First Listen: Raidho Acoustics C1.1 Mini-Monitor

Raidho C1.1 Mini-Monitor
First Listen: Raidho Acoustics C1.1 Mini-Monitor

Before I start gurgling about Raidho Acoustics of Denmark’s outstanding, newly improved, tiny (7.87” x 14.6” x 14.2”), handsome, ribbon/dynamic, two-way stand-mount mini-monitor, the $17k C1.1, let me say a few words about realism and stereo systems, because, when it comes down to it, nothing impresses me more than an audio component (such as the Constellation Performance Series electronics I recently blogged about or this very Raidho speaker) that seems to take me a step or two closer to the sound of the real thing.

Of course, the “sound of the real thing” is a much-debated subject when it is used as a criterion for assessing stereo gear. One man’s “realistic” bass, for example, is another’s “low-frequency-restricted” bass. In other words, the absolute sound is (and has always been) a relative thing—relative, that is, to the listener.

However, I’m not talking about listening to assess stereo gear with the absolute sound as a model. I’m talking about listening for fun and being surprised by the goosebump-raising feeling that we all sometimes experience when a stereo system seems to bring an instrument, a vocalist, or an orchestra briefly to life. As I said in my recent CES report, this fleeting sense of “realism” doesn’t start as a matter of conscious deliberation (where the mind cogitates and decides, “Boy, that sounds like the absolute sound!”). Instead, it begins as a visceral reaction (hence the goosebumps); somehow the body knows—well ahead of the mind—when a sound isn’t fake (or isn’t as fake as it usually sounds via a hi-fi system). Whatever the mechanism, getting fooled by your stereo invariably comes as a delightful surprise.

Why the surprise and the delight?

I wrote a little essay about this question in The Perfect Vision many years ago and the conclusion I reached then, which is the same conclusion I’m coming to now, is that we are surprised and delighted when the recorded thing sounds like a real thing because—in spite of all the palaver about stereos and the absolute sound—we don’t really expect our stereos to sound like the real thing. We expect them to reproduce, with greater or lesser fidelity, the recorded thing. And when they exceed this expectation, our senses are fooled as if by a magic trick, and our brains momentarily short-circuited.

I’ve spent a lot of years wondering what triggers this “fool-you” sensation of realism. At one point I thought durations were the key. At another, dynamics. For awhile I thought it was what I called “action,” the way that imaging changes with changes in intensity, pitch, and radiation pattern. Though I still think that all of these things are important, now I’m not so sure that there is any one specific answer. Instead, I think there is a general one: Greater realism results from hearing more of the sound of the instrument(s) and less of the sound of the medium whereby the instrument is being reproduced. Realism in hi-fi is always a matter of more and less.

This brings me, circuitously, to the Raidho C1.1s, which (at least when driven by the Constellation Audio Performance Series electronics) are from upper bass to treble perhaps the most finely detailed loudspeakers I’ve auditioned (and certainly one of the top two or three). Though I’m likely to catch hell for this on-line, the difference between the C1.1 and other extremely high-resolution transducers is not insignificant. It is, in fact, considerable, where the C1.1 plays. To put this plainly, with the C1.1 the “more” side of the realism equation means a lot more.

Once again, at the risk of catching flack about my taste in music and records, let me talk about the Hungaroton LP of “Improvisations for Zither,” which plays directly into the C1.1’s awesome strengths. (I will talk about its relative weaknesses, momentarily.)

As you well know from my previous blog on the Constellation Performers, this is a test record that I use often because it is exceedingly well-recorded and because its outstanding (albeit strange) mix of transients, timbres, and long, complex decays is like a window into the soul of a speaker or an amplifier or a preamplifier. In addition, the performance style of Attila Bozay, the zitherist, is so varied and quirky and amusing—and, once again, so exceedingly well-captured—that with the right stuff you not only hear every kind of sound a zither is capable of making; you also hear every performance technique a zitherist is capable of applying to the instrument. You get, as I noted in the Constellation review, an amazing variety of sounds—from the sharp snap of Bartók pizzicatos to pizzicatos with glissandos that bend like blues-guitar notes to the rich paint-can swirl of lightly strummed chords to tinkly, glassy, toy-piano-like arpeggios that are played sul ponticello (or, to be more precise, immediately below the tuner pins of the zither) to queasy scratches and percussive col legno-like knocks on the instrument’s resonant body. All of this, BTW, as variations on a tone row!

With the Constellation Performers driving them, the C1.1s reproduce all of these things with a clarity and completeness that are unparalleled in my previous (and long) experience with this recording. What I’m saying here is that you not only hear more of everything that Bozay and his zither are doing more clearly; you hear them much more clearly.

Take those glassy, tinkly arpeggios near the tuner pegs. Any really good playback system will reproduce the way Bozay runs his plectrum across these ultra-taut strings. Any really good playback system will give you a sense of the individual strings as they are being sounded sequentially. And any really good playback system will give you a very good idea of where the music is being performed. What other great playback systems won’t do—and what the Raidho C1.1 does do—is not only clarify the intensity, color, and duration of each of these tiny tinkly little notes, but clarify these things while also lowering (almost to the point of inaudibility) the noise that other speakers seem to add before, between and after notes (almost like intermodulation distortion). The result is that notes that sounded just the slightest bit blurred together (as if played legato) now sound completely distinct and separate (as if played, as they in fact were, staccato). Again, to put this plainly, with the C1.1 the “less” side of the realism equation is just as impressive as the “more.”

I will have educated guesses about why the C1.1 is so much clearer, cleaner,  lower in noise, and more finely detailed than other truly superb speakers when I review it in Issue 224, but let me just note here that Raidho’s brilliant Michael BØrresen, who belongs among the small handful of great speaker designers, is a world-class mechanical engineer, and that the obvious reduction of noise, hash, and blur in the C1.1 has a great deal to do with the reduction of mechanical resonances throughout the system, including within the drivers themselves.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying, “So what? So the thing is an analytical marvel?” Well, yeah it is. But (and contrary to certain other Raidho C Series reviews I’ve read, in which you have to seriously wonder what small havoc room and electronics may have been playing with overall tonal balance) the C1.1 is, like the Constellation Performers driving them, that rarest of ava, a speaker that is not only standard-settingly finely detailed but also so transparent to sources that given a beautiful source and beautiful-sounding electronics it sounds ravishingly dense in tone color. Indeed, the “.1” version of the speaker was, according to BØrresen, designed not only to lower resonance and increase resolution but to fill out tone color (particularly in the midbass and lower midrange)—and so it does.

I will have plenty more to say about the sound and engineering of the C1.1 in my forthcoming review, but for the time being if you want to get an idea of how gorgeous and, yes, “realistic” this thing is capable of sounding just listen to a great solo violin recording (such as Charles Wuorinen's "The Long and the Short" on Mainstream, which is astonishing, BTW, via the C1.1) or a great piano recording (such as the Dessau First Sonata on Nova) or a great orchestral recording (such as Venice on RCA) or a great folk recording (such as Joan Baez In Concert, Part 2 on Vanguard) or a great pop recording such as “Lover, Lover, Lover” from Songs From The Road (Columbia, if you can believe it!), and feast on the breathtaking beauty and naturalness of string, wind, brass, percussion, and vocal timbre and texture.

So what are the “kickers,” to quote one of my so-called fans? Well, the C1.1 is a two-way—a great two-way—but still a two-way. While it has remarkable bass for a speaker its tiny size (with useable response into the upper thirties and more-or-less flat response into the upper 40s), it, like the Magico Q1, simply won’t move the kind of air that a bigger speaker with a separate woofer moves. Oh, the C1.1 will shake walls on big drum strikes, such as those on Clearaudio’s terrific Percussion Record, but it won’t growl on Tina’s Fender ostinato at the start of “Take Me To The River” with all the power that the Q5 does. Don’t get me wrong: As two-ways go, this tiny number has exemplary bass, with exceptional articulation of detail. It just doesn’t have all the power and punch in the bottom octaves of a big multiway or planar.

Second, there is the tweeter. BØrresen uses what Maggie calls a “quasi-ribbon” (built, as is everything save for the cabinet, by Raidho in-house) for the upper mids and treble, coupled to an extraordinary ceramic/aluminum-cone sandwich mid/bass driver in a ported enclosure. The C1.1 tweeter may be the finest I’ve heard, and its implementation here is sensational. Where you would expect a marked seam in the crossover region between planar tweet and cone mid/bass there is none. Zero. (As a point of comparison, the Raidho tweet never stands out the way the beryllium tweet of the Q5 can on-axis.) This said, there is something subtly different—perhaps it is a question of dispersion patterns, perhaps it is a very, very low-level material coloration, perhaps it is just the absence of a separate dedicated midrange and woofer—about the sound of the C1.1’s two drivers. It’s as if they have very slightly different textures, like one is silk and the other is gabardine or one is color-slide film and the other very fine grain color-negative film. I don’t want to make a big deal about this because these slight textural differences are way too subtle to amount to a discontinuity (anymore than the slight textural differences between a ring-radiator and a carbon-fiber-sandwich cone amount to a discontinuity). As noted, they certainly don’t seem to affect the lifelike reproduction of the color or intensity of notes, the retrieval of fine detail, or imaging or staging. 

Third, there is the question of dynamics. In my moderately-sized room, the C1.1 seems to lack very little on large-scale swings—and is a paradigm on small-scale dynamics. But, as with bass, bigger speakers with more drivers will undoubtedly give you more extension, more clout, more “floor.”

Fourth, there is the matter of image size and height. Like the Magico Q1, the Raidho C1.1 is not a miniaturizing speaker, probably because (like the Q1) it is perched relatively high on its dedicated stand, is well-aligned in phase and time thanks to the thick, angled, aluminum driver-mounting plates on the front of its heavily braced MDF enclosure, and has its port located at the top back of its cabinet, mitigating floor-bounce and the reduction in bass-range clarity and image height that floor-bounce sometimes entails. Still and all, while instruments are not greatly reduced in height they do tend to start imaging a little closer to the floor with the C1.1. than they do with larger planar and dynamic speakers. 

I started off by saying that greater “realism” on hi-fi is a matter of more and less. The Raidho C1.1 gives you both—more detail and less electro-mechanical noise—to a truly astounding degree, and without any bleaching of tone color. The result, on select great recordings, such as the Bozay and the Wuorinen, is a “realism” that not only raises goosebumps but that can actually extend beyond the momentary to an entire cut. Trust me: I have heard few other speakers reproduce a violin like the one in the unbelievably well-recorded Wuorinen piece with such unstinting, uninterrupted realism as this Raidho.

If you’re looking for a highest-fidelity two-way for a small-to-moderate room in a stylish package, I can’t recommend the Raidho C1.1 highly enough. This is an honest-to-goodness great loudspeaker. (BTW, the $17k price includes the purpose-built and very handsome stands.)