I’m a small speaker guy. It comes naturally. My listening rooms have always been modest in size, and well suited to two-way compact speakers. Personally I like the quasi-nearfield experience which allows me to hear more of the speaker and less of the room’s interactions. But my expectations are not low. Today, more than ever before, there’s no excuse for any high-end speaker to play small. The era of the little screamer, a once commonplace variety of two-way that could peel the Teflon off a cookie sheet, has for the most part ended. Thanks to advancing technology and computer software the science of speaker design is vastly more sophisticated than it once was and far more readily available to builders with a passion for audio.
John F. Heiler, the “Fritz” in Fritz Speakers, is one such builder. He’s been designing and constructing loudspeakers since his college years in the mid 1970s, so that today the company produces an extensive and highly affordable line of both audiophile and home-theater speakers delivered factory-direct. The heart of his compact line is the Carbon 7, a 16"-tall two-way in a thick MDF bass-reflex enclosure with a rear-mounted 2.5" port. The look of the Carbon 7 is chunky Old School and reflects the aesthetic that function is foremost. Its visual simplicity marks it as a loudspeaker that could have been manufactured anytime from 1970 onward. The drivers are sourced from ScanSpeak and include a 7" mid/bass with a carbon-graphite-fiber/paper-pulp cone and Kapton voice coil, and a 1.1" ferro-fluid-cooled soft dome tweeter in a non-resonant rear chamber. The first-order crossover, which kicks in at 2.2kHz, is point-to-point hard-wired and minimalist to the core. It uses no caps or resistors in the circuit with the tweeter and only a single inductor on the mid/bass transducer.
The cabinet is finished seamlessly on all sides in genuine wood veneers, then lacquered or hand-rubbed and oiled. Several standard finishes are available (oak, cherry, maple, walnut, and mahogany), although the Carbon 7 can also be ordered in a wide variety of other woods and finishes. The speaker grilles are magnetically attached.
The Fritz Is On
The stand-mounted compact two-way is a tale that has been told thousands of times in audio history. But the story’s denouement is never quite the same. Many go for a spectacular presentation—the upward thrum in the midbass or the skyrocketing treble, the hyper-focused images, the buffet of cleverly positioned frequency bumps and suckouts. But the Carbon 7 takes a mostly classic and, I might add, almost defiantly neutral approach. The Carbon 7 knows where the bulk of music lives. Thus, the Carbon 7 has a generous midrange saturated with color and energy almost to the point of ripeness. In fact, one of the Carbon 7’s great character traits is that it doesn’t lose track of the weight and body of real music. I could hear it immediately when I cued up my favorite classic-meets-country fusion string trio, a rockin’ Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor (cello, bass violin, and fiddle respectively) on Appalachian Journey [Sony]. The track “1A” explodes with energy and color and tells me a lot of what I need to know about any loudspeaker. If it sounds thin or aggravating on top, or lean through the upper midbass, or overly ripe for that matter, or if the instrumental images congeal or crowd each other out, then something in the system is out of kilter. This is not an easy track for any compact to capture completely, but the Carbon 7 is so nicely weighted and balanced that any deficits due to its diminutive size pale in comparison to its plusses.
It has a rich dark tonality, one that is at odds with the scrappy quickness of certain other compact two-ways. The upper mids or presence range and the lower treble are free from edge or etch. The Carbon 7 is sufficiently fast on transients; it’s not ribbon or electrostatic quick, but percussive cues certainly have good speed and clean resolution. Dynamics compress mildly at higher volumes, as you’d expect in this size range, but, again, the issue here is balance. I found myself not listening for individual criteria but instead delighting in the overall musical performance. The Carbon 7 doesn’t overreach in the treble—welcome news for some of us—but there is also a darkening of harmonic information, a lower ceiling over the music that limits the ability of a live performance to soar to the rafters. I noted a waning of presence on vocals—more on male than female. When James Taylor sings “Hard Times Come Again No More” there’s a slight dip in energy that causes his voice to settle back in his throat a touch. Taylor’s voice has a reediness that pushes it forward, and that presence isn’t there as much as it should be.
Bass response is very impressive with extension into the mid-40Hz range, but, as is always the case, listening room reinforcement and volume will have a large say in ultimate low-end limits. In my room, the Carbon 7 performed strongly about 32" from the backwall (to the inside front edge of the baffle). I think there’s a little upper bass froth and port action that lends the Carbon 7 a sense of big-speaker scale and scope, but it’s not offensive. Still, when the Carbon 7 is compared to a full-ranger (I was alternating with the Wilson Sophia 3 and MBL 120), I could hear the 7 running out of gas in the lower midbass around 50Hz or so. I couldn’t quite hear the surge of resonant energy as Meyer drags his bow across the lowest string of his doublebass. Like air released from a balloon, the notes became more about immediate pitch and less about rippling color and room-filling impact and bloom.
Well-executed two-ways are renown for their point-source coherence—the sense that the reproduced performance is emanating from a single point in space, the speaker all but invisible. This contrasts with the half-baked design where the listener perceives a split between top and bottom drivers complicated by spurious cabinet colorations—the onus now on our brain to piece the messy sonic puzzle back together again. You know it when you hear it, but the major beneficiary of better coherence is image focus. During Lyle Lovett’s rollicking “Church” from Joshua Judges Ruth [MCA] the Carbon 7 does a terrific mini-monitor impression with precisely spaced images from each member of the electrifying choir. It doesn’t quite match a Penn & Teller disappearing act but it isn’t bad. An even greater challenge to speaker coherence is female vocals, where the tonal range and our keen familiarity with the human voice exposes driver discontinuities. On Norah Jones’ “The Sweetest Thing” from Not Too Late [EMI] her performance is nicely centered and earthy, with good air on top and just the slightest underscoring in the sibilance range.
There’s one final issue that I cannot emphasize strongly enough. I spent a fair number of weeks with the Carbon 7, time enough to red-flag serious artifacts. But this is one compact two-way that wears really well over the long haul. Perhaps it’s the fact that Fritz Heiler is both a designer and a musician—talents that together lend a relatively small and aggressively priced speaker its pro-music character. The Carbon 7, if you haven’t guessed by now is my kind of compact, a straight-shooter that has its priorities very much in order.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, bass-reflex dynamic loudspeaker
Drivers: 1.1" soft dome tweeter, 7" mid/bass
Frequency response: 39Hz–20kHz +/-3dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 16" x 9" x 12"
Weight: 29 lbs.