TESTED: Cerwin-Vega CLS-215 Loudspeaker

Equipment report
Cerwin-Vega CLS-215
TESTED: Cerwin-Vega CLS-215 Loudspeaker

Remember the commercial showing Rosey Grier, the great football player, the very embodiment of human physical power, doing needlepoint? (This was real. He wrote a book on it, Needlepoint for Men.)

This image came to mind as I listened to the 110-pound-apiece Cerwin-Vega CLS-215s, with their dual 15" woofers, reproducing a solo soprano (from Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise [Telarc])—huge power harnessed to do something delicately exquisite. The beautiful sound was no accident: A speaker that can play loudly is likely going to do a better job of small-scaled quiet music than a speaker that cannot play loudly. Audio devices do their best when they are just loafing. And even in the overall quiet of Vocalise, there are moments of intensity, as there are in almost all uncompressed music. With a dynamically limited speaker, you are only a brief peak away from overload.

The $998-per-pair CVs never get in trouble for loudness or frequency extension. At any plausible level, they are entirely comfortable, not approaching overload in any way, and low in distortion. And they have exactly the same tonal balance at, say, 95dB or more as at 70dB. No compression at all. And their bass goes down, all the way down. These things count: This is one of the most relaxed-sounding speakers I have ever encountered. Incidentally, while they are large, with their black grilles and black-ash wood finish, they are surprisingly inconspicuous and even attractive—my wife Paige gave two thumbs up for their looks and volunteered to let them into our living room, and not just the dedicated audio room.

The CV people are proud of the speaker’s power handling (500 watt peaks accepted into a 90dB+ sensitivity speaker). But there is much more to this speaker than clean loudness. Properly set up and adjusted, these truly full-range speakers also sound quite neutral, a combination that most speakers anywhere near their price do not even dream of.

The CVs are low in distortion, but directly on the tweeter axis, they over-project quite a lot the upper mids and treble from about 1kHz on up. Things are clean but raspy, with leading edges of transients emphasized too much. And one hears quite a bit of the horn character of the lower treble. But around 30 degrees off to the side and on the midrange axis, things smooth out to the point that the speaker is quite respectably flat above 300Hz, except for some extra zip between 1kHz and 2kHz and a slight roll-off in the extreme top. In this range, on this axis, from 300Hz on up, the CVs are flatter than many famous high-priced audiophile speakers! So be sure to angle the speakers correctly—and to sit on the midrange axis, not the tweeter axis, to minimize midrange coloration and get the best balance.

Below 300Hz there is some extra energy. In my not particularly bass-heavy room, only medium in size but with somewhat flexible walls and ceiling, there was extra bass and midbass. You may feel the need to adjust the bass down electronically. But such adjustment of bass up or down is almost inevitably needed in any speaker. At least here, you have a lot to work with. 

With the bass adjusted and the angle properly chosen, the speaker is very nearly neutral. If you like music with any dynamic power and full-range extension—classical orchestral, rock, jazz, in fact almost anything beyond lute and soprano recorder—you will find these instant contenders at their price. After this, it is more than a little hard to take tiny boxes seriously.

The CVs also provide a quite surprising amount of detail, with “inner voices” in complex music very well preserved. The subtle detail of the harpsichord parts in Bach’s Art of the Fugue arranged for string orchestra and organ [Dorian] are delineated clearly but without over-emphasis, for example. 

The CVs are a very easy load to drive, with their 91.5dB midrange sensitivity (97dB in the bass) and largely resistive load.

The narrowed radiation of sound in the mid and upper frequencies from wave-guide-loading all but eliminates the usual early sidewall reflection from, say, 1kHz on up. And there is not much bouncing off the floor or ceiling, either, above the bass. In the bass, the floor is used to advantage by the two large woofers per side. You begin to hear the spatial magic of an RFZ (reflection-free zone) room, in which no early reflections at all occur, without having to go to the rather extreme trouble of building an RFZ environment.

What is going on that generates the perceived neutrality when everything is dialed in? Answer: The CVs become quite directional starting around 500Hz and increasingly so as frequency goes up. But this happens smoothly. Also if one takes 30 degrees off-axis as the listening axis, then the additional roll-off further to the side is compensated for by a roll-up closer to the central axis, up to at least around 5kHz. So the room sound is both smooth in response and essentially flat up to 5kHz but rolls off above that—my ideal! In the frequency range where the room sound all but totally dominates—say below 300Hz—the speaker can be EQed to achieve a neutral in-room sound. And if you also smooth out completely the direct sound on the 30-degree listening axis—which is quite smooth anyway—there will be rather little coloration introduced by the room: The room sound is smooth and balanced, and there is not too much of it. The sense of listening to a horn tweeter never quite utterly vanished for me, but this became a minor point compared to these good things going on. The sound under the best conditions is refined and subtle.

This is an excellent speaker for the money as it is, offering something at its price that is hardly available otherwise, especially for people who want to hear music where loudness plays a role, be it rock or classical orchestral, or just solo piano. Except for the potentially excess bass, you can just set it up and have a good time.

But if you are able and willing also to do some small EQ adjustment, the CVs become something really special. You have to sit in one spot vertically and horizontally, too, for best results. And you have to tolerate a small hint of the horn. But when you hear what these adjusted CVs can do both with big loud moments (try the Water Lily Mahler Fifth) and with refined textures, too (Julie London singing pretty much anything), you may well be as impressed as I am.

You’ll have to go some way to hear a more beautiful sound from a speaker than the female voice here, or a more exciting sound on symphonic music. Expert engineering and the economic benefits of mass production have scored a big triumph at a modest price. Congratulations are in order.