Along with Focal and Cabasse, Triangle Electroacoustique is one of France’s Big Three high-end speaker manufacturers. As quality-driven as a Michelin three-star restaurant, it brings to market an extensive lineup of stereo and multichannel models. Rather than sourcing “off the shelf” units from a driver manufacturer, Triangle practices the increasingly rare tradition of designing and producing its own transducers. Triangle’s midline Esprit Altea Es has been a runaway success in Europe. If there’s any justice, the speaker will become as popular a destination for American audiophiles and music lovers as the Eiffel Tower is for U.S. tourists.
Sonically, the $1600 Altea Es made a dynamic first impression. Before my initial listening sessions, I purchased Dire Straits’ remastered Love Over Gold [Warner Bros.]—ostensibly to hear whether the reissue could hold a candle to my LP. As the operatic “Telegraph Road” thundered across the soundstage with its nitro-ignited drum fills, cavernous ambience, and Mark Knopfler’s searing guitar solos, it was clear that the Altea wasn’t built to be a sedate ride. The speaker’s character is pace-oriented, with a warm yet not overly heavy-handed bass response. (While rated flat to 50Hz, there is useable response a good halfoctave lower.) At extreme levels—the Altea is no shrinking violet—there is a slight additive bloom in the low frequencies. This is an area where many similarly priced speakers grow a little breathless, painting each subsequent wallop with a generic brush and failing to reproduce unique signatures when percussion is repetitively struck. The Altea didn’t flinch from this classic rock challenge, nor from the mighty drum and percussive impacts during Babatunde Olatunji’s Circle of Drums [Chesky], a luminous SACD that will send those dusty Sheffield direct-to-disc drum recordings scurrying back into the closet.
Classical and jazz aficionados, take note: Not only is the Altea capable of popping a commode off the bathroom floor, it possesses the microdynamic finesse and low-level resolution to capture details of the recording process itself—the squeaking seats and rustling pages of an orchestra, the clinking glasses in the background of Mary Stallings’ Live at the Village Vanguard [MAXJAZZ]. During the intro to Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations,” you’ll experience (for better or worse) every hiss of the analog faders as the piano and nylon-string guitar tracks are brought up and pulled down.
The broader middle range is relatively neutral, though I sense a slight energy dip in the upper mids, a politeness that subdues the gleam of resonant vitality from the body of a violin or acoustic guitar; treble octaves have a minor forward emphasis that betrays a whiff of dryness and added presence. And though transients are rendered with speed and razor-edged precision, there is a slight hardness to the lower harmonics that doesn’t always cohere to instruments’ fundamental tonalities.
That aside, what lights the fuse of my enthusiasm for the Altea is its overall holistic and balanced approach to music. It emphasizes the totality of the performance, connecting the listener with music on an artistic level rather than a sonically fetishistic one. Reproduction of large-scale symphonic works, such as James Levine’s reading of Pictures At An Exhibition [DG], reveals prodigious strength in the lower mids and upper bass. The Altea reproduces double basses, trombones, and bassoons with resonant and dimensional physicality and not as mere cardboard cutouts.
The Altea’s soundstaging is a strong dimensional component, benefiting from a slight reserve (the aforementioned politeness) in the midrange that pushes the orchestra a few feet back from the audience. In one respect, the added distance is no less naturalistic than being seated in a different row, since it still approximates what you are likely to hear in a hall. But it also creates a feeling of detachment that isn’t entirely consistent with the upfront nature of studio-based recordings. Consequently, instruments in the range of the female voice, violin and flute have a slightly ambiguous foundation. While this is subjectively beautiful, the down-to-earth underpinnings of instrumental bodies sound too delicate.
I’m more ambivalent about the enhanced directivity of the horn-loaded tweeter. On the one hand, it doesn’t thin out or grow edgy, and creates a focus and sensation of speed and immediacy that is addictive. For example, the articulation of the hammered dulcimer on Circle of Drums was undeniable. On the other hand, the tweeter could integrate more completely. As it stands, the Altea Es is a classic sweet-spot speaker, wherein small movements or slouches at the listening position suggest tonal shifts due to driver interaction.