A couple of reasons why most loudspeakers don’t sound like live music are that they are dynamically compressed and that they fail to accurately replicate hard transients. Ultimately, they just don’t have enough dynamic headroom or speed. If you’ve ever sat up close at a big band jazz concert or a piano recital, you know that unamplified music can not only get very loud, it also has tremendous dynamic swings. In order to accurately reproduce the sound of big chords on the piano, cymbal crashes, a full brass section playing accented notes, or mallets striking a tympani with intensity, a loudspeaker must be able to explode dynamically without acoustic breakup. It must also be able to start and stop instantaneously to replicate the leading edge of transients without overhang. Think of the “ping” you hear at a live performance when a trumpet player hits a note or the hammers strikes the strings of a piano. Large multi-driver horn speakers can come close to the dynamic realism one hears at a live concert, but this often comes at the expense of coherency, natural timbre, and/or cost.
The good news is that dynamic realism is not limited solely to physically imposing and costly horn-loaded speakers. The remarkable MBL 101 E certainly has it, as do some large multi-driver arrays and high-ticket speakers, but at one-third of the cost of the MBL and with an even smaller footprint, the Eben X-3 from Danish manufacturer Raidho captures the dynamic swings one hears at a live performance. The X-3 combines five mid-sized, but extremely fast cone drivers with an exotic planar-magnetic tweeter. Like the MBL, it has a rare ability to replicate hard transients with blazing quickness but without acoustic breakup or overhang. These capabilities alone would be enough to qualify the Eben as worthy of an audition, but this Danish design also disappears like a great mini-monitor, offering precise image focus and fine inner detail. While it has dramatically better natural timbre than most large multidriver horn systems, the Eben falls a bit short of the MBL’s overall excellence. Although room placement and setup are relatively easy, this Nordic powerhouse requires careful system-matching because of its chameleonlike ability to change sonic character based on what precedes it in the audio chain. Yet with the right components, the X-3’s performance is of reference quality in many respects.
A problem with reviewing speakers this revealing is that the sonic flaws one hears are likely to reside in upstream components, not in the Eben X-3s. For example, the PrimaLuna Prologue Six monoblock amps I reviewed last issue were outstanding with my Quads, yet I heard a hint of midrange glare when these tube amplifiers were matched with the Eben. I was ready to ascribe this coloration to the X-3, but then I remembered that this slight forwardness wasn’t present when I heard the smaller Eben X-Centric, which uses some of the same drivers as the X-3, matched with Chapter electronics at CES. Chapter’s U.S. distributor, Jason Scott Distributing, kindly sent some demo Chapter gear for me to try with the larger Ebens. When mated with the Chapter Couplet amplifier, the X-3’s slight glare in the upper midrange vanished, the bass was more extended and powerful, and overall transparency was breathtaking. It’s no wonder Raidho demonstrates the Ebens with Chapter components.
The Eben X-3’s sonic prowess came together on two of my favorite torture tests for loudspeakers: piano and voice. The Eben’s portrayal of the sound and scale of the piano was incredibly realistic and compelling. Yes, the perspective is typically first row rather than mid-hall, yet there were even times when the sound approximated what I hear while sitting at the keyboard—talk about subtle details coming through on recordings. To get an idea of the Eben’s low-frequency extension, I used a Jorge Bolet recording of Liszt’s Funérailles [London], which repeatedly, and hauntingly, hits the lowest “C” on a piano. After hearing the note (with a fundamental frequency of 32.7Hz) on the Eben, I ran over to my Grotrian Steinweg concert grand in the next room and played the same low “C.” The overall sound was remarkably similar—far closer than I would have expected. Another surprise was the clarity of fast octave-runs in the bass on many of my favorite Chopin pieces, which on most big speakers sound slow and muddy, but not on the X-3. The bass matches the speed of the treble which, in turn, matches the brilliance of the top end of a Steinway. I found myself devouring my classical and jazz collections of piano recordings and appreciating the artistry of some of favorite performers like Emil Gilels and Bill Evans even more.
Voices were also riveting. The Eben uncovered subtle cues, like the changes in a singer’s breathing, moisture in the mouth, and the launch of consonants, without artificial or additive sibilance. Occasionally, an individual note would have an added emphasis, suggesting perhaps a slight cabinet resonance or room interaction, but the image of the vocalist was well focused and behaved, staying at or behind the plane of the speaker rather than being thrown forward into your lap as some horn speakers do. If you hear any distortion, it’s most likely your cartridge mistracking or amplifier clipping, or tape-saturation on the recording.
While I typically favor beauty over accuracy, dipoles over direct radiators, and a mid-hall versus front of the hall perspective, the Eben’s uncanny ability to capture the dynamic realism and hard transients of a live performance, as well as its many other fine attributes, ultimately won me over. This is a speaker that may very well change your sonic priorities, too, and it is equally at home with rock, bluegrass, jazz, and classical. The Eben has a wide and deep soundstage within the boundaries of the speaker, sacrificing some of a dipole’s air and expansiveness at the sides of the stage for more imaging precision and stability. Although it doesn’t plumb the subterranean depths of a MIDI synth or pipe organ, it is a relatively full-range, reference-caliber transducer with a sound that is compelling.
Part of the fun of being an audiophile is discovering components like the Eben X-3 that bring one closer to the recorded performance, or better still, the concert hall, jazz club, or rock venue. Indeed, the Eben X-3 produces far more than its fair share of breathtaking moments and goosebumps. Like other components of reference quality, it can dig out seemingly hidden information in your favorite recordings and make you feel as if you are hearing them for the very first time. While it may force you to swap out components you previously held in high regard, its sonic payoff is substantial and can move you closer to the sound of the real thing. Once you’ve experienced its realism and immediacy, it’s hard to accept anything less. TAS