Nothing conveys the art and alchemy of high-end audio better, in my view, than the execution of a fine, two-way, compact loudspeaker. More than any pull-out-the-stops floorstander, the stand-mounted two-way embodies one of audio’s most challenging balancing acts—engineering artful sonic choices, deciding which criteria to emphasize or heighten, to limit or even ignore. The three fine speakers systems in this survey hail from Finland, Germany, and the U.S., yet speak the same general language. That is to say they share an unalloyed musicality and sense of truth, but bring to the table slightly (and not-so-slightly) different accents and priorities. They signal that while we may all agree on the broader brush strokes of performance there is always room to debate and differ about the path to attaining a sonic outcome.
Penaudio Cenya: The Anti-Compact
The $3999 Penaudio Cenya is a rejoinder to every cold and tonally threadbare speaker that, once upon a time, you might have been corralled into buying, cheered on by a barker’s promise of “unrivaled resolution and transparency.” We’ve all been there, only to get it home, painstakingly set it up, and wonder why it’s all sizzle and no beef. If anyone doubts the potency and bravado of a compact loudspeaker then let him try the Cenya on for size. This Finnish two-way has some unique qualities that make it a standout in this segment. The most crucial, however is the ability of the Cenya to dominate a room in a way that few small speakers can. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Just who is Penaudio?
Penaudio of Finland is a relative newcomer to North America. Actually since it was founded only in 1999, it’s a newcomer to high-end audio in general. The brainchild of founder/designer Sami Penttila, the Cenya was fashioned to build on the success of Penaudio’s first two-way monitor, the Charisma, by further extending dynamics and bass. Cosmetically the Cenya speaks fluent Scandinavian, from its natural birch-ply finish to its stout, no-nonsense proportions. Physically the Cenya is all depth. The two-way, bass-reflex design measures a mere 11" tall, yet it’s a full 12.5" deep from the front baffle to the back panel. Propelling the treble is a ferrofluid-cooled textile dome tweeter courtesy of SEAS. The 6" magnesium composite SEAS Excel mid/bass features a radial-reinforced surround and heavy copper rings above and below the pole piece. Both drivers are produced to Penaudio’s specs. The crossover point is 4kHz. Top-notch components are featured throughout, including Jorma Design internal wiring, WBT 0730.12 (Signature Platinum) pole screws, SCR polypropylene capacitors, Graditech air-core inductors, and a custom-made aluminum reflex-pipe.
The construction of Penaudio loudspeaker cabinets is distinctive. It’s a multi-structure design that features a 1.5mm Baltic birch veneer on all inside surfaces. The front, back, top, and bottom panels use a 19mm sheet of MDF beneath a layer of 2mm birch-laminated plywood veneer. The side panels are 16mm solid Baltic birch-plywood and are finished with one of seven genuine wood veneers and then simply lacquered. Noteworthy is that this is furniture-grade birch plywood, which is significantly more expensive than spruce plywood and has been sourced exclusively from Finland. The overall structure creates a very stiff and strong enclosure with inherent self-damping properties and a fairly low cabinet weight.
The Cenya is a gutty powerhouse, pure and simple. Music seemed to energize and load my room in much the way I normally experience larger full-range systems. Many times over I had the odd impression that if I opened up the little cabinet, lifted the hood as it were, I’d find a small-block engine rumbling inside ready to throttle up. Certainly judicious port tuning is playing a significant role, as is the lengthy throw of the mid/bass driver, but also playing its part is the inert, bomb-shelter-like cabinet, which ensures that the entire signal is actually released rather than absorbed by the enclosure. As I listened to Solti and the Chicago run through Beethoven’s Ninth [Decca], I realized that the tympani were not just a series of ill-defined windage or port effects. With near-flat 40Hz output in my room, the Cenya was reproducing much of the ambience and air of the recording. I was hearing the lifelike weight and meat-on-the-bones authenticity of the live experience.
In tonality, the Cenya possessed a fairly neutral midrange yet retained a darker overall character, a warmer and wetter sound certain to make converts of those who’ve disdained the cold hard facts of many small compacts. Piano is a huge beneficiary of the Cenya signature. The sound of a concert grand not only possesses riveting delicacy, touch, and transient speed, but maintains soundboard resonance plus a good portion of the visceral weight and physicality of the massive instrument.
Normally the small-speaker experience breaks down to a balancing act of small box strengths—imaging, soundstaging, and transparency. But then there are the more elusive variables— the ambience cues, the immersion aspect—that are more dependent on lower-octave information, normally the bane of two-ways. This is where the Cenya departs from expectations. Rather than just relying on quick reflexes and transient speed (which it possesses in abundance), the Cenya produces a body and foundation of sound that suggests a larger speaker. As I listened to the Saint-Saëns Samson and Delilah Bacchanale [Reference Recordings], I came away hugely impressed with the reproduction of cello and bass, and the sense of the venue’s brickand-mortar underpinnings. During this track the Cenya hoisted a wall of orchestral sound that extended to the very boundaries of my listening space in ways reminiscent of much bigger multi-driver loudspeakers. The scale of images is obviously somewhat diminished, but they are nonetheless accompanied by the air and weight and ambient cues indicative of the recording’s venue rather than the arid vacuum-like atmosphere that exposes the limits of some compacts.
An energetic midbass adds heaps of energy to plucked acoustic bass and heavier percussion. It even extends to a greater chestiness on male vocals like Sting’s performance in “Fields of Gold.” Basically if there’s a bassline to follow, the Cenya tracks it like bloodhound.
As I said earlier the Cenya’s overriding personality is a warmer one, authoritative yet backed off just a bit in the upper mids—a trait I noted during the Saint-Saëns, as violins seemed to be just a little short of presence and vibrancy. They sometimes sounded a bit more distant and laid-back than normal. Likewise during Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” from Honky Chateau [Island], John’s lead vocal was softened and lost a little upper-midrange and low treble. You can hear the flat-picked guitar, but the ringing voice of the mandolin is smudged somewhat.
Still it’s the rare speaker that couldn’t use a small nip and tuck here or there. For example, as I listened to Audra MacDonald’s cover of “Bill” from How Glory Goes [Nonesuch], I heard a slightly over-weighted piano that suggested some midbass prominence. In some instances this masked low-level detail and microdynamic energy. At other moments, at extended volumes, there was a slightly whitish upper-frequency coloration layering the top of high strings and winds, while acoustic space seemed to constrict resulting in complex groupings of images crowding together a little more tightly.
A word about setup: The Cenya is temperamental about placement, and setup needs to be taken seriously. Unless the short front baffle is at or near ear-height the Cenya can sound shaded on top and thick in the midbass. Top-notch 28" stands, as recommended by Penaudio distributor John Quick of Tempo High Fidelity, considerably smooth the response, allowing the entire soundstage to light up and coalesce. Images suddenly snap into focus. The rear port is very active, so distance from the back wall (that is, the wall behind the speaker) needs to be carefully considered.
At this point it probably goes without saying that the Penaudio Cenya represents quite an auspicious debut for a company so new to American shores. It’s not the same-old cookie-cutter compact, however. The Cenya sound represents a more personal view from designer Penttila, but it’s a sweeping vision that should appeal to aficionados who like a compact that thinks big.
Audio Physic Step 25: Built for Speed
On the surface the particulars of the $3290 Audio Physic Step 25 hew to tradition. It’s a two-way, bass-reflex design just under 13" tall with a rear-firing port. The front baffle and the rear panel have a modest backward slope for driver alignment. The cabinet flares curvaceously out at the sides. It’s very rigidly constructed and beautifully appointed, from the finish of the driver frames to the back-panel terminal plate. The Step 25 also deploys some of the same Hyper-Holographic Cone (HHC) drivers Audio Physic developed for the flagship Caldera and Reference line speakers. The HHCT II is a small (1.75" diameter) cone tweeter with an exceptionally light, stiff, ceramic-coated-aluminum diaphragm. Likewise the 5.9" mid/bass driver implements its version of this cone technology and is designated Hyper-Holographic Cone Midrange or HHCM.
All this adds up to making the Step 25 something special. Easily one of the most transparent small speakers I’ve hosted recently, its image and soundstage reproduction are so specific, and timbres and tonal colors and micro-dynamics so alive and focused, that when I compared the sonic picture that the Step 25 casts against that of most other speakers it was as if I’d just had a pair of cataracts removed.
The Step 25 conveys an of-a-piece, point-source-like coherency, and a purity so startling that I felt I’d physically stepped into the recording studio, the very recording booth itself, and ended up standing within a few feet of soprano Audra MacDonald as she delivered her renditions of “Somewhere” and “Bill” from How Glory Goes [Nonesuch]. It was if I was no longer at the receiving end of a speaker but rather within the pressure zone and confines of the live event. Actually, this has been a basic trait of Audio Physic speakers for some time—building box speakers that more often than not seem not only cabinet-free but also have a level of transparency akin to something more along the lines of a small electrostat or planar-magnetic.
There are a couple of key features that might explain the disappearing act that so defines the Step 25. It employs Active Cone Damping (ACD). This was developed to avoid resonances associated with metal cones via a silicone/rubber ring mounted on the outer ring of the cone, where it applies pressure to suppress resonances. This same technology was also adapted for speaker-cable terminals in order to prevent mechanical vibrations from being transferred into the cabinet. The Vibration Control Terminal, as it’s termed, employs heavy aluminum construction and is additionally damped and fitted with a neoprene gasket for elastic suspension, ensuring that the binding posts mounted on it are effectively decoupled from the cabinet.
Tonally the Step 25 strikes a fairly even balance albeit with a lighter-spirited accent—one that may remind car enthusiasts of a little sports car with a high-revving, high-output engine. It presents a more forward and present kind of sound, which makes it a superb “voice” speaker that can capture every inflection and nuance of a vocalist’s performance. Few tracks exemplify the Step 25 strengths like Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” [Acoustic Live]. His brilliant guitar showmanship is a clinic for aspiring guitarists everywhere. The Step touches all the right bases—whether it’s cataloging Lofgren’s slashing flat pick, percussive bridge taps, articulate lead lines, or the bevy of satisfyingly deep resonances and ringing harmonics from the guitar soundboard. The Step 25 conveyed this performance with fully realized intensity and vibrancy.
All speakers uniquely fuse with and transform the space they reside in. And every recording played through that system is shaped accordingly by that transformation, conjuring up a virtual venue if you will. The Step 25 caused me to visualize my room along the lines of a smaller hall. Its acoustic suggested a little more reflectivity and dynamic energy, but just a shade of leanness and dryness.
Like many AP speakers I’ve heard over the years the Step 25 reconfirms the company’s unflagging allegiance to a highly controlled sound. The Step 25 all but seems to rejoice in its precision. There’s just a hint of silvering in the treble, a characteristic that accents the brilliance of the Step’s transient speed and clarity. This was a trait I noted during Copland’s Appalachian Spring [Reference Recordings], where the string section seemed slightly elevated in intensity as if propelled forward by some added thrust. Yet to the tweeter’s credit the effect steered clear of overt stridency. Had it revealed that sort of aggressive side then the sweeter, ambient textures from the backing singers during Cat Stevens’ “Fathers and Sons” would have departed.
A narrow flare of sibilance, more than I like, is also a small part of this accenting. For example, during Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” the guitar flat-picking was laudably clean but the clatter of the leading edge of the transient was a little pushier than I hear on my reference system. All things considered, however, this was not so intrusive that it diminished my overall enjoyment of the speaker.
There’s substantial and useable midbass output into the 50Hz range. And by useable I mean that bass can be felt down to the heart of the fundamental tone and not just in a theoretical or measurement-based sense. It’s there beneath big-bore percussion and heavy brass and winds. Dynamics have a lively toe-tapping character that extends throughout the midrange and into the treble.
Mind you, at little more than a foot tall, the Step 25 does have limits. Fully recreating the weight and scale of an orchestra rushing into battle is a distinctly big-box, multi-driver job and for that I refer you to Jonathan Valin’s illuminating review of the Audio Physic Avantera (Issue 220). In the lower realms of the tonal spectrum I could hear the Step 25 throttle down on its willingness to summon forth every micro-dynamic gradation. It cannot take the full measure of Ray Brown’s acoustic bass. The cavernous impact of a baritone sax was a bit more tenor-like than strictly baritone. And reproducing the willowy sweetness of a coloratura soprano like Anna Netrebko is one thing, but a large barrel-chested male vocalist like Bryn Terfel suddenly takes on a lighter complexion. On a larger orchestral work the speaker gently compresses, surrendering the larger dynamic thrusts and impacts from bass and drums and softening the launch of winds and brass. The Step 25 is certainly game in the face of this onslaught, and amazingly maintains its composure, never growing harsh or brittle.
Images are Felix Unger-clean; rim shots are crisp, finely grained, and detailed. There’s a tactile feeling to the relationship of drumsticks playing off the skins. Few speakers approach the soundstaging capability of the Step 25, which is virtually invisible as a source. Picturesque is the word that first came to mind when I sought to describe its ability to reconstruct front-to-back layering of images or the way it grants each musician his own ambient space in which to perform.
The Step 25 is the consummate “touch” speaker, rendering the tiniest musical delicacies and details of audio reproduction. Yet it was a constant source of surprise and satisfaction in the versatility it displayed with a wide range of challenging music. Audio Physic calls it the Step. I think it’s more like a leap.
LSA1 Statement Monitor: The Zen Monitor
Living Sounds Audio is a small builder of loudspeakers headquartered in Nashville. The LSA1 monitor is its leading midsized monitor. It comes in three packages, the base version, the upgraded Signature, and the Statement featured here. The $2599 Statement represents a relative rarity in the compact loudspeaker marketplace—a hybrid design that pairs a cone diaphragm mid/bass with an aluminum ribbon tweeter. More on that in a moment. At 13.5" tall and 24 pounds, the LSA1 Statement is no mini-monitor; it’s the more familiar dimension of the classic compact monitor. The cabinet is cosmetically simple but boasts curved side panels and unspun lamb’s wool damping inside. Both of these elements having been incorporated to reduce internal standing waves. The ribbon tweeter is courtesy of China’s Aurum Cantus and is rated flat to 40kHz. The diaphragm of the mid/bass driver is a treated paper cone. The crossover point is specified at 3kHz and uses a 12dB-per-octave slope. Crossover internals include first rate Mills wire-wound resistors throughout and Auricap and Sonicraft capacitors in the crossover, plus a large Alpha Core 12-gauge flat-wound inductor in series with the woofer. The Statement is internally wired with wire from Straightwire, custom-matched to the crossover.
Historically this configuration has created challenges for designers. Ribbon tweeters are well known for their extreme lightness and responsiveness, and this has oftentimes placed them at odds when paired with larger (code for “slower”) cone drivers. But LSA has largely averted this potential calamity by matching up the ribbon with a small, light, and responsive mid/ bass driver in a compact well-braced enclosure.
The character of the LSA1 Statement is the antithesis of the analytical compact speaker. It’s not driven to dissect and expose all the hard facts and minutiae of a recording. Rather it’s about revealing the musical performance in its entirety. Its holistic approach projects a mellower, warmer, more rounded sound. It has a darker character, akin to a deep-walnut tonal color. It’s evenly balanced for the most part and maintains a reasonable amount of orchestral scale and scope. It throws a larger body of sound and energy into the room, shedding some of the nervous small-box temperament of the typical compact. Whereas the music output of some compacts seems to be all about hard angles and edges and jumpy response, the Statements are like a gently flowing stream that produces a liquid musical event, not a churning chop of audio criteria.
Its vocal range reveals an otherworldly smoothness that imbues a singer’s efforts with satiny sheen. Even Bob Dylan’s time-honored throatiness and rasp seemed slightly soothed during “You’re A Big Girl” from Blood On The Tracks [Columbia], as if he’d popped a Hall’s lozenge right before the take. Part of this is the LSA1’s quick response and lack of distortion. But there’s a slight lack of immediacy, too—the power of the voice hitting the microphone seems slightly blunted. As a result vocal energy is centered in a shallow pocket slightly in back of the front of the soundstage. Jen Chapin’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” exemplifies the best of the LSA1 with properly aggressive vocals and stabs of energy from the baritone sax, punches of low end from the standup bass, and nicely rendered backup vocals stepping in and out as if almost subliminally summoned. One thing that makes the ribbon tweeter a standout (in a good way) in comparison to more prosaic dome transducers is its openness. Especially on vocal peaks, it tends to bloom outward, expand like the petals of a flower, in just the opposite way many dome tweets tend to narrow as frequencies elevate.
The ribbon scores high in its reproduction of transients and a general sense of ease and immediacy. Although I heard a small rise in response in the lower treble, it never turns aggressively over-the-top. The treble range is utterly non-fatiguing and integrates nicely. Interestingly, as I was wrapping up the review LSA1, LSA’s Brian Warford made a similar comment about the speaker in an e-mail exchange—that LSA’s goal was to produce a speaker that’s smooth and capable of being enjoyed for long stretches of listening time. I can vouch for that.
In overall soundstage and ambient space the Statement gives the impression of a medium-sized venue that is fairly damped. I visualized a liberal scattering of drapery that softens the harder transients, yet the overall sense of the space is one that’s so deeply resonant that lower octaves have a certain blush and bloom as they expand up and outward. This advantage is due in part to the generous lower-mid/upper-bass range that manages to flesh out the orchestral soundstage somewhat and adds some genuine big-speaker heft. The LSA1’s ability to move air and recreate orchestral ambience, to serve and immerse the listener in acoustic space, is distinct. This will make the Statement irresistible to many and justifiably so. But it’s not washboard flat in frequency response, and some may think it goes too far in a laid-back direction. Still there’s no arguing that it beautifully captures the complex voice of the cello as it swoops across the octaves during Bruch’s Kol Nidre [Channel Classics]. Similarly during Judy Collins cover of “Send in the Clowns” the LSA1 was contentedly at home reproducing the lush deep textures of the oboe, cello, and bass. It does the same with an acoustic guitar’s lower register. Its natural warmth simply invites these harmonics to bloom.
Nonetheless this is still a small cabinet and as frequencies fall into the lower octaves the speaker’s ability to focus images and define timbre relaxes just a bit. For example the definitive blat of a baritone sax is less like a pure fundamental and more impressionistic. For symphonic music this means a slightly thicker lower-string sound, less layered as the sections mass together. At times the lower mids and bass feel slightly overdamped. Whether this can be ascribed to cabinet rigidity or port tuning I wouldn’t hazard a guess, but as I listened to the piano and electric bass accompaniment during Claire Martin’s “Black Coffee” it sounded as if a thin quilt had been placed over the instrument, darkening some of the rhythmic cues, dynamic attack, and stridency that I’m accustomed to hearing on this track.
If there was ever such a thing as a Zen loudspeaker the LSA1 Statement would be it. Without fanfare it exists as a completely balanced musical package, with no single element vying for dominance and no unharmonious weaknesses. It’s a speaker for the long run. That’s what I call making a statement.
SPECS & PRICING
Drivers: 0.75" textile dome, 6" magnesium midbass
Frequency response: 45Hz–28kHz
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 6.4" x 11.2” x 12.6"
Weight: 17 lbs.
Audio Physic Step 25
Drivers: 1.75" cone tweeter, 5.9" mid/bass
Frequency response: 55Hz–33kHz
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 6.9" x 12.6" x 9.8"
Weight: 12 lbs.
Price: $3290 (Sherpa stands,$300)
LSA1 Statement Monitor
Drivers: 3" folded ribbon, 6.25" treated-paper midbass
Frequency response: 42Hz–40kHz
Impedance: 6 ohms
Dimensions: 8.75" x 13.5” x 14.5"
Weight: 24 lbs.
91 18th Avenue Deux-Montagnes,
Quebec, Canada J7R4A6
Living Sounds Audio
6949 Charlotte Pike, #107
Nashville, TN 37209