as the X-Statik’s drivers “broke in” but never fully disappeared in the weeks I spent listening to and very much enjoying these speakers.
One final example is Sinatra’s Only The Lonely, recently released on Mobile Fidelity Gold CD. On this mono recording, the X-Statik once again displayed its excellent spatial rendering by providing a real sense of the recording venue and of how Sinatra and Nelson Riddle’s orchestra were placed in the studio. It also showed fine dynamic nuance and timing, particular with Sinatra’s unmatched turn of phrase on lines like “…some little small [dip, pause] café.”
So what’s not to like? Very little. Aside from the textural grain noted above, AV123’s X-Statik is a highly musical speaker that recreates an exciting and convincing sense of real musicians playing in real time. That in itself is as strong an endorsement as one can give to any speaker. The fact that I’m giving it to one that sells for such a reasonable price and offers such astonishing value leads me to call the X-Statik one of the biggest bargains I’ve ever come across. If you need more bass you can add a subwoofer; otherwise, spin your favorite music and let the good times roll!